Career Development

How To Become an Assistant Professor

March 9, 2021

Assistant professors are academic faculty members of universities and colleges. They support and assist their supervising professors with everything from planning lessons and assessments to speaking during conferences and meetings. If you're considering a career as an assistant professor, there are several important things to consider. In this article, we'll explore what assistant professors do, how to become an assistant professor, how much you can expect to earn on average and how assistant professors' roles differ from associate professors.

What does an assistant professor do?

Assistant professors are entry-level university or college faculty who support full professors in developing lessons, instructing students and evaluating assessments. Typically, an assistant professor works for the university where they desire to earn tenure. Additionally, assistant professors also supervise undergraduate students, perform research studies and serve on university and college committees. Depending on the university or college they work at, assistant professors may also:

  • Develop coursework for the classes they teach.
  • Deliver lessons and assessments and evaluate student progress.
  • Advise students in course selection, program studies and other academic needs.
  • Organize conferences and lectures related to course topics.
  • Publish reports, papers and research studies.
  • Organize and maintain student files, assignments and grades.

Related: Learn About Being an Adjunct Professor

Assistant professor salary

According to Indeed's salary information, assistant professors earn a national average income of $83,387 per year. Since assistant professors are entry-level professionals, this average can increase as they advance to associate professors and assistant teaching professors. Assistant professors who advance into associate professor roles can earn an average salary of $109,287 per year. The average salaries for assistant professors and higher-level roles can vary, though, depending on where you live and the university you work in.

Related: A Guide to College Professors' Salaries

Assistant professor work environment

Assistant professors work in universities and colleges where their schedules can vary, depending on the university's requirements. Typically, assistant professors can expect to work in a university classroom and office setting. Consider the following aspects of the work environment for assistant professors to get an idea of what to expect when you enter your career:

Work schedule

Assistant professors typically teach two to three undergraduate or graduate courses each semester. Depending on the course schedules, assistant professors may teach day classes, night classes or a combination of both. Just like associate and full professors, assistant professors work full-time hours, sometimes working up to 55 or 60 hours per week to meet specific standards or academic objectives.

Environment

The university or college classroom is the primary work environment for assistant professors. However, they may also attend conferences, board meetings and committee meetings in other locations to present research, propose ideas or for other important collaborations. Assistant professors may also travel to attend various academic seminars or lectures, where they present topic discussions or participate in professional development.

Tenure

Assistant professors usually work towards tenure at their university or college. Tenure is an academic appointment that gives indefinite employment to professionals, and when assistant professors advance in their careers, they become eligible for tenure. Universities and colleges can only end professors' tenures for an extreme cause or extraordinary circumstance, like the discontinuation of an academic program or financial exigency. Therefore, assistant professors who advance and become fully tenured professors have guaranteed employment through their universities.

Related: Tenure in a Job: Definition, Advantages and Disadvantages

How to become an assistant professor

Assistant professors need at least a master's degree to enter their careers, although many university employers require a doctoral degree. The steps below outline the educational path for becoming an assistant professor:

1. Earn your bachelor's degree

To get into a graduate and eventually doctoral degree program, you must first complete your bachelor's degree. While any major or academic focus is appropriate for a graduate program, it's important to focus on a subject area that you're passionate about and builds on critical thinking, writing and research skills. Majoring in a discipline that supports the use of these types of skills is highly beneficial for entering your master's program and eventually your career as an assistant professor.

2. Complete a graduate program

After completing your bachelor's program, enroll in a master's degree program for your chosen field. Depending on the college or university you attend, you may be able to enter your doctorate program after receiving your bachelor's. However, many universities require a master's or graduate-level degree to enroll in a doctorate program, so it's important to understand the requirements of the university you're attending.

3. Take and pass the graduate record exam (GRE)

Even if you are able to enter directly into a doctorate program after your bachelor's, you must still take and pass the GRE for admission. The GRE is a standardized assessment that tests your verbal, quantitative and logical reasoning in addition to analytical writing. Depending on the program you're attending, you may also need to submit your scores from a subject-area GRE.

4. Obtain your doctoral degree

While not all universities require assistant professors to have a doctoral degree, many universities prefer assistant professors to hold a Ph.D. in their chosen field. Most doctorate programs can take up to six years to complete, which includes the time you spend researching and writing your dissertation. Along with the in-depth research you conduct and organize for your dissertation, you may need to complete a graduate assistantship where you work with undergraduate students.

5. Build your work experience

While attending your doctoral program, it's important to build your experience, both as a professional and in research and reporting methods. In addition to your dissertation, consider publishing research reports and analyses regarding your subject area to demonstrate your knowledge and contributions to your field of study. Similarly, many graduates in doctorate programs may also take on internships, assistantships or roles as part-time lecturers to build instructional experience at the university level.

6. Advance in your career

Tenure is often the main goal for assistant professors to aspire to. Most universities require assistant professors to advance as associate professors to be eligible for tenure. The time it takes to earn tenure can depend on the institution, but it typically takes around seven years of building your experience as an assistant and associate professor before you're eligible for tenure. During these first few years, it's important to continue to meet your employer's expectations and contribute to important research in your field to demonstrate your efficacy as a higher education faculty member.

Related: How to Become a Professor

Assistant professor vs. associate professor

It's important to understand the differences between assistant and associate professors so you can better plan your career path. The biggest difference between these two roles is that assistant professors are entry-level professionals while associate professors rank just under full professors. Because of this distinction, assistant professors cannot receive full tenure until they advance as an associate professor.

Unlike assistant professors, associate professors interact more with graduate students. Many associate professors also instruct and guide graduate students through important research after completing assistantships in research of their own. This differs from an assistant professor's job where they may only instruct undergraduate students during class time and during research projects.

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