College and university faculty are required to learn as well as teach, with the goal of becoming acknowledged experts in their fields. College teachers, particularly those at the university level, establish curriculum and present material to students, advise them and track their progress. In addition, they drive developments in their fields through research and publication, and follow others’ contributions by reviewing scholarly literature and participating in professional conferences.
Full-time, tenure-track instructors at four-year colleges and universities are required to hold doctorates in their field. Part-time and temporary faculty must have at least a master’s degree, with preference going to those with Ph.D.s. At two-year colleges, many members of the teaching staff are part-time instructors who are working professionals in their fields of study, and hold master’s degrees rather than doctorates.
The path toward advancement for college teachers can be a long one. A good way to get initial experience is by becoming a teaching assistant while in graduate school. The traditional trajectory starts with an instructor position and proceeds through assistant professor, associate professor and finally full professor with tenure. Tenure guarantees the professor’s position barring just cause and due process for dismissal. The concept of tenure is meant to protect academic freedom from institutional politics.
As institutions seek flexibility in dealing with financial matters, the number of tenure-track positions has been declining. Limited-term contracts and part-time, or adjunct, professors, are making up a greater proportion of college faculties. Limited-term contracts, typically for 2 to 5 years, may be terminated or extended when they expire and generally do not lead to the granting of tenure.
College and university faculty benefit from flexible schedules. Preparing and teaching classes, office hours for student consultations, faculty and committee meetings, and research and writing all must find a place in the college teacher’s schedule, but little of it, other than class meetings, is required to occur at a particular time.
Balancing teaching and research is the greatest challenge for many college teachers. Teaching loads differ depending on the institution, with 2-year colleges generally requiring a bigger class load than 4-year colleges and universities. The “publish or perish” doctrine for tenure-track instructors drives college teachers at research universities to publish original work in order to ensure that their contracts are extended and that they eventually achieve tenured positions. Finding the energy for inspiring students, maintaining the intellectual rigor to research and publish, and keeping up to date with administrative duties make college teaching a challenging (but rewarding) career.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, college teacher positions will experience faster than average growth. Competition is expected for tenure-track positions, with better opportunities expected for part-time or non-tenure-track positions. Not surprisingly, Ph.D. recipients should experience the best job prospects.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual earnings for post-secondary teachers in May 2008 was $58,830, with the middle 50 percent earning between $41,600 and $83,960, and the highest ten percent earning more than $121,850.