Professor  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotUniversity professors do much more than teach. In fact, they typically spend much less time at the front of a classroom than they spend doing other activities.

For example, professors must write grant applications to get funding for their research projects. They also write up their research findings for publication in academic journals.

Professors teach in colleges and universities. They teach undergraduate students as well as graduate students.

They also act as advisors to graduate students, make public presentations, and attend conferences and meetings. Other tasks include acting as consultants to government, industry and the public, and doing administrative work.

"In theory, 40 percent of your time is supposed to be spent on research, 40 percent on teaching, and 20 percent on administration," says astronomy professor Pauline Barmby. "In practice, that tends to shift depending on the time of year. It's probably more [time spent] on teaching during the school year, during September to April, and then more on research during the summer."

dot Some professors like teaching the best. Others prefer the research. (Few, if any, like administration the best.)

"Teaching for me is the number one thing," says hydrology professor Gregory Pasternack. "I think that in any walk of life you get opportunities to mentor people, but to have the... honor and responsibility of sharing academic knowledge with young minds is really exciting."

Periodically, professors may take sabbaticals (called study leave in some institutions) to conduct research that could not be done during the school year.

dotProfessors usually start out as instructors or assistant professors after earning their PhD. An assistant professor is in a tenure track position while an instructor is not.

Professors usually work for seven years or more under contract before being granted tenure. People in tenured positions cannot be fired without just cause. They are also assured academic freedom. That means that they cannot be fired for researching or expressing ideas that may be unpopular.

Associate professors typically have more experience than assistant professors and are often tenured. Senior tenured professors are called professor or full professor.

Those instructing at universities are often referred to as professors regardless of their actual rank.

dotAstronomy professor Pauline Barmby says it's hard to predict whether there will be demand for professors in your field at the end of your studies. A big challenge is the long delay between the start of your graduate education and the time when you're ready to start looking for work.

"In my field (astronomy) people will typically go to graduate school for somewhere between four and seven years and they might do a couple of postdoctoral research positions afterwards, and only then would they be considered qualified to look for a job," says Barmby. "So, if there's 10 or 12 years between when you decide you're going to do this and when you're starting to look for a job, a lot can change in that time, and that can be a real problem."

Many professors are reaching retirement age. That bodes well for future openings. Unfortunately universities are increasingly hiring instructors on contract. This means tenure-track positions are becoming harder to find.

"They are hiring more temporary faculty," says Barmby. "They have a higher teaching load and less job security."

Also, demand for professors varies greatly depending on the field of study.

"Historically, fields like renaissance literature and astronomy -- fields for which there are not a lot of industry positions -- tend to have more people getting a PhD than there are professor jobs, and so you have to be willing to go into that training procedure with the idea that there may not be a job waiting for you at the end," says Barmby. "It's not at all uncommon for faculty job searches to get a hundred applicants for one job."

Regardless of a person's area of study, there will be opportunities for those with talent and a good work ethic. "Ultimately what determines [whether you get] a job, though, is one's individual performance rather than what degree you're in," says Pasternack. "So a student has to pick something that they would really enjoy so that they're motivated enough to excel at it and stand out."

At a Glance

Conduct research and teach classes at university

  • You'll have to apply for grant money
  • Publishing your research findings is very important
  • You'll need a doctorate in whatever field you choose