Teaching jobs in a higher education setting are some of the most rewarding and sought after careers in the teaching world. If you have a passion for a particular academic subject, whether it be ancient history or mathematics, there may be no better job than teaching it every day to mature, eager college students. But entry into such a career is highly competitive. So this page will give you everything you need to know on how to become a professional instructor at a community college or major research university.
Typical Requirements to Become a Higher Education Teacher
|Minimum Education Level||Master’s degree. Most colleges and universities require a doctorate degree in order to teach, but some allow those with masters degrees.|
|Recommended Major Field(s)||Any major in the field you would like to teach|
|Licensure/Certification||Varies depending on state and field|
|Minimum Work Experience||Varies depending on field and institution|
Key Skills and Strengths
- Mastery in your field: Teaching at the college level means you are an expert in your field. You can’t get away with just cursory knowledge – your students and colleagues will be all too eager to put you to the test.
- Presentation Skills: The heart of most higher-ed teachers’ jobs is the classroom. These classes can be intimate discussion groups or massive lecture halls. Either way, you must be confident speaking in front of large groups and keeping your students challenged.
- Critical-thinking: Being a professional academic means conducting research and presenting new ideas within the university and your field at large.
- Teaching ability: Often aspiring academics get so caught up in their own passion that they lose track of the key function of their profession: teaching. You must have the ability to take ideas that come naturally to you and present them simply and creatively to novices.
- Ability to handle pressure: A career in higher education teaching remains a very competitive field. You may have to get by for a while teaching part-time before you gain a full-time position. Once you are on your tenure track, you will still be in a hotly competitive and intellectual atmosphere, with constant pressure to publish research.
Master’s Degree in Higher Education
If you wish to teach beyond the high-school level, you will need at least a master’s degree. Many 2-year community colleges often hire instructors with only master’s degrees, as long as they have some teaching experience. Four-year colleges and universities usually require a doctoral degree, unless you have decades of experience in your field, in addition to a master’s.
Teaching at a community college or becoming a professor at a university means taking numerous courses in the subject area you wish to teach. For example, if you wish to teach biology, you will take biology courses, and if you want to teach law, you will go to law school. Here are some examples of the work master’s students pursue in your typical program:
- A master’s thesis: Completing a major research project will consume a large portion of your master’s degree coursework. In a thesis, you are expected to demonstrate critical thinking and complete knowledge of your field. You must conceive and propose a creative research idea related to your field of study, review all relevant past research, and provide a unique analysis. Unlike a doctoral dissertation, however, your research and analysis need not be 100% original.
- Research Methods: Completing your own research, and evaluating the research of your students, will be a major part of your work as an instructor at a community college, not to mention that you will need to present research as part of your master’s thesis. Learning how to dig up and evaluate all existing research, or possibly even conduct your own field studies, is a key part of an academic master’s program.
- Academic Writing: How do you create a proper works cited page? For that matter, what distinguishes professional research? Do you know the difference between Harvard and Chicago style? How do you write compelling papers relevant to your field? Expect to take a course on academic writing and publishing.
The Doctoral Degrees Role in Higher Education
A Ph.D. is usually the required credential for a career as a university professor. It is the highest degree you can obtain and doing so is no easy undertaking. It will take at least five years, in addition to your other degrees, and gaining admission to top programs will be extremely competitive. If you think you’re up for it, and have a real passion for your line of study, you can do it.
Start early. Try and get into the most prestigious undergraduate institution you can. Build strong relationships with your professors throughout your undergraduate coursework. Study hard for the GRE, and try to write stellar papers you can use as samples. If you do these things, you’ll be well on your way to an excellent Ph.D. program.
Doctoral coursework will vary depending on the subject area you study, but here are some of the key characteristics of any 5 year Ph.D. program.
- Doctoral Dissertation: After a couple of years, coursework will no longer be the focus of a Ph.D. program. Instead, you will develop a completely original thesis that will contribute something entirely new to your field. You’ll likely spend countless hours in the library or in the field, and after years of work, you will present and defend your thesis in front of a panel of professors.
- Teaching or Lab Assistantship: Most of the time, Ph.D. students don’t pay tuition out of pocket. It is covered by the university, along with a modest living stipend, in exchange for several hours a week teaching or working in a lab. These experiences will prepare you for your own teaching career once you finish your education.
- Doctoral Advising: Throughout your many years as a Ph.D. student, there will be one professor who will serve as a mentor and guide for your dissertation research. Choose a faculty member wisely and make sure he or she has similar research interests as you.
Work Experience Requirements
Whether you are getting your master’s to teach at a community college or technical school, or a Ph.D. to become a fully fledged professor, it is critical you get both research and teaching experience. You will need it for your first job. Usually such experience is gained in the form of teaching assistantships and research projects throughout your master’s or Ph.D programs. These are valuable experiences, so make the most of them. Also keep in mind that community colleges usually require more actual teaching experience to get a full-time job than a big university, which may hire fresh Ph.D. grads directly.
However, if you are a Ph.D. graduate and you still need more work experience to land that dream tenure-track position, you should look for a postdoctoral position. These pay small stipends to Ph.D. grads while letting them continue their research and gain experience. In some fields, particularly the hard sciences, these kinds of positions have become expected.
There are no certifications or licenses required to teach at the postsecondary level, other than any licenses associated with being an expert in your chosen field. For example, if you wish to teach nursing, you should probably be a registered nurse yourself. Same goes for secondary teaching or any other profession that requires a special credential.
Looking for a Teaching Job
Once you have your master’s degree or Ph.D., and maybe even a postdoc, under your belt, it’s time to find your first job. If you have your master’s, your best bet is at a community college, but there you will need to have some good teaching experience to land a full-time gig. So you may need to start out as an adjunct professor, a position which is paid on a by-class basis. Eventually you can work your way into a full-time role.
If you graduated with your Ph.D., you may be able to find a job directly after graduation as an assistant professor, which is the job that eventually transforms into a tenured position after some years. Competition is fierce, so make sure you have excellent research and some T.A. experience. If you are in a hard science, like chemistry or biology, postdoc research will probably be expected.
It is best to contact universities and colleges directly to inquire about positions, but here are a few of the most popular websites for higher education listings to supplement your search.