How do I become a college professor?

Being a university professor has long seemed like a dream job to me; largely, it seems to entail researching and writing about topics you find interesting, and then discussing them with like-minded colleagues and young, optimistic students.

I realize, of course, that there is more than just that. Any job has it’s annoying responsibilities, and I’m sure that teaching is no exception. But I don’t really like my job practicing law, so I’m tempted to pursue academia, where I think I’d be more fulfilled.

The problem is that I don’t know how I could make the switch. I have a Juris Doctor and a Masters in Criminal Justice, but no PhD, or teaching experience. I’ve also only been licensed as an attorney for about 2 years, so I don’t have a long tenure in the “real world” to bring to teaching.

Any suggestions, then? I would appreciate any insight into avenues of how one might get into teaching (at the University level), and I would really appreciate any insights from those who are already professors who may shed the light of experience on my perceptions (even if your opinion is that my “dream job” really sucks).


It is indeed a dream job, for the reasons you describe (+ others).

Probably your best first step is to teach a night class at a community college, or similar.

Find out which schools in your area offer the kind of classes you’d be qualified to teach, and introduce yourself to the person-in-charge. You’d be surprised how often they are desperate to fill a last-minute hole.

Well, if you’re serious, you’ll almost certainly need to get a doctorate in some discipline, which won’t guarantee you a tenure track job, though the absence of a doctorate in most fields does guarantee you that you’ll never get one. That’s roughly five years out of your life.

You could conceivably land a job with the degrees you have–I’ve never seen it from the hiring end (I’ve served on about a half-dozen search committees and every candidate who made it past the application stage had a Ph. D.)–but one of my profs in grad school back in the day had only a J.D. (from Yale) and he taught poetry. Of course, he had also published several books on medieval poetry before he got his first academic job, and he was a tireless self-promoter, so he pretty much broke all the rules. Generally, though, a J.D. doesn’t equal a tenure track teaching position where I come from. Sorry.

A job in a community college, or teaching as an adjunct (non-tenure track) instructor is probably feasible, but I would prefer cleaning the bathrooms of South American prisons, if only for the higher pay scale and improved working conditions.

If you want a tenure track position at a four year university, you absolutely must have a PhD. Either that or have written a Pulitzer prize winnng book, or something of the sort. For community colleges, I hesitate to say must, but more likely than not you’ll need it for a tenure track position. Hell, I’ve met adjuncts at comm. colleges with PhDs. They seem to be a dime a dozen nowadays.

prr exaggerates about working as an adjunct, but not by much. It’s a good place to gain teaching experience though, especially if you already have another job, but working only as an adjunct is hard. You’ll probably have to teach at more than one school in order to get enough classes to make ends meet, and the decent paying community colleges are usually out in the suburbs.

Are you sure this is true for Law? My law school (major public university) has no Ph.D.'s on the faculty.

(I also happen to know it’s not true for architecture schools but that doesn’t apply to the OP.)

I agree that I don’t think a PhD is required for law school. But, the law profs I encountered (at the University of Florida, a well regarded state school) either went to top tiered Ivy League schools, had near perfect grades in law school, or had decades of work experience before they began teaching.

I, unfortunately, have none of those things on my resume.

I don’t know how it might work in law, but I can relate my experience.

We have a family practice residency program here in our little town, a branch of the state university (my alma mater). I approached them about a year ago and asked if I could come and give some guest lectures to build up some teaching experience. It went really well, and a few months ago they came along and asked if I’d be interested in a full-time job. As it happened, I was giving some thought to getting out of private practice anyway. So starting in November I’ll be an Associate Professor of Family Medicine.

So if you can get involved somehow and work your way in, that’s a possibility.

I misunderstood–now, looking the OP over, I see that he probably was talking about getting a job teaching law in a law school, not switching to some academic field. Of course all the academic credentials you need to teach in a law school is a law degree. I don’t know much about how that works, but the guys who teach in our law school have generally had pretty successful careers as practicing lawyers, and most of them still do.

As a current law student, the things I’m being told about teaching law go as follows:(presuming that’s what you’re interested in–I have no knowledge about ordinary college teaching)

  1. Publish! The biggest advice we’re given is that having a couple of papers out is vital if you’re to be taken seriously for a faculty job.

  2. Timing–our advisor has said that most people start teaching after a few years-it doesn’t sound like one first gets decades of experience and then starts teaching these days.

  3. Have you considered clerking for a year? Probably going to be different to your current job, and will help for law academia.

Hope that helps.

Law school is admittedly different - I didn’t read the OP very thoroughly. :smack: But I’m pretty sure that a good number of the tenured professors at my university (UChicago) did have PhDs. I suppose it really depends on where you want to teach.

Eh, I was an adjunct for years with a master’s, and now am a career non-tenure line instructional faculty member with a doctorate that’s not a Ph.D. You might start by contacting people who teach classes in areas in which you have some expertise and offering to be a guest speaker. You might also hook up with whoever provides the continuing education in your area for your profession and finding out how to start training your peers. These activities are fun and will begin to build your skills, reputation, and vita. As others have noted, there also may be opportunities to teach community education, community college, or even adjunct gigs.

Although every occupation has its down sides, education has always provided me with a lot of pleasure and flexibility. For example, I’m writing next week’s PowerPoints as I catch up on SDMB.

On the off chance you’d care to try your hand at teaching abroad, in Thailand there are professors with master’s degrees but no doctorates, and these are called Assistant Professors. They tend to enjoy the same status among the students that full profs do. I know of a small number of farang (Western) Asst Profs in fields like Population Studies, Business and Economics. Other countries may do the same. In your case, you’d probably have to focus on something like International Law.

Of course, as mentioned before, you may not even need a doctorate to teach in a law school in the US.

Thanks to everyone.

While I did mention law, I wasn’t necessarily talking about being a law professor. It seems to me that undergrad profs have a lot more flexibility in what/how they teach, so teaching a survey course on legal studies would be great; perhaps I could also build on my interest in history and politics.

Ultimately, the reason I ask is because I often play that “what if you won the lottery” daydream. After thinking about travel and buying some toys, I inevitably think that I’d get a doctorate and then spend the rest of my time teaching. Well, if that is what I’d do if money is no object, then why wouldn’t I do it now, money be damned?

I think I’ll look into adjunct teaching at local schools; since my current profession deals with foreclosures (obviously a huge topic of discussion) perhaps my experience would lend itself to a chance to teach.

Siam Sam, I never thought of going overseas. That sounds exciting and incredibly intimidating, which means it’s probably exactly the sort of thing I should be pursuing. I’ll have to give this some serious thought. This might be a really dumb question, but do I need to speak Thai to teach in Thailand?

Well, then this is a little more challenging than you’re thinking. Your local college or even community college probably doesn’t have a department offering a course on “foreclosures.” If the subject came up in a history course, it might be a 15-minute discussion in a much broader course. But to teach that course, you’d be competing against people who hold Ph.D.s in American history so how would you get hired in the first place? I hope I’m not being mean here, but there are unemployed people who got doctorates in most subjects you’d be interested in teaching, and they’re unemployed because there are fewer jobs than there are people who got extensively trained, wrote book-length dissertations in specific areas of knowledge that had to pass muster with experts in the field, took many graduate courses in which they wrote many papers, passed multiple oral grillings–and you’re qualified to get a job some of these people can’t get? Why is that?

I’m not saying you could never get a job at a local college with a last-minute need for an adjunct instructor that your background seems to have prepared you for, and maybe you would do a terrific job at that and get re-hired, but what I am saying is that, even if you could, the upside is that you would be able to earn a low five figures by teaching a hell of a lot of courses and you’d be working with virtually no job security the whole time. Seems to me that’s a much bigger gamble than re-tooling, earning a doctorate, and going for a tenure track job (which is no bowl of cherries, either.)

For what it’s worth, one of my grad school buddies (in a Ph.D. program in English) had a law degree. Kind of an unusual background, but it did seem to open a few doors for him (e.g., he taught a legal writing class over at the law school).

Getting a Ph.D. is a long, hard slog, and, especially if you’re in the humanities, there’s no guarantee that it’s ever going to lead to a job as a professor. I’d say go for it if you care so much about your subject that the prospect of spending five to ten years living and breathing it sounds fantastic even if it never leads anywhere, AND if you can get funding. You don’t want to pay for this degree out of pocket – the opportunity costs for a fully funded degree are already huge when you factor in lost income, and if you can’t get a program to accept you with funding, it’s an early warning sign that you probably won’t have much luck on the job market either.

Other stuff to keep in mind: As a professor, you probably will not get to choose where you live. If you’re lucky, you might get two or three job offers in different parts of the country, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be anywhere remotely close to family and friends. (My choices were Minnesota and Mississippi – both states that I’d never even visited before.) Can you live with that?

I like most of my students, but they are not all young and optimistic. I teach four courses a semester, of which three are composition or gen ed literature. 80 to 90% of these students do not want to be there – they are in my classes to fulfill a requirement, and some of them are desperately underprepared. Some of them make the best of it, put in a reasonable effort, and often end up having fun. Dealing with the others can be dead depressing. If you can get an adjunct position at a community college, that may be a good way to find out whether you like working under those conditions (and it will look good on grad school applications).

I hope this doesn’t sound too discouraging. It is a great profession – that’s why so many people want to get into it – but it’s worth knowing about some of the drawbacks from the start.

Business schools will have a business law course. As an adjunct professor for a school you could teach one night course in business law and discover if you like it or no.

That’s not a dumb question at all. The answer is no, not necessarily. Many universities have English-language programs, in which the students attend all classes in English. Abac (Assumption Business Administration College, which is part of Assumption University), a Catholic institute, is one such. (Two of the wife’s cousin’s got their master’s degrees there; no, they’re not Catholic, or even Christian.) But many of the top government universities will also offer certain English-language programs in certain fields, especially at the graduate level, such as Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities. I recall someone on this Board mentioning a few months ago that he was about to come teach at Bangkok University.

I’m sure Thailand’s not the only country in this regard, too.

You aren’t being mean. I realize this is sort of a long shot, pipe dream (hence, why it normally occurs when I think about winning the lottery, when paying my bills is no longer a concern).

Practically speaking, I’ll probably just suck it up and keep plowing away in private practice for another decade or so. I have good job security and make a decent wage. It’s just not something I love doing, and work can be draining.

Being a professor, on the other hand, sounds so appealing. But, as I said in my OP, I’m sure that’s a bit of a naive viewpoint, since I haven’t dwelled on the drawbacks to the job (such as the low salary and lack of job security that you mentioned). Still, it’s intriguing to consider how the path to that career could happen, and I thank you posters for giving me some ideas.

Why would it be a pipe dream? Really? Professors have to come from somewhere. I’m in a social psych phd program and will likely get my degree in two years. From that perspective, I see your problem as one of credentialing. to get a non-law school job at a regular university requires a phd. Those are obtainable, if you’re able/willing to live on a grad school stipend for 5 years. To get a law school job, you basically need to publish. That’s not impossible by any means. I’d second the advice to look for low level teaching opportunities and, perhaps this is most important, would suggest talking to your old professors. The law school job market is strange and insular, but they could tell you what it takes.

Universities do indeed advertise open positions. You might try to find some and see what the requirements are.

However, I think you might be a bit unrealistic. I know lots of professors, many with tenure, and they don’t live the edenic existence you are envisioning. You got committees, you got classes, you got grant proposals to write, you’ve got faculty politics. If you’re not on the tenure track, you have no job security. It’s not ditch digging by any means, but you might want to talk to some people who are doing it before you go too crazy.

And let me echo the “publish” advice. Tenure decisions are made on publication records, so if you don’t enjoy this don’t expect to ever make it as a full professor. And be aware of the journal pecking order in your chosen field, because not all publications are equal.