Do You Need a PhD to Be a Professor?

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If you want to work in higher education, you may be wondering, “Do you need a PhD to be a professor?”

Do You Need a PhD to Be a Professor

Professors are experts in their fields who teach courses, conduct research, and support their academic institutions.

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The type of degree that’s required to work as a professor depends on where you work and what types of courses you want to teach. Learning how to become a college professor is vital if you hope to serve as a faculty member at a college or university.

Do You Need a PhD to Be a Professor?

Woman pursuing PhD to be a professor

You don’t necessarily need a PhD to become a professor. Colleges and universities often hire professors with other types of degrees. In that case, what degree do you need to be a professor?

Graduates of master’s programs are often qualified to work as professors, particularly at two-year institutions. These professionals may have more limited responsibilities than professors with PhDs, and they are sometimes limited to teaching introductory courses.

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Schools that require professors to hold a doctoral degree may accept another type of professor degree from an accredited university. These are some of the professional doctorate degrees that prospective employers may consider in place of a PhD:

  • Doctor of Education
  • Doctor of Arts
  • Doctor of Business Administration
  • Doctor of Public Health
  • Doctor of Science
  • Doctor of Chemistry
  • Doctor of Medicine

Job candidates who don’t hold a PhD may be able to strengthen their candidacy for a position with professional experience. Publishing articles or books that contribute to the field is also beneficial, as it reflects a high level of expertise.

The education requirement for a career as a professor differs between colleges, so it’s essential to review each institution’s policy before applying for a position.

How to Become a Professor

Professor discussing with university students

Becoming a professor requires a series of academic and professional steps, including:

  • Earning a bachelor’s degree. The pursuit of a professor position begins with a bachelor’s degree. Although it’s helpful to select a field that’s related to your career goal, bachelors programs are an opportunity to explore your interests, and many master’s programs accept students with various degrees.
  • Entering graduate school. Some students complete separate master’s and PhD programs. Others enroll in accelerated programs and earn their master’s degree while also working toward their PhD.
  • Taking comprehensive exams. Once you have completed your coursework, you will take a series of exams covering the material you studied. The exam may take the form of a written or oral test, portfolio, or research paper.
  • Completing a dissertation. Most PhD programs require students to complete a dissertation, an extensive project that may require several years of research and writing. The final stage of a dissertation is typically the oral defense, during which you present your paper and findings to a committee of faculty and answer their questions.
  • Gaining experience. It may be beneficial to work as a lecturer or adjunct instructor prior to becoming a professor. This offers evidence of your teaching skills to prospective employers.
  • Applying for positions. Even if your doctoral degree is not yet completed, you can begin applying for professor positions while working on your dissertation. The hiring process generally includes submitting an application, a curriculum vitae, and letters of recommendation as well as participating in an interview and presentation or teaching demonstration.

It can be competitive to find a position as a professor, so it may be necessary to apply for positions at multiple schools before finding the right role.

Are All Professors Doctors?

Professors discussing to his class

Not all professors are doctors, but many are. Professors are only considered doctors if they hold a doctoral degree, such as a PhD or professional doctorate.

Professors with masters degrees are not classified or addressed as doctors. Because professors need a high level of knowledge and experience in their field, a PhD is a common requirement for this type of position. Many prominent schools only hire graduates of PhD programs for full-time roles as professors.

Is a PhD a Doctor?

PhD degree student researching in the library

A person who holds a PhD is a doctor, but they hold a Doctor of Philosophy rather than a Doctor of Medicine. Medical doctors, or MDs, treat patients, diagnose health conditions, and study diseases, and they complete their degrees at medical schools.

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Some PhDs specialize in medicine or health care, but PhDs can also be members of many other fields. For example, a student might obtain a PhD in Sociology, Business Administration, or Higher Education. Online PhD programs are available at a variety of colleges and universities.

What Can You Get a PhD In?

Professor with PhD degree in engineering

Doctoral degrees are offered in many disciplines, including:

  • Sciences. Students can pursue degrees in subjects such as physics, chemistry, and engineering.
  • Health care. Physical therapy and audiology are potential areas of study for students hoping to work in health care.
  • Education. A PhD in Education may help you advance in your teaching career or become a school administrator.
  • Psychology. Programs in psychology are ideal for students who want to work as psychologists or researchers.
  • English. Many schools offer English PhDs focused on literature, while others emphasize writing and rhetoric.

When choosing what PhD you can get in, it helps to consider your academic background and interests.

Can You Be a Professor with a Masters?

Professor giving test papers to college students

Yes, you can be a professor with a master’s degree. Many schools hire professionals with master’s degrees to serve as entry-level instructors.

Community colleges and two-year institutions are especially popular employers for graduates of master’s programs. Four year colleges may also hire job candidates with master’s degrees, but they often work as adjuncts rather than as full-time employees. Adjuncts have temporary positions and may not receive benefits.

Because of the high level of competition for academic positions in certain disciplines, it may be easier to get a job as a professor with a Ph.D. rather than a master’s degree.

What Does a Professor Do?

Professor distributing handouts to class

Professors have a wide range of responsibilities. Most people in this role are responsible for teaching several courses within their discipline. They may also develop or update curriculum and assessments for their departments.

In addition to teaching, professors usually offer advising to students and supervise their graduate research projects, such as dissertations. They often join college committees that focus on improving practices and policies within the institution.

Many professors also conduct original research and write journal articles for publication. These contributions are often a requirement for receiving tenure.

How Much Do College Professors Make?

Professors discussing with a student

The salary for a postsecondary teacher can differ based on your location, the specific school where you work, your level of experience, and your discipline or specialization.

For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for engineering professors is $103,550. This is higher than the median wage for business professors, which is $88,790. Some professors who want to work outside of the classroom become instructional coordinators. Professionals in this area earn median salaries of $66,490 per year.

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A career as a professor may eventually lead to a job as a postsecondary education administrator. The median salary for this type of position is $99,940.

What’s the Difference Between an Assistant vs. Associate Professor?

Although they both teach courses at the college level, assistant and associate professors have separate roles with notable differences.

Assistant Professor Associate Professor
  • Usually an entry-level professional
  • Holds office hours, grades assignments, and may serve as an academic advisor
  • Teaches introductory courses
  • Rarely has tenure
  • Typically has at least 5 years of experience
  • In addition to assistant prof duties, may be on faculty committees, serve as a mentor, or conduct research
  • Teaches more advanced courses
  • Can earn tenure

Many professors are initially hired as assistant professors and progress to become associate professors.

Becoming a Professor

Professor discussing with students taking PhD degree

Do you need a doctorate to be a professor? The answer to this question changes based on the requirements of each specific academic institution.

No matter where you hope to work, certain steps are necessary before you can work as a professor. The path generally begins with a bachelor’s degree and culminates with a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, such as a PhD.

Whether you’re considering different bachelors degrees or are ready to enroll in a PhD program, you can begin your journey toward becoming a professor by researching accredited colleges and universities.

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Kama has a master's degree in English from Virginia Tech and a bachelor's in English from Concord University. She previously taught college-level English composition, literature, and English as a second language courses. She is now a full-time writer in the education field, with a particular focus on educational technology and pedagogical best practices for English language learners.