Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a wide variety of academic and career and technical subjects beyond the high school level. They may also conduct research and publish scholarly papers and books.

Duties

Postsecondary teachers typically do the following:

  • Teach courses in their subject area
  • Work with students who are taking classes to improve their knowledge or career skills
  • Develop an instructional plan (known as a course outline or syllabus) for the course(s) they teach and ensure that it meets college and department standards
  • Plan lessons and assignments
  • Work with colleagues to develop or modify the curriculum for a degree or certificate program involving a series of courses
  • Assess students’ progress by grading assignments, papers, exams, and other work
  • Advise students about which classes to take and how to achieve their goals
  • Stay informed about changes and innovations in their field

Postsecondary teachers, often referred to as professors or faculty, specialize in a variety of subjects and fields. At colleges and universities, professors are organized into departments that specialize in a degree field, such as history, science, business, or music. A professor may teach one or more courses within that department. For example, a mathematics professor may teach calculus, statistics, and a graduate seminar in a very specific area of mathematics.

Postsecondary teachers’ duties vary with their positions in a university or college. In large colleges or universities, they may spend their time teaching, conducting research or experiments, publishing original research, applying for grants to fund their research, or supervising graduate teaching assistants who are teaching classes.

Postsecondary teachers who work in small colleges and universities or in community colleges often spend more time teaching classes and working with students. They may spend some time conducting research, but they do not have as much time to devote to it.

Full-time professors, particularly those who have tenure (a professor who cannot be fired without just cause), often are expected to spend more time on their research. They also may be expected to serve on more college and university committees.

Part-time professors, often known as adjunct professors, spend most of their time teaching students.

Professors may teach large classes of several hundred students (often with the help of graduate teaching assistants), smaller classes of about 40 to 50 students, seminars with just a few students, or laboratories where students practice the subject matter. They work with an increasingly varied student population as more part-time, older, and culturally diverse students are going to postsecondary schools.

Professors read scholarly articles, talk with colleagues, and participate in professional conferences to keep up with developments in their field. A tenured professor must do original research, document their analyses or critical reviews, and publish their findings.

Some postsecondary teachers work for online universities or teach online classes. They use the Internet to present lessons and information, to assign and accept students’ work, and to participate in course discussions. Online professors use email, phone, and video chat apps to communicate with students, and might never meet their students in person.

Work Environment

Postsecondary teachers held about 1.4 million jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up postsecondary teachers was distributed as follows:

Health specialties teachers, postsecondary 254,800
Art, drama, and music teachers, postsecondary 118,900
Business teachers, postsecondary 108,000
English language and literature teachers, postsecondary 83,000
Education teachers, postsecondary 78,600
Nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary 69,000
Biological science teachers, postsecondary 64,500
Mathematical science teachers, postsecondary 61,100
Psychology teachers, postsecondary 47,900
Engineering teachers, postsecondary 47,500
Computer science teachers, postsecondary 40,200
Communications teachers, postsecondary 35,800
Foreign language and literature teachers, postsecondary 31,900
Philosophy and religion teachers, postsecondary 31,700
Chemistry teachers, postsecondary 26,700
History teachers, postsecondary 25,800
Law teachers, postsecondary 23,100
Social sciences teachers, postsecondary, all other 20,400
Political science teachers, postsecondary 20,300
Criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, postsecondary 18,100
Sociology teachers, postsecondary 17,400
Physics teachers, postsecondary 17,300
Economics teachers, postsecondary 16,400
Social work teachers, postsecondary 16,100
Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences teachers, postsecondary                                  13,400
Agricultural sciences teachers, postsecondary 13,300
Area, ethnic, and cultural studies teachers, postsecondary 12,600
Architecture teachers, postsecondary 8,900
Environmental science teachers, postsecondary 7,600
Anthropology and archeology teachers, postsecondary 7,300
Library science teachers, postsecondary 5,700
Geography teachers, postsecondary 4,800
Forestry and conservation science teachers, postsecondary 2,600

The largest employers of postsecondary teachers were as follows:

Colleges, universities, and professional schools; private                                                             40%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 37
Junior colleges; local 10
Junior colleges; state 7

Many postsecondary teachers find their jobs rewarding because they are surrounded by others who enjoy the subject they teach. The opportunity to share their expertise with others is appealing to many.

However, some postsecondary teachers must find a balance between teaching students and doing research and publishing their findings. This can be stressful, especially for beginning teachers seeking advancement in 4-year research universities. At the community college level, professors focus mainly on teaching students and administrative duties.

Classes are generally held during the day, although some are offered in the evenings and weekends to accommodate students who have jobs or family obligations.

Although some postsecondary teachers teach summer courses, many use that time to conduct research, involve themselves in professional development, or to travel.

Work Schedules

Many postsecondary teachers teach part time, and may teach courses at several colleges or universities. Some may have a full-time job in their field of expertise in addition to a part-time teaching position. For example, an active lawyer or judge might teach a law school class during the evening.

Postsecondary teachers’ schedules generally are flexible. Full-time teachers need to be on campus to teach classes and have office hours. Otherwise, they are free to set their schedule to prepare for classes and grade assignments. They may also spend time carrying out administrative responsibilities, such as serving on committees.

Education and Training

Educational requirements vary with the subject taught and the type of educational institution. Typically postsecondary teachers must have a Ph.D. However, a master's degree may be enough for some postsecondary teachers at community colleges. Other postsecondary teachers may need work experience in their field of expertise.

Education

Postsecondary teachers who work for 4-year colleges and universities typically need a doctoral degree in their field. Some schools may hire those with a master’s degree or those who are doctoral degree candidates for some specialties, such as fine arts, or for some part-time positions.

Doctoral programs generally take multiple years to complete, and students must already possess a bachelor’s or master’s degree before enrolling in a doctoral program. Doctoral students spend time writing a doctoral dissertation, which is a paper presenting original research in the student’s field of study. Candidates usually specialize in a subfield, such as organic chemistry or European history.

Community colleges or career and technical schools also may hire those with a master’s degree. However, some fields have more applicants than available positions. In these situations, institutions can be more selective, and they frequently choose applicants who have a Ph.D. over those with a master’s degree.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Some institutions may prefer to hire those with teaching or other work experience, but this is not a requirement for all fields or for all employers.

In health specialties, art, law, or education fields, hands-on work experience in the industry can be important. Postsecondary teachers in these fields often gain experience by working in an occupation related to their field of expertise.

In fields such as biological science, physics, and chemistry, some postsecondary teachers have postdoctoral research experience. These short-term jobs, sometimes called “post-docs,” usually involve working for 2 to 3 years as a research associate or in a similar position, often at a college or university.

Some postsecondary teachers gain teaching experience by working as graduate teaching assistants—students who are enrolled in a graduate program and teach classes in the institution in which they are enrolled.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Postsecondary teachers who prepare students for an occupation that requires a license, certification, or registration, may need to have—or they may benefit from having—the same credential. For example, a postsecondary nursing teacher might need a nursing license or a postsecondary education teacher might need a teaching license.

Advancement

A major goal for postsecondary teachers with a doctoral degree is attaining a tenure—a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause. It can take up to 7 years of moving up the ranks in tenure-track positions. The ranks are assistant professor, associate professor, and professor. Tenure is granted through a review of the candidate’s research, contribution to the institution, and teaching.

Tenure and tenure-track positions are declining as institutions are relying more heavily on part-time professors.

Some tenured professors advance to administrative positions, such as dean or president. For information on deans and other administrative positions, see the profile on postsecondary education administrators. For more information about college and university presidents, see the profile on top executives.

Personality and Interests

Professor or college instructors typically have an interest in the Thinking and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Thinking or Helping interest which might fit with a career as a professor or college instructor, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Professor or college instructors should also possess the following specific qualities:

Communication skills. Postsecondary teachers need to write papers, give lectures, and serve on committees. To do so effectively, they need good communication skills. 

Critical-thinking skills. To challenge established theories and beliefs, conduct original research, and design experiments, postsecondary teachers need good critical-thinking skills.

Resourcefulness. Postsecondary teachers need to be able to present information in a way that students will understand. They need to adapt to the different learning styles of their students and teach students who have little or no experience with the subject.

Writing skills. Most professors publish original research and analysis. Consequently, they need to be skilled writers.

Pay

The median annual wage for postsecondary teachers was $79,540 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,480, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $174,960.

Median annual wages for postsecondary teachers in May 2019 were as follows:

Law teachers, postsecondary $113,530
Economics teachers, postsecondary 104,370
Engineering teachers, postsecondary 101,010
Health specialties teachers, postsecondary 97,320
Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences teachers, postsecondary 92,040
Physics teachers, postsecondary 89,590
Architecture teachers, postsecondary 87,900
Business teachers, postsecondary 87,200
Anthropology and archeology teachers, postsecondary 86,220
Political science teachers, postsecondary 85,930
Forestry and conservation science teachers, postsecondary 85,450
Computer science teachers, postsecondary 85,180
Biological science teachers, postsecondary 83,300
Agricultural sciences teachers, postsecondary 83,260
Environmental science teachers, postsecondary 82,430
Geography teachers, postsecondary 80,520
Chemistry teachers, postsecondary 79,550
Area, ethnic, and cultural studies teachers, postsecondary 77,070
Psychology teachers, postsecondary 76,620
Sociology teachers, postsecondary 75,290
Philosophy and religion teachers, postsecondary 75,240
History teachers, postsecondary 75,170
Nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary 74,600
Mathematical science teachers, postsecondary 73,690
Social work teachers, postsecondary 72,070
Social sciences teachers, postsecondary, all other 71,530
Library science teachers, postsecondary 71,410
Communications teachers, postsecondary 70,630
Foreign language and literature teachers, postsecondary 69,990
Art, drama, and music teachers, postsecondary 69,530
English language and literature teachers, postsecondary 68,490
Education teachers, postsecondary 65,510
Criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, postsecondary                                                                62,860

In May 2019, the median annual wages for postsecondary teachers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Junior colleges; local $82,850
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 80,960
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; private                                                                           80,760
Junior colleges; state 61,430

Wages can vary by institution type. Postsecondary teachers typically have higher wages in colleges, universities, and professional schools than they do in community colleges or other types of schools.

Many postsecondary teachers work part time. They may work part time at several colleges or universities, or have a full-time job in their field of expertise in addition to a part-time teaching position.

Postsecondary teachers’ schedules generally are flexible. Full-time teachers need to be on campus to teach classes and have office hours. Otherwise, they are free to set their schedule to prepare for classes and grade assignments. They may also spend time carrying out administrative responsibilities, such as serving on committees.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of postsecondary teachers is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. Both part-time and full-time postsecondary teachers are included in this projection.

The number of people attending postsecondary institutions is expected to grow in the next decade. Students will continue to seek higher education to gain the additional education and skills necessary to meet their career goals. As more people enter colleges and universities, more postsecondary teachers will be needed to serve these additional students. Colleges and universities are likely to hire more part-time teachers to meet this demand. In all disciplines, there is expected to be a limited number of full-time nontenure and full-time tenure positions.

However, despite expected increases in enrollment, employment growth in public colleges and universities will depend on state and local government budgets. If budgets for higher education are reduced, employment growth may be limited.

Overall employment of postsecondary teachers is projected to increase, but it will vary by field. For example, employment of health specialties teachers is projected to grow 23 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. As an aging population increasingly demands healthcare services, additional postsecondary teachers are expected to be needed to help educate the workers who will provide these services.

Job Prospects

There are expected to be more job opportunities for part-time postsecondary teachers since many institutions are filling vacancies with part-time rather than full-time teachers. There will be a limited number of full-time tenure-track positions and competition is expected to be high.

Some fields, such as health specialties and nursing, will likely experience better job prospects than others, such as those in the humanities.

For More Information

For more information about postsecondary teachers, visit

Council of Graduate Schools

 

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FAQ

Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. On this site, you can take the Career Personality Profiler assessment, the Holland Code assessment, or the Photo Career Quiz.

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