Types of Professors
Instructor & Lecturer
Instructors & lecturers are non-tenure track professionals who are hired to teach courses at colleges and universities. They take care of lower-level classes and handle administrative duties, but they don’t have any research responsibilities.
- Instructors & lecturers typically have a minimum of a master’s degree and many of the credits needed for a doctorate.
- Senior Lecturers may have the same qualifications as regular faculty members (e.g. doctorate).
- A number of instructors & lecturers are hired on year-to-year contracts. But lectureship contracts can stretch to 5 years, with an option to renew.
- On average, instructors are paid less than lecturers in the U.S.
Each university has its own definition of “instructor,” “lecturer,” and even “instructional professor,” so don’t be afraid to ask about what your responsibilities will be. Because these are non-tenure track positions, they don’t come with a lot of support. You also won’t be eligible for any tenure track benefits.
Adjunct faculty are professors who are not on the tenure track. They’re often hired on a short-term basis (e.g. semester-by-semester or year-long contracts) and they’re not eligible for tenured benefits.
- Like instructors & lecturers, adjuncts teach & evaluate students, develop syllabi, and handle typical administrative tasks.
- Adjunct professors usually—but not always—work on a part-time basis (e.g. less than half-time).
- In many cases, a master’s degree is an acceptable baseline qualification for adjunct positions.
- At some universities, adjunct professors are called Part-Time Lecturers (PTLs).
Adjunct professor is a loaded term in academic circles:
- In the best-case scenario, adjuncts are experienced academics or professionals (e.g. education executives) who take time out of their schedules to teach courses from fresh perspectives and help students develop real-world skills.
- In the worst-case scenario, adjuncts are poorly paid, non-tenured instructors who are expected to teach an unhealthy number of courses with no administrative support and no time for scholarly projects.
In recent years, universities have been using adjuncts to save money on benefits and adjust to fluctuating enrollments. That’s left a lot of academics cobbling together a living from part-time teaching jobs with zero career security.
Community College Professor
Community college professors teach at community colleges, city colleges, technical colleges, junior colleges, and similar post-secondary institutions. They handle a large amount of teaching responsibilities, including course planning and instruction.
- Tenure track positions are available at community colleges, but they’re often fiercely competitive. On the flip side, you usually won’t be expected to conduct research & publish as a condition of tenure.
- Expect a heavy teaching load—there are no graduate students or teaching assistants at community colleges to help with grading papers & exams.
- Research is not a priority at community colleges. You’ll be allowed to pursue your own academic projects, but you won’t have much time to do so.
- The baseline qualification for a community college professorship is a master’s degree, but preference is often given to applicants with a doctorate and prior teaching/work experience. You’ll usually find a mix of degree holders at schools (e.g. 50-50 split).
Assistant professors are entry-level professors. This is the job you need if you wish to pursue tenure track positions at a 4-year college or university. You must become an assistant professor and teach for a number of years before you can apply for tenure.
- A doctorate is the baseline qualification for assistant professorship positions (e.g. Ph.D. or Ed.D.). Universities will also want to know about your teaching experience, scholarly achievements, professional engagement (e.g. memberships), work experience, and any relevant certifications.
- Assistant professors have a wide range of teaching, research, and service responsibilities, including academic advising and serving on committees.
- Assistant professors on the tenure track often sign a six-year contract. In the sixth year, you’ll go through a lengthy tenure review process while you continue teaching & working. If you pass this review, you’ll become an associate professor.
- Assistant professors are expected to devote a serious amount of time to research. Be prepared to publish articles, papers, and books.
Associate professors are mid-level professors who have—typically—achieved tenure by going through six years of training as an assistant professor in a tenure track position.
- You can be an associate professor without tenure, but it’s not the norm.
- Associate professors continue to devote their time to teaching undergraduate & graduate students, research work, and service responsibilities (e.g. leadership roles on committees).
- Thanks to their experience, associate professors may be heavily involved in program design & construction, curriculum planning, mentoring junior faculty, and raising funding.
Check the university’s Faculty Handbook to learn about what’s expected at this intermediate level.
“Full” professors are senior-level academics who have been promoted from associate professorships. They often have academic tenure and lifetime employment within a college or university. They can only fired for cause or under extraordinary circumstances (e.g. department closure).
Full professors are considered to be experts in their field. They often have a national/international reputation and a long track record of success in teaching, research, publication, and community service.
What Degree Do I Need to Become a Professor in Education Fields?
Why it Depends
The baseline degree requirement is always going to depend on the job title, subject, and the type of institution. A Professor of Nursing or a visiting adjunct may not need a doctorate. But anyone who wants to get on the tenure track in a 4-year university almost always will.
The best way to understand the job market is to look at postings for higher level education jobs in your field of interest. You’ll quickly see what the norms are in your arena.
Master’s Degree vs. Doctorate
A master’s degree is the baseline requirement for community college professors and a number of non-tenured jobs (e.g. instructor, lecturer, or adjunct professor). But a doctorate will be required for tenure track positions. For example:
- Candidates for a community college professor or an adjunct professor job in mathematics might only need a master’s degree and significant experience in classroom teaching.
- Applicants for an assistant professor or associate professor job at a respected 4-year university will need a doctorate.
Again, we recommend you look at recent job postings. If it’s a strong school, some departments will expect adjuncts and senior lecturers to hold a doctorate.
Ed.D. vs. Ph.D.
In the field of education, you have a choice for your doctorate. We dig into the debate in our section on the Ed.D. vs. Ph.D., but here are a few points to consider:
- Ed.D. degrees are focused on practical, real-world applications. So you may find this kind of doctorate useful if you’re a mid-career professional interested in adjunct roles or community college teaching.
- Ph.D. programs are designed to help students transition into academia—they’re built to prepare you to become a professor. You’ll be exposed to research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and the like.
- Tenure track positions (e.g. assistant professor, associate professor, etc.) have a heavy research component. So hiring committees may favor Ph.D. candidates over Ed.D. candidates for these openings.
In reality, Colleges of Education often have a mix of Ed.D. and Ph.D. holders in their professorial ranks. It makes for a good mix of pragmatic practitioners and out-of-the-box research thinkers.
Certain fields like nursing and clinical psychology have their own subject-specific doctorates. For example:
- Nurses can consider an Ed.D. in Nursing Education, a Ph.D., or a DNP with an education focus. Have a look at our section on Nursing Education for more details.
- If you are interested in becoming a licensed clinical psychologist, you need to be looking at APA-accredited Ph.D. or Psy.D. programs in Clinical Psychology. Ed.D. programs do not deal with this subject.
When in doubt, look at recent job descriptions to see what your employer prefers.
Ed.D. Faculty Jobs in Education
Professor of Educational Leadership & Administration
A Professor of Educational Leadership & Administration may be expected to:
- Hold an Ed.D. or Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Instructional Leadership, or a closely related field.
- Have at least 3 years of leadership & administrative experience at the appropriate level (e.g. PK-12 principals, district-level administrators, etc.).
- Teach undergraduate and graduate-level courses (on-campus & online), supervise leadership experiences in school & district settings, and collaborate with diverse populations.
- Pursue original research projects and develop best practice initiatives in fields like instruction & pedagogy, mentoring, and curriculum design & development.
Professor of Higher Education
A Professor of Higher Education may be expected to:
- Hold an Ed.D. or Ph.D. in Higher Education or a closely related field.
- Have at least 3 years of experience of working in a higher education administration role and demonstrated competence in teaching university-level courses (on-campus & online).
- Teach undergraduate and graduate courses in higher education.
- Commit to research work in higher education through publications, presentations, and funding activity.
Professor of Adult Education & Distance Learning
In addition to assistant professor openings, there are a number of adjunct & instructor openings in this field. So you should look at the job descriptions to gauge where you’d fit best. Broadly speaking, a Professor of Adult Education may be expected to:
- Hold an Ed.D. or Ph.D. in Adult Education, Adult Learning, Community College Leadership, Higher Education, or a closely related discipline.
- Provide evidence of university teaching experience in online and face-to-face courses.
- Commit to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in relevant fields (e.g. community college leadership, adult literacy, self-directed learning, etc.).
- Pursue external funding opportunities in order to achieve personal & departmental research goals.
Professor of Teacher Education
“Teacher Education” covers a wide range of PK-12 age ranges (e.g. Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle School & Secondary Education) and subjects (e.g. Science Education, Math Education, TESOL, etc.). So each job description is going to be unique. In the broadest terms, a Professor of Teacher Education may be expected to:
- Hold an Ed.D. or Ph.D. in Education or a closely related field.
- Have a minimum of 3-5 years of teaching experience in the relevant PK-12 setting; experience with teacher preparation programs is another plus.
- Teach undergraduate and graduate courses in the College of Education.
- Demonstrate a commitment to original research in education, school & community partnerships, program development, and innovative pedagogy (e.g. incorporating technology into instructional practices).
Professor of Curriculum & Instruction
A Professor of Curriculum & Instruction may be expected to:
- Hold an Ed.D. or Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction or a related field.
- Have a minimum of 3 years of teaching experience in a relevant PK-12 setting; experience in online teaching & course development will be a plus.
- Teach, mentor, and advise undergraduate & graduate students in relevant curriculum & instruction areas (e.g. mathematics, science, English language arts, etc.).
- Participate in field experiences and conduct scholarly research in areas such as teacher preparation, curriculum, pedagogy, education in under-served communities, and the like.
Professor of Instructional Technology & Design
A Professor of Instructional Technology & Design may be expected to:
- Hold an Ed.D. or PhD. in Educational Technology, Instructional Technology, Instructional Design, or a closely related field.
- Have experience in a) building & teaching courses in hybrid and 100% online environments; b) using technology in innovative ways to enhance teaching & learning; and c) collaborating with school & community partners.
- Teach undergraduate & graduate-level courses in instructional technology.
- Conduct original research in fields such as instructional design, technology integration, distance learning, and emerging technologies (e.g. VR, AI, etc.),
Ed.D. Faculty Jobs in Subject-Specific Fields
Professor of Special Education
A Professor of Special Education may be expected to:
- Hold an Ed.D. or Ph.D. in Special Education or a closely related field.
- Have a minimum of 3 years of special education teaching experience in PK-12 settings; state licensure or board certification in teaching special education is usually preferred.
- Teach undergraduate & graduate-level special education courses, engage in program development, and supervise student internships within local school districts and agencies.
- Maintain an active research agenda in special education areas such as equity, access, teaching & learning, curriculum design, and the like.
Professor of Counseling/Counselor Education
A Professor of Counseling or Counselor Education may be expected to:
- Hold a doctorate in Counselor Education & Supervision or a related field from a regionally accredited university and a CACREP-accredited program.
- Have certification or licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor and/or School Counselor.
- Demonstrate evidence of relevant work experience (e.g. counseling), as well as teaching in a higher education setting.
- Teach & mentor undergraduate and graduate students in counseling & CACREP core areas; supervise practicum courses and clinical experiences.
- Pursue original research in areas of interest (e.g. group counseling, multicultural counseling, etc.).
Professor of Educational Psychology
A Professor of Educational Psychology may be expected to:
- Hold a doctorate or the equivalent terminal degree in Educational Psychology or a closely related field.
- Have at least 3 years of PK-12 teaching experience or experience in relevant educational settings.
- Develop & teach undergraduate and graduate courses in educational psychology and supervise field experiences.
- Pursue original research in fields related to educational psychology (e.g. learning methods, behavioral development, instructional technology, gifted learners, etc.).
Professor of Nursing/Nursing Education
A Professor of Nursing may be expected to:
- Hold a MSN or doctorate in nursing. A DNP, Ed.D. or Ph.D. isn’t always needed to become a Professor of Nursing Education, but it’s usually preferred. See the section on Nursing Education for more details.
- Be licensed by the state and nationally certified in your chosen field of nursing. 2+ years of professional RN or APRN experience is often required.
- Have experience in simulation & clinical instruction and teaching at the college level.
- Teach nursing students in classrooms, skills labs, and clinical settings; develop & coordinate curriculum plans and simulation activities; oversee practicum courses.
- Assess clinical placements to ensure they meet program outcomes for students.
- Pursue original research and engage in peer-reviewed scholarly activities.
How Much Do Professors in Education Fields Make?
Salaries for professorial jobs are based on a complex set of factors, including the subject, job title, location, and the area cost of living. Take a look at our Ed.D. Career & Salary Guide to get a sense of the landscape. In addition to sites like Glassdoor and Payscale, you can also examine the following sources to learn about recent figures:
- Higher Ed: CUPA-HR Salary Data
- AAUP Faculty Compensation Survey
- Chronicle of Higher Education Salary Data
- BLS: Education Teachers, Postsecondary Wage Data
The AAUP survey has a helpful breakdown of salaries by role (e.g. instructor, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor). Here are a few takeaways from the report:
- Assistant professors are paid more than instructors or lecturers. You can expect a pay bump of ~$22,000-$25,000 per year over an instructor salary.
- Assistant professors who become associate professors usually see a pay bump of ~$10,000.
- Women are still being paid less than men—the gap can be as much as $10,000 annually across most roles. It’s particularly wide for full professors.
- Private and religiously affiliated universities pay a good deal more than public universities.
- Northeast & Pacific regions (e.g. Hawaii) offer the highest salaries, but they also have a higher cost of living.
Keep in mind that salary numbers are just one part of the picture. If you get on a tenure track at a college or university, you’ll be eligible for generous retirement, medical, and tuition benefits. Perks like tuition breaks may also apply to your partner and dependents.
Step-By-Step Guide to Becoming a Professor in Education Fields
Getting on the Tenure Track
Academic tenure is an indefinite appointment at a college or a university—tenured professors can only be fired for cause (e.g. criminal conviction) or under extraordinary circumstances (e.g. department closure). It’s designed to give senior academics the freedom to pursue research and express their views without the threat of termination. Just be aware that tenured posts have been declining for years.
If you’re bound and determined to become a tenured professor, you need to get on the tenure track. Here’s how it can happen:
- Earn a Master’s Degree: Unless you’re in a specialized program (e.g. BSN to DNP for nurses), you’ll need to earn a master’s degree before you can earn a doctorate.
- Accrue Workplace Experience: Most colleges & universities will want to see at least a few years of relevant work experience on your résumé when you apply for tenure track openings (e.g. 3+ years of PK-12 classroom teaching, 3+ years in higher education administration, etc.).
- Accrue College-Level Teaching Experience: Any experience you can gain teaching undergraduates and adult learners—both on-campus and online—is going to help your cause. With a master’s degree, you may be able to find work as an adjunct professor or short-term instructor or lecturer. You can also teach while you’re earning your doctorate.
- Earn a Doctorate in an Education Field: Take a look at our guide to the Ed.D. vs. Ph.D. if you’re on the fence about your choice. Remember that Ph.D. programs will usually offer graduate assistant and teaching assistant (TA) opportunities.
- Apply for Assistant Professor Positions (Tenure Track): Look for the phrase “tenure track” in job descriptions or the Assignment Field. Some assistant professor jobs are “non tenure.” If it’s not clear in the wording, contact the HR department and ask directly.
- Be a Good Teacher: Universities look at three components when they’re evaluating candidates for tenure: teaching, research excellence, and administrative service. As an assistant professor, you’ll have ~5 years to build a record of mentorship, teaching, and positive student evaluations.
- Publish Peer-Reviewed Research, Articles & Books: And the earlier, the better. Established universities pay a lot of attention to this element in the review, including your ability to attract funding. Smaller universities and community colleges may prioritize teaching over research.
- Build a Record of Administrative Service: Service can involve sitting on committees, organizing departmental initiatives, being an active member of national associations, providing expertise on community & state projects—the list goes on. It accounts for ~20% of your tenure review.
- Pass the Tenure Review: Tenure review usually occurs in the sixth year of being an assistant professor. It’s a year-long process that involves regular assessment. As part of the review, you’ll be required to assemble a tenure dossier that covers your teaching record & evaluations, research publications, and record of service. You’ll also be required to submit external letters of recommendation.
- Become a Tenured Associate Professor: Once you’re a tenured associate professor, you’ll be able to breathe out. You’ll still continue to fulfill all of your duties, but you’ll be in a secure position.
- Become a Full Professor: Promotion from the associate role to the full professor role usually occurs after 6 years of teaching, research & service. If you apply for promotion and get rejected, you can still apply again later down the track. You also don’t have to apply for promotion—some people remain as associate professors for years.
The Decline of the Tenure Track
In recent years, a number of universities have moved away from the tenure track model. There are a number of reasons for the change, but the biggest one is cost. Tenure is a long-term financial drain on an institution. Universities and colleges find it much cheaper to fill academic positions with non-tenured adjuncts, instructors, and assistant professors who work on a short-term contract basis.
Organizations like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) are fighting hard for academic security, but they’re up against market forces. With the shift to online learning and practice-based degrees, you can expect to see more changes to the tenure system in the years to come. Keep an eye on AAUP’s Research Section for the latest surveys & reports on employment trends.
Assistant Professor in Education: A Day in the Life
Assistant professors are always busy. If they’re not taking care of their students, they’re spending their hours working on in-depth research projects, serving on faculty committees, developing curricula and course plans, and writing books. Here’s a snapshot of a typical day in the life:
- Early Morning: Read reports for research projects; apply for funding; plan lecture series; write papers.
- Mid-Morning: Teach courses; advise students in office hours.
- Early Afternoon: Teach courses; respond to emails; prepare course plans & lectures.
- Mid-Afternoon: Advise students in office hours; meet with committees.
- Late Afternoon: Visit practicum sites and labs; supervise field experiences.
- Evening: Grade exams & papers.
Teaching loads vary from school to school. At major research universities, you might be looking at teaching two courses semester. At others, you could be responsible for four courses per semester. Summers are often devoted to research work, including applying for grants, conducting field studies, and preparing work for publication.
Additional Resources for Aspiring Professors
Higher Ed Organizations
- American Association of Blacks in Higher Education (AABHE)
- American Association of Community Colleges (AACC)
- American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE)
- American Association of University Professors (AAUP)
- American Association of University Women (AAUW)