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So You Think You're Going to Be a Professor?

Updated on September 4, 2011

Few Modern Graduates Become Professors

So you think if you go to graduate school, get good grades, and nail some recommendations that you will eventually become a professor, right? You might want to slow down and think again. As someone who has been through graduate school and watched friends, colleagues, and some very talented students try and fail to make it to the promised land of tenure, there's no question that most students go into graduate school not knowing how hard it is to end up in a tenure track position.  It's never a guarantee, and issues like who you know, who your connections are, and what your politics or even religious beliefs (or lack thereof) can be more important than degree, teaching experience, and capability.  This isn't true of every case-plenty of people make it from sheer determination and merit, but there are thousands left broken on the wayside.  If you're looking at graduate school to become a professor, you had better do some serious work on studying what the actual job prospects are, especially if it is an academic field like English, writing, history, or philosophy as opposed to say business or science.  Oh, and by the way, if you hadn't heard of the word "Adjunct," then look it up.

So If You're Not a Professor, What Are You?

Part of the problem is that many people outside of academics don't realize that the word "professor" isn't a catch-all term describing everyone who teaches at the college level. While you might call these people professors as opposed to teachers, there are actually many different levels of professors, and very few (especially young or recent graduates) are the stereotypical picture people think of: high income, great benefits, time off, tenure. There are full tenure professors like that, but they are much fewer and further between then even two decades ago, and the far majority of "professors" are on the lower scales. You're still doing okay as maybe an assistant or associate professor, but the majority are "instructors" or the dreaded "adjuncts." In many large schools, these two groups teach nearly 65% of the course load of schools, and that's especially high considering how most graduate programs have students teach one class per semester as part of financial aid.

So what is the reward for handling the majority of the work? No insurance, no benefits, no retirement savings, no points counted towards earning tenure, no salary (payment is done on a per class taught or per credit hour taught basis) and often times no additional consideration for when a better position actually does open up. Having been through the academic world, it might surprise you to learn how many people work 60 to 80 plus hours a week to earn well under 30K a year. These are the "great jobs" waiting for graduates who are suckered into believing there are tons of professor jobs open for every talented student who gets an MA, MFA, or PhD.

What No One Tells You About Higher Education

How would most parents react if they knew that many of their children starting at a major university would not be taught by professors, but by first or second year graduate students? Adjuncts are often more qualified, but many new adjuncts also have little more than their one class a semester teaching experience before being thrown into the fire and asked to handle 5, 6, or even 7 courses at a time.

Many of us who go into graduate school are given the impression that it works like this: graduate from college with honors and an impressive resume, get into grad school, get a degree that lets you teach as a professor; and the implication is that as a child of academics that there is a huge demand for you once you get the degree.  That is somewhat true: as long as you're willing to work for low pay, no year to year security, and no benefits.  As for the idea that you can take a straight and easy road to tenure: not likely.  To help yourself out if you haven't gone to grad school yet, Google this all too common phrase: "Publish or Perish."

Sad Truth of Many Colleges

Factors That Matter Most (Even if They All Deny It)

What can automatically guarantee that you will never receive tenure at a university you've been working at? Vocally describe political or religious beliefs that conflict with what is generally considered academically acceptable or politically correct. You would hope in a place that is supposed to represent knowledge, learning, philosophy, and ideas that dissenting opinions would be welcome: but in most places I've been they're not...or you're allowed to be "revolutionary," "extreme," or "open-minded" as long as it's all in the way that the culture there determines is appropriate.

There are many stories of well qualified (or even the best qualified) candidates losing out on a job because they made an off-hand statement about politics or a group they were associated with that were in contradiction to the personal beliefs of one of the hiring party. While there are many times when this isn't an issue, unfortunately it's so common as to not even be that surprising to people who have been around for a while. Stay away from political expressions, religious or faith expressions, or association with any groups that can be tied to them unless you're 100% sure the hirers have the same opinion.

Example from my own job search: being told I would not be hired as an adjunct because they didn't care for my questionable connections with right wing para-military organizations. What were they talking about? On my resume I mentioned I was an Eagle Scout, meaning part of that right wing para-military organization known as the Boy Scouts of America.

Some Scary Numbers

Obviously these numbers can change over time, and are based on many of the most recent studies or stories, which as of this particular post often come from the 2006 to 2009 range. For those who think this is too far back, I can assure you that not a lot has changed as of 2011, except there are more people with higher education degrees vying for these low paying and unhelpful jobs.

First let's start with the pay and number of hours. As a baseline, you can assume an adjunct teaching four classes will be working a minimum of 60 hours a week, not including transit time (and many adjuncts work at more than one college, sometimes tallying 10-20 hours a week just in traveling from one job to another and back home).

So the average annual pay? Well the majority fall in the $25,000 to $30,000 a year range assuming they also work through the summer - otherwise it is less. The CNN article further down discusses a "high paid adjunct" who makes $40k while living in Boston and commuting between several schools to do so. In other areas, payment can be as low as $1,200 to $1,400 a class per semester.

Most hires are adjuncts: While people argue over the total number of adjuncts, ranking them anywhere between 45 to 60% of all teaching faculty, 67% of all new hires over the past 15 years are adjuncts, and more full time tenure professor positions have been eliminated in the past 20 years than created while the number of new students earning advanced degrees and looking for these scarcer jobs is at its highest point in history. While these numbers are considered somewhat controversial, the 2004 Census has 9.4% of the adult population 25 years or older as having a graduate or professional degree beyond a bachelor's degree.

Finally, perhaps the scariest number: NONE. This is the age requirement most universities have for older professors to step down or a set up retirement age. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's important for young graduates to realize if a 30 year old somehow snags tenure - that job could be tied up for the rest of his or her life.

Satire to Point Out Adjunct Inequalities

First Hand Experience and a Final Word

Everyone says the same thing when getting started: but I'm exceptional and I'll outshine all my classmates.  There's an old joke in graduate school, one that is also mentioned in more than one PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper) Comics.

Q: Why do many graduate students take so long to graduate? 

A: Because they need to spend the first two years getting over the shock of being average.

One of the personal blessings of graduate school was to meet a large number of brilliant and truly wonderful people.  There were also a ton of douche bags, but that's life.  You find them everywhere.  But that joke has a ring of truth to it: it is strange for many graduate students who have been above and beyond exceptional their whole lives to be in an environment where they realize they don't stick out at all anymore.  The competition is fiercer, the jobs are more and more scarce, and as in many things in life: your career depends on connections and publishing.

Many friends I graduated with are working as adjunct or instructors. Many of them have worked for 8 years towards even a steady salary contract, much less tenure, and only one has done so out of 35 or so I keep in touch with, although 2 more are closing in soon. Which of us graduates are making the most money? That would be one person who dropped out of the program and two of us who left academics after graduating. Our lives are generally less stressful, too. It's not that it's not worth it for some people - but many don't get the true story of what the real situation is until it is too late.  If you're looking at graduate school to become a professor, take a few years off and explore other options.  Really.  You'll very likely be much happier in the long run.

Startling Truth on Adjuncts That Universities Don't Want You to Know

Comments on Higher Education Hiring

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    • Jerry G2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerry G2 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, IA

      It's a shocker. I figure better to be unpopular and help people find this out now then after getting $60,000 in student loans and not being able to find a good job...or even the higher paying factory ones they used to have because they are now over-qualified.

    • Kotori profile image


      8 years ago from Chicagoland

      Eye opening. Thanks.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      A fantastic and well writting hub. Containing a lot of thoughts and information.

    • ocbill profile image


      8 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

      I always thought teaching was easy. That changed after teaching a few courses and athletic classes. I respect teachers patience and persistence.

    • Jerry G2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerry G2 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, IA

      Hey Dusty,

      If it's for the love of teaching or you can do it part time, then it's not a bad route because there always is more demand for adjunct professors. But yeah, as for the conventional picture of very high paying and secure job teaching in academics, they are comparatively few and far in between. Thanks for the kind words...sorry to burst the bubble :)

    • Dusty Snoke profile image

      Dusty Snoke 

      8 years ago from Chattanooga, TN

      Well, I am upset now, lol. Being a professor was always a dream of mine, but I know dreams can often be sugar coated nightmares. Great hub, I hope it reaches all those students who need it.


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