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How to Become a Postsecondary Teacher

Educational requirements vary with the subject taught and the type of educational institution. Most commonly, postsecondary teachers must have a Ph.D. However, a master's degree may be enough for some postsecondary teachers at community colleges. In technical and trade schools, work experience may be important for getting a postsecondary teaching job.


Postsecondary teachers who work for 4-year colleges and universities are most often required to have a doctoral degree in their field. However, some schools may hire those who have 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 6 years of full-time study after the completion of a bachelor’s degree program. Included in the 6 years is time spent completing a master’s degree and then 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.

Two-year colleges or career and technical schools also may hire those with a master’s degree. However, in some fields, there are 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.

Postsecondary teachers who teach career and technical education courses, such as culinary arts or cosmetology, may not be required to have graduate-level education. Instead, schools may seek workers who have experience or certification in the field they wish to teach.

Work Experience

Some institutions prefer to hire professors who have teaching experience.

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

Other postsecondary teachers gain experience by working in other professions and have full-time jobs in other settings, such as government agencies, private businesses, or nonprofit organizations.


For postsecondary teachers, a major goal in the traditional academic career is attaining tenure—a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause. Tenure 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 their teaching. However, institutions are relying more heavily on limited-term contracts and part-time faculty, so tenure positions and positions on a "tenure track" are declining.

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.

Important Qualities

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

Instructional skills. 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.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition