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What Postsecondary Teachers Do

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


Postsecondary teachers typically do the following:

Professors and other postsecondary teachers specialize in any of a wide variety of subjects and fields. Some teach academic subjects, such as English or philosophy. Others focus on career-related subjects, such as law, nursing, or culinary arts.

Postsecondary teachers work for different types of institutions, and their job duties vary with the kind of organization they work for.

Some postsecondary teachers are professors who work for large universities. In this setting, they often spend a large portion of their time conducting research and experiments and applying for grants to fund their research. Frequently, they spend less time teaching. Classes may be taught by graduate teaching assistants, who are supervised by a professor.

At colleges and universities, professors (together called the "faculty" of the school) are organized into departments based on the subject matter of their specialty, such as English, physics, Spanish, or music. They may teach one or more courses within that department, such as a mathematics professor teaching calculus, statistics, and a graduate seminar in a very specific area of mathematics.

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

Professors keep up with developments in their field by reading scholarly articles, talking with colleagues, and participating in professional conferences. To gain tenure (a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause), they must do research, such as experiments, document analysis, or critical reviews, and publish their findings.

Other postsecondary teachers work in smaller colleges and universities or in community colleges. Postsecondary teachers in this setting often spend more time teaching classes and working with students. They may spend some time conducting research, but are not given as much time to devote to it.

Some postsecondary teachers work for online universities or teach online classes. They use websites to present lessons and information and to assign and accept students’ work. They communicate with students by email and by phone and may never meet their students in person.

The amount of time postsecondary teachers spend teaching, serving on committees, and doing research also varies with their position in the university. Full-time professors, particularly those who have tenure, 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.

Graduate teaching assistants, often referred to as graduate TAs, assist faculty by teaching or assisting with classes, while earning a graduate degree as a student. Some teaching assistants have full responsibility for teaching a course. Others help faculty members by grading papers, monitoring exams and quizzes, holding help sessions for students and conducting laboratory sessions. Graduate teaching assistants may work one-on-one with a faculty member, or, in large classes, they may be one of several assistants.

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