Teaching Postsecondary Students

Percentage of high school graduates who went on to college in 1960: 45.1 (758,000 total)

Percentage of high school graduates who went on to college in 2011: 68.3 (1,844,000 total)

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At the beginning of the 19th century, college was for the minority who aspired toward academic pursuits or a career in “the professions” (law and medicine). However, the second half of that century saw dramatically increasing numbers of high school students continuing into postsecondary education. Today, attending a college or university is the norm for high school graduates.

Along with this explosion in the number of people going to college, there has been a parallel explosion in the need for college teachers. As this new diversity of students brings with them more and varied goals for going to college, so too are there more and varied opportunities for college teachers, beyond the traditional liberal arts and humanities. Business needs people to teach business management, marketing, and economics; the medical industry needs people to teach medicine, nursing, and molecular chemistry; the construction industry needs people to teach engineering and design; the information technology industry needs people to teach computer science; and the education industry needs people to teach… teaching.

Every sector of the economy needs postsecondary teachers to train the next batch of leaders and producers. Maybe they need you, too.

What’s it like teaching at the postsecondary level?

Teaching postsecondary school can vary quite a bit, depending upon the type of institution one is teaching at. Community college teachers, for example, tend to have very large class sizes, working on fairly standard material; while graduate school teachers tend to have only a few students in each class, working on highly specialized material. Nevertheless, some things are common to most postsecondary teachers, despite the variation.

Postsecondary schools include:
  • Community colleges
  • Teaching colleges and universities
  • Research universities
  • For-profit colleges
  • Trade schools
  • Regional occupational centers and programs

Most postsecondary instruction is delivered through lectures—although other learning formats, such as group-learning and inquiry-directed learning, may also be used. Lecture halls for introductory and general education classes may be filled with more than 100 students. Such an environment requires teachers who are both effective communicators and experts in their subject matter.

Classes specific to certain majors have smaller class sizes; upper-division courses often have class sizes of 10 to 15 students. In each setting, the professor is expected to be responsive to students’ questions and encourage free inquiry. Dialogue is as important as one-way communication in college instruction—and may be more important, depending on the context.

Outside of class, postsecondary teachers maintain office hours in which they’re available to meet with students individually. When not meeting with students, professors are often busy reading new material published in their field, always striving to keep current, or reviewing new editions of textbooks constantly being sent them for use in their classes.

Postsecondary teachers usually have some flexibility in establishing class times, and a great deal of flexibility in choosing office hours. Some teachers arrange their schedule to enable them to work only four days of the week. Others teach primarily in the mornings; while teachers employed in a school’s evening college teach smaller classes of generally older students in the evenings.

In addition to teaching, postsecondary teachers may also have research burdens. At a prestigious research university, a postsecondary teacher may spend more time doing original research than actually teaching classes; in such cases, the professor may supervise one or more graduate teaching assistants who will teach undergraduate courses in the professor’s discipline. The amount and kind of research required of the professor will vary according to the discipline. Some universities attract large amounts of grant money to research environmental issues, or molecular biology, or physics; other universities (or other colleges at the same university) are devoted to researching in the social sciences; while still other universities focus on agricultural research.

It is not only professors of science who do research. History professors, literature professors, economics professors—all are expected to contribute to their respective disciplines, examining existing ideas and submitting new ones. Different colleges have varying expectations regarding how much their faculty is expected to publish; some have a “publish or perish” approach, while those schools that have a greater teaching focus may only expect a little—but assign their faculty greater teaching loads instead.

Besides traditional state and private colleges, opportunities for postsecondary teachers abound at “for-profit” colleges. Some of these are trade or technical schools, while others offer courses and diplomas that compete directly with traditional schools. Many are accredited by a separate national agency, but some maintain the same regional accreditation as traditional schools. Teachers at these schools often do a greater portion of their teaching over the internet, including many classes that are wholly online. Hours of instructional time per class are fewer than at traditional schools, and the semester schedules tend to be faster-paced. Also, some for-profit schools use more group learning methods than they do lectures, on the theory that this method accords better with the actual experience in the workplace. Teachers at for-profit schools do not carry research burdens, but focus entirely on teaching.

Can I find a job?

Enrollment for colleges and universities is expected to continue to increase, but issues with state budgets will dampen the effect of job growth a little as state funds are reduced (such effects varying from state to state, with institutions in more solvent states better escaping such pressures).

Many colleges and universities are moving away from their tenure-track systems, resulting in higher competition for tenured positions, but increased openings for adjunct instructors. Openings vary by academic discipline, with those industries showing greatest growth in the general economy prompting growth in the teaching of their respective disciplines (such as nursing, business, and engineering). Moreover, as thriving industries attract some teachers to higher paying jobs, vacancies are left in the schools they leave behind. Conversely, contraction in an industry or specialty (like journalism and the humanities) results in more people competing for the teaching jobs that are available.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, record numbers of college enrollment are being driven both by an increase in the number of college-age students and an increase in the percentage of that group choosing to pursue postsecondary education, with particular increases in the percentage of blacks and Hispanics going on to college. These demographic shifts indicate a continued long-term demand for higher education, and consequently, for teachers. Variations between states are available at the National Center for Educational Statistics website.

What salary can I expect?

The nation’s postsecondary institutions employed more than 1.75 million teachers in 2010, at a mean wage of $62,050. Job growth is projected at 17 percent, slightly above average for all jobs, with for-profit institutions showing greater growth than traditional state and private colleges.

How do I get started?

Four-year colleges and universities generally require teachers to possess a doctoral degree. At the community college level, a master’s degree may be sufficient for teaching many classes, although this will depend upon the applicant pool; an applicant with a Ph.D. is generally preferred to an applicant without. Alternatively, substantial industry experience without any degree may be sufficient for teaching some types of classes (such as accounting and finance) at for-profit institutions.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

The US Federal Government spends about $30 billion annually to subsidize higher education (not counting additional tax incentives also offered)—and an additional $30 billion on research grants at universities.

Graduate students interested in a career as a college or university professor should seek opportunities as a graduate teaching assistant while they pursue their degrees. Such opportunities are often more available at universities that do a lot of research, with the graduate students taking on some of the teaching responsibilities of a university professor who has a heavy research load.

Obtaining a doctorate typically involves about six years of graduate study (including two years for a master’s degree, and time spent researching and writing a doctoral thesis). For most professorships, it is not required to take classes specific to teaching methods (as required for teaching primary or secondary school), for it is assumed that expertise in one’s field qualifies one as a teacher. This is not to say that professors do not need skill in teaching—only that it is measured differently, with a less standardized process. Colleges and universities expect to hire professors who can demonstrate skill in oral communication, critical thinking, and writing.

Depending upon the prestige of the school and academic discipline, many professors are expected to continually contribute to the development of their field. This “publish or perish” philosophy means that professors seeking tenure must devote substantial time toward independent research even as they manage a teaching load. To prepare for this, graduate students should seek opportunities to participate in their professors’ research, and cultivate relationships with professors from other schools who work in the same academic discipline.

It is a long road to becoming a college or university professor, but when you love a particular subject, the road is more enjoyable than it is long; at the end is a job doing what you love, sharing what you love with others through teaching, and meaningfully contributing to a field important to you. Not many careers can match that offer.

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