What Does a College Professor Do?

Society has this concept of the “ivory tower professor,” an aloof academic who hides in fancy offices over-thinking nonsense and sneering down at everyone. It’s seen as a plush job, and in some ways it is. But the reality is quite different from the stereotypes we encounter:

  • 3/4 of all college faculty in the U.S. do not have tenure. This means they may receive a new contract for each academic year, and many wait anxiously for it. If a school decides not to issue someone a new contract, in most states they are not required to provide a reason for withholding the contract, making it difficult to contest being let go.
  • More than half of college faculty are part-time instructors. Known as adjuncts, in many cases they are only paid for the time they spend in the classroom. Since most of teaching occurs outside the classroom, wages are often very low, even below minimum wage in some cases, and they receive no benefits and very low job security; if enrollment is down or a class has to be cancelled, they are the first instructors to lose their jobs.
  • College professors don’t make as much as you think. While professors who are tenured at large research institutions can make quite a lucrative salary, most instructors earn a middle-class income, despite the time and money they invested in credentials to qualify them to teach.

If you’re considering becoming a professor, or simply curious about the work-life of academics, read on for a description of common faculty responsibilities.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash


Preparing lessons actually takes a lot of work. Individual assignments shouldn’t exist in isolation, but should connect to other assignments, all building to certain specific skills students need to demonstrate.

Creating a solid lesson that fits into a course requires a lot of careful consideration. I outline goals, research, plan timelines, and create documents (instruction sheets, handouts, worksheets, PowerPoints, quizzes, etc.) before ever setting foot in the classroom. Total, I might spend 4-6 hours developing one, brand-new lesson that may only fill a class meeting or two, and after teaching the lesson, I’ll spend time revising it based on what worked and what didn’t.

If this seems like overkill, realize my process is pretty standard.

Of course, the longer you teach, the less time you spend preparing lessons because you have many lessons you can simply update. But for a new teacher, this can take a lot of time.

Once the lesson is planned, remember that you still have to spend a few hours in the classroom running the assignment. And finally, once the lesson has been taught and the assignments have been completed, you get to grade for hours and hours. And hours.

Professional Development

Professional development is another big expectation for college faculty. Since college instructors are considered professionals in their fields, they have to stay up-to-date on their discipline, which means lots of reading and research. Attending conferences, participating in webinars, or completing school-specific training on things like FERPA or sexual harassment are also forms of professional development.

For university professors, there’s also an expectation that they will publish in professional journals regularly, which is a lengthy, time-consuming process.

Service to the School

Another area of work for faculty is “service to the school.” Basically, a school needs faculty to pitch in and help run it. This work is usually divided into a few categories: committee work (which is required of all faculty), student organizations, and community service.

Committee Work

In addition to preparing lessons and grading, college teachers also spend time on committees. These committees help the college operate by making important decisions and maintaining aspects of the school. Many professors serve on multiple committees, and depending on the committee, they may spend very little or a great deal of time preparing for meetings.

For instance, when I served on the Technology Committee at one school, we worked with the IT Department to decide what computers we needed to purchase when we upgraded classroom computers. The committee created and administered a survey to determine how instructors in different departments used classroom computers and what features they needed. This was important because different departments tended to use computers differently; the English, history, and music instructors, for example, tended to show more videos, so they needed CD-rom drives, whereas the math instructors needed computers that could run certain software for displaying graphs and equations. We also had to research factors like price and longevity of the computers we purchased.

However, I also served on committees that might only meet once annually. The demands of different committees can vary a lot depending on the school and the committee itself.

Student Organizations

Student clubs and honor societies require faculty advisors, so many instructors find themselves meeting weekly with students to help them facilitate these experiences. Faculty advisors are necessary to complete paperwork students can’t handle, such as budget requests or travel requests. In some cases, they also help students by providing practical advise or making suggestions for activities.

When I advised an anime-themed club for a few years, I felt like part of my role was mentoring students who had never had leadership roles before. I involved students in planning and budgeting for trips or events, and I helped the officers develop better people skills. However, some professors are much less hands-on. It really depends on the ages and experience level of the club members and the professor’s level of commitment to the club.

Community Service

This is pretty straightforward. If you thought community service was only what you did in high school to get into college, you were mistaken.

Many schools like for their instructors to volunteer in the community. This improves the school’s reputation, generates goodwill with the locals, and can even make the school less intimidating and more accessible to potential students. (It also gives schools some good PR to leverage if they need to compromise with city government.) Plus, it’s just a good thing to do.

Community service looks different for different disciplines. Business profs might hold free seminars where they advise business owners in the area or run business incubators that help start new businesses. History profs might work as guides at museums or provide seasonal tours focused on local history. And some professors volunteer doing things very different from the discipline they teach, such as a political science professor who worked as a volunteer firefighter. Regardless, the goal is to be visibly involved in the community.

The Upshot

The image of professors divorced from reality and coddled to death by privilege just doesn’t match up with reality for that majority. Most professors spend significantly more than 40 hours per week working, and even if they’re not teaching in the summer (which many do), they’re revising courses or meeting professional development and publishing demands they couldn’t meet during the school year.

All that being said, there are a lot of perks to being a college professor, which maybe some day I’ll get around to writing about. In spite of the stress and immense workload, many faculty still report high levels of satisfaction with their jobs. However, if you’re considering teaching college, it’s important to understand the demands of the job.

Because the truth behind the ivory tower myth? Sometimes it’s more of a basement.

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