What Postsecondary Teachers Do
Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a variety of academic subjects beyond the high school level. They may also conduct research and publish scholarly papers and books.
Postsecondary teachers typically do the following:
- Develop an instructional plan (known as a course outline or syllabus) for the course(s) they teach and ensure that it meets college and department standards
- Plan lessons and assignments
- Teach courses in their subject area
- Assess students’ progress by grading assignments, papers, exams, and other work
- Advise students about which courses to take and how to achieve their goals
- Work with colleagues to develop or modify the curriculum for a degree or certificate program involving in-person, online, or hybrid delivery of course material
- Stay informed about changes and innovations in their field
- Serve on academic or administrative committees, as needed
Postsecondary teachers, often referred to as professors or faculty, specialize in a variety of subjects and fields. At colleges and universities, professors are organized into departments by degree field, such as history, science, or business. A professor may teach one or more courses within that department. For example, a mathematics professor may teach calculus, statistics, and a graduate seminar on a topic related to polynomials.
Postsecondary teachers’ duties vary, often based on the size of their employing institution. In large colleges or universities, they may teach courses, conduct research or experiments, publish original research, apply for grants to fund their research, or supervise graduate teaching assistants. In small colleges and universities or in community colleges, they may spend most of their time teaching courses and working with students.
Full-time professors, particularly those who have tenure (that is, they cannot be fired without just cause), often are expected to devote a great deal of time on original research. Tenured professors must document their analyses or critical reviews and publish their research findings. They also may be expected to serve on college and university committees.
Part-time professors, often known as adjunct professors, usually spend most of their time teaching students.
Professors may teach large classes of several hundred students (often with the help of graduate teaching assistants), smaller classes of about 40 to 50 students, seminars with a few students, or laboratories in which students practice the subject matter. Some teach online, either exclusively or in addition to providing live instruction.
Professors’ tasks also may include collaborating with their colleagues and attending conferences to keep up with developments in their field.
Information about postsecondary teachers who provide vocational training in subjects such as repair, transportation, and cosmetology is available in the profile on career and technical education teachers.
Postsecondary teachers held about 1.3 million jobs in 2022. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up postsecondary teachers was distributed as follows:
|Health specialties teachers, postsecondary||262,800|
|Art, drama, and music teachers, postsecondary||123,900|
|Business teachers, postsecondary||99,900|
|Nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary||85,900|
|Education teachers, postsecondary||74,300|
|English language and literature teachers, postsecondary||70,100|
|Biological science teachers, postsecondary||62,400|
|Mathematical science teachers, postsecondary||55,900|
|Psychology teachers, postsecondary||50,900|
|Engineering teachers, postsecondary||45,500|
|Computer science teachers, postsecondary||42,000|
|Communications teachers, postsecondary||33,600|
|Philosophy and religion teachers, postsecondary||29,100|
|Chemistry teachers, postsecondary||25,900|
|Foreign language and literature teachers, postsecondary||24,700|
|History teachers, postsecondary||22,800|
|Law teachers, postsecondary||19,800|
|Political science teachers, postsecondary||19,300|
|Social sciences teachers, postsecondary, all other||19,200|
|Criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, postsecondary||16,500|
|Recreation and fitness studies teachers, postsecondary||16,300|
|Physics teachers, postsecondary||16,200|
|Social work teachers, postsecondary||15,500|
|Sociology teachers, postsecondary||15,000|
|Economics teachers, postsecondary||14,800|
|Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences teachers, postsecondary||13,600|
|Area, ethnic, and cultural studies teachers, postsecondary||11,900|
|Agricultural sciences teachers, postsecondary||10,100|
|Architecture teachers, postsecondary||8,200|
|Environmental science teachers, postsecondary||7,900|
|Anthropology and archeology teachers, postsecondary||6,200|
|Library science teachers, postsecondary||5,400|
|Geography teachers, postsecondary||4,100|
|Family and consumer sciences teachers, postsecondary||2,900|
|Forestry and conservation science teachers, postsecondary||1,500|
The largest employers of postsecondary teachers were as follows:
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; private||41%|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||39|
|Junior colleges; local||10|
|Junior colleges; state||6|
Postsecondary teachers often find it rewarding to share their expertise with students and colleagues. However, it may be stressful, especially for beginning teachers seeking advancement, to balance teaching duties with an emphasis on research and publication. At the community college level, professors are more likely to focus on teaching students.
Most postsecondary teachers work full time, although part-time work is common. Postsecondary teachers who work part time may offer instruction at several colleges or universities. Some have a full-time job in their field of expertise in addition to a part-time teaching position. For example, an active lawyer or judge might teach an evening course at a law school.
College and university courses are generally during the day, although some are offered in the evenings or on weekends to accommodate students who have jobs or other obligations.
Academic calendars typically include breaks, such as between terms. The availability and type of course offerings during the summer vary by institution. Although some postsecondary teachers provide instruction in summer courses, others use the time to conduct research or engage in professional development.
Postsecondary teachers’ schedules generally are flexible. Full-time teachers typically need to be on campus to teach classes and have office hours but otherwise are free to set their own schedules.
How to Become a Postsecondary Teacher
Educational requirements vary with the subject taught and the type of educational institution. Typically, postsecondary teachers must have a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree in their field. However, a master's degree may be enough for some postsecondary teachers at community colleges. Other postsecondary teachers may need work experience in their field of expertise.
Postsecondary teachers who work for 4-year colleges and universities typically need a Ph.D. or other doctorate in their field of degree. For some specialties or for part-time positions, schools may hire those with a master’s degree or who are doctoral degree candidates.
Doctoral programs usually take several years to complete, and students typically need a bachelor’s or master’s degree to enroll. Most Ph.D. programs require students to write a doctoral dissertation, a paper presenting original research in their field of study, which they then defend in questioning from experts. Candidates usually specialize in a subfield, such as organic chemistry or European history.
Community colleges may hire those with a master’s degree. However, some institutions prefer that applicants have a Ph.D.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Institutions may prefer to hire those with teaching or other work experience.
In some fields, such as health specialties, art, law, and education, hands-on work experience is especially important. Postsecondary teachers in these fields often gain experience by working in an occupation related to their field of study.
In other fields, such as biological science, physics, and chemistry, some postsecondary teachers have postdoctoral research experience. Sometimes called a “post-doc,” this experience takes the form of a job that usually involves working for 2 to 3 years as a research associate or in a similar position, often at a college or university.
Some postsecondary teachers gain teaching experience by working as graduate teaching assistants—students who are enrolled in a graduate program and teach classes at the institution in which they are enrolled.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Postsecondary teachers who prepare students for an occupation that requires a license, certification, or registration, may need to have—or may benefit from having—the same credential. For example, a postsecondary nursing teacher might need a nursing license or a postsecondary education teacher might need a teaching license.
Postsecondary teachers with a doctoral degree often seek tenure—a guarantee that a professor cannot be fired without just cause. Attaining tenure may take up to 7 years of progressing through the positions by rank: assistant professor, associate professor, and professor. The decision to grant tenure is based on a candidate’s research, contribution to the institution, and teaching.
Some professors advance to high-level 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.
Overall employment of postsecondary teachers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations.
About 118,800 openings for postsecondary teachers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Projected employment of postsecondary teachers varies by occupation (see table). Both part-time and full-time postsecondary teachers are included in these projections.
The number of people attending postsecondary institutions is expected to grow over the projections decade. Students will continue to seek higher education to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to meet their career goals. As more people enter colleges and universities, more postsecondary teachers will be needed to serve these additional students. Colleges and universities are likely to hire more part-time teachers to meet this demand. In all disciplines, there is expected to be a limited number of full-time nontenure and full-time tenure positions.
A growing number of older people, who are more likely than young people to need medical care, will create increased demand for healthcare. More postsecondary teachers are expected to be needed to help educate workers who provide healthcare services.
However, despite expected increases in enrollment, employment growth in public colleges and universities will depend on state and local government budgets. If budgets for higher education are reduced, employment growth may be limited.
Contacts for More Information
For more information about postsecondary teachers, visit
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of postsecondary teachers.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2022|
|Career and Technical Education Teachers||
Career and technical education teachers instruct students in various technical and vocational subjects, such as auto repair, healthcare, and culinary arts.
|Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals||
Elementary, middle, and high school principals oversee all school operations, including daily school activities.
Instructional coordinators oversee school curriculums and teaching standards. They develop instructional material, implement it, and assess its effectiveness.
|Postsecondary Education Administrators||
Postsecondary education administrators oversee student services, academics, and faculty research at colleges and universities.