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:

  • Teach courses in their subject area
  • Work with students who are studying for a degree or a certificate or certification or are taking classes to improve their knowledge or career skills
  • 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
  • Work with colleagues to develop or modify the curriculum for a degree or certificate program involving a series of courses
  • Assess students’ progress by grading papers, tests, and other work
  • Advise students about which classes to take and how to achieve their goals
  • Stay informed about changes and innovations in their field
  • Conduct research and experiments to advance knowledge in their field
  • Supervise graduate students who are working toward doctoral degrees
  • Publish original research and analysis in books and academic journals
  • Serve on academic and administrative committees that review and recommend policies, make budget decisions, or advise on hiring and promotions within their department

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 or 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 (often with the help of graduate teaching assistants), smaller classes of about 40 to 50 students, seminars with just a few students, or laboratories where students practice the subject matter. They work with an increasingly varied student population as more part-time, older, and culturally diverse students are going 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 original 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 they 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 or college. 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.

Work Environment

Postsecondary teachers held about 1.3 million jobs in 2012.

In 2012, about 75 percent of postsecondary teachers worked for colleges, universities, and professional schools and about 21 percent worked for junior colleges. Much smaller percentages of postsecondary teachers worked in industries such as technical and trade schools, business schools and computer and management training facilities, and hospitals.

Many postsecondary teachers find their jobs rewarding because they are surrounded by others who enjoy their subject. The opportunity to share their expertise with others also is appealing to many.

However, some postsecondary teachers must find a balance between teaching students and doing research and publishing their findings. This can be stressful, especially for beginning teachers seeking advancement in 4-year research universities. At the two-year college level, the balance is struck mainly between teaching students and administrative duties.

Similar to college and university professors, graduate teaching assistants usually have flexibility in their work schedules, but they also must devote time to their own academic coursework and studies. Work may be stressful, particularly when assistants have full responsibility for teaching a class.

Classes are generally held during the day, although some are offered in the evenings and weekends to accommodate students who have jobs or family obligations.

Many postsecondary teachers do not teach classes in the summer; they often use that time to conduct research, involve themselves in professional development, or to travel. Other postsecondary teachers teach summer courses.

Work Schedules

Postsecondary teachers’ schedules generally are flexible. Postsecondary teachers need to be on campus to teach classes and keep office hours. Otherwise, they are free to set their schedule and decide when and where they will prepare for class and will grade assignments. However, all postsecondary teachers typically spend some time, outside of their teaching and student advising duties, in carrying out administrative responsibilities such as serving on committees.

Many postsecondary teachers work part time. Some postsecondary teachers work part time at several colleges or universities.

Most graduate teaching assistants work part time while also studying for their degree. The number of hours they work may vary, depending on the institution and their particular assistantship.

Education and Training

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 multiple years after the completion of a bachelor’s degree program. Included 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 only 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. At a minimum they must hold the degree of the program in which they are teaching e.g. having an associate degree if they teach a program that is at the associate degree level. In addition, work experience or certification may be just as important for getting a postsecondary teaching job at a technical and trade schools.

Other Experience

Although many prospective professors may have teaching or other work experience, in most cases this work experience is not required.

Some institutions may prefer to hire professors who have teaching or other work experience, but this is not a requirement for all fields or for all employers. For health specialties or art fields, hands-on work experience in the industry can be important. These professors often gain experience by working in an occupation related to their field of expertise.

In fields such as biological science, physics, and chemistry, some postsecondary teachers have postdoctoral research experience. These short-term jobs, sometimes called “post-docs”, usually involve working for 2 to 3 years as a research associate or in a similar position, often at a college or university.

Some prospective professors gain teaching 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.

Some postsecondary teachers, especially adjunct professors, have jobs in other settings, such as government agencies, private businesses, or nonprofit organizations, in addition to teaching.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Postsecondary teachers who prepare students for an occupation that requires a license, certification, or registration, may need to have—or they may benefit from having—the same credential. Postsecondary nursing teachers, for example, might need a nursing license. And postsecondary education teachers might need a teaching license, often referred to as teacher certification.


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 teaching. However, institutions are relying more heavily on limited-term and part-time faculty contracts, so tenured 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 effectively, 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.

Resourcefulness. 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.


The median annual wage for postsecondary teachers was $68,970 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $35,670, and the top 10 percent earned more than $142,270.

Median annual wages for postsecondary teachers in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $99,950 for law teachers, postsecondary
  • $92,670 for engineering teachers, postsecondary
  • $87,950 for economics teachers, postsecondary
  • $82,180 for atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences teachers, postsecondary
  • $81,930 for forestry and conservation science teachers, postsecondary
  • $81,140 for health specialties teachers, postsecondary
  • $80,490 for agricultural sciences teachers, postsecondary
  • $78,540 for physics teachers, postsecondary
  • $77,320 for environmental science teachers, postsecondary
  • $76,020 for anthropology and archeology teachers, postsecondary
  • $74,180 for biological science teachers, postsecondary
  • $73,660 for business teachers, postsecondary
  • $72,200 for computer science teachers, postsecondary
  • $72,170 for political science teachers, postsecondary
  • $71,610 for architecture teachers, postsecondary
  • $71,140 for chemistry teachers, postsecondary
  • $69,890 for social sciences teachers, postsecondary, all other
  • $68,020 for psychology teachers, postsecondary
  • $67,820 for geography teachers, postsecondary
  • $67,360 for area, ethnic, and cultural studies teachers, postsecondary
  • $66,150 for sociology teachers, postsecondary
  • $65,870 for history teachers, postsecondary
  • $65,780 for library science teachers, postsecondary
  • $64,990 for mathematical science teachers, postsecondary
  • $64,990 for philosophy and religion teachers, postsecondary
  • $64,850 for nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary
  • $63,250 for social work teachers, postsecondary
  • $62,180 for communications teachers, postsecondary
  • $62,160 for art, drama, and music teachers, postsecondary
  • $60,040 for English language and literature teachers, postsecondary
  • $59,350 for education teachers, postsecondary
  • $58,670 for foreign language and literature teachers, postsecondary
  • $58,040 for criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, postsecondary

Wages can vary by institution type. Postsecondary teachers typically have higher wages in colleges, universities, and professional schools than they do in community colleges or other types of schools.                 

Postsecondary teachers’ schedules generally are flexible. Postsecondary teachers need to be on campus to teach classes and keep office hours. Otherwise, they are free to set their schedule and decide when and where they will prepare for class and will grade assignments. However, all postsecondary teachers typically spend some time, outside of their teaching and student advising duties, in carrying out administrative responsibilities such as serving on committees.

Many postsecondary teachers work part time. Some postsecondary teachers work part time at several colleges or universities.

Most graduate teaching assistants work part time while also studying for their degree. The number of hours they work may vary, depending on the institution and their particular assistantship.

Job Outlook

Employment of postsecondary teachers is projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. Both part-time and full-time postsecondary teachers are included in this projection.

Growth is expected as enrollments at postsecondary institutions continue to rise, although at slower rates than they have in the past.

The number of people attending postsecondary institutions is projected to grow from 2012 to 2022. These students will seek higher education to gain the additional education and skills they need to meet their career goals. As more people enter colleges and universities, more postsecondary teachers will be needed to serve these additional students.

However, despite expected increases in enrollment, employment growth in public colleges and universities will depend in part on funding. If governments spend more on funding higher education and research, additional postsecondary teachers may be hired.

For-profit institutions are expected to have slower employment growth than they have in the past as enrollments slow and these types of schools face greater public scrutiny.

Although overall employment of postsecondary teachers is projected to increase, it will vary by field. Nursing instructors and teachers and health specialties teachers, for example, are projected to grow much faster than the average, while history teachers and sociology teachers are projected to grow about as fast as the average. As an aging population increasingly demands healthcare services, many additional postsecondary teachers are expected to be needed to help educate the workers who will provide these services.

In all fields, many of the new jobs will likely be for part-time or non-tenure-track faculty.

Job Prospects

Competition for tenure-track positions is expected to be high, as colleges and universities continue to move away from these positions and toward adjunct and part-time positions. Opportunities are expected to be good for part-time or adjunct professors.

Retirements of postsecondary teachers will create some opportunities for new workers entering the field. However, not all of these job openings will necessarily be full time or  tenure–track positions.

Some fields, such as health specialties and nursing, will likely experience better job prospects than others, such as those in the humanities.

For More Information

For more information about postsecondary teachers, visit

Council of Graduate Schools

Association for Career and Technical Education