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What is a professor?


Sign showing the word university

I am a professor my students call me Dr. G.  When I was a child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not say a professor. No, I told them I wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I did become a teacher before I was a professor. But until I reached that level I didn’t know the difference. Like me, you may be wondering, what makes a professor a professor?

What is a professor?

In the simplest form, a professor is someone who has great knowledge that chooses to share that knowledge with others, typically in an institute of higher education. The term professor is Latin. Professor is translated as someone who professes. Further, a professor is “a person who professes to be an expert in some art or science; teacher of the highest rank”. The title of Professor must be earned, it often is theculmination of years of effort, and it is widely seen as the pinnacle of achievement in higher education.

What title holds more prestige, Dr. or Professor?

Traditionally, the title of Professor holds the higher honor. The title Dr. indicates someone who has achieved the highest level of academic competence in their field. A person may use the title Dr. after receiving a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D), a doctor of medicine (M.D.), a doctor of education (Ed.D.), a Juris Doctor (J.D.), as well as several applied doctoral degrees. A Ph.D. is typically a qualification to become a full professor at most post-secondary institutions. Thus, a Dr. is a step toward earning the title of Professor.

What Do Professors Do?

Professors are part of the “faculty” at an institute of higher education or training. Faculty refers to the division within an institution that is under contract to serve the college as outlined in an agreement. Typically a professor serves three major contracted roles at the higher education level. The first role is that of overseeing students. College professors instruct students in a variety of different areas at the post-secondary level. They teach courses, they advise students, and they serve on thesis and dissertation committees. The second role is that of the researcher scholar. Professors are expected to pursue a line of inquiry in order to make a contribution to their field. The third and final role is that of service. The types and levels of service vary across institutes and levels of promotion. Service is usually split between the department, college, university, local community, state, national, and professional levels. If a professor works at an institute that has a heavy focus on research, often they carry equal loads of teaching, research, and service. If they work for an institute that has a larger focus on teaching, often the primary load is on teaching courses with a small amount reserved for research and service.

What is the Difference between a Teacher and a Professor?

Even after the above explanations, you still may be confused about the differences between being a teacher and being a professor. Perhaps you are wondering specifically about the differences between the role of a K-12 teacher and a post-secondary professor. Aren’t both levels there to make sure that students learn? In order to better understand the differences, I’ve created the table below for comparison.
 K-12 TeacherPost-secondary Professor
TrainingK-12 teachers are trained to a certain level in their area of expertise and trained extensively in teaching methods.Professors have been trained as experts in their particular field but may or may not have trained in teaching methods.
AvailabilityK-12 teachers are often available before, during, or after class.Professors expect you to attend their scheduled office hours.
AttendanceTake attendance for each class. If they leave without permission they are typically sent to the office and receive detention. Teachers usually help students find ways to make up their absences. Even though attendance can impact it, it is not usually a part of the overall grade.Typically, take attendance for each class. The student is free to leave is they are not interested. The student is responsible for finding a way to get notes or makeup work. Some instructors do not allow makeup work without a documented reason. A students overall grade often includes in-class participation that cannot be made up.
LearningIt’s primarily the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that students learn.It is primarily the students’ responsibility to ensure learning.
AccommodationsK-12 is a system of entitlement. It’s primarily the teacher’s responsibility to ensure students receive the accommodations they need.Post-secondary is a system of eligibility. It’s primarily the students’ responsibility to seek out services and make the professor aware of their needs.
DisciplineK-12 teachers are responsible for classroom management, including the task of managing behavior and doling out consequences. If they feel a student must leave the classroom, they are responsible for ensuring the student ends up in the appropriate place.Professors do no functions as disciplinarians. While they do need to create a welcoming learning environment, if a student’s behavior gets out of hand they can simply ask the student to leave. Professors bear no responsibility for where the students goes after that.
EvaluationIn K-12 there is are direct measures that can impact a teacher’s level, pay, and position. Often this is measured by student’s standardized assessment scores and an annual observation of the teacher.Professors are evaluated in many areas of work. Their job is seen as one of providing the opportunity for educational knowledge not on test scores.
FailureGenerally, teachers are held responsible if a student fails and they are expected to show how they tried to avoid that failure.Generally, professors are not held responsible for a student failures.
FamilyK-12 teachers are expected to work with students and their families to achieve educational progress.With few exceptions, professors are not allowed to discuss educational progress with family members.
Academic freedomK-12 teachers have limited opportunity to teach outside the focus set by the school.Professors still enjoy a large amount of academic freedom. Course content and format are mostly under the professors’ control.
EnvironmentK-12 school is a place in which students are expected to acquire knowledge and skills with classroom support.Post-secondary institutions are environments that expect the student to take responsibility for their learning, apply their knowledge, and practice critical thinking.
Table 1. The Differences between a Teacher and a Professor

Why Would You Want to be a Professor?

Here are the top six reasons you might want to become a professor:

  1. You want to spend a lifetime of learning. Professors not only have daily opportunities to learn and apply new knowledge, it’s an expected part of the job! As a professor you will have opportunities to network with an unlimited number of experts from other fields. You will also have access to more books and research that any other profession.
  2. You enjoy the atmosphere. A campus is a world of its own, often unique and not easily replicated in other places of work. Often you have a multitude of opportunities to enjoy sports, engage in the arts, support an important cause, learn about other cultures, discover new passions, and satisfy your curiosity. At the end of every summer the campus is alive with excitement and activity of new students. Who would want to trade that for the mundane world of regular work?
  3. You like autonomy. As a professor, you experience a large amount of autonomy. Sure there are meetings you must attend and classes you must teach, but the rest of your job is whatever you create it to be. It’s not a typical 9-to-5 job. You often have the flexibility to set your own schedule.
  4. You have the opportunity to shape the future. As a professor you influence others on a daily basis. You’ve spent years becoming an expert in the field and now you can help shape the future for your students. As you help them make choices on their studies and research, you can open a new world of possibilities.
  5. You can pursue your passion. Many people become professors in order to pursue an area of interest. You can do this through teaching, research, creative projects, and service. Professors have the academic freedom to select their focus, which problems to research, and how they want to work on them. It’s rare for a job to offer such intellectual freedom. In addition, often professors are celebrated and recognized for the impact they make to their field.
  6. Opportunities for taking a sabbatical and traveling. Once you’ve established yourself in your profession, there are opportunities to apply for sabbatical. Sabbaticals allow you to take from one semester to an entire year away from teaching to work on a project. You may want to conduct research, write a book, or attend professional events. In addition, you may have the opportunity to travel during your sabbatical or conducting a study abroad for one of your classes. You might also receive a grant, such as the Fulbright Scholarship for conducting research or teaching abroad.

I have served in many roles over my career. None has been as rewarding as that of being a professor at an institute of higher education.