In 2006, nearly 1.7 million post-secondary instructors held positions in the United States. Unfortunately, determining whether or not a professor is actually qualified can be a difficult task. Before you take a class from a professor, or accept a position working for one, consider examining his or her background, reputation, and qualifications.
What does it really mean to be “qualified?” Though certain professors excel at lecturing, some may be excellent advisors; others may specialize in research. A professor’s qualification for a particular position depends on the level of instruction, the institution, and the students being taught. With all of these factors to consider, it can be difficult to get a straight answer. If you are in doubt about a professor’s qualifications, here are five questions that can help.
1. What Degree Does Your Professor Hold?
If your professor doesn’t have a degree at all, then you’re probably in trouble. Fortunately, most professors are required to have a terminal degree in their field of expertise–a Ph.D. in most subjects or an M.A. in the fine arts. A few institutions, mainly community colleges and 2-year programs, hire instructors with masters’ degrees. However, the title “professor” is usually reserved for those with the highest degree in their fields.
Trade and technical schools vary in their hiring practices. In some places, work experience may be more highly valued than formal education. Trade school instructors usually have at least a bachelor’s degree, more often a master’s, and at least 4 years of work experience. Licensing and certification can be extremely important as well, especially at institutions that specialize in trades such as plumbing or automotive services.
Under very rare circumstances, experts or important political figures who lack the standard educational qualifications may be appointed to academic positions. For example, former presidential candidate Al Gore has taught several classes at the Columbia University School of Journalism.
2. What Is Your Professor’s Publication Record?
In many academic fields, professors are judged by the work that they publish. Universities prefer to hire professors who have published papers in top journals or have written successful books. This is true for several reasons. For one, academics who publish regularly are more likely to be awarded grants to finance their research. Second, universities value the recognition and prestige of having their name associated with a particular author. Professors with good publishing records create a favorable reputation for their institutions. For instance, many surveys rank law schools exclusively by faculty publishing rate.
Despite the emphasis placed on publishing in academia, a strong publishing record does not necessarily make a professor an excellent teacher. If you want to verify the quality of a professor’s work, you can check his/her Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index, created by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
3. What Rank Does Your Professor Hold?
Colleges and university tenure-track faculty hold the ranks of assistant, associate, or full professors. Entry-level professors, who may have little or no teaching experience, are hired at assistant professor rank. After an assistant professor has worked for a number of years, excelled in teaching, or established a solid record of publication and service, he or she will advance to the rank of associate professor and be tenured (see below). Untenured associate professors are rare. Associate professors who continue to contribute to their fields and who gain national and international recognition advance to the rank of full professor.
Besides these three titles, many institutions hire visiting professors. These are usually semester or yearlong positions. Increasingly, however, institutions are exploiting part time or term faculty, generally identified as instructors, who do the bulk of the labor-intensive, general education teaching.
4. Is Your Professor Tenured?
In order to keep talented professors from seeking other employment, universities award productive professors tenure. This virtually ties the professor to a lifetime appointment within a department, making it difficult for the professor to move on and ensuring that the department won’t endure the significant expense of repeatedly hiring for that position.
Tenured professors may only be dismissed with ‘due cause,’ which usually requires a major screw-up or scandal. In other words, universities value certain professors so highly that they offer them job security and academic freedom. Because the academic and teaching abilities of a professor are carefully reviewed during the tenure process, many view tenure as a sign of proven excellence.
Not all tenured professors are gifted teachers by default. Some critics of the tenure system argue that it creates lazy professors, who no longer possess the desire to excel in their fields or inspire undergraduates in their classes.
5. What Is Your Professor’s Reputation?
One of the best ways to determine the capability of a professor is to ask around. Try to form an impression based on the opinions of colleagues and former students. Faculty members can give you a good sense of a professor’s professional reputation, such as the quality of their research and how he or she is viewed within the academic community.
Next, ask students who have taken classes or done research with the professor. Sometimes an instructor can be severely overqualified academically and still not have a shred of teaching talent. Personality and charm are also important qualifications, especially for professors who teach large classes and have to deliver long lectures.
A recent study conducted at Cornell University, for example, found that the level of enthusiasm in a professor’s voice can make a world of difference in whether students enjoy a class. In this study, a Cornell professor taught the same exact class twice, with one exception. During the second semester, he used a more enthusiastic tone of voice than he had during the first. Same lectures, same material, yet students gave the professor much higher ratings during the second, more enthusiastic semester.
“Qualified” Can Mean Many Things
What can this study tell us about a professor’s perceived quality? Clearly, students rate faculty using somewhat arbitrary criteria. While enthusiasm or entertainment value may rank high among some students, publishing record may actually be a better indicator of academic qualification.
Before you label a professor as qualified or unqualified, make sure you take into account your own perspective. Are you looking for an entertaining lecturer, an ambitious research advisor, or a thoughtful mentor? The most qualified professor on the planet won’t be the right professor for you if you don’t take into account your own preferences and needs as well as the academic accomplishments of your teacher.
Publish date: June 7, 2008