Postsecondary Teachers - What They Do

Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a wide variety of academic and vocational subjects beyond the high school level. Most of these students are working toward a degree, but many others are studying for a certificate or certification to improve their knowledge or career skills. Postsecondary teachers include college and university faculty, postsecondary career and technical education teachers, and graduate teaching assistants. Teaching in any venue involves forming a lesson plan, presenting material to students, responding to students learning needs, and evaluating students’ progress. In addition to teaching, postsecondary teachers, particularly those at 4-year colleges and universities, perform a significant amount of research in the subject they teach. They also must keep up with new developments in their field and may consult with government, business, nonprofit, and community organizations.

College and university faculty make up the majority of postsecondary teachers. Faculty usually are organized into departments or divisions based on academic subject or field. They typically teach several related courses in their subject—algebra, calculus, and statistics, for example. They may instruct undergraduate or graduate students or both. College and university faculty may give lectures to several hundred students in large halls, lead small seminars, or supervise students in laboratories. They prepare lectures, exercises, and laboratory experiments; grade exams and papers; and advise and work with students individually. In universities, they also supervise graduate students' teaching and research. College faculty work with an increasingly varied student population made up of growing shares of part-time, older, and culturally and racially diverse students.

Faculty keep up with developments in their field by reading current literature, talking with colleagues, and participating in professional conferences. They also are encouraged to do their own research to expand knowledge in their field by performing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, or examining original documents, literature, and other source material. They publish their findings in scholarly journals, books, and electronic media.

Most postsecondary teachers use computer technology extensively, including the Internet, e-mail, and software programs. They may use computers in the classroom as teaching aids and may post course content, class notes, class schedules, and other information on the Internet. The use of e-mail, instant messages, and other computer utilities has improved communications greatly between students and teachers.

Some instructors use the Internet to teach courses to students at remote sites. These distance-learning courses are becoming an increasingly popular option for students who work while attending school. Faculty who teach these courses must be able to adapt existing courses to make them successful online or design a new course that takes advantage of the online format.

Most full-time faculty members serve on academic or administrative committees that deal with the policies of their institution, departmental matters, academic issues, curricula, budgets, purchases of equipment, and hiring. Some work with student and community organizations. Department chairpersons are faculty members who usually teach some courses but have heavier administrative responsibilities.

The proportion of time spent on research, teaching, administrative, and other duties varies by individual circumstance and type of institution. The teaching load often is heavier in 2-year colleges and somewhat lighter at 4-year institutions. At all types of institutions, full professors—those who have reached the highest level in their field—usually spend a larger portion of their time conducting research than do assistant professors, instructors, and lecturers.

An increasing number of postsecondary educators are working in alternative schools or in programs aimed at providing career-related education for working adults. Courses usually are offered online or on nights and weekends. Instructors at these programs generally work part time and are responsible only for teaching, with little to no administrative and research responsibilities.

Graduate teaching assistants, often referred to as graduate TAs, assist faculty, department chairs, or other professional staff at colleges and universities by teaching or performing teaching-related duties. In addition, assistants have their own school commitments as students working toward earning a graduate degree, such as a Ph.D. Some teaching assistants have full responsibility for teaching a course, usually one that is introductory. Such teaching can include preparing lectures and exams, as well as assigning final grades to students. Others help faculty members by doing a variety of tasks such as grading papers, monitoring exams, holding office hours or help sessions for students, conducting laboratory sessions, and administering quizzes to the class. Because each faculty member has his or her own needs, teaching assistants generally meet initially with the faculty member whom they are going to assist in order to determine exactly what is expected of them. For example, some faculty members prefer assistants to sit in on classes, whereas others assign them other tasks to do during class time. 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

Many postsecondary teachers find the environment intellectually stimulating and rewarding because they are surrounded by others who enjoy the subject. The ability to share their expertise with others also is appealing to many.

Most postsecondary teachers have flexible schedules. They must be present for classes, usually 12 to 16 hours per week, and for faculty and committee meetings. Most establish regular office hours for student consultations, usually 3 to 6 hours per week. Otherwise, teachers are free to decide when and where they will work and how much time to devote to course preparation, grading, study, research, graduate student supervision, and other activities.

Classes typically are scheduled to take place during weekdays, although some occur at night or on the weekend. For teachers at 2-year community colleges or institutions with large enrollments of older students who have full-time jobs or family responsibilities, night and weekend classes are common. Most colleges and universities require teachers to work 9 months of the year, which allows them time to teach additional courses, do research, travel, or pursue nonacademic interests during the summer and on school holidays.

About 29 percent of postsecondary teachers worked part time in 2008. Some part-timers, known as adjunct faculty, have primary jobs outside of academia—in government, private-industry, or nonprofit research organizations—and teach on the side. Others have multiple part-time teaching positions at different institutions. Most graduate teaching assistants work part time while pursuing their graduate studies. The number of hours that they work may vary with their assignments.

University faculty may experience a conflict between their responsibility to teach students and the pressure to do research and publish their findings. This may be a particular problem for young faculty seeking advancement in 4-year research universities. Also, recent cutbacks in support workers and the hiring of more part-time faculty have put a greater administrative burden on full-time faculty. In addition, requirements to teach online classes have added greatly to the workloads of postsecondary teachers. Many find that developing the courses to put online is very time consuming, especially when they have to familiarize themselves with the format and answer large amounts of e-mail.

Like college and university faculty, graduate TAs usually have flexibility in their work schedules, but they also must spend a considerable amount of time pursuing their own academic coursework and studies. Work may be stressful, particularly when assistants are given full responsibility for teaching a class. However, these types of positions allow graduate students the opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience, which is especially helpful for those who seek to become college faculty members after completing their degree.

Education & Training Required

Four-year colleges and universities usually require candidates for full-time, tenure-track positions to hold a doctoral degree. However, they may hire master's degree holders or doctoral candidates for certain disciplines, such as the arts, or for part-time and temporary jobs.

Doctoral programs take an average of 6 years of full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree, including time spent completing a master's degree and a dissertation. Some programs, such as those in the humanities, may take longer to complete; others, such as those in engineering, usually are shorter. Candidates specialize in a subfield of a discipline—for example, organic chemistry, counseling psychology, or European history—and also take courses covering the entire discipline. Programs typically include 20 or more increasingly specialized courses and seminars, plus comprehensive examinations in all major areas of the field. Candidates also must complete a dissertation—a paper on original research in the candidate's major field of study. The dissertation sets forth an original hypothesis or proposes a model and tests it. Students in the natural sciences and engineering often do theoretical or laboratory work; in the humanities, they study original documents and other published material. The dissertation is done under the guidance of one or more faculty advisors and usually takes 1 or 2 years of full-time work.

In 2-year colleges, master's degree holders fill most full-time teaching positions. However, in certain fields where there may be more applicants than available jobs, institutions can be more selective in their hiring practices. In these fields, master's degree holders may be passed over in favor of candidates holding Ph.D.s. Many 2-year institutions increasingly prefer job applicants to have some teaching experience or experience with distance learning. Preference also may be given to those holding dual master's degrees, especially at smaller institutions, because those with dual degrees can teach more subjects.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Postsecondary teachers should communicate and relate well with students, enjoy working with them, and be able to motivate them. They should have inquiring and analytical minds and a strong desire to pursue and disseminate knowledge. In addition, they must be self-motivated and able to work in an environment in which they receive little direct supervision.

Obtaining a position as a graduate teaching assistant is a good way to gain college teaching experience. To qualify, candidates must be enrolled in a graduate school program. In addition, some colleges and universities require teaching assistants to attend classes or take some training prior to being given responsibility for a course.

Although graduate teaching assistants usually work at the institution and in the department where they are earning their degree, teaching or internship positions for graduate students at institutions that do not grant a graduate degree have become more common in recent years. For example, a program called Preparing Future Faculty, administered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, has led to the creation of many programs that are now independent. These programs offer graduate students at research universities the opportunity to work as teaching assistants at other types of institutions, such as liberal arts or community colleges. Working with a mentor, graduate students teach classes and learn how to improve their teaching techniques. They may attend faculty and committee meetings, develop a curriculum, and learn how to balance the teaching, research, and administrative roles of faculty. These programs provide valuable learning opportunities for graduate students interested in teaching at the postsecondary level and also help to make these students aware of the differences among the various types of institutions at which they may someday work.

Some degree holders, particularly those with degrees in the natural sciences, do postdoctoral research before taking a faculty position. Some Ph.D.s are able to extend postdoctoral appointments or take new ones if they are unable to find a faculty job. Most of these appointments offer a nominal salary.

Postsecondary Teachers - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

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Latin American Studies
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Scandinavian Studies
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Women's Studies
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