by Micheal Weuste, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW, and Danny Villa, Ph.D., MSW, MA
So you’ve entered into or finished your MSW. You likely have experienced the excitement of higher education and have observed your professors and thought, “That was stimulating. I wonder what it takes to become a professor.”
Qualities of a Good Professor
To begin, keep in mind that much of the following can be generalized to encompass virtually all academic fields. However, what is unique to the programs that cater to training in the helping professions is the desire for faculty who possess graduate and/or post-graduate experience in the field. So, in the context of social work, what do faculty search committees look for? Beyond pragmatic expertise, there are a number of characteristics that a faculty member should possess. Educational researchers Ramsden, Margetson, & Clarke (1995) note that good faculty:
- are good learners. For example, they learn through their own reading, by participating in a variety of professional development activities, by listening to their students, by sharing ideas with their colleagues, and by reflecting on classroom interactions and students’ achievements. Good teaching is therefore dynamic, reflective, and constantly evolving.
- know how to modify their teaching strategies according to the particular students, subject matter, and learning environment.
- encourage learning for understanding and are concerned with developing their students’ critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and problem-approach behaviors.
- demonstrate an ability to transform and extend knowledge, rather than merely transmit it. They draw on their knowledge of their subject, their knowledge of their learners, and their general pedagogical knowledge to transform the concepts of the discipline into terms that are understandable to their students.
- show respect for their students. They are interested in both their professional and their personal growth, encourage their independence, and sustain high expectations of them.
Typical Faculty Responsibilities
Depending on the institution, most faculty members will be evaluated for promotion or for new one-year or multi-year contracts. Universities often have the expectation that faculty will provide quality teaching, scholarship, and service.
You are likely familiar with the teaching aspects. However, think of the techniques of communication and interaction you had with your faculty that helped you the most. It is not unusual to take some training in teaching and regularly update your teaching techniques along with staying fresh in your area of expertise.
Most universities require scholarship, and they define that by their own standards. In Tier One schools, you will find that this involves a greater emphasis on grants, research, and publication. Other programs are more liberal in their definition of scholarship.
Service to the community involves more than engaging with students through lectures or office hours. Faculty members are asked to serve on various department and university committees to improve the curriculum or to address other concerns of the university. Student development and discipline, faculty governance, and the development of new programs are just a few of the many examples of these types of service-oriented activities.
Additionally, faculty members are expected to share their expertise by participating in endeavors such as serving on external committees, editorial boards, consultations, or community service projects. Important to social work is working toward accreditation or “reaffirmation of accreditation” with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This is the national standard benchmark for programs, and in many states, graduation from a CSWE-accredited school is necessary for licensure. This is a continuing large project for faculty.
Do I Want To Be at a Research Institution or a Teaching College?
If your ambition is to focus predominantly on research, consider applying to schools that have a notable graduate-level culture. For example, the 10-campus University of California (2004) system is regarded as “...the primary state-supported academic research institution” (para. 3), placing a high emphasis on scholarship that confers a majority of doctoral-level degrees according to the California Master Plan. Other institutions, such as the 23-campus California State University (2006), engage in scholarship but focus on it to a lesser degree. Instead, the CSU system is noted for being “...the state’s largest preparer of teachers” (para. 1). Larger school systems tend to provide lecture hall-type courses that can accommodate hundreds of students at a time. For those more interested in the teaching aspect of academics, community colleges and liberal arts schools typically focus exclusively on undergraduate teaching and are often smaller in class size. What seems to fit for you?
What is an Adjunct Professor or a Guest Lecturer?
Also known as “part time” or “associate” faculty depending upon the setting, adjuncts are often hired on a contractual basis to develop and/or teach selected courses in their areas of expertise. Adjuncts possess the same educational requirements as traditional full-time faculty, although some may only hold master’s degrees if teaching at a community college or teaching undergraduate courses. However, they typically do not hold any responsibilities beyond teaching, and they are generally hired contingent upon the scheduling needs of the setting. Although adjunct faculty positions do not offer the same benefits afforded to full-time employees, they offer greater flexibility in selecting where and what to teach (Korkki, 2010).
Another position is the guest lecturer, who brings a certain expertise to a program and is typically contracted for one year for full-time teaching.
Being an adjunct or guest lecturer can be good ways to get started in academia.
Assistant and Associate Professor
The assistant professor is traditionally regarded as the entry-level position for recent doctoral graduates or post-doctoral trainees. Most social work programs require faculty to hold a doctoral degree in a field similar to social work. CSWE accreditation standards state that the Ph.D. in social work is preferred. An assistant professor is nobody’s assistant. Instead, she or he is a professor at the beginning of the promotion ladder. Most assistant professors do not have tenure.
An associate professor position is the next step up from an assistant professor. This title often includes tenure for job security and increased freedom. The timing for possible promotion to an associate professor position varies from school to school, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that a 7-year time frame is typical (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d.). As a professor, you’ll be expected to complete research and writings. This work keeps you current with field trends, research, and topics. You’ll probably be required to seek publication for your work, as well.
Promotion to full professor status reflects years of distinguished and sustained academic involvement. Individual institutions might vary on the specific length of time in years until promotion from associate to full status, but the process will typically involve a rigorous and multi-dimensional assessment of the candidate’s scholastic, teaching, and service endeavors. For example, tenure-track faculty who successfully transition to full professor at Purdue University “...should be recognized as authorities in their fields by external colleagues…and be valued for their intramural contributions as faculty members” (p. 2). Full professors typically engage in increasing administrative duties and appointments, such as serving as an academic chair or committee member.
What Is Tenure?
Receiving tenure is a large hurdle for many professors, involving a culmination of years of work. Having tenure means that your job is secured. Most associate professors who have tenure are better able to take on controversial issues, unique courses, and alternative teaching methods, because of the security of the position. Once tenured, schools cannot terminate your position without significant cause. However, the BLS states that some colleges are moving away from having tenured faculty, and the colleges that do offer tenure may only offer it for a specific percentage of positions, or faculty may be reviewed every five years.
If this article has piqued your interest, you may wish to explore more resources. Here are a few.
Council on Social Work Education
Some Nuts and Bolts
What Does it Pay?
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
The California State University. (2006). Standards-based teacher preparation in the California State University: Annual report. Retrieved from http://www.calstate.edu/teacherED/docs/0506annualreport.pdf.
Korkki, P. (2010, January 30). Back to school, as an adjunct. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/jobs/31search.html?_r=0.
Ramsden, P. D., Margetson, E. M. and Clarke, S. (1995) Recognizing and Rewarding Good Teaching. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Services.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (n.d.) Post secondary teachers. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm#tab-4.
The University of California. (2004). About UC: California Master Plan for Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/aboutuc/masterplan.html.
Micheal Weuste, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW, has been teaching and developing programs in social work full time for 16 years. He is the Health and Human Services program chair at Ashford University. He has 33 years of social service work experience.
Danny Villa, Ph.D., MSW, MA, has been teaching in social work higher education for three years and is full-time faculty in the Health and Human Services program at Ashford University. He has been a guest lecturer since 2001. He has been in social work practice since 2001.