How to break into becoming a college professor 


Look over Keith Drury’s Shoulder as he answers his mail

So, how does one “break into” college teaching?

This is a two-part column.  The first part outlined what a college professor actually does in the work in answer to a question from a pastor of a church interested in “breaking into becoming a college professor.”   This second part of the answer outlines the actual steps and tips in the process.  Of course the following is just my own insight gathered over the years.  The answers may vary of course from discipline to discipline, and institution to institution, though many of the thoughts are transferable.  Since the question came from a pastor of a church, the answer is given for someone interested in teaching in the religion department, though there are probably some parallels in other departments.



Assuming you have read the first part of this two-part series and you still want to “break into college teaching” here are the tips and hints, and a bit about the process.  Before everything else, note that the process for hiring a college professor is considerably different than candidating at a local church.  Here are the tips.


1. Love learning itself

Don’t think “I need to get my PhD so I can teach.”  It’s too risky and too much of a gamble.  The stories about PhDs driving taxi cabs or substitute teaching are not made up—they are not even rare.   Get your doctorate because you love the subject area, not “to get my union card for teaching.”   Face it, you might give a decade of your life to get your “terminal degree” only to discover there are no jobs for you in teaching after all.  Your education shouldn’t be a means to the end, but has to have value in itself.  That is, if you aren’t willing to go all the way and get your final degree then take the very job you now have as a local pastor, forget the whole idea—it is a pipe dream.   Love the study itself first.


2. Get local church experience.

You need pastoral experience to teach developing pastors.  As a pastor you already have such experience so this is a freebee for you.  So I’ll not address pastors looking to become professors here, but my students who determine they want to be like their mentors—and go into a life of teaching.  I have dozens of students every year who want to be college professors too.  A few even want to teach to avoid the sticky relational environment of the local church.  It won’t work.  If you want to teach pastors, you need pastoral experience in your resume.  If you are going to be a coach, you need to have played the game somewhere along the line.  Sure, you don’t have to pastor for 15 years, but you need pastoral experience somewhere in your history.  

So as you get your education pick up pastoral or other ministry experience.  If in the local church, try to get varied experience both in smaller churches and also on staff at larger churches.   A search committee often rules out a perfect prospect for a professor slot merely because “their practical experience is really thin.”    What this means for younger students is to think about getting their terminal degree and significant pastoral experience by their mid 30’s.  If you are not willing to invest the next decade or so to get this minimum experience, just let the professor thing fade as a pipe dream.


3. Learn to teach

Education majors take course after course in pedagogy so they learn the day-to-day craft of their work.  Most college teachers have not had training in teaching—their actual work—except perhaps a Christian Ed course somewhere in seminary.  The actual work the professor performs is teaching.  It isn’t being a student—though that is what your education will train you to be.  The teacher’s job is not learning; it is causing learning.  Learn how to teach.  Take a few good educational methodology courses.  Start a journal of your observations of what makes a good teacher—what they should or shouldn’t do.  Find a good mentor-coach who will help you develop your skills. 

Hang around with “ordinary people,” not just your doctoral pals.  Learn how garage mechanics, junior high kids and new converts.  Teaching is 1/3 knowledge, 1/3 personal relationships and 1/3 communication skills.  Get to know the ordinary people of your audience before you go to a school to show off your recently acquired doctoral knowledge.

A college classroom will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced.  You might wind up standing before 60 freshmen at 7:50 in the morning who have absolutely no interest in what you are talking about and won’t mind showing you that on their faces.  What you won’t be doing is teaching fellow doctoral students—the people you’ve been with most the last few years.   Rather, you are likely to be teaching 18 year old students who are functionally high school students—indeed a few months ago they were High School seniors and may even have been at youth camp last month!  Capturing their interest, getting them involved, activating their imagination, and causing them to learn is a gargantuan task.  The fact that you know the material matters little to them.  The craft is causing them to learn it.  And it is a craft.  You can learn this craft.  How?  As a pastor you ought to be teaching Sunday school classes every week. If you aren’t taking this golden opportunity to teach, are you really serious about teaching?  (“My sermons are more like teaching,” doesn’t cut it.)  Teaching isn’t talking to people; it is highly interactive and action oriented today.  Preaching helps with presentation. But it isn’t teaching.  So, offer to teach adjunct courses anywhere you can.  Teach seminars and workshops every chance you have—and keep a record of them for your resume.  And spend generous amounts of time with 18-19 year olds—that’s the Sunday school class you should try if you are really serious about teaching college as a life calling.  Make sure you like this age group and their concerns and questions.  Make sure you enjoy them and can cause them to learn: as a college professor these “kids” will be your life.  College teaching is not as different from being a youth pastor as some imagine. 

Otherwise it can be so sad.  I often see a candidate for a teaching job who has given 15 years of their life to get the perfect degrees and experiences.  Then they come to campus for their interview to land their dream job.  As part of their all-day interview they are required to “teach cold”—that is, teach a class they’ve never met—the professor’s equivalent of a “trial sermon.”  There they stand in front of students who are accustomed to a captivating and charismatic professor.  Lined up across the back of the classroom are the entire search committee and both Deans.  They teach their trail classroom assuming they can teach something like their professors did in grad school—just talk about their hobby with a little scribbling on the whiteboard from time to time.  Or they deliver a captivating sermon-devotional like they did at their church and expect it to count as an academic endeavor.   They bomb.  When they’ve finished and leave the classroom, the dean or department chair meets with the class to discuss the candidate’s teaching.  Splaaat!  Down goes another candidate…one who had the perfect local church experience, got the correct degree, published in all the right journals…but they couldn’t perform the actual craft: teaching.  Learn to teach—that may be the deciding vote on your future if you really want to be a college professor.

Academically, you will be required to narrow your field when getting your doctorate.  But that very process will cut you off 80-90% of all the religion teaching jobs with this single choice!   If you choose Theology you will be an unlikely candidate for the Preaching professor’s job when that comes open.  If you choose Church History and your favorite school has an opening in Old Testament—alas!  Even if you picked New Testament and the Old Testament job pops open you may be out of luck (though perhaps not at some smaller schools).  See?  When you choose your field at the doctorate level you are essentially narrowing down your future jobs.  But you need that doctorate.  And you should try to develop a “secondary” field if you can—something at a distance from your specialty so you can maintain some breadth.  If you can market yourself in Biblical studies and your secondary area could be philosophy, the school might hire you as a philosophy professor for a few years then work you into your primary field when someone retires.  Just remember that in academics it is generally agreed that a teacher must have graduate courses in the area for each course they teach. This can influence your choice of courses in your Master’s especially—make sure your transcript has a wide variety of courses—that could be the clincher in getting your job someday.

OK, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying, “Hey I had some real duds in college—I know I can do better than them.”  True, you probably did have some teaching flops.  But these people wouldn’t be hired today.  You aren’t applying for a teaching job in 1985.  You don’t have to be as good as the bad professors to get a job; you’ve got to be as good as the best ones.  And not just as good as yesterday’s professors, you’ve got to be good enough to be tomorrow’s professor. So learn the craft—the craft is causing learning: teaching.


4. Get your terminal degree

            If you want to teach religion at the college level you’ll probably need a seminary degree and a doctorate—a “terminal degree.”   There are shorter routes that skip that long three-year seminary journey, but a seminary degree is so preferred that almost all religion profs have one.  Face it, if you are in the religion field it is a longer route to get there than other disciplines.  By the time you have your M.Div there will be people in other disciplines about ready to polish off their doctoral dissertation!  That’s just how it is in religion.  So, if you already have your seminary degree then move on up the academic degree ladder—get your doctorate.

            But know that there is a hierarchy of degrees.  The PhD reigns on top of the heap.  A bit lower than the PhD comes the Ed.D. though people with the Ed.D don’t admit it.  Then there is a tier of third level doctorates, including many professional degrees:  D.A. J.D. M.D. D.D.S.  

In the field of religion there is the D.Min. which is a professional degree like a law or medical degree (as opposed to an academic degree) which carries some currency, at least for the practical courses.  However, before you rush off for a D.Min as your ticket to teaching, know that most academics believe a D.Min might work for one of the practical fields (Youth, CE, Worship, Church Administration, Preaching) but is inadequate for the other 2/3 of religion professor jobs: Bible, Theology or Church History.    A person with a PhD in theology can still teach preaching, but a person with a D.Min in church growth is unlikely to be hired to teach theology along with their church growth classes.

            Even with all this ranking of degrees it can be deceptive; there is more to it than the letters behind your name—where you got the degree matters too.  That is, there is another ranking system that runs concurrently with the “degree letters stacking” based on where you got the degree and with whom you studied.  For instance, European schools are often considered better than American schools though they often aren’t).  Degrees from prestigious Ivy League schools often trump higher-level degrees from mediocre and unknown schools.  Studying with a famous or world renowned scholar adds points too.

            As to where to go for doctoral work, going outside your denomination’s tradition can both help and hurt you.  For instance in my own denomination, Wesleyans who go from Indiana Wesleyan to Asbury Seminary to get an M.Div and D.Min might be considered too parochial with not enough exposure to the broader world of theological pursuits.  O the other hand, if you go from Southern Wesleyan to Gordon-Conwell for your M.Div then on to Princeton for the PhD, you will get more theological scrutiny and may be considered “tainted.”   There are places where you won’t even make the first cut if you boast a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary.  Not because you didn’t learn—but because they won’t trust how your mind was bent there.  So picking a school for your doctorate can frankly be a lose-lose proposition.  Therefore, pick one and quit worrying.  Pick one where you would like to study.

No matter where you go for your advanced degrees, make sure you maintain your denominational loyalty if you want to teach in a church-related school.  Where you attended church during your days at Fuller or Azusa will be asked in your interview.  If you are a Wesleyan stuck in Boston, look up a Nazarene church and attend or pastor it.  If you are a Nazarene in North Carolina, look up a Wesleyan church and sign up.  Educational institutions consider “team ball” important.          

So, what degree should you get?   The easy answer is, get the best degree from the best institution you can, studying with someone famous in the field.   But, of course, it is more complicated than that in real life.

Oh yes.  Maybe you are wondering, “Perhaps I can land a job teaching in a college before I have a doctorate.”  You actually could!   People do it, but not often.  If you are ABD (all but dissertation) you might land a job—and then you’ll have to finish your dissertation while teaching your first years—kiss your spouse goodbye for a few years!  But there are others who sometimes land a teaching job with only a Master’s degree or seminary.  How does this happen?  Is it luck?  Fate?  Connections?  Something else?  Who knows?  But yes, sometimes people take an end run around the route described here and land a job at the college level with only a seminary degree and without even being accepted into a doctoral program.  How does that happen?  The answer is a combination of everything on this page and a few other factors, probably.  Someone who is a slam-dunk teacher who is widely published can sometimes beat the system.  Or someone with fame or incredible success might beat the system too—for instance a former President of the United States can often land a job teaching somewhere even with a bachelor’s degree.   The bonus is, if you do land a teaching job before your doctorate, many schools will actually help you get your doctorate—and that is one sweet offer!   While these anomalies are enough to encourage you to apply for every opening that comes up, (even before your doctorate) don’t get your hopes up too much.  Most have to take the long route.


5. Keep everything

Teachers are pack rats.  In fact, the entire educational enterprise is the mother of all pack rats.  Save everything.  Keep every syllabus you ever get from your college freshman year on.  If you tossed them all, start getting them from your friends, or children!  Keep every sheet of notes you ever take in a class—from undergraduate classes through seminary and through your doctorate.  Skim the cream off old courses you took that you might some day teach yourself.  Keep everything—even from courses you despise.  (Once you land a job as a professor they are likely to assign you to one of those courses you despised!)  Carefully keep a journal of teaching techniques and practice them.  Analyze the teaching methods of good and bad teachers to learn the craft.   Keep examples of good assignments and activities your teachers use so you can adapt them in the future.  Keep everything related to academics on paper and also electronically.  Keep updating your C.V. (Curriculum Vita a kind of educational resume) every year while these things are still fresh in your mind.

Also start a “portfolio” of your accomplishments.  Did you teach a seminar?  Keep the seminar flyer and tuck it into your “portfolio file” so you can record it on your resume and exhibit it as evidence.  Keep all your teaching evaluations, samples of your publications, and letters of recommendations from people of note.  Keep everything. Education operates far differently in this realm than the church.  In the church there is a sense of required humility in touting your accomplishments—we shouldn’t “toot our own horn” or brag.  In the church, we make fun of people who recite their accomplishments, and we even applaud people who do not seek promotion but stand by and wait for others to seek them out.  Not so in education.   You need to keep your accomplishments so you can recite them and show them. Record everything you ever do in education, every course you ever taught, every time you “presented” at a national or academic event, every article you ever published.  These things count.  In fact, if you do become a college professor you’ll have to make up a giant notebook of evidence to submit to your peers for any promotion in the future—so start saving now.

So if you aren’t a pack rat yet, become one.  Getting your job is your first challenge.  The second one is keeping the job.  If you do land a teaching job, you probably will only get a one-year contract to start with.  Keeping the job will be your next challenge.  They’ll stick you up in front of 12-15 hours a week of young people who expect sensational content every day and just and fair testing and grading.  Few people have a well deep enough to fill that many hours a week all semester—so you better save what you can now so you have something deep to say for 35 classes in a row through an entire semester on one narrow subject area making sure you don’t use up content reserved for other courses.


6.  Develop your network

 Make connections.  Network throughout the educational system.  Attend professional conferences (WTS, AAR, ETS) and work the network there—face it, if you think the Wesleyan Theological Society is a boring conference you won’t like education anyway—so go and find out.   Get to know professors in many institutions, not just from your own alma mater.  Few things help you get a good job better than having contacts who will be your internal advocates.  

Keep in touch with old college/seminary profs, target schools where you might want to teach and get to know some of the faculty personally.  Follow their web pages and read whatever they post.  Read up on the work of the people who teach at schools where you might apply.  As a pastor you probably already understand this—network and reputation are half the factors in getting another church.   It is similar in education.   Make personal contact with someone at the institution where you are applying.  Don’t just send your C.V.—make inside contact before interviewing.



7. Apply everywhere

As soon as your comps are done in the doctoral program, apply everywhere there is a job opening.  Some apply even before that—getting in the pipeline can’t hurt.  If they say, “You are a great candidate—but not yet,” that’s wonderful news!  Keep that school in your tickler file for contacting after you’ve successfully defended your dissertation.  Don’t stand around and wait for them to call.  They won’t call you—it doesn’t work that way.   Watch the web sites and apply when something comes open.  Learn to not get your feelings hurt.  Don’t limit yourself to one denomination, even if you prefer to serve your own denomination.  You can always shift later, perhaps in a decade or so when the professor retires in your own alma mater who “has your spot.” Learn how to interview by interviewing.  Apply for 15 jobs for every one you expect to get an interview for.   When you submit a C.V. or application expect not to hear back, then you will be pleasantly surprised if you do and won’t be discouraged too fast when you don’t.  And even when you land the interview—you’ll almost always be one of three four or five candidates—so don’t think an interview is a sure thing.


8.  Expect to wait as you develop your “pedigree”

A job teaching is not like finding a church to pastor.  There are thousands of churches you might pastor—all you have to have is one of those pastors leave and, poof!, a spot comes open.  There are fewer college professors than pastors.

Until an opening comes, do something—get experience and develop your pedigree.  Get more pastoral experience, write and develop your pedigree by teaching and gaining academic credibility.  Write especially.  Few things will enhance your resume as much as publication.  Publish a few academic pieces but don’t overlook popular publishing.  In religion popular publications also have clout (sometimes even over the scholarly journals).   Write for your denomination, for your local community, for your college alumni magazine, for your denomination’s take home papers.  While you wait, get experience and get published.  Design the classes you plan to teach.  Design your overheads or PowerPoint presentations as if you are going to use them soon.  When you land a job, and start getting gobbled up by student appointments, you’ll be glad you have some content already prepared. 

While you wait, practice teaching as an adjunct professor—where they give you one or two courses and barely pay you.  Call the nearby junior college.  Contact institutions to do online courses while you wait.    Offer to teach a “May term” or a “Winter term” at every college where you might apply for full time later.  Be willing to go live there for a month and teach for not much more money than will cover your food and travel expenses.  Get a track record.  Get your students and Dean to evaluate you when you teach these courses.  Keep their evaluations in your portfolio.  Keep a running list of “courses taught” on your resume.  Consider this waiting time as continued preparation time.


9. Get an interview

            If you have been applying “often and everywhere” sooner or later you will probably land an interview.  This means you made the “final four” or “final six” list.  This is how it often happens (though not everywhere):  You apply, often online with supporting documents by snail mail.  Your application goes in a file marked for one particular position—perhaps nobody will even see it but a clerk.  You might not even get a letter telling you it was received  Your application will sit there in the file with other applications—sometimes as many as 50 or even 100 other applications for some jobs. 

Next a small group, or even the search committee, or perhaps the chair of a department, “sorts the stack.”   In this process they toss aside those who “obviously don’t make the cut.”   This is a de-selection process that often based on trivial matters: they find a typo on the C.V. or you “come from the wrong school.”   There is probably some criterion they are using, but it is not always written down.  They may automatically toss out degrees from certain schools or certain degrees themselves, or concentrations.  For instance, they may have determined they want a PhD in church History so you get tossed out if you have a PhD in New Testament studies, or you have a D.Min.  Your application might get tossed out before the search committee even sees it as the chair narrows down the stack of 50 applicants to ten or so.  You usually won’t get a letter or call about your rejection—you just will never hear anything back at all—that’s why you should apply “everywhere and often.” 

Next the members of the search committee will probably call your references (and the other ten applicant’s references) and perhaps even one or two might call you personally for a telephone chat.  If you’ve done your preparation right you’ll have several references—oat least one who knows you well and will even “sell” you to the institution when they call.  You’ll probably have another who has major clout somewhere in academia and will give you a positive nod.

If they’re meticulous, they’ll even call “secondary references.”   Secondary references come from the (primary) references you listed.  They’ll ask your primaries, “Who else would know this candidate that I could talk to?”  Then they’ll call people you never listed.  If they are working with ten names they will do all this to “narrow the field” down to three or four candidates.  If you don’t make the cut to that final three, you may never hear from them again.  So don’t be shocked that someone is checking your references, or even chatting with you on the phone, and you never hear another thing from that institution. This is all how you get an interview.  Keep applying often and everywhere and sooner or later you’ll get invited for an interview.


10.  Prepare for your interview

If you do land an interview do your homework.  Study the institution as carefully as you want them to assume you’ll study for teaching courses.  Get on their web site and find their mission statement, learn their history, and know the names of key personnel and their own background.  You don’t want to show up at an interview and not know the name of the book published by the head of your prospective division, do you?  Track down the institution’s references too—call and speak to people who joined the staff in recent years, or people who have left the institution (especially in the division where you are applying) to find out more information.  In short, do your preparation on the institution like you’d expect a teacher to prepare for a class.  Search committees assume that an unprepared candidate would be an unprepared teacher.

            Most of all, prepare for the teaching segment of the interview.  Probably they’ll give you a class to teach.  Gather intelligence on how other professors in that division teach.  See if you can get close.  If they all use PowerPoint for all their classes, writing on the whiteboard may make you seem out of touch.  If they are all relational-interactive, PowerPoint show may seem distant and merely one-way delivery.   Find out.  Usually candidates dress formally then “lighten up” to more casual dress for their teaching segment.  You don’t want to look underdressed in your interview with a President or overdressed in your teaching the students.  If they all wear casual sweaters for teaching and you pop in dressed like a funeral director, you might appear out of touch with the student generation.  Occasionally a candidate will visit the school on a weekday incognito to get a feel for the school.  Some schools will let you come a day early and sit in on other classes to observe their teaching—if they do, grab that opportunity—even request it—after all, the school is on trial too—if you’re that clever you’ll probably have more than one offer sooner or later anyway, so you can put them on trial.

            See if you can anticipate the sort of questions they’ll ask.  If you have jumped around every two years in your career, be prepared to give a spin on that.  If you have strong academic credentials and weak practical ones, develop a comment to respond to that observation they are likely to make to you. If you have theological aberrations from the institution’s positions, be prepared to honestly explore them in the best light.  And of course prepare at least one question to ask them.   They may not even invite your questions until the very end of the day.  When they invite you to ask the committee questions, you don’t want to mumble in exhaustion, “Well, gee, I can’t really think of any right now.”  Always ask a question—the depth of your question will shows as much as the depth of your answers all day. (Besides, if you ask the right questions here, you might even get a read on your fate before you leave.)

Be ready for any question.  Many search committees have members who have their own “pet questions” they lob into the process at every interview.  Sometimes these questions look like trick questions.  Sometimes they are trick questions!  They might ask you to list the most influential theologians in your study—and you want to be able to list someone beside Zig Ziglar or Elmer Towns here. In fact, someone who has been through the search process at that institution might be able to tip you off at which professor asks which pet question and you can thus be better prepared.  In short: prepare for your interview.  It would be a shame for you to study six months for your comps, then get your doctorate, but be so slovenly in your preparation and study for your interview you’d wind up not getting the job!


11. Show up and do well

Your interview in some institutions will be a grueling all-day process.  It may start with an interview with the Dean or President, then include interviews with a series of people and committees all day long, with your teaching presentation and the official interview with the search committee sandwiched in.  Sometimes your fate will be decided in the first hour or two.   Some say the two most important interviews are at the top (President/Dean) and the bottom (students), but that varies from school to school.  It is hard to figure out a search process that runs by consensus.  Like any democratic process there is never a real one-person-one-vote distribution of power.  Once discussion enters into the process all votes never have equal weight.  That’s OK, you don’t have to figure it out—just prepare, show up and do well in the interview and teaching presentation. 

Make sure you get a good night’s sleep before, and be sure to eat.  Your institution is likely to schedule you with someone (or a whole committee) for every meal of the day—be sure to eat moderately, you don’t want to faint on the group half way through the afternoon for lack of food or get sluggish from too much food then they start asking questions that remind you of your dissertation defense!  Married candidates sometimes bring their spouse along, but they usually make their spouse doesn’t out-stage them or answer questions directed to the candidate.


12. Expect competition

In many churches, it is considered anathema to have several candidates in a “beauty contest” then pick the best one.  Churches usually bring in one candidate at a time, then “vote that one up or down” before moving on to the next candidate.  Educational institutions almost always bring in several candidates for what we in the church call a “beauty contest.”  Thus the decision isn’t a simple yes or no, but which one?  Or maybe good, better, best?  Sometimes the search process goes on for months—even years!   It is not totally rare for an institution to have a search process continue for two years while they interview people to get the right fit.  So, when you get an interview, don’t think that they are trying to decide “yes or no” on you.  They are only letting you enter the horse race—and the race may not be over for months.


13. Understand the unstated factors

Actually you can’t understand all the unstated factors in hiring college professors—you should just understand that they exist.   Don’t expect your PhD to be an auto-ticket into teaching any more than being born female guarantees you an auto-ticket into marriage.   Professors are hired by people, not institutions.  You would understand this coming from a pastorate.   Educational institutions are something like churches looking for a pastor—they seek a kind of “chemistry” with the person.  What is that?  Who knows—but search committees can tell when it isn’t there.  Your credentials may be perfect and your experience superb.  You may have taught a wonderful class but the school never even calls you back.  Why?  Perhaps they’ll say, “The chemistry just wasn’t there.”  You figure what this complex sociological phenomenon is—but I assure you it exists in churches and educational institutions alike. And “chemistry” it is one dangerous thing—for sometimes hidden in the vagueness of the “chemistry” fog is institutional prejudice and racism.  

But we’ll assume here the unstated factors are not evil but other factors.  Every institution (actually every division) has an unstated collection of values they use when making faculty decisions.  For some, experience trumps academics.  For others, scholarship reigns supreme.  Passion and personality might trump scholarship and publishing in one school while the reverse is true in another.  In some search committees, there is a hidden demerit system—you get “marked down” for this or that until you get enough discounts that you die.  There may be positional shibboleths you must salute, like affirmation of women in ministry (or rejection of women in ministry) or an expressed activism against abortion, or some other social issue. 

Institutions use the term “mission fit” more than chemistry.  Mission fit” often means “chemistry,” yet far more.  Mission fit” is a giant sack where they store a thousand little additional factors to judge you by.  “She just isn’t a good mission fit,” doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t accomplish the mission of the institution—it may mean you just wouldn’t fit into the divisional mix where you are interviewing, or your interpersonal style wouldn’t fit the mix of the other primary professor in that subject area. Or it might mean your habit of puffing a good cigar each Saturday night, or drinking a good-nite-shot of wine before bedtime doesn’t fly at this institution—these things are sometimes packaged under the label “Mission-fit.”  Since you really can’t outguess a committee—you might as well be honest in your interview.  Don’t try too hard to fit in or they will smell a rat and come to distrust you.  Educators hate to be “sold a bill of goods” or feel like you are them.  Be honest and forthright.  After all, you too are looking for a “mission fit” institution to join.


14. When you get an offer…

You may only get a few weeks to decide, sometimes less.  Occasionally they will offer you the job before you leave and ask you to decide in the “next few days.”  This rapid decision request is the fallout of a beauty contest process—if you say no they might turn around and offer the job to the second candidate tomorrow. (You might already be the second candidate!) 

If they offer you a contract you seldom can negotiate.  It is not like going to a local church who can gather the board together and say, ‘Well, in order to get you we’ll be happy to add $5000 to the salary.”   If you are a pastor you might even be surprised that the contract is for far less money than your present salary—and it does not have any of the off-budget perks and benefits that pastors get.  But you won’t be able to ask the board to meet to discuss your financial needs.  The trustees of a college or university won’t be meeting about you.  There is usually a strict system in place dictating pay and teaching load.  Unless you have some exceptional role or connection with the powerful administrators, your pay and work load will be pretty well defined. 

Be prepared to start at the bottom.  Face it—no matter how good you are, or how much experience you have, you’ll probably start at the bottom again.   If you are the pastor of a church of 1000 with ten full time assistants and you come into teaching, you will start with no assistants—maybe not even student secretarial help. They may assign you as a freshmen professor to several courses nobody else wants—even courses out of your area.  Face it, in church work or in college teaching there are less attractive tasks and more attractive ones.  The newbees usually get the less attractive ones.  And you’ll have some “Gen Ed” courses—generic introductory courses every student in the school regardless of major is required to take.  These courses will seem so elementary from your doctoral work—you’ll think ‘I could have taught these better the year after I graduated from college!”  New professors sometimes get more “Gen Ed” courses more than experienced ones do. However, some Grand Master Teachers love Gen Ed courses and actually request them. 

You may think you’ve finally landed your dream job of “teaching Church History to ministerial students” only to discover you have only one course per semester in Church History—the rest of the time you are teaching 18 year old freshmen Old Testament Survey or Philosophy.  In fact you might not even know what your load will be when you get your contract, and you’ll find out in August, right before the fall term.  Or what they outlined to you might change over summer as personnel or adjunct arrangements change. 

So you teach what they give you.  And you teach it when they give it to you too.  (My first year teaching I commuted 50 miles every morning and I was assigned 7:50 AM classes every single day of the week.)  So what do you do?  You do the duty they assign you.  If you do, and you do it well, and you are faithful, and students believe you have really helped them learn, and your colleagues affirm your scholarship and teaching, and you keep sharp, and keep learning, and publish…  you’ll eventually get the exact courses you wanted to teach all your life.  So, when you get a contract, recognize these factors and the ground rules and traditions of the academic community, then sign the contract and start collecting boxes!


15. Admit the odds.

But before you run out to enroll in that PhD program, or start down this long path, take an honest look at the odds.  A PhD does not a professor make.  It is not automatic: “Get PhD-get hired.”  Without a PhD your chances are slim.  But even with the perfect PhD you may still not land the teaching job you want.  Make sure you want to pursue learning not just enter teaching. 

Without discouraging you, take a frank and realistic look at the numbers.  For instance, in my denomination there are about 3000 jobs for ministers.  A thousand of those are fairly well paid and you might fill them—I could.  However, the ministers teaching religion in my denomination number less than 30.  There aren’t a lot of jobs for ministers who want to train other ministers.  (Most denominations actually have more jobs as senior pastor of churches over 1000 than they have in teaching ministers.)

To cut the odds even more, most every ordained minister in my denomination has the basic “credentials” to pastor any church in the denomination.  But if you have your PhD in Old Testament there are actually only about 6-7 jobs in my entire denomination you have the credentials for.  Then to reduce the odds even further, each of my denomination’s schools already has an Old Testament professor.  You might even be a better teacher than that person, or a better scholar—but these schools seldom will fire their current professor just because you are better.  More likely, you’ll have to wait until that professor retires or moves to another institution before the process outlined above begins.  The young ones move, the older ones usually retire. 

But it isn’t even that simple.  There is another factor influencing the odds.   Most religion departments have a gender imbalance.  Because fewer women are in the ordained ministry, there are fewer women religion professors (ordination isn’t required to teach religion—but most religion professors are ordained just the same).   Most religion divisions are trying to correct their gender imbalance—after all we have scores of women in our programs with scant female models of ministry.  So if you are male seeking a job, just being good (or even best) may not help you in the final decision.  If you are a male and have a PhD in nursing the situation might be reversed!.  And, while we’re talking about diversity, if a person of color from another culture or country competes with you—woman or man, you may get deselected in the interest of greater diversity on the faculty.

See?  This is why you’ve got to apply “everywhere and often” and you really shouldn’t start doctoral work unless you think the study itself is a worthy pursuit—not just the job it might get you. 

But don’t let any of this discourage you—just recognize the realistic picture and go in with your eyes wide open.   Is God leading you this way?  Then do it for sure.  But do so with a relaxed spirit—the odds might be long.  But, even with the long odds someone gets hired every year even in smaller denominations like mine—so why not try?   If you remember the above insights, and follow this advice, some day you might land the exact job you want, in the very school you want, teaching the very courses you’ve always dreamed of teaching.  I did!



·        Special gratitude to Dr. Bud Bence for his early input and advice in outlining this article then later revision and expansion suggestions. 

·        Also thanks for the input and revision ideas to Drs. Chris Bounds, Scott Turcott, Steve Lennox, Burt Webb and Ken Schenck.


Click here to read the first part of this two-part series on breaking into college teaching.



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April 2003, Keith Drury    May be duplicated for free use provided these lines are included