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Advice on becoming a professor?



Hi everyone, 

I am currently a third year undergraduate student looking for some advice on how to maximize my chances of getting into/completing a masters and PhD program, and also becoming a professor afterwards :). 

I seem to have the grades thing down, as I have gotten straight A's throughout my honors undergraduate degree in Sociology thus far. However, I am interested in knowing what kinds of things I could be working on and improving at this point in order to improve my academic abilities. For example, although I consider myself to be a good writer, because I am mildly dyslexic I struggle with reading dense journal articles. Would it be wise to start regularly reading sociological journal articles in order to improve my grasp of difficult material and improve my ability to understand this material? If you could think of anything that you wish you would have worked harder on/improved before starting graduate school, I would really appreciate it if you would share it with me (and anyways else who's reading this)! 

To be honest, I just love academics and really want to peruse a career in it, but I want to make sure I am able to start working on the skills/abilities I will need in the future :) 

Thanks everyone!!  

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*pursue. peruse means to read carefully.

- be an RA under a professor and hopefully get the research published with your name on it

- do an independent study, a thesis, or some other large independent research project (again, under the guidance of a professor)

- attend a professional conference, maybe present some research at it

- post this in the sociology subforum, or at least read the sociology subforum.

reading journal articles in the field isn't a bad idea, but I don't know if that's the most pressing concern, nor do I know that it's a good idea to do read them in a directionless kind of way (but perhaps because I struggle to do so myself). Reading widely inside your field, and deeply in your area of concentration, is important to develop the kind of contextual knowledge that will help you produce good research and good written application materials; but it's more important to demonstrate that you can produce research rather than just consume it.

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You've gotten good general advice already about preparing for graduate school to increase your chances of admission, but I want to address specifically the idea of being a professor of sociology.

Academia is an extremely competitive career field to get into. The majority of PhDs these days don't get tenure-track positions in academia. That's for a variety of different reasons. Generally, search committees for academic positions in the social sciences are looking for these kinds of things:

  • Publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals. These are king. It's hard to put a number on it and it varies a lot from department to department and by the type of college you're looking for. At research-intensive schools (your R1s & R2s), not only is the number of publications important but also where you published them - top-tier journals with high impact factors are key. If you don't know what all that means yet, don't worry about it; but these are things you can learn under good mentorship from a professor in late undergrad/early graduate school. Elite liberal arts schools increasingly want teacher-scholars with robust publishing and scientific programs in addition to being good teachers. As a junior undergrad, working as an RA with a professor is the best way to start on this road. If you're already working with a professor - or once you get a couple months under your belt - I'd explicitly ask about publication opportunities. Those take a long time to prepare. There are undergraduate student journals that you can publish in to at least get some experience with the process, but working with your professor to get a second- or third-authored publication in a professional scientific journal is the gold standard and a nice cherry on top for your application. As an early-stage graduate student, it's good to start thinking of publication opportunities very early. If you present at a conference, how can you turn that into a paper? If you are writing a paper for a class, is there a possibility of publishing it somewhere? Do I have skills to offer that allow me to hop on as a consultant & author of an article with a professor? (e.g., I did some stats consulting in grad school, and that allowed me to get on some papers as an author by virtue of doing the statistical analysis and writing the methods and results sections. I hate writing the other sections anyway, so that was a score!)
  • As a graduate student, particularly in the late stages, I'd recommend perusing the departmental websites of the types of schools at which you think you might like to teach and then reading through the CVs of their recently-hired professors (like within the last 5 years or so) to get a feel for what these places are looking for and who is competitive. That will give you an idea of the number and type of publications to try to target.
  • Reading articles pretty regularly (or at least reading the abstract and scanning the rest, which in reality is what everyone does) isn't a bad idea, as it helps you get a feel for what kinds of journals accept what kind of work and can guide you in your preparation of articles for publication. I'd say that's optional/a nice-to-have for you right now, but becomes more required once you start grad school.


  • What can you teach/do research in? At teaching-heavy schools, search committees are generally looking for people to plug gaps: to teach specific courses or in a specific area of inquiry that isn't covered or is only lightly covered. These are usually outlined in the job ad. At research schools, SCs may be looking for scholars to research in specific subject areas - either ones that are complementary to existing faculty or ones that they have gaps in at the moment. Every field also has trends, which are 'hot' areas that everyone wants scholars in because undergraduate and grad students come expecting to learn those things. For example, right now many of the social sciences want people who explore diversity and culture in their work. In the psychological sciences, health psychology and advanced statistical methods had/are having a moment. I don't think anyone should pick their primary interest area based on what's "hot" - as that changes - but as you are developing your research throughout late undergrad and graduate school, you may want to think about how you could incorporate aspects of desirable methods, approaches, areas, and techniques into your work to make yourself marketable.
  • As an undergrad, you can talk to your professors about current trends in the field. As you do research with professors, begin to think about what really interests you and where you would like to set your agenda for research? I'd think about it kind of like this: Where do you want to do your life's work? What do you want to be defined by? Unlike in industry, in academia changing areas gets harder the longer you're in it, and you usually have to do it kind of gradually; most career academics have 1-2 specific (but broad) area(s) of inquiry in which they do the vast majority of their work. You'll be expected to have at least a vague idea of that when you're applying to graduate school, so it's good to think about it now.
  • It's normal for that to evolve and change over the time that you're in grad school, but you'll be better off if you don't change too drastically earlier in your career. It's easier to create momentum in publications and grants, especially, if you work within the same general area early in your career. So think relatively carefully.
  • That also doesn't mean you can't work on one-off or occasional projects in other areas (see the consulting work done above), but your own major substantial area should be relatively well-defined.


  • Can you bring in funding? This is tightly tied to the first two. Grants are incredibly difficult to get and also the bread and butter for research-oriented academics. At R1s and R2s (and elite liberal arts colleges), you will be expected to support your research through grant funding and your candidacy will be evaluated on the basis of your potential to bring in funding. Part of that is the area that you're doing research in (some areas are better-funded than others, and your SC members will know what those are); some of that is related to your publication history and productivity (productive scholars are more likely to get funding, because they can point to results). So in graduate school, each doctoral student in grant-funded areas - including the social sciences - should at the very least learn and understand about different granting mechanisms that they are eligible for. Really, I think each doctoral student should get some practice writing a grant, either jointly with your advisor or as the PI of a dissertation grant or something.
  • These require careful planning, so I'd encourage you to browse potential funding mechanisms as a late stage undergraduate and then bring it up with your advisor in your first two years of graduate school. (I'm not kidding. Given grant deadlines and how long it takes to successfully write and plan one, someone who wants an R36 dissertation grant from the NIH should probably begin writing it no later than their third year if they want to have it in enough time to actually use it for dissertation writing). Having big national fellowships - like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship - also can help, so I'd investigate those now and consider submitting as a senior if you're ready for it, and at the very latest in your first or second year of graduate school - because that's when you can last apply. Funding begets funding, for better or worse. Visit the Bank here on TGC!


  • Prestige of your school/department/advisor. OK, this is kind of a touchy subject, but although we can argue about the relative importance of this piece, I don't think anyone would outright deny that this is important. Academia is a field where your department, advisor, and to some extent your university do matter. The better the reputation of your department and the more prolific your advisor, the better your chances are of academic employment. That's for both direct reasons (e.g., the search committee may simply prefer people with big-name departments and advisors on their CV) and indirect reasons (top departments have more resources for graduate students; may get them involved in writing papers and grants more often; have more students on elite fellowships and dissertation grants; have more prolific professors who can serve as advisors and mentors for students; etc.) That doesn't mean that prestige or the exact ranking of your program should be THE primary concern when applying - there's probably not much meaningful difference between the #4 program and the #5 program - but it does mean you should keep reputation and advisor in mind when applying. And of course, this varies. If your goal is to work at a R1 (research-intensive school) or an elite liberal arts college, going to a top department is going to be really important. If you're more interested in smaller teaching colleges, state directional colleges, etc., then reputation becomes less important.
  • As an undergrad, in your junior year you may want to start casually perusing the departmental websites of programs you're interested in. The National Research Council publishes rankings of programs in sociology and other fields, and while again I wouldn't put much stock in exact rankings, I'd think about what those numbers mean in terms of reputation and prestige. Also, this is where visiting the websites of the kinds of places you'd like to teach and looking at the more junior professors' CVs comes into play. Where did they get their PhDs? Do the same names pop up all the time, or is there more diversity? (For an example, I did this as an experiment in MIT's department of CS and EE, and nearly all of the professors graduated from one of just four PhD programs. Including MIT.)
  • As you begin to sharpen your research agenda and focus, you can also think critically about top departments and which ones offer professors and resources that will allow you to do research in your field. This is where reading (or scanning) recent articles comes into play, because eventually you'll start to see the same names pop up and you'll get a feel for who's prolific in your subfield. Then you can look up who they are, where they work, and what kind of work they do broadly. By the summer before your senior year, you should begin compiling a list of viable programs that you could apply to that are an acceptable level of prestige for you (whatever that means for you personally)
  • Once you select a program, there are things you can do to offset the reputation and prestige of your program if a mid-ranked or lower-ranked program turned out to be best for you. Work with a great advisor. Go to professional conferences and network with professors and scholars at other universities. Explore the possibility of a visiting student program at another, more prestigious department for a semester (yes, these exist, both formal programs and less formal ones). Explore collaborations with researchers at other universities, especially if you attend grad school in a city with lots of universities. I know grad students who have written papers and grants with professors at other, sometimes more prestigious departments outside of their own university. And there's also always doing a postdoc.


  • Quality and experience teaching: So I'm going to be real and say that R1s don't really care about this that much. Some R2s care; it kind of depends on how far down the ladder they are. If your goal is to be a professor at a top research university, I'd advise you to limit your teaching to the bare minimum required and focus the vast majority of your attention on research and churning those publications out. But all teaching schools (including the elite liberal arts colleges) are going to be interested in how well you can teach. So if you have an interest in those schools (and let's face it, the vast majority of doctoral students will end up at one of these places), it behooves you to get different kinds of teaching experience when you are in graduate school. Most doctoral programs are going to require you to be a TA anyway, but that's just a starting point.
  • As an undergrad, you may be able to be a TA in your department for the intro classes. Even if no formal program for undergrad TAs exists, if you are at a large university, I'd ask about the opportunity. You'd be surprised what you can accomplish if you just ask. At small colleges, there may be no immediate needs for TAs, but you may be able to work with a professor to get other kinds of experience. For example, my statistics professor (who was also my advisor) brought me on as an official class tutor for her intro statistics class, so I helped students who needed/wanted extra help. There may also be opportunities for you to teach high school students, like SAT prep classes or something. Those don't really factor into academic decisions, but they may help you figure out early on what works and what doesn't for you as a teacher.
  • As a grad student, use your TAships to help you figure out how you feel about teaching. Many people learn early on that they don't like it much and want to aim for R1s. That's fine, but even the best-funded R1 professors usually have to teach at least one or two classes a year, so it helps (both you and your students) if you can identify some techniques early on to make you a more effective and efficient teacher. Efficiency is key here, because as a research professor you want to minimize your time teaching so you can focus on research. I've had professors who found interesting ways to use their classes as a way to do more research (including one history professor who essentially used us to help him write his book, which was amusing but also made the class interesting. He was clearly more invested since he was getting something out of it).
  • If you do like teaching and want to aim for teaching schools, then you can use TAships to build to more concentrated teaching activities. As a TA, take on more responsibility - maybe becoming a head TA later on in your graduate career for a class. In statistics classes, there's often the option to teach sections of lab, which is more independent than regular TA-ships. Many universities/departments offer opportunities for you to co-teach a class with an instructor (and if you prove yourself a good teacher, a professor may approach you independently to design one - that's what happened to me). Many universities also employ grad students as summer instructors, either for summer classes or special summer programs for undergraduates. When you get to your upper years of grad school - usually once you're ABD - you can adjunct teach classes at nearby community colleges or liberal arts colleges (and sometimes, at your own university). Some universities have opportunities or even fellowships for advanced doctoral students to teach and work with undergraduates. For example, Columbia has a program whereby qualified ABD doctoral students can teach in the undergraduate Core curriculum. All of their English PhD students eventually teach a section of University Writing, and many teach Literature Humanities; many social sciences doctoral students teach Contemporary Civilization. There were also fellowships that involved teaching and mentoring the honors students. There are also summer programs at other places that allow you to develop your own classes, like Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and Duke's Talent Identification Program.

Also, if you have the opportunity to write an undergraduate thesis, I highly recommend it. That kind of sustained long-term project is good preparation for graduate work.

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@ExponentialDecay  Yes to all especially the RA point. A lot of schools don't allow undergraduates to be a TA,  but if yours does fully take advantage of it.

Also start putting together a CV and build that CV up with research, volunteering, teaching experience, etc. Also begin to put points together to write a good statement of purpose, granted you won't need it until you start doing applications, but it's nice figuring out what your philosophy is so you don't have to do so last minute

@HTM18 I second that 100%, in my experience GRE scores can make or break an application.

Also, start identifying professors or others of which you think would accurately know your skills for when you need letters of recommendation. Let your advisor or professors you trust know that this is a path you want to pursue, as they may be able to point you in the direction of some good opportunities. 

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