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Dr. Kat’s List: Best Colleges for Future Professors

If you’re passionate about learning, colleges will not only want to accept you—they’ll want to hire you! A career as a college professor means flexible hours, sharing your discoveries with eager young minds, and opportunities to study, research, and become an expert in your field. Not to mention those four special syllables: sabbatical. If you think you want a career in academia, there are top-notch opportunities to be found across the country.

Four-year colleges and universities usually require professors to hold a doctoral degree, or PhD, in their field. However, schools may hire master’s degree holders or doctoral candidates in some cases. Master’s degree holders often populate teaching positions at two-year colleges. A doctoral program varies in the number of years required, and the United States government reports that the average is six years of full time study in addition to the bachelor’s degree. Obtaining a position as a graduate teaching assistant (TA) is a great way to gain practical teaching experience. Some colleges offer TA positions to undergraduate students; check with the faculty in your major to see if you can be a TA. In addition to teaching, faculty members regularly conduct research in their field. Publishing innovative research findings is one yardstick by which professors are measured, in addition to their work inside the classroom.

We’ve looked into the undergrad origins of doctoral candidates, the academic atmosphere, and the opportunities for conducting undergraduate research and having a faculty mentor. Don your wacky academic graduation regalia and read on: these are great schools for future professors.

Reed College, Portland, OR
Deliberately free of fraternities, secret societies, eating clubs, and varsity sports, Reed promotes an egalitarian atmosphere in which all types of ideas and people are respected. The college encourages a focus on learning rather than grades, by evaluating students using extensive teacher comments and refraining from using an honor roll, a Dean’s List, or Latin Honors at graduation. the in-depth review style of the curriculum can help, students foster academic connections with professors. Academic networking is just as easy with fellow students, as Reedies incan partake in small conference-style classes with an average of 15 students. On-campus work experience at Reed offers students options that extend beyondthe norm. Not only is Reed College the only liberal arts college in the world with a nuclear reactor, its also mostly staffed and run by undergraduates. Students from all majors can obtain a license and perform experiments using the reactor! It looks like they put all that research to good use, as Reed has produced more PhDs in the life sciences than any other college. To top it off, the intellectual prowess of Reedies comes to a head during its annual Paideia, or “festival of learning.” For this week, both professors and  students are encouraged to teach unusual classes such as “underwater Basket Weaving” or seminars on martial arts.

Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA
Swarthmore academics are not for the faint of heart. This small liberal arts college has so strongly resisted grade inflation that students wear t-shirts that say: “Anywhere else it would’ve been an A. In fact, the school’s online list of things to do before you graduate includes: #7 “Use the word ‘hetero-normative’ during lunchtime conversation” and #62 “Go to a lecture on ‘”The Element of Surprise in Egyptian Art just because you can.” Students in Swarthmore’s Honors Program are particularly brave, as their course work culminates in an oral examination at the end of senior year. Students are tested on the knowledge they’ve gained at Swarthmore by a committee of outside examiners that represent some of the top minds in their respective fields. Luckily, students have many opportunities to broaden their knowledge, with a course catalog of over 600 classes and more than 50 courses of study. Swarthmore shares an enormous library system with Bryn Mawr and Haverford—the three form the “Tri-College Consortium,” and Swatties can register for courses at all three, as well as cross-register at the University of Pennsylvania. Lastly, students will never take a course taught by a TA, and nearly every professor at Swarthmore has either a PhD or the highest degree in their field. Talk about intense!

Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA
With only one required core class (First-Year Tutorial), Grinnell students can take nearly any and all academic classes that suit their strengths and interests. This means students have the ability to design their own majors, which only a few schools in the country allow. For those thinking about becoming a professor, this approach to learning can be a great foundation for establishing research interests – a must for any faculty member. The college’s key phrase is ‘self-governance,’ a principle applied in both the classroom and in residence hall life. Barring unique circumstances, all Grinnell students are housed on campus, in dorms where they share “a great deal of freedom and responsibility” AKA no RAs. But that doesn’t mean Grinnell students are without guidance. In fact, Grinnell students have the opportunity to develop close relationships with faculty through small classes and the senior year Mentored Advanced Projects, in which a student and faculty member team up to conduct research or create works of art. Grinnell combines academic freedom with a tight knit community. This liberal arts college is home to 1,600 students in a town of 9,100. Grinnell embraces both small-town roots(the college’s Center for Prairie Studies celebrates the nature and culture of the region through science and art) and the wider world—Scholars’ Convocations bring leading international scholars to campus. The school also emphasizes and supports international learning opportunities, and works with over 70 different programs. As for financial freedom—Grinnell is still one of the few schools remaining with a completely need-blind admissions policy, a definite plus in a recessionary economy.

Carleton College, Northfield, MN
Carleton College has been called “A Hothouse for Female Scientists,” due to the rates at which its female grads go on to get Ph.D.s in the sciences—which is exactly what you’ll need if you want to teach there. The students, ‘Carls,’ as they call themselves, are uniquely enthusiastic—they build shared-interest living communities like the Science Fiction House, Culinary House, and CANOE house (for outdoor enthusiasts), as well as participate in clubs with interests ranging from the promotion of mustaches and science fiction to the production of experimental theater and robots. The oldest student-run pub in the nation sits in the basement of a residence hall, and the Princeton Review recently ranked the radio station, KRLX, as one of the best in the nation. However, as much as Carls love their campus, with its 1,040 acres in a river town 45 minutes from the Twin Cities, they also love to travel. By having ten-week trimesters, Carleton has made it possible for 70% of its recent classes to study abroad.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Students at MIT can do more than just learning in the school’s classroom, they can teach. In fact, “Teach Anything, Learn Anything” is the motto of the Education Studies Program (ESP), which enlists MIT students to teach self-designed classes to high school students. The results include classes like “Cooking isn’t Kraft,” “How to Get into the College of your Choice” (uh-oh, competition for us!) and “Geek gurls, where are U?” Of course, MIT students are still learning—and “learning by doing,” which is an MIT academic philosophy. For even more of a career boost, MIT offers the Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP) , which places MIT undergraduates in urban schools, and helps participants get their teaching certificate in one to two years. Also available to students is the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), where undergrads can work on faculty research projects or develop their own, earning academic credit or pay while developing research skills in areas like genetics, finance, cancer research or educational innovation. Entering students don’t have to worry about nerves impacting their first semester grades. Freshmen are eased into the university by a pass/no-record grading system in their first term with only passed classes appearing on transcripts. Small learning communities are also available to facilitate studying. So fear not, there are many opportunities to thrive in this learning-intensive atmosphere.

While the road to becoming a professor may be a long one, paved with additional years of study and research, it can also lead to a rewarding career. The opportunity to work with eager young students and be on the leading edge of research in one’s field can be exciting. These five schools, and many more around the United States, can serve as an excellent training ground for budding professors.


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