Literature Professor Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Literature professors earn an average of $68,000 per year, but is the job worth the extensive educational requirements? Read real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a literature professor is the right path for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Literature Professor

A career as a literature professor can allow you to educate students in a field that you're passionate about. Learn about the pros and cons of teaching literature at the university level to make an informed career decision.

Pros of Becoming a Literature Professor
Intellectual environment interacting with like-minded scholars and researchers*
Time off in the summer for research and travel*
Above-average earnings ($68,000 average salary as of May 2014)*
Flexible weekly schedule with the opportunity to set office hours*
Varied job activities and wide range of courses to teach*

Cons of Becoming a Literature Professor
Shrinking job opportunities for tenured positions*
Doctoral degree is usually required*
Heavy teaching loads and several part-time positions may be required*
Ongoing demand for publications and professional accolades can cause stress*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description

Literature professors plan and teach courses at community colleges and universities. They must also hold office hours to discuss issues with students, participate in institutional events, grade papers and keep up on independent research and writing. Classes may be held during the day, in the evening or on weekends. The school year is usually divided into two semesters; however, some schools work on a quarter system, which means you might teach fall, winter and spring classes. While some professors teach during summer sessions, most can take summers off.

Literature professors might teach more general courses, such as comparative or British literature, or they might lead specialized classes in a particular genre or time period. Literature professors often teach students about particular writing theories as well. Class discussions might explore how race, gender and culture relate to reading assignments. Sometimes, instructors may be able to teach more interdisciplinary subjects; for example, you might lead a class that combines literature with film studies.

Necessary Skills

Strong writing, communication and critical thinking skills are required in order to succeed in academia. You must feel comfortable speaking in public and be able to teach many different types of people. You also need basic computer skills, since college professors increasingly use the Internet to post assignments, lead class discussions and keep in contact with students.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), English language and literature professors at universities and junior colleges made an average salary of about $68,000 as of May 2014. Those who taught at technical schools earned a lower average salary of about $49,000. As a part-time, adjunct literature professor, you may earn much less, and it may be difficult to find a job offering benefits, according to the most recent data available from the BLS.

If you're intent on living in a certain location, you may have to juggle more than one part-time teaching job to find work in your field; full-time jobs are growing less common. According to the BLS, the number of English language and literature professor positions was expected to rise 12% from 2012-2022, which was about average.

Training and Education Requirements

Community and technical colleges sometimes hire professors with only a master's degree. To become a tenured professor at a 4-year college or university, however, a Ph.D. is generally required. These can take over six years to complete, depending on your program and whether you already hold a master's degree. A literature Ph.D. program can be quite rigorous; you may need to study multiple foreign languages and take several theory and research courses. You usually must pass an examination at the end of your first or second year before proceeding on to the dissertation. Your dissertation project focuses on an original literature topic and must be successfully defended in order to receive a Ph.D.

What Employers Are Looking for

Current job postings in this field usually require candidates to have an M.A. or a Ph.D. in English or literature. Teaching experience is also generally expected. Below is information from May 2012 job postings for English and literature professors:

  • A university in Nevada has an opening for a postdoctoral, non-tenure teaching fellow. Qualifications include having a Ph.D. with a specialization in Latin American, African American or Caribbean literature. Applicants must also have prior teaching experience.
  • A vocational college in California is seeking applicants for a reading and English instructor position. Job responsibilities include attending office hours, faculty meetings, peer review panels and student activities. Candidates need to have a master's degree in an English-related subject.
  • A state university in Minnesota is looking for an assistant professor of English with experience teaching literature and composition. Candidates must have at least an M.A., with preference given to applicants with doctoral degrees.

How to Stand Out in the Field

One way to advance your career as a literature professor is to get published in professional journals. Continued publication is important for advancement, since employers often look for an active publication record or well-received research. Many beginning professors either attempt to have their dissertations published or adapt their dissertations into more marketable books.

Extensive teaching experience can also help you stand out as a literature instructor. Many aspiring professors can gain this experience through teaching assistantships in graduate school. This typically requires you to complete coursework while also managing your own class of undergraduates. Literature graduate students often teach introductory writing and literature courses.

Alternative Career Paths

If you prefer teaching but don't want to undergo the lengthy process of earning a doctoral degree, you could become a high school English teacher. To get a job in this field, you typically must earn a bachelor's degree, complete a teacher-training program and gain a teaching license by passing both a general test and a specific English-related exam. Secondary school teachers earned an average salary of almost $57,000 as of May 2011, reports the BLS.

If you enjoy research and find yourself drawn to the historical elements of literature, consider becoming a historian. The average annual income for historians as of May 2011 was about $58,000. Historians can work for museums, government departments, non-profit organizations or businesses. Day-to-day activities may vary quite a bit depending on the specific job, but you may analyze and interpret historical data culled from newspapers, video clips, interviews and visits to historical sites. To work in this field, you generally need at least a master's degree in history; some employers may require a Ph.D.

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