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What does a Psychology Professor do?

By Darlene Goodman
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A psychology professor typically works in three capacities at a college or university. First, he or she will likely be responsible for teaching psychology courses at the undergraduate and, often, the graduate level. Second, professors of this type are usually expected to produce original research and publish papers on that research in academic journals. Third, psychology professors may be called on to serve the university or community on committees and boards.

Like most other professors working in post-secondary education, those in the field of psychology typically work in college and university settings. These schools can range from two-year colleges to universities that offer post-graduate studies. Generally, these programs vary in their focus and specialization depending on the psychology department’s educational emphasis.

Large universities may offer a psychology professor more professional research options. While most schools encourage tenured professors to perform such studies and publish academic papers, not all of them require it. Some big schools consider themselves to be research-focused. These schools typically offer PhD programs in psychology.

The psychology departments of most universities usually urge instructors to focus on being good teachers. A psychology professor typically gives lectures to students about psychological theories and practices. These teachers also plan lessons, grade exams and papers, and consult with students. They may be called upon to teach courses that range from undergraduate introductory psychology to specialized, graduate-level courses.

Each psychology professor typically specializes in a particular area of psychological theory and practice. Professors often choose their specialty during their PhD research. For example, professors may focus on psychological disorders, developmental psychology, or even neuroscience as it applies to psychology.

Many large universities have psychology departments that emphasize original research more than teaching. A psychology professor at one of these research-oriented universities will likely be expected to complete studies and publish his or her findings in academic journals. Academic research typically involves collecting and evaluating large amounts of data. This data can take many different forms, including medical or survey research.

A psychology professor will usually write a paper based on his or her research findings. Professors often attempt to get their papers published in well-known and well-respected journals in order to gain prestige. Research-focused universities often emphasize academic prestige. These institutions may withhold tenure if a professor does not meet the research expectations of the department.

Small schools may require more teaching time, and are not usually involved in producing large amounts of scholarly research. Such a college may be less likely to offer a psychology professor the option of earning tenure. These schools typically hire part-time, adjunct, or assistant professors for most of their teaching positions.

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Discussion Comments

By indemnifyme — On May 19, 2012

@ceilingcat - That's just the way that academia works, it seems. I don't see that changing any time soon, because having professors teach and do research seems to be pretty engrained in most academic institutions.

Anyway, from what I understand, doing both of these things well is an important factor in whether a professor will be granted tenure. This is really important in the academic world, because tenured professors basically have a job for life and get paid much more than an adjunct faculty member. So I can see why most professors make this their goal!

By ceilingcat — On May 18, 2012

@Monika - It sounds like your adjunct psychology professor got pretty lucky with her job. Hopefully she was a good teacher too!

Which brings me to my point: I've personally never understood why professors were supposed to do research in the first place.

In my opinion, teaching and doing research are two extremely different skill sets. Just because you're good at being a teacher does not mean you'll be good at doing academic research, and vice versa. So why should on person be expected to do both of those things for their job? It doesn't make any sense to me.

By Monika — On May 17, 2012

My college psychology class was taught by an adjunct psychology faculty member. If I recall correctly, she had a bachelor's degree, and was currently in school getting her master's degree. Teaching in her field was a good way for her to work while still having time to go to school.

Also, from what I understood, she wasn't expected to do any kind of research, just teach classes. I imagine this made things a lot easier for her. It probably freed up a lot of time for her to work on her master's thesis, rather than do different academic research.

By Kat919 — On May 17, 2012

@robbie21 - I've actually had a large intro course where the professor *did* go the extra mile and give essay questions. I had this professor of psychology who was fairly old-school and clearly thought of himself as both an educator and a researcher.

He had a couple of teaching assistants and he really gave them a lot of responsibility - not, I think, just to make less work for himself but to give the teaching assistants the training they needed in teaching, since they do, after all, plan to become professors themselves one day.

And one of the things they did was help grade essay questions. All of our tests had a couple of these in addition to multiple choices questions. Made me learn more than in other big intro classes I took.

By robbie21 — On May 16, 2012

It seems like there is a wide range of psychology professor jobs. When I was touring universities, I visited one small but highly-regarded school that had no classes larger than sixty students! All of the courses were taught by professors rather than teaching assistants; there were no graduate programs.

At the small public university I attended, again all of the courses were taught by professors, though they had teaching assistants. There, the psychology professors taught very large intro classes - up to four hundred students! While some small schools might expect professors to give writing assignments and so on even in intro classes, at this university, the entire grade for intro psychology courses came from a few multiple-choice tests.

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