Becoming a professor in South Africa is a prestigious and fulfilling career path that involves several years of dedicated study and practical experience. Professors play a crucial role in shaping the minds of future generations, conducting groundbreaking research, and contributing to academic publications. This journey requires strategic educational and career choices. In this guide, we outline the steps to becoming a professor, the qualifications needed, and the job outlook for this esteemed profession in South Africa.

Important Facts

Aspiring professors in South Africa must navigate a rigorous academic journey, starting with a Bachelor’s degree and culminating in a PhD, along with postdoctoral research and teaching experience.

Promotion from lecturer to full professor is based on teaching performance, research output, and service to the institution, a process that can span several years.

South Africa’s higher education sector is expanding, with 26 public universities as of 2022 and a 4% annual increase in student enrollment over the past decade.

Professors at top-tier universities like UCT and Wits earn significantly higher salaries, with averages around ZAR 1.2 million annually, compared to R800,000 at smaller institutions.

The growth in higher education and emphasis on research and development create a positive job outlook for aspiring professors, highlighting the importance of academic excellence and professional development.

Key Steps to Becoming a Professor

Example: Let’s say you would like to become a Psychology Professor at UCT:

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree:
    • The first step is to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in your chosen field of study. For example, if you aspire to become a professor in psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), you would start with a BA or BSc in Psychology from any university.
  2. Pursue a Master’s Degree:
    • After completing your undergraduate studies, the next step is to obtain a Master’s degree in psychology. This is where you begin to specialize in your area of interest. For instance, you might pursue an MSc in Clinical Psychology at any university of your choice, which requires a strong academic record for admission.
  3. Gain Practical Experience:
    • Practical experience is crucial. This can be achieved through internships, research assistant positions, or teaching assistant roles. For example, working as a research assistant in a psychology lab can provide valuable experience and enhance your research skills.
  4. Complete a Doctoral Program:
    • The pinnacle of academic achievement is earning a Doctorate (PhD) in Psychology. This involves conducting original research and contributing new knowledge to your field. A typical PhD journey includes designing and executing a research project, publishing research papers, and presenting at conferences.
  5. Build a Strong Academic Record:
    • Throughout your academic journey, maintaining a strong academic record is essential. This includes achieving high grades, publishing in reputable journals, and networking with professionals in your field. Building a strong portfolio of research publications is particularly important.

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Promotion Process to Becoming a Professor

After obtaining a PhD, the journey to becoming a professor involves a promotion process within the university. Here are the detailed steps:

  1. Starting as a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer:
    • Using an example above, initially, you will join UCT as a lecturer or senior lecturer in the psychology department. Your responsibilities will include teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, conducting research, and publishing your findings.
  2. Progressing to Associate Professor:
    • Based on your teaching performance, research output, and service to the institution, you can be promoted to an associate professor. This role involves increased responsibilities, such as mentoring junior faculty members, supervising postgraduate research, and leading significant research projects.
  3. Achieving Full Professor Status:
    • To become a full professor, you must demonstrate exceptional achievements in your field. This includes a strong record of published research, excellence in teaching, and significant contributions to the academic community. This process can take several years and requires continuous professional development and dedication to your field. Full professors are expected to be leaders in their discipline, both nationally and internationally.

Responsibilities of a Professor

As a professor, your duties extend beyond teaching. Here are some key responsibilities:

  • Guiding and Supervising Students: Mentoring undergraduate and postgraduate students in their academic and research endeavors.
  • Developing Course Materials: Creating and updating syllabi, lecture notes, and course content to ensure they meet current academic standards.
  • Conducting Research: Engaging in independent or collaborative research projects, seeking funding, and publishing findings in academic journals.
  • Contributing to Academic Publications: Writing and reviewing articles for academic journals, books, and conference papers.
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Qualifications and Skills Required

Besides educational qualifications, becoming a professor requires a combination of skills and experience:

  • Teaching Experience: Practical teaching experience is often gained through roles such as lecturer or teaching assistant during your postgraduate studies.
  • Research Experience: Conducting and publishing research is a core component of a professor’s career.
  • Effective Communication: The ability to clearly and effectively communicate complex ideas is essential for teaching and presenting research.
  • Presentation Skills: Being able to present research findings at conferences and academic gatherings.
  • Problem-solving Abilities: Addressing and solving academic and research-related challenges.
  • Time Management: Balancing teaching, research, and administrative duties efficiently.

Job Outlook for Professors in South Africa

The demand for professors in South Africa is significantly influenced by the expansion of higher education institutions and the increased emphasis on research and development. According to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s 2023 report, the number of public universities has grown from 23 in 2010 to 26 in 2022, with student enrollment increasing by approximately 4% annually over the past decade. This expansion is driven by the government’s commitment to making higher education more accessible and by the increasing number of students seeking tertiary education. This growth creates a substantial need for qualified professors to accommodate the rising student population and to meet the academic and research goals of these institutions.

Salary levels for professors in South Africa can vary widely based on factors such as the institution, geographical location, and the professor’s experience and academic background. A survey conducted by the South African Higher Education Staff Association in 2023 revealed that professors at top-tier universities, such as the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), earn significantly higher salaries compared to their counterparts at smaller or less prestigious institutions. For instance, the average annual salary for a full professor at UCT is approximately ZAR 1.2 million, while at a smaller university, it might be around ZAR 800,000. This disparity underscores the importance of institutional reputation and location in determining academic salaries, reflecting the competitive nature of the academic job market in South Africa.

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Becoming a professor in South Africa is a journey that demands dedication, academic excellence, and a passion for education and research. By following these steps and building the necessary qualifications and skills, you can achieve this rewarding career and make a significant impact in your chosen field.


How Long Does It Take to Become a Professor After PhD?

In South Africa, it typically takes 6 to 10 years to become a full professor after earning a PhD. This duration includes time spent as a lecturer and senior lecturer, during which you must demonstrate significant achievements in teaching, research, and service to the institution.

How to Become a College Professor Without a PhD

While a PhD is generally required to become a professor, some colleges may hire individuals with a Master’s degree and significant professional or research experience as lecturers or instructors. However, reaching the rank of full professor without a PhD is uncommon and typically requires exceptional contributions to the field or extensive professional experience.

Do You Need a PhD to Be an Assistant Professor?

Yes, in South Africa, a PhD is usually required to be appointed as an assistant professor (or lecturer). This requirement ensures that the candidate has the necessary research skills and academic background to teach at a higher education level.

Can You Be a Professor with a Master’s?

You can be hired as a lecturer or instructor with a Master’s degree in South Africa, particularly in vocational or technical subjects. However, achieving the rank of full professor typically requires a PhD, along with substantial research and teaching experience.