We leave high school to go to university and suddenly we start paying tuition, and the Mr. Smiths start becoming Dr. Bestons. Teachers go to teacher’s college, but I find few people outside of academia understand how professors become professors. Well, the journey is long, complicated, and has changed significantly from the past.
First, you do an undergraduate degree. You probably do a fourth-year thesis. Something that seems really niche at the time, but in hindsight, you realize how unspecialized the project really was. Your thesis could be titled “The Effects of Alcohol on Neurotransmitters”. Then, you apply to graduate school. There are several options here. You could apply for a course based master’s, research based, or a combination of the two. Course based is just what it sounds like. It is similar to doing an undergrad, as you’re taking classes full time. Although the class sizes are smaller, and the work is usually more project based, it is not terribly different from undergrad.
Research-based master’s projects feel more like a job. Your project becomes a lot more niche, “The Effects of Alcohol on Serotonin Receptor A13B1”. You may be fortunate enough to pitch your own project here, but usually your professor will give you some options to pick between. Here, you primarily do research, typically nine to five, at least five days a week. On top of this, you will have to be a teaching assistant (TA). The combination of your research stipend and TAship will give you around $20,000 a year or so. Almost all science based master’s in Canada offer funding around this figure for domestic students. Tuition is around $8,000, so you will make enough to pay for tuition and most of your living expenses. It should be noted, you usually are not allowed to work outside of TAing and research without permission.
Next, you have to defend your master’s. This means that you give a presentation about what you did for 2 years, write a huge paper (called a dissertation or thesis), and submit it to a panel of professors. They grill you for a few hours after your presentation, and they decide if you pass or fail. Typically, they won’t let you defend until they’re pretty sure you will pass. I have never heard of someone failing, but I have heard of people dropping out before the defense date.
After you complete your master’s, you apply for a Ph.D. Usually, science Ph.Ds do not require any course work, only research. You can take on several projects, or one giant project, but it’s up to the discretion of you and your supervisor.
To be a professor in the sciences, you need a Ph.D. In the past, after obtaining a Ph.D, you were able to apply to become a professor, and be taken seriously. This is almost impossible to do now. After doing a Ph.D, you do a post-doc. Doing a post-doc is kind of like working as a full time scientist. You get paid to do research in a lab. You might have to teach a course, you might have to write grant proposals for your funding, there are a lot of “mights” in this. I think this is the toughest part about the path because you quickly realize that there is no path. Some post-doc positions you apply to like a regular job. Other times, you email professors you’re interested to work with and ask if they have the money to take you in. Sometimes post-docs get paid $35,000, less than if you had a good scholarship during your Ph.D, other post-docs can get paid up to $80,000. The variance is high for this position.
The application process is also different. You include a CV, also known as a curriculum vitae, instead of a resume. The main difference between a resume and a CV is that a resume is more of a snapshot of the best and most relevant things you have done, and your CV is more like your Facebook timeline for the past decade. Recommendation letters from your PhD supervisors is important, but the real king is publications. Not only does the quantity of publications matter, but the quality too. The journal you publish in can carry a lot of weight, with a Nature or Science publication meaning an almost instant hire.
Up until this point, you were the person who did all the experiments, but now you become the person coming up with the experiments. Being a professor is as much, if not more, about having viable research ideas, rather than about teaching courses. You are now the one who plans, executes, and finds funding for experiments. So if you are fortunate enough to become a professor. Your milage will vary.