Thursday, September 23, 2010

14. Adjuncthood awaits.

As a direct result of the unceasing flow of new PhDs entering the job market every year, there is an oversupply of people qualified to teach at the university level. As in any other industry, when the supply of labor is low, wages tend to rise, and when the supply of labor is high, wages tend to decrease. As would most any business in a similar situation, colleges and universities have taken advantage of this oversupply. Instead of hiring full-time faculty members with expensive salaries and benefits, colleges can hire part-time instructors on short-term contracts. These instructors typically receive no benefits apart from what they are paid on a per-course basis to teach. In the language of American academe, they are called “adjunct” professors.

After spending the better part of a decade, and perhaps more, working toward their doctorates, many people find that a PhD is a ticket to a part-time job. Or, just as likely, it is a ticket to multiple part-time jobs that have to be held down simultaneously just to earn enough money to cover the bills. These jobs, moreover, are not guaranteed to last beyond the current quarter or semester, as universities tend to hire part-time instructors according to the vagaries of their ever-changing budgets. The life of an adjunct professor trying to make a living was described in 2002 by the Washington Post. So, once you have your PhD in hand, how likely are you to find yourself in an adjunct position? According to the American Association of University Professors, more than half of all faculty members hold part-time appointments, and 68 percent of all people teaching in colleges and universities in the United States hold non-tenure-track positions.


  1. And if you think having a competitive CV when you go on the market will keep you off the adjunct track, you're wrong. If you think having multiple publications and conference presentations, lots of teaching experience, a great dissertation, and great recommendations will keep you off the adjunct track, you're wrong. Go talk to the adjuncts in the department where you want to attend grad school. They're not there because they lack qualifications.

    There is nothing at all you can do to control your career fate. Think you'll be the exception? Think you'll be the lucky one because you "did everything right"? Search committess will get your application along with 500+ others whose credentials are as competitive as yours, and they'll decide who to interview based on who is a good "fit," whatever that means. Really, what else can they do when so many good people want so very few jobs?

    Perhaps the saddest part is that the job situation is a systemic problem that exploits people who are willing -- at least at first -- to work for love rather than money. If you adjunct your way through grad school, if you accept the low wages for the sake of pursuing a career as a scholar-teacher in the field you love, you are part of the problem. Why should universities create more tenure track jobs when they can hire grad students/adjuncts for so much less? You won't even realize you've fallen into this trap until it's too late.

  2. You neglected to mention how little it pays: anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 per class (but $4000 is the high end and is really rare). And even though I live in a big city, I've never known anyone who managed to get hired for more than 4 adjunct classes a semester . . . and it's usually more like 2 or 3.

    Two classes per semester at, say, $3000 each results in a whopping yearly salary of $12,000. With no benefits, of course. And the schools you work for will probably charge you for parking.

    1. Benefits are key. You are now a little older (and not quite as healthy ) and can't put off having that child forever. And Boom: no more health insurance. Know what a trip to the ER will cost you?

    2. You also live on the edge. An uninsured penniless driver cuts a light close and sends you to the ER with a broken leg. You need surgery. Bills mount up. Then you have to figure how to get to your four adjunct posts around the Metro while in a wheelchair. Bad things can happen to anyone, but as an adjunct there is very little buffer before things head Due South.

  3. I recently defended my dissertation at a leading public research university in the northeast and left the US for India. I have to strongly agree with both the comments above. They're very accurate.

    What for me is *the* most tragic feature of the adjuncting system is the fact that it is exploitative, unremunerative and --worst-- a virtual destruction of the life and energy of those unfortunate enough to have to do it. It simply is not worth the energy or the time.

    My sincere advice to those considering adjuncting is this: bite the bullet and define what you absolutely will not tolerate for graduate school or that PhD degree (whether it is non-funding or the inability to publish or whatever indicator you need to have in oodles to be a success in academia). In case you reach that bottom line, just leave graduate school. There is an opportunity cost for both indecision as well as bad decisions. Graduate school tends to breed both in large numbers, and it's best to leave early so you can craft your success elsewhere. It is actually possible. Really.

    1. I downsized my adjunct pursuits when I did the math: a full-time load (12 credit teaching load per semester) earned me $14/hour based on 40 hours/week, but grading and prep pushed me well beyond 40 hours and the cost of gas undercut my bottom line by at least $1/hour. Add to that theninability to guarantee a consistent flow of courses to teach each semester. I even had a class lined up once that was canceled a few weeks before I taught it, which left me unexpectedly without income for a couple months, since I had kept my schedule open for that course.

      I found that I could have more predictable net income by taking a boring factory job near home for the time being, so my wife and I don't end up bankrupt.

      Now I am doing a little bit of adjunct teaching at an institution I like while scouting around for decent non-academic job opportunities (i.e. technical writing, etc.). No easy solutions there either, but I gotta pay the bills...and help raise the kids...

  4. "You neglected to mention how little it pays: anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 per class (but $4000 is the high end and is really rare)."

    Depends on where. $4000 is NOT the high end where I live. I am paid $5500 for one class at one university, and nearly $6000 at the other university. And since I've taught the classes before, there is little extra work outside of classtime, so it is a pretty easy job. Of course, you can't subsist on this salary (which is why I supervise clinical interns .50 time).

  5. This should be the #1 reason not to go to grad school. And as the first commenter pointed out, yes it CAN and most likely WILL happen to you. It's not just in the humanities, either. I know plenty of people in my area (one of the sciences) who are stuck in temporary academic positions, the research-oriented ones moving from one post-doc to another, the teaching-oriented ones adjuncting (as I am).

    Arguing over whether you're paid $4000, $5000, or (consider yourself lucky!) $6000 per class doesn't matter because the #1 problem is that you have ZERO benefits. No health insurance. None. And maybe you could have pulled this off in your early 20s, but now you're in your 30s, and health issues begin to crop up. Also, if you're female, enjoy going to Planned Parenthood for birth control (or foregoing it completely). At least as a graduate student, the campus clinic was available, but those days are over.

    Also, if you thought being a teaching assistant was humiliating, try being an adjunct. I would LOVE to have my windowless office in the basement again. I currently have no office. Makes holding "office hours" fun (I've met in the library, conference room when it's left unlocked accidentally, student lounge, undergraduate tutoring center...) The students know something is strange when you aren't listed under "faculty" on the department web site, you don't have an office, you don't have a university e-mail address... try gaining their respect then.

  6. I finished my PhD in Ed Psych from a national research university about 6 months ago. I've had one phone interview and no real bites besides that. It looks like I'll be teaching at the high school again next year.

    Between teaching at the HS and taking on a couple college courses as an "instructor", I'll be making about 70k. I can't see accepting an adjunct position full time to make 1/3 of that and having no benefits. Heck, it would even be a stretch to accept an assistant professor offer to make 50k a year, so I may be on a different path from here on out.

    But teaching in the public schools is becoming more of a PITA with the economy. They're cramming more kids into fewer classrooms with more periods and less time. It appears that education is unraveling at all levels and I'm now supremely qualified to witness it. Luckily I don't owe that much on my schooling (20k), but I really feel for all of those who will be coming out in the next couple years 80 or 100k in debt. They'll be in for a rough life. A master's is a good investment; a PhD is not anymore.

  7. Alexander IwanowJuly 30, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    On a lighter note, the harried adjunct profiled in the 2002 Washington Post piece linked to here, Larissa Tracy, is currently assistant professor at Longwood University, with exceptionally high student ratings.

  8. I'm an adjunct, and honestly, it's not that bad for where I am in life right now (late 20s). I teach 6 classes, 3 at two different community college systems. It's a little more than $2600 per class around here, plus I am reasonably assured to get at least 2 and the possibility of 4 (2 at each) classes during the summer. So my take home pay for the year is in the mid 30s or so, but it can dip down into the mid-to-high 20s if a couple FT faculty want to poach one or two of my classes, which I've gotten better at figuring out how to avoid.

    That is by FAR the worst part of the job, and something I'm trying to work to change as a member of the adjunct faculty council. Otherwise I consider myself lucky that I am PAID to do what I LOVE to do. It's not work, it's fun. The grading is the closest thing that feels like work, and I've figured out ways to make it easier. Also if I have a problem student, but compared to K-12 where I worked for 2 years, there are far fewer.

    My actual working hours vary between 25 and 45ish hours per week (the 40-hr+ weeks are during exam grading periods so about 1 week a month). On average I'm working about 4 days, ~28 hours a week and getting paid in the low 30s - about what an administrative assistant or an LVN would make FT. Yeah, I'm not paid great, but look at my hours.

    My best friend, the same age, is the asst. manager at a car repair shop. He makes about $47K a year, maybe more if he has good sales. But he works 55-70 hour weeks - about 10 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week. So he works about 100% more than I do but only gets paid about 35% more.

    Whose better off? I have a lot of free time, which I'm spending preparing PHD apps. My only regret is that I took out loans for my BA and MA, about 30K worth, which I could have avoided through working more hours on the outside. I didn't start handling money well until a couple years ago. I won't go for a Ph.D. if it looks like I'll have to take out loans of more than $5K a year. I can handle a $50K total debt load but no way in hell will I go above that for what could be adjunct-hood for a good while.

    A lot of you seem like whiners. At my institutions, almost all the FT faculty were adjuncts there for 4-6 years before they got FT positions. Many of the administrators started as adjuncts.

  9. A few more points to add:

    1. That adjunct job may be hard to keep: many departments think of the adjunct positions as a way to keep their freshly-minted PhDs afloat for a couple of years until they can find a "real job". (Of course there aren't any real jobs out there.) After that, they'll cut you off in favour of a fresher PhD. Meanwhile, you are another few years older and deeper in debt.
    2. Many people think that adjuncting will just be temporary until they can catch that tenure-track job. But the reality is that, teaching a bunch of new classes and probably taking on an extra job to pay rent, you will have little time or motivation for active research. And without an impressive list of new publications, your dissertation will be "stale" within a couple of years. So, if you didn't get the tenure-track job the first year out on the market, chances are it isn't ever coming.
    3. Once you do tire of being an underpaid and underappreciated adjunct, it may be extremely difficult to find a job outside the academy: you are simultaneously both over qualified and underqualified for most positions out there, and employers will usually prefer a much younger BA without all the baggage.

    1. Well, I did find a tenure-track job, and it was in my first (serious) year of searching (I spat out a handful of scattered, unserious apps last year).

      I did have to move cross-country and I attribute my successful candidacy to luck more than anything else.

  10. @ 8:30 anon

    1) I'm not too worried. Most of the adjuncts around here have been doing it for quite some time. The dept. chairs see them as necessary resources. All it takes it a little massaging and preparation on evaluation days to make them like you. My experience has been that they will keep rehiring you if you don't screw up somehow, but brown-nosing helps.

    Of course, that is also necessary in the "real" world.

    Then there's the fact that I live in Texas where people with advanced degrees are not in such great supply, especially outside Austin. Maybe half the adjuncts have a PhD? Most have MAs.

    That said, they can just lay me off without warning or cause, but then how is that really different from the private sector?

    2) I understand this, but I think things are beginning to change. At one of my Comm. colleges, the district is preparing to eliminate tenure. This has the FT faculty in an uproar, but they are basically being told it is going to happen whether they like it or not. If I'm not mistaken, almost half of Community College districts in Texas have already eliminated tenure and more look to be moving in that direction. It will accelerate once some of the old guard administrators retire.

    The T/T system is part of the problem and responsible for the move toward adjunct reliance. Personally, I agree it should be phased out and replaced with year-by-year or multi-year contracts like any white collar worker. How long could this caste system be expected to last?

    Changes are going to happen. You hear the rantings in right wing politics, but believe me, the political will is toward changing the way college faculty operate, making them more accountable, and reducing their leverage. Schools will comply because they must conform to some extent to secure funding.

    Otherwise, like I said, most FT faculty I know secured jobs after adjuncting a while, 2-5 years. More than that and you may indeed be unemployable.

    3) Indeed a problem, which I found out when I tried job searches after earning the M.A. I made the choices I did; I have to live with that. However, prospects were not that much better when I had just a B.A. Jobs are difficult for everyone these days.

    The major delusion I perceive on this blog is the idea that there is an exponentially better world outside academia. If you just take your degree to the job market, you'll secure a FT position with health insurance and paid vacations, paying upwards of 50K a year or more. Good effing luck.

    My experience in the private sector was that I made a similar or maybe a marginally better salary working far more hours.

  11. I love this observation: "many people find that a PhD is a ticket to a part-time job." I think it is so true, and I don't understand why people do this to themselves. My advice is find a full-time job, even if it's outside of academia.

  12. If enrollment declines continue across the country, there will be less need for adjuncts, making even the adjunct track less available to new PhD graduates.

  13. I just stumbled across this. It's beyond awful. If there was ever any doubt as to the utter bankruptcy of the system...

  14. You may also find it galling that the famous Dept Chair exploiting the hell out of adjuncts (you) is a specialist in Post-Colonial literature of exploitation, ethics and equality, or the American Labor Movement.

    1. com/article/Union-Efforts-on-Behalf-of/145833/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en


  16. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I seems to recall that in my undergraduate days (at an Ivy League university), "adjunct" connoted independent scholars. They were part-time, yes, but typically faculty who were prominent in their fields or through independent achievements--e.g., Wall Street types who breezed in to teach a class or two in finance, the way that hotshot litigators who might impart some of their insight (OK, war stories) to law students. Or they had full-time positions elsewhere and were participating in an exchange for a year or two as a Visiting Professor. Sometimes they were eminent poets or writers who taught a class or two in English. Similarly, attorney friend of mine in California who had extensive experience as a military litigator once taught an undergraduate course as an adjunct at a local state university; most of his students were criminal justice majors. In all of these cases, the adjunct might have welcomed the extra $2000 or so per course per semester, but didn't have to depend on it; as a part-time gig, with a bit of CV prestige tossed in, it would be eminently fair and reasonable. But I graduated from college in 1989, and since then, to paraphrase MacArthur, the world has turned over many times. Nobody could fault a university for paying modest sums to "adjuncts" in this original sense of the term. But forcing someone to live on that kind of compensation is an utter disgrace.