Can You Afford to Adjunct?

A long-time adjunct warns against assuming non-tenure-track work is your best option -- and some advice if you head in that direction anyway.

June 15, 2009

“May you live in contingent times…” –recent adjunct proverb

We live in engaging, if not interesting economic times; of that, there is little doubt. Diversifying one’s revenue stream becomes more than a business model — it becomes a necessity. So, as you realize that tenure-track jobs aren't materializing, and you consider taking on adjunct positions next academic year, keep this one thing in mind: can you afford it?

The first consideration when considering becoming an adjunct should not be the pay. If so, you should immediately reconsider your decision, as there is little to no pay involved in adjuncting, especially when you correlate the time spent. Once grading comes into the mix, it waters down your per-hour rate (for a sample, please see/take my poll here). According to my blog-based poll, only 44 percent of respondents report earning at least $15 an hour. Think long and hard about this decision. There are decent paying gigs, but they are hard to find and few.

That said, you also should give consideration to the “adjunct hit.” Merely by taking the position as a contingent faculty, you are relegating yourself to: lower pay, lower prestige and a disposable status. You will not, on average, be asked to serve on department committees. You will not be groomed for tenure status as the tenure-trackers are, and you will not have the relative security of teaching a class for more than a semester at a time.

Don’t consider using adjuncting as a “back door” into a specific department. You are the academic equivalent of a fry cook. You will not be moved into district manager very easily. Perhaps your department grows their own. Ask. How many tenured, tenure-track profs started out as an adjunct? Take your answer as policy. Adjuncts are seldom promoted. You may, especially in smaller or community colleges, be able to enter by attrition, but this happens rarely and should be considered along the lines of winning the lottery. Think very carefully of your overall plan, especially if you have a family or dependents.

There are ways to mitigate the adjunct hit: teach at throwaway colleges (you consider them a nice place to visit, but wouldn’t want to retire there), string together a set of colleges (two classes here, three classes there, one online, etc.), work part time as you complete your degree, article, presentation, novel, study, etc.

To the first, you are contingent faculty, so too can be your colleges. If you are considered temporary, consider your departments temporary as well — a partially paid mentorship of sorts. If you have your sights set on a dream school, investigate the hiring practices there. If departments do not hire from within, you will not be the exception. You may, though, be comfortable teaching for your dream school at any level.

I didn’t mind teaching for Suffolk University as an adjunct, because I liked working at Suffolk. Work to make this a conscious decision, not a happenstance. If you have no intention of working for an institution long-term, adjuncting is a great way to experience a department with minimal obligations. If you have just a master’s and wish to determine if teaching is right for you, by all means grab an adjunct position if you are able. There is nothing like road-testing a career to see if it fits. Keep in mind, though, that there is no back door, and you will most likely have to experience a type of teaching that is, although increasing in frequency, not the norm.

To the second point, I have heard the term “freeway teaching” to describe driving from one campus to another as the adjunct fills out a teaching load. But I live in a mostly rural area, so I prefer the term “highway teaching.” It sounds a lot like highway robbery, which seems to fit. Since you will need to make some semblance of a living wage, stringing together multiple institutions might be the only way to pay your bills. I have not met a department that requires its instructors to sign a non-compete, so feel free to peddle your wares where you are able.

When you do so, keep in mind that the commute costs go against your bottom line. It also helps to regiment strict organization on your materials. There is nothing so embarrassing as handing out materials with the wrong college’s logo, or making an announcement for a campus activity for the place across town. The students pick up on your state, your status and your embarrassment. It is awkward.

Online teaching is a great option for adding on the courses, but do not consider online to be any less of a time commitment. The online format, you may find, may very well take longer to meet the same level of interaction with your students. You will have materials to compile, chat rooms to monitor, assignments to interact with, e-mails, instant messages, etc. And you will be, unless you were born after Kurt Cobain, at a digital native disadvantage. Ramp into it, acknowledging your learning curve against your commitments. Remember, too, that institutions have to monitor you somehow, and online they will do it through your log-in ID. All of the platforms (BlackBoard/Web CT, Moodle, etc.) have the ability to track each ID’s time and location, right down to the last click. Know this before your sign up for five online classes that use three different platforms.

Finally, consider adjuncting as a stepping stone or way station as you work to complete something larger: your dissertation, book, study, etc. However, the adjunct hit extends not only to your status, but to your time as well. Since you will need to find more sections to fill out a teaching load (see the per hour rate above), you will be taking on more commitments, which means less time for your professional advancement. Throw in some family obligations, some personal time, and you are quickly out of time. Proceed along this course carefully. Good luck.


Piss Poor Prof is the pseudonym of the blogger Burnt-Out Adjunct. His adjuncting numbers: 11 years, 9 institutions, almost 100 classes, 3 platforms, every conceivable course structure (lecture, online, hybrid, etc.), many, many students.


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