This is the time of the school year when many of us are running around looking for people to teach classes for us as adjunct professors. This brings back memories of the times I worked as an adjunct professor when I was in graduate school, acquiring experience as I was paid minimally for my time. Today, as chair, I see the market for adjuncts from another perspective. I want to take a minute today to discuss the economics behind the market for adjunct professors, and how this might help potential adjunct professors find the best possible position.
Economic theory tells us that firms will be willing to invest in training workers if they can anticipate reaping the rewards for their investments (for more information, see a labor economics text, such as that written by Ehrenberg and Smith.) The problem arises when an employee is not planning to stay long enough for the firm to be able to reap the benefits of their investment, as is often the case with adjunct professors. The worker mobility in this market leads to a disincentive for colleges to put time and energy into helping their adjunct professors become the best teachers possible. Instead, they usually choose to pay low wages, in effect asking the adjunct to pick up the cost of the investment in their training. This is one explanation for the prevailing low wages in the market for adjunct professors.
As many former adjunct professors know, the experience gained from working as an adjunct is very valuable, despite the lower wages. Since working as an adjunct can be so important to breaking into (or back into) the academic labor market, I suggest that the lower wages should not deter one from this route. Instead, when looking for an adjunct position, one should look for a school that is going to invest time and energy into helping them become the best teacher possible. This is something we have committed ourselves to here at Ursuline.
For example, we often allow our adjuncts to teach smaller, upper division classes, allowing them to gain experience by teaching majors who are dedicated to the subject and eager students. We have observed adjuncts as they teach, and provided feedback to help them improve as teachers. We work directly with our adjuncts and our students to resolve any problems that might arise and therefore give them some insight into typical classroom management problems. When our adjunct professors leave us, it is with a new set of skills that we helped they acquire, and, despite the low wages they are paid in this market, they are generally better prepared for the academic labor market and see the experience as a positive one. And they often leave with one of the best thing that you can bring from an experience of working as an adjunct; a glowing letter of recommendation to use in applying for other positions. We have written letters of recommendation for former adjuncts that have helped them to acquire good full-time positions. While these teachers are no longer working for our college, the academic world is benefiting from the investment we made in their skills.
The lower pay in the market for adjunct professors often makes it difficult for us to find professors to teach such classes. However, if you think of the experience as a way to gain skills that are transferable to your next job, the lower wage is just another way that you are investing in yourself.