Education in America

Dispatch from Adjunct Land 1

“Have you always wanted to teach but can’t full time?” -From a want ad for adjunct instructors.

As I prepared to apply for grad school, I can recall just one professor trying to warn me about problems in academia (such as, say, the lack of jobs, especially in the humanities). I didn’t listen to Dr. D., nor did I listen if anyone else tried to warn me. Dr. D. was awesome, but not in my major, and I assumed I’d succeed, because I was 23 and really good at school.

Strangely, it was only after I was in grad school that I finally received the warnings: there were no jobs (especially for those with just a Master’s), the best one could do was adjunct for 30 years and then die.

Here is where the “but” should be, actually, this is rather true.

Of course, not everyone gets a Master’s or Doctorate just to get a job in academia. And certainly some people do go on to become full time or even tenured professors. But the market is tough. Right now, only 25% of professor positions are tenured or tenure-track, and the number of adjuncts has grown by 300% since 1975 (AAUP, 2013).

What is an adjunct? A part-time faculty member, one who usually works for very low pay and few or no benefits. Often an adjunct doesn’t know until right before a class starts that she/he even has a class, and can rarely budget far into the future. Often the adjunct is stuck with the classes no one wants: the 8 a.m. classes, the 7 p.m. classes, weekend classes, introductory classes.

When I graduated in 2008 (I don’t mind if you laugh), I applied to all of the nearby colleges and community colleges: twenty in total. When it comes to full time work, I’ve received just one interview. I’ve been adjuncting ever since. (I’ve applied for work outside of academia, too.)

I enjoy adjuncting because I enjoy teaching, but I long for a full time position. There’s the stability, better pay, and benefits, of course. But I’d love to be able to build stronger relationships with my students. When I was a student, I liked looking through the course catalog and picking classes based not on the subject but on who taught it. I’ve had a few students tell me they hope to take another class with me, but unfortunately, once they leave, that’s it.

I’ll be sharing my experiences not to scare anyone–go to school if that’s your desire! Teach if that’s your desire!–but just to get it out there. There is worthwhile work in academia, but there’s a lot of disappointment, too.

Currently, I’m an adjunct with just one school, but I’ve been an adjunct for two others (three if you count my stint as a TA). I teach introductory writing courses, though I dream of teaching literature. I work online, which is a whole other topic. In future columns, I’ll be sharing specific experiences of part-time teaching.

Do you have or have you thought about getting an advanced degree? Do you or have you thought about teaching at the college level?


AAUP. (2013). Here’s the news: The annual report on the economic status of the profession, 2012-13. American association of university professors. Retrieved from:

By Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

2 replies on “Dispatch from Adjunct Land 1”

As a current Master’s student, I am not shocked to read any of this. My field is Geographic Information Science and Remote Sensing (with some Economics and Forestry thrown in for good measure). As an undergraduate intern two of my mentors told me flat out not to bother with getting a Ph.D. “It’s not worth it,” they said and sticking to a Master’s would give me all the skills I’d need to be marketable.

I ‘ve never wanted Ph.D, so I’m lucky that I didn’t die from the shock of these encounters. All through high school and even in undergrad we’re taught to pray at the alter of higher education. But as you’ve illustrated, the cake is mostly a lie. In my view a Ph.D limits you in a future career. It gives you mainly three options: be a professor, manage other researchers or administrate in some capacity (not necessarily academic). None of those sound appealing to me. I want to DO what I went to school to do. Sure there are Ph.D’s out there doing research but it’s typically in primary science fields and well…they don’t count.

Universities need graduate students, but they do not need holder’s of graduate degrees. It’s a very backwards system and it churns out tons of highly educated people with no outlet for their utilization. Most published research comes from graduate students, their professors getting a majority of the credit for the work. Professors need papers published as currency to earn favor in their departments for things like promotions, budget and salary increases. Since they are busy teaching, fund raising and raising graduate students they don’t have time for research on top of that. So they get to piggyback on the work of their students, because after all it was their funding, equipment and tutelage that made it all possible.

Once you graduate though…you’re on your own. And good luck to you.

Oh, oh, memememe! I just finished my doctoral candidacy requirements (step before dissertation – woo!) but all my research funding (science!) has finished with my field work. So, while doing some follow-up lab work and writing my dissertation (and a few peer-reviewed papers) I applied for an adjunct position at the local community college. Actually, because of the structure of the school and classes, all faculty are just “faculty”: no tenure, no associate, no adjunct (but also no benefits, no guarantee of a class the following semester, etc. for anyone whether they’ve been there 1 semester or 20). It’s my first foray into adult/college-level teaching with an Intro Ecological Issues class this fall. I am gearing up for it like whoa (because I am both in love with learning and a super over-achiever).

So I am stoked for this series! I want to know all about other people’s adjuncting experiences!

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