Illustration by Jim Cooke

Adjunct professors have the honor of being the most highly educated workers who are paid poverty wages. The American higher education system rests on their backs. They are telling us their stories.

This week’s theme: if you think that you are going to have a career in academia, think again.

Repulsive and exploitative

I got my PhD in Classics, which maintains a bit of an old school appeal to pedigree (and white males). Our PhDs are being churned out at an alarming rate (not as bad as English, though), and there are few tenure track jobs. If you look at the Classics wiki, which goes back to 2010, the jobs go to ivy PhDs 90% of time. I may be a touch bitter about it, but objectively I think it is bad for the discipline because we have the same ideologies from the same institutions being placed all over the country. I also think that it is incredibly irresponsible for tenured faculty to encourage undergraduates to go to graduate school when the adjunctification of the university has been bad for a really long time (as I am sure you know, it is only recently that the issue has exploded all over the internet). I’ve been telling students for years not to do it while my colleagues pushed others through, because schools rank better if they produce PhD graduates.

Pre-defense I was in visiting instructor line at school in Florida that was supposed to last 3 years. Due to budget cuts from president’s office, and despite the pleas to the chair and dean from my many students, I was cut after a year. My graduate institution, U of SC, offered to pay me a higher adjunct rate with a full schedule, so I moved back from Florida to take the position. This extra rate was still only 4k a class, for 32k a year. I taught upper level classes, one with over 300 students, and a bunch of language classes. It was grueling work, with 4 different preps each semester. I wasn’t allowed to go to any department meetings and, while my colleagues were generally nice and appreciative of me doing the bulk of teaching for the department, we were definitely not on equal terms.

When everything started buzzing about adjunct walk-out day, I decided to talk to my students about the adjunct problem instead of walking out. I made some slides and talked about the national problem, gave them the percentage of faculty at their school who were contingent. They were absolutely shocked and horrified. The students have no idea. They assume that anyone teaching a college class is a “professor” with great pay and hours and everything...

[Later], I took a job in public school, and, sadly, at a school in the south I make over 15k more than I did as a university “professor.” The summer after my year of adjuncting, when for 3 months I had to live on $3200 (pre-tax), I racked up over 5k in credit card debt to get groceries and pay bills. I just wasn’t able to put anything away during the year, so I had nothing saved. I am still paying for it.

What’s going on at the university level is repulsive and exploitative. You can look up administrator salaries at state schools and they make ridiculous money, and there are so many of them, assistant chairs, deanlets, vice provosts. And the rallying cry is that because of state funding the schools have no money, but in actuality they put it into facilities and admin salaries.

I am never adjuncting again, and I have decided to leave academia. The tenure-track, because there are so few people to divide up committee work and professional duties, and the publish or perish philosophy, and tenure disappearing at universities across the country, isn’t what it used to be and I don’t want to bounce around adjuncting or in visiting lines for years to end up still not “making it.” I need loan forgiveness for my massive student debt from getting the PhD, and public service forgiveness is the best way to do it (so no private schools, adjuncting, or visiting lines). I want to teach in a more desirable part of the country, but teaching is teaching I suppose. I do miss being able to swear in class, though.

I think promoting adjunct rights is important, but I also hope that the series with Gawker touches on the realities of the job market - we need to be realistic with undergraduates (many of whom are already in debt). They are not unique snowflakes, and getting higher education doesn’t guarantee a job. Ivy PhDs give you a fighting chance, but it still isn’t a sure thing.

All you can do is hope and pray

I am an adjunct professor at two colleges in Southern California. Teaching four classes a semester, my take-home pay is a little over $800 a week—and I am only paid that 8 months out of the year, for the spring and fall semesters. (My wife is beginning her career in production design and film, and is currently a production assistant on a TV show. She and I recently made the tragi-comic observation that, at her low, first-rung-of-the-ladder, entry-level job, she makes as much as I do after I have taught 9 years at the college level.)

One of the schools I teach at, Fullerton College in Fullerton, CA, had five open full-time positions this year. And, after 9 years of teaching, excellent evaluations from institution and students alike, and a deep commitment to my work there, I wasn’t even able to get an interview. It was particularly demoralizing. So, okay, maybe there’s something about my application they’re not looking for or don’t like, but not even getting an interview says loud and clear what I already know: the place I work for does not value my contribution to its success in a way we typically associate with employers. There is no advancement and promotion structure based on what you have accomplished or invested in your work at the institution. It counts for nothing. All you can do is hope and pray that you’ll be one of the chosen ones, called up to a life of health care and a living wage (but still teaching the exact same classes and performing the exact same job duties). That is in fact the most disheartening aspect of it: I teach the same classes, to the same standards, with the same textbooks and support as my full-time colleagues. We do the same work. I make 1/3 of their salary.

Here’s a fun fact: a quick perusal of the job openings on the website of the college district I teach at shows that I could make more money per month as a Facilities Custodian at my school than I do as an adjunct professor. Naturally I don’t begrudge the janitor for making this money; it’s great! But again, there are two classes of academics at these schools: full-timers, who are paid a wage commensurate with their experience and education, and adjunct faculty, who are not. Hate to beat a dead horse, but these two classes of people do the exact same work.

Starbucks employee and adjunct professor

I am an adjunct :(

I make $1200 a month teaching 2 Master EXECUTIVE program classes. I had to create the whole curriculum for one of the classes, the department just gave me a name for the course.

I spent more than 1 month creating the whole content for that class and that was in December before classes stared in January. I am currently working 40 + hours a week in class preparation (grading, responding emails and participating in class discussions). I have 2 kids, so I have to work part time at my local Starbucks to to have access to insurance.

My department ignores its adjunct professors, we are not included in any activities, programs, etc. I have a PhD from Purdue University and teaching is my life! I love what I do, but I hate the labor system. I make more at Starbucks than what I make at my University!

It is insane to see that my department has only 3 FULL TIME PROFESSORS and 20 ADJUNCTS!!! It is a business where my executive students pay a lot of money for their masters degree and I only get a tip!

What can we do? Don’t do a PhD. Things will not change for us.

It’s just not worth it

My work experience was as follows……during the 2009-2010 school year, I taught as an adjunct at three different schools. The first was 60 miles away, I drove two days a week for two classes at $1,500 per class. The second was teaching online two courses a semester for $2000 dollars a course. The third was in my hometown for about $180-$200 per student. I think I made a bit under $20,000 that year. The next year, I was a visiting assistant professor at liberal arts college half-time for $21,000 per year, but the catch was it required a 2 hour commute one way, which I made 2-3 times a week and I wasn’t going to move my family unless the job was permanent. After being promised upon taking the job that there would be a full-time opening for this position and I would be considered for it, they cancelled the search 2 months into the school year and said I could stay on part-time beginning the next fall, after I fulfilled my contract for the 2010-2011 school year. I finished out the spring and never went back as I took a job in administration at my alma mater in the fall of 2011, overseeing the development of a new program. The faculty senate then refused to approve the continued funding of the program that December, with the most vocal opposition to my program (and thus, my employment) coming from the faculty representative from the very department I had graduated from. After that experience, I left academia and history altogether and have only looked back with regret, bitterness, and advising any potential graduate students in the humanities to avoid the experience altogether. It’s just not worth it. I had done it all….articles and book reviews in refereed journals, published dissertation as a book by a university press, attended conferences and presented at them every year, taught mountains of classes and won teaching awards for them, was awarded research grants, etc. And after all of that, I was never once a finalist brought to campus for an interview in a tenured position. After filling out 150 full academic applications over 3 years (for jobs that were in my chosen fields – I was never applying to everything that came along), I think I interviewed over the phone or at a conference about 4 times.

Unicorn hunting

I’ve taught a number of classes as an ABD PhD candidate. My school is probably middle-of-the-road in terms of working conditions - not the worst, not the best. The work level can vary wildly within schools, regardless. I’ve envied adjuncts in STEM programs who are handed a pre-designed course and just told to go teach it. I’m in the social sciences, and in my department we are expected to design the course from scratch, and continually revise and update it. It’s unbelievably time consuming, particularly if you make yourself very available to students for extra help and support, as is increasingly the expectation. In my experience it isn’t until you teach the course three or four times that you are sufficiently comfortable and familiar with the material that the pay is remotely proportional to the work you do.

The biggest problem I see with the increasing reliance on adjuncts is that there seems to be a subtle re-organization of graduate education to meet the new need for a large pool of desperate academic laborers. Graduate programs are accepting more students, and making less funding available. This leads to a larger number of available adjuncts before and after graduation. It also leads to delays in graduation at the PhD level where, in order to pay living expenses and tuition, students spend so much time in time-consuming adjunct positions that there is very little time left over to complete their degree requirements. One friend dropped out of his PhD program when he recognized that all of the people ahead of him in his program - if they finished at all - were taking around 10 years to finish their degrees because their departments were pressuring them to take on a heavier teaching load than they could handle. I eventually had to draw the line with adjunct work and refused to take on any more until I complete my dissertation. The result was a cooling effect in terms of my relationship with my department - they seem to want very little to do with me any more now that I’m no use to them.

The state of the academic job market is absolutely ridiculous. I’m finishing my PhD out of pure stubbornness, but I won’t even bother trying to find an academic teaching position. It’s like unicorn hunting.

Something has to give

Adjuncting runs a spectrum in terms of problems, but the low pay and job insecurity are the root of stresses and difficulties at both ends of it. At the arguably worst end of the spectrum are those who can’t get enough work. There are too few classes in a workable region, and this tends to go hand in hand with horrible pay. $990 is the worst that I have seen offered for a traditional course in such settings, but $2000 or less per course is entirely common in rural regions or areas with only a few community colleges. The other end of the spectrum is where I currently am, living now in the Northeast. At this end, finding contracts for courses is less difficult, but at the same time you must scrabble together many classes to match the often higher cost of living (especially housing).

To make this work, I juggle courses at 3 different universities, and have taught between 5 and 7 courses in fall and spring semesters, plus 2-3 in the summer for a couple of years now. Whereas tenure-track professors at a research university might teach 5-6 courses a year, perhaps 8 if it is a hybrid liberal arts focused institution, and maybe 10 at a purely teaching institution, I have generally taught 12-15 annually at a fraction of the annual pay *even after teaching that many courses*... and of course, with no job security from semester to semester. The rates per course vary with each university. Two of mine are unionized, though this doesn’t automatically translate into decent pay. Because of how new and sometimes weak the adjunct organization efforts are, some initial contracts can be really, really bad, while others can be great and bring security and benefits. One of mine still has horrible pay, and the other will be improving notably, but slowly over the the next few years, and still no real security or benefits. All together, I currently make between 3600- 4100 per course, so somewhere between 45-50k a year. Average rent in my area will take half of that away, and student loans and bad healthcare offerings will take another big chunk, but it is doable, which is why it is on the better end of problems. I am not in penury as long as nothing upsets the current balance.

The costs of this arrangement get shifted around. Students get costs pushed onto them in terms of time that any adjunct can devote to any one class or student. Pedagogical quality and personal attention suffer, or the adjunct suffers unsustainably from overwork. When you have 125-150 students each semester in courses where you are expected to evaluate essays, ideas, and writing, and with no assistance in grading... something has to give. Finding time to step back and evaluate whether different teaching strategies are working for a few students, and mulling over “how can I reach these kids” is often just not feasible with the number of hours in a day. If you do find time, forget institutional support for either pedagogical or scholarly development. University administrators will rarely provide resources to their adjuncts, and are more often than not completely dismissive or hostile to them. If you want to do actual scholarship, you better hope it doesn’t require expensive travel or resources, and if you are in a field that doesn’t require these things, then it is probably one that isn’t hiring with full time positions.

A few things would be improvements, in no particular order of feasibility or sufficiency:

-Increase public funding for universities and earmark percentages of budgets for instructor salaries. While things like the bloating of an administrative class with little to no experience in a real classroom are negative and contribute to the low pay of adjuncts (among other problems), the lack of public funding is worse.

-Increase unionization of faculty. If tenure-track jobs are going away or becoming a scarcity-driven middle-managerial class, then most faculty must get over their traditional conceit of being lone professionals. For the sake of their students and themselves, they must recognize the need for collective organization to counter the economically and educationally destructive demands of administrators.

-Increase democratic accountability of all administrative functions. Universities should not be run like businesses, and education should not be reduced to an array of commodities offered for career advancement alone. Yet, this is exactly how so much of the administrative class (who may have never taught a class in their lives) thinks of universities. A return to electing administrators on temporary rotation from within the faculty would be preferable. Electing an administrative body with substantive input from all university employees (faculty and non-faculty) as well as students would be even better, if unlikely at the moment. An end to administrators as careerists and CEOs is mandatory if we want to do something other than watch the university system collapse or mutate into something no longer worth defending.

Thanks to all the adjuncts who have sent in their stories. We will run more in coming weeks.