Illustration by Jim Cooke

Adjunct professors are the most highly educated low-wage workers in America. And they told us all about it.

Higher education is an industry with a two-tier employment system: the full time and tenured professors and the administrators with well-compensated, stable jobs, and the adjunct professors who have no guarantee of job stability and pay near poverty levels. Last week, we asked for adjunct professors to write in and tell us about their financial, professional, and personal situations. We’ve received nearly 200 responses so far. Some common themes have emerged.

The pay is bad.

A commonly cited figure for adjunct pay is $2,700 per class. Our respondents mostly confirmed this as a general average, with most saying they were paid between $2,000 and $4,000 per class, though some schools fell higher or lower. Those whose positions were unionized (or at least somewhat organized) uniformly reported better pay, though some also reported retaliation against them from institutions bitter that they unionized in the first place. All agreed, though, that when you broke it down to an hourly wage by how much work is actually required, adjunct pay is absurdly low.

  • “I teach 5 courses per year, and make $21k before taxes. As you might imagine, each course takes work: we meet 2-3 times per week for a total of 150 minutes; each of these meetings takes about 1.5 hours of prep time, and then grading for each takes an average of 5 hours/week. Throw in office hours and it comes to the 40-hour week.”
  • “My quality of life is garbage. I share a two-bedroom apartment with three other people and I can’t afford to get a haircut. I’m on food stamps. My parents pay for gas for my car and for my health insurance, or I wouldn’t have any. People are incredulous when they find out that someone with a graduate degree in math lives like I do.”
  • “I’d make more money per hour if I worked retail.”

Many adjuncts must hustle madly just to make a living.

It is not just the low pay that makes adjunct careers so maddening. Many adjuncts say that they are forced to accept teaching gigs at several different far-flung campuses during the same semester, leading to long commutes and little time for anything else in life, just to try to scrape together a living. Others hold second or third jobs, teaching in the day and then bartending or tutoring at night. The nonstop scrambling makes it hard for adjuncts to form personal and professional relationships on campus, which in turn makes it harder for them to further their careers. It’s an academic treadmill to nowhere.

  • “I get paid $2000 a class but am only teaching one class due to a combination of long commutes and my desire to get a real full time job being exploited by corporate America. If my labor is gonna be exploited, I would at least like to be paid a living wage. I work for this one class roughly 12-15 hours a week. It was closer to 30 last semester, but I am teaching the same class and am recycling most of the tests, homework assignments, and presentations. Still the amount I work (due to professional pride) combined with the paltry amount of pay I get, is not very heartening.”
  • “I am an adjunct in the English department at a large public University in Texas. I also teach classes for a local community college. In addition, I do academic odd jobs, like ‘coaching’ in gigantic online distance ed classes and scoring AP exams. I started teaching in 2003 at the same time as I started grad school as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, teaching two classes while enrolled in 6 hours of coursework for what seemed at the time a princely sum of 18k a year (it was better than what I made waiting tables. On the other hand, I waited tables with a guy who was an adjunct and I’m pretty sure he made more waiting tables than he did teaching.)“

The Ph.D. system is unsustainable

Tons of people enter grad school and take on heavy student debt with the idea that they will become tenured professors when they get out. Most of them find that to be an impossible dream. Good, full-time teaching jobs are scarce and incredibly competitive. Simple math dictates that most Ph.D.’s will be forced into lower-paid adjunct teaching gigs—turning out replicas of themselves, the next generation of indebted and disappointed aspiring academics. The supply of new graduates vastly outstrips the demand for tenured college professors.

  • “It will end when the system no longer over-produces Ph.D.s. I recall quite clearly when a former colleague, when asked to justify his proposal for creating a Ph.D. program in Political Science at his, at best, third rate university explained that- ‘I’ve always wanted to be able to direct a dissertation.’ He was utterly unconcerned about whether the student would ever be able to get a job or pay off debt. If they were at all ethical, the major academic societies would convene in a small room, and after much discussion, brandy, and fine cigars, would arrive at a number. That number is the replacement rate needed for each field’s actual Ph.D. market. Sadly, there is no incentive for this to happen, and every incentive to keep producing even in the face of declining demand.”
  • “The problem, as your article points out, is that nobody is hiring. I’ve been on the market twice now, which means that this year I was applying for jobs alongside of people who just earned their degrees — and so this year, my cohort of 4 applied alongside another dozen or so. Of roughly 16 people (I don’t have the numbers on this exactly), 1 person landed a job. And of course, next year, those numbers will increase: the system has hit a bottleneck, so much so that after being told that the department intended to bring me back next year, just yesterday I received an email with the clause: “However, because of what is potentially an unprecedented number of new post-docs, we are uncertain at this time about our staffing needs for the fall. I wanted to let you know about the possibility that we may not be able to rehire you now so that you have some lead time to plan for that contingency.”
  • “When I was a GTA, I felt like there was an expectation that all of us would go on to be tenured professors. When I transitioned to being an Adjunct, I realized that the expectation was that we had pretty much no future and were as a group really depressing to hang out with since we reminded people what an awful scam the humanities was and how it was basically a bunch of postmodernists and Marxists running a Dickensian workhouse.”

So where is all the money in higher education going? To middle management administrators, not teachers.

Over and over again, adjuncts bitterly noted the swelling ranks of well-paid administrators in their universities, even as the people who actually do the bulk of the teaching remain poor. Some said that they saw tenured professors as allies; others said that those professors, who are paid multiples of what adjuncts get for essentially the same work, turn a blind eye to the inequities of the system that supports them.

  • “I think the enemy of the adjunct is not necessarily the full-time faculty (who are alternately busy and lazy), but administrations.”
  • “I would love to see instructor pay increase and to eliminate the exorbitant pay that many university presidents and administrators are receiving, but I just don’t see this happening.”
  • “Teaching is my passion. It’s what I’m good at. I love it, I love my students, they love me. It is continual heartache, degradation, and false hope to continue in this fundamentally exploitative system. Increasingly, I fault tenured professors who are able to maintain the belief in a meritocracy- that somehow they deserve making twice what I make.”

We will leave you with one response we got from a veteran adjunct, summing up many of the issues that others cited.

The following are my observations as an adjunct.

If you don’t get a tenure track position immediately out of grad school, you never will. There is no possibility that you will ever be even considered for a tenure track position if you’re one year away from exit from grad school. This is institutionalized regardless of your field.

Accumulated real world experience in your field’s private sector, or professional academic publication, bar none, acquired after graduate school has zero value to tenure track employment. This is not only my own experience. Any adjunct will attest to this.

There is a commonplace argument and perception that working adjunct has always been in place for people with sustaining outside jobs, who ostensibly bring real-world experience to the classroom. This is not only faulty thinking, it’s patently absurd. No real-world person ever comes even close to being assigned to teach in-depth courses.

I’ve worked adjunct for 10 years. The $2700 per course salary is set and controlled by the State’s board of regents, all of whom are clearly in lockstep nationally. It isn’t a criterion that a college sets.

We all know about administration’s salary bloat. Unionizing has the dual nature of having to deal with opposition from state’s teachers’ unions, from which the limitation of no-more-than-three-classes-per-campus sources. That’s an institutionalized problem for adjuncts.

My experience has been crushing penury. A little-discussed financial issue is that I, nor any other adjunct, can afford the expense of multiple commutes to far-flung campuses.

Professors (on tenure track as well as tenured) where I’ve worked have all, to a person, been in support of adjunct salary increases. Faculty’s stripping of effective power to sit on budget committees (as well as other vital committees) has been, in my experience, the greatest source of anger among faculty.

We will be running more stories from academia’s underclass in the weeks to come. Thanks to everyone who wrote in to share their stories.