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Flying Standby

By Crystal L. Keels

The life of an adjunct professor can be rewarding but uncertain

The plight of graduate assistants in the academy has repeatedly made headlines in recent years. Just last month, the union representing New York University graduate teaching assistants said it had authorized a strike over the university’s refusal to negotiate a second contract.

Low pay, long hours, numerous teaching responsibilities and few if any health benefits have led these students to strategize, and in some cases unionize, to improve their working conditions.

But many of these teaching assistants have discovered that graduation is not the end of their struggle. Masses of newly minted Ph.D.s searching for increasingly elusive tenure-track positions are discovering that they have become part of a growing contingent on campuses across the country — the adjunct professor. 

Shifting conditions in the academy account for the increasing number of doctorates teaching in adjunct roles rather than in full-time, tenure-track positions, and much of it has to do with economics.

“Adjuncts require less of a commitment from an institution,” says Gwen Bradley, a member of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession. “These are pure teaching positions, so institutions don’t have to pay for research. It’s more cost effective for universities,” she says.

She notes that in limited studies, women are unquestionably at the lower end of the spectrum for tenure-track positions. Consequently, overwhelmingly more women than men fall back into adjunct roles. Furthermore, she explains that while it varies by institution, overall it appears that there are more adjuncts in community colleges and non-research institutions and fewer at the more expensive schools. “It partly correlates with budgets,” she says.

Bradley adds that it is not uncommon for adjuncts to work at several institutions simultaneously, to “cobble together a bunch of part-time positions,” she says. “It’s a difficult market, not like some careers.”
Dr. Rebecca Wood, a 2004 graduate of Indiana University’s department of English, now holds a visiting lecturer position at her alma mater, where she says the adjunct role is like flying standby. “You are at the mercy of the department you are working for, and there are no benefits.”

Last year Wood worked as an adjunct at IU during her search for a full-time, tenure-track position and says she was assured one course to teach each semester. The first semester went well, but come spring, Wood was without a job. “A week before classes started, there was no course on the books for me,” she says.

This year, her current position is renewable for up to three years with full benefits and retirement. “I’m in a much more stable position now than last year,” she says. “I think this profession requires that people are at least at a certain point, comfortable with uncertainty in their lives.”

But many adjuncts aren’t trying to break into the field full-time. There is a sizable percentage of adjuncts who hold other full-time jobs outside of the university, and come on campus specifically to offer a particular expertise in the classroom.

“Our formal use of ‘adjunct’ is as a modifier for professional titles,” says Susan Steward, director of academic personnel policy at Cornell University. “It refers to an individual who serves part time and whose main employment is elsewhere, like, for example, a lawyer of some distinction,” she says. Steward adds that the university has made a commitment that students are also exposed to professors with whom they can do research, but adjuncts “perform very important roles,” particularly, she says, because they are dedicated “exclusively to pedagogy.”

Dr. Sadie Gregory, provost at Coppin State University in Baltimore, which employs 120 full-time professors and 205 adjuncts, agrees that adjuncts play a special role.

“We have very dedicated adjuncts,” she says. “We were really surprised by the time they devote to guide and mentor students, which they do very well.”

Along with the professionals who hold full-time jobs and teach one or two classes each semester, a large number of adjuncts at Coppin State are actually retired K-12 schoolteachers, Gregory says. That earlier experience offers added bonuses in that they are accustomed to working with students and serving as mentors.  

IU’s Wood says the dedicated adjunct can revel in the position because of the advantages it provides.

“It’s flexible in terms of schedule. You can work as an adjunct around other jobs and it’s a way to stay in contact with the profession,” she says.

But many adjuncts have another, more pragmatic reason to keep teaching, which Wood discovered during an adjunct orientation at a community college in Kansas.

“The main reason I heard people give for why they were there was that they had some medical, dental or other health-related problem,” Wood says. “I was surprised at the number of people who said they were forced into the classroom to get money for medical bills.”

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