The Adjunct Life

July 18, 2005 | 21 comments
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Two years ago, I came within twenty-four hours of abandoning my academic career before it started. None of the applications I had sent out had gone anywhere, I had completed my degree, and my department had no money to keep me around. We packed up and got ready to drive out of town and out of academia, but we had to stay an extra day because our car was still in the shop. It had only taken so long to fix because the factory had shipped the wrong replacement part. The night before we finally left, the College of Charleston called. Thirty-six hours later, after a telephone interview, they offered me a position. But for months afterwards, I wasn’t sure if I actually had an academic career or not. I was teaching full time, publishing articles and presenting papers, but I always wondered if perhaps I should correct my students when they addressed me as “professor.” Ever since, one year has been the longest time that I can confidently predict that my employment will continue, and with it my career. I am an adjunct, arriving unannounced to teach what I know for a year or two, and then leaving just as unceremoniously.

Outside of the tenure track, there is an exotic zoo of job titles and a wide range of working conditions, but one thing that many positions have in common is their terminal calendar. While there are occasions for using more precise terminology, and even for avoiding “adjunct” like the flea-ridden carcass of a plague-bearing squirrel, I’ll use it here as a catch-all for anyone who has to send out job applications every year. Lest anyone think that this is all about navel-gazing self-indulgence, take note that BYU graduates go on to earn Ph.D.’s in numbers that rival Ivy League and flagship public universities (see table 32 in the 2003 Survey of Earned Doctorates [1.5 MB PDF]). Anyone taking that route, or thinking about it, needs to figure the role of adjunct faculty into the equation.

I have now concluded that I do have an academic career after all. If my students call me “professor,” then I need to rise to the occasion. But it is a strange sort of academic career, where I’m never sure if the current moment is the prelude or the coda. With no requirement to publish, I enjoy the dizzying freedom to dive into any topic that strikes my fancy. I also need to keep publishing with an eye on sending out the next round of applications. But on top of all that, there’s the possibility that the next thing I write may be the last chance I’ll have to make a contribution to my field. At times it’s difficult to reconcile the competing demands of following my bliss, padding my CV, and inscribing my epitaph.

As an adjunct, I do much the same work as my colleagues. They have always been helpful and competent, but there is a constant temptation to compare their benefits and higher salary and job stability and courseload reductions and fewer preparations and institutional support with my lack of the same. The parable of the penny helps. If taken in a literal sense, it reminds me that my paychecks continue to clear, and that I agreed to do a certain amount of work in return for them, and that what my colleagues are paid for doing their jobs is now irrelevant. (I have, however, turned down a job offer that promised little more than a halfpenny.)

Traditionally, “adjunct” was synonymous with part-time faculty, but for many people, it has become synonymous with exploitation. The counter-argument is that temporary positions are opportunities, an integral part of the one-to-five year period of post-Ph.D. work that seems to be a de facto requirement for being competitive for a tenure-track job in many fields today. Two years after finishing my Ph.D., I can confirm that my applications are being taken much more seriously, but not that a stable job is waiting for me somewhere.

This system places a premium on mobility–the job that best matches what you want to be doing is not likely to be located where you want to be living. For this, my church membership has been a great asset. Wherever we go, there are people who have something in common with us, who can help us and who need our help in return, and who are grateful for our presence. The networking benefit that comes from church membership becomes very noticeable when you move with kids. In economic terms, over the last two years it probably equals a significant portion of the tithing we’ve paid over our lifetimes. Our employment situation confuses people in our ward, but I don’t hold it against them. Not many people understand the academic job market, and even many academics don’t understand adjuncts. (As for the three people in our new ward who asked me on our first visit what program I was enrolling in—I have forgotten their names and faces, and I forgive them, but it better not happen again.)

Fortunately, my wife and I are not tied to any geographic location. Our two hometowns are widely separated, and we’ve never resided long in either one. Everywhere is far from family for either one or both of us. Wherever we are at the moment is not just home, but as accurate an answer to the question “where are you from?” as anywhere else we’ve been. Luckily, our children have cooperated fairly well so far. By the time he turns eight, our oldest will have lived in five houses, three states, and a foreign country. It’s impossible to say how long I can maintain the adjunct life before giving up on the goal of a stable academic job; for now, I have postponed facing that question for another year. The ultimate answer probably depends on how long my family will put up with it.

The academic blog world has been in a minor fuss recently about an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Bloggers Need Not Apply”. It’s a silly article, but many have responded that its warning to always blog anonymously should be taken to heart. Am I hurting my chances of landing a permanent position by posting under my real name? Possibly. But many people fail to get good academic jobs for all manner of serious and silly reasons. Some hiring committees, for example, will not look at anyone who has ever been an adjunct. After facing the prospect of never getting onto the tenure track long enough, that threat has lost much of its terror. Besides, what I post here is very much a matter of who I am, and sending out dozens of applications for the last four years has taught me that I cannot escape from my own identity. Professionally, I’m a medievalist who works on printing in the fifteenth century, rather than on the great literature of the twelfth and thirteenth. There is no honest way to obscure that sometimes unwelcome fact as I send out my CV, so I might as well get on with making myself the best incunabulist I can be. That I’m a Mormon is just as obvious to the trained eye, even on my carefully scrubbed professional CV, so there’s no use hiding it. Maybe it means I won’t be considered for some jobs, just as medievalists and former adjuncts aren’t considered for others. I don’t take it personally. But there’s no point in waiting for something that may never happen before I admit who I am.

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21 Responses to The Adjunct Life

  1. Larry on July 19, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    And we all thought that professors lived in cosy homes with no fear of facing the real world. Thanks for the eye opener.
    Keep reminding us. I suppose that tenure changes all that, but can we be certain of that as well?

  2. Wilfried on July 19, 2005 at 3:48 pm

    I enjoyed your contribution, Jonathan. Or should I say it triggers my deep sympathy? Anyway, it brings back many memories of my first steps in academia. What should a hiring commitee know or not know? Blogger or not? Mormon or Catholic? Democrat or Republican? You can never tell. Let me share the anecdote of my first hiring in academia. That was at the U of Antwerp, right after finishing my Ph.D. I had been told by my parents, by my friends: “You will never be hired as a Mormon. Impossible. Everything is political and you must be part of one of the parties, Catholic, Socialist or Liberal. The Catholics won’t pick you because you’re Mormon. The Socialists and the Liberals won’t because you’re a staunch believer in something as strange as Mormonism.”

    I was hired. Weeks later I asked a Jesuit priest, who was on the committee for the Catholic side, if he could tell me why they choose me instead of one of the avowed Catholic, Socialist and Liberal candidates. His answer: “Of all the candidates, you were the only one we were sure of what he really believed.”

    So yes, always admit who you are. And keep blogging.

  3. Jim F. on July 19, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    As it did for Wilfried, Jonathan, your post triggers deep sympathy–though you probably have no need for it. I spent eight years as adjunct faculty before landing the tenure track position that I am still in: small pay for the same work, in my case no benefits, constant absence of security. I hope something more permanent turns up for you and for the other Saints out there who are in similar positions.

  4. J. Stapley on July 19, 2005 at 4:14 pm

    It is very different reading this as someone in the sciences. If you want to be considered for an academic position in the sciences you need to complete at least one, if not two, 2-3 year post-docs. There is also the reality that Ph.D.s in the hard and life sciences and in business are recruited heavily into industry.

    I was the last student of a professor who is legendary in his field. He was self funded and of the old school. I would like to do what he did; however, I don’t have the patience to work with the young academics who are currently vying for their own fiefdoms. Times have changed…for the worse, I think.

    On another note, my brother just started an adjunct position at K-state (poli-sci), and we are all stoked.

  5. J. Stapley on July 19, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    …and if I may add, the survey stats about the percentage of doctorates received by women of BYU grads was the saddest thing I have read in a long, long time. Just think what the rankings would be if women had commensurate access as other Universities.

  6. Ana on July 19, 2005 at 4:34 pm

    Urgh, Jonathan, this post makes me go all nervous and clammy. (I’m married to a guy halfway — we think — through his doctorate.) What’s your field?

    If you’re looking over the next several years, please keep checking for openings at UC Merced. No openings are posted right now, but the growth is going to be enormous and I know the LDS community here would love to have some more member professors.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on July 19, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    A superb and thoughtful post, Jonathan; thanks.

    “Besides, what I post here is very much a matter of who I am, and sending out dozens of applications for the last four years has taught me that I cannot escape from my own identity.”

    This is the key realization for me. I have a pretty significant internet presence, and it’s never occurred to me to hide or cover any portion of that presence–I post under the same name I write articles under, and despite occasional fears about the messages I may be sending out I don’t intend to change. It comes down, I think, to treating the academy as a vocation. To be sure, there is much discomforting weirdness in the fact of being a “professor”–supposedly a high-class gig!–while at the same time lacking all the social and economic supports such a gig presumes (you may remember this post, Jonathan). Outside of a few lucky, well-funded schools (and maybe not even at those), there is little in the academy today that matches the “vocation” or “calling” model. Yet, the whole enterprise as we know it would collapse without that aspiration. And so, like most academics, I continue to believe and act at work as though I am a teacher and scholar (even though the institutions which employ me don’t treat me as such), for whom intellectual engagement is par for the course, and for whom the clashing of opinions is what I’ve been trained for. If blogging, or my religion, or my race, or my politics, or anything else gives an institution excuse not to hire me….well, I can complain about it, but this is all I am and all I have to offer. If it really is my calling to teach, well, then I have to put all of myself into it, and whatever the result (security or no security), that’s what I’ll take (until, of course, starvation drives us to do something else). Besides, after approximately 150 applications over a five-year period, what really is there left to hide?

  8. danithew on July 19, 2005 at 6:13 pm

    I’m afraid as well that I’ve written way too much in comments etc. And more and more people are realizing that its a good idea to google before you hire, so to speak. At the same time, people need to be allowed to be who they are to a certain extent — even with some idiosyncracies.

  9. Ben S. on July 19, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    Thanks for the post, though I’m not sure if it gives me hope (there is a future in academia!) or terrifies me more (ack! You mean after I finish my dissertation, I’m NOT done?!) I knew about the lack of jobs, but adjuncting almost sounds worse than being unemployed. Almost.

  10. Heather Bigley on July 19, 2005 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks for the post: I think we should all talk more openly about our jobs and job prospects in academia. This helps us all know what to expect, what to ask for, and what to beware of as we interview for positions.

    I am an incredibly lucky person in that I have a non-tenure position which is full-time, well paid, well supported, and very flexible at a large university. I teach technical writing in one of the university’s technical/engineering departments. I spent my BA and MFA in the humanities, and find that as soon as you leave the comfort of your own discipline, you become an “expert” to others. The hard sciences, business schools, and technical departments all have more industry contacts, hence more money, than the humanities, but they also need logicians and writers in great desperation. I’m happy to help out for awhile where I can (even though I shudder to think I’m helping create more middle management for Exxon-Mobile and Halliburton).

    Unfortunately, technical writing is not my great love, so I will return to graduate school for a doctorate. I keep reminding myself that doing what you love is just as important as money, comfort, flexibility, and health insurance—once I have a doctorate in my chosen field, I’ll probably never come close to the same gorgeously well-situated position I now have. But being an adjunct somewhere, teaching what intrigues me, makes me shiver all over.

  11. Jonathan Green on July 20, 2005 at 3:17 am

    Good comments, which bring up a host of issues. To respond in no particular order:

    Ben, when I was offered the full-time adjunct position two years ago, I decided after a couple days that it was the one chance I had to stay in my field, and that it beat unemployment by quite a ways. The salary wasn’t great, but it looked like enough to pay the bills. After a couple months I discovered that even as adjunct faculty with a heavy teaching load, life is about a hundred times better than still being in grad school. Of course, there are undoubtedly jobs that would be financially unsustainable and that come with toxic working environments, but I had a pretty good position, all things considered.

    Ana, I’m in German. My experience will not be entirely comparable to people in other languages, or outside the humanities (although there might just be a few valid points of comparison somewhere with postdocs in the sciences). I’m in California right now visiting family; scanning the real estate adds, I realize that I am not destined to live in this state.

    Heather, I understand what you mean, and I think your current position is a good example of how how degrees in the humanities can be put to work in nontraditional ways. Forgive me, then, for taking issue with something you probably didn’t intend to be taken quite so literally: I would be delighted to help create middle management for global corporations. Being an adjunct makes you much more sensitive to the economic realities of higher education: if enrollments drop, my courses could get canceled, and my paycheck would also shrink. I have no objection to justifying my existence in economic terms, because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two years. (This also has consequences for how one approaches teaching and grading, not all of them positive, by the way.) But if a recent graduate of the College of Charleston’s German program were to pull down a management job with Halliburton or something similar, my colleagues there would make sure that everyone, from the president down to incoming freshmen, heard about it. When one of our students turned a summer internship with Volkswagen into a full-time job after graduation, that’s exactly what they did. Also, be sure to subject your plans to get a doctorate and any position you might be offered after that to the pitiless, stone-hearted gaze of an economist.

  12. Jonathan Green on July 20, 2005 at 4:13 am

    I see that Frank thinks Germanists will hire themselves out for next to nothing for the privilege of analyzing something more interesting than your monthly water bill. This is not the case. My financial condition has hardly been dire. My job paid enough to support my family. We lived in a reasonable house in a decent neighborhood of a historic and picturesque city with fabulous beaches. I have no complaints. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to stay out of debt, though. Having no loans to pay off gave me the freedom to accept a job with a modest salary and thus stay in academia. It gave me the freedom to be poor, if you will. If we had been burdened by debt, I would have been forced to look for a high-income job. The horror, the horror…

    Larry and Russell bring up the vexed issue of class and academia, but I don’t think I can say anything more intelligent than Russell has already written elsewhere, and certainly not at this hour.

    Besides, one shouldn’t overlook the advantages of being an adjunct. After the first faculty meeting of the year, you can blow off the rest with impunity.

  13. Frank McIntyre on July 20, 2005 at 9:18 am

    “My financial condition has hardly been dire.”
    I’m glad to hear it. Coming out of grad school I saw the same struggles you mention among several other students as they tried to find jobs. Economics is sufficiently dull, hard, and/or useful (take your pick) that the job market is far better than it is in the humanities.

    But part of the problem is that the tenure system creates a group of unfirables and so all employment risk must be born by the young, entering academics. One solution might be to even this out by making tenure less absolute and subject to periodic reviews. As it is, a typical department already has several people with tenure who under-research and so the department is wary of offering tenure to anybody who might conceivably end up that way down the road. Since they can’t read the future, the thing can become something of a guessing game with lots of inefficient outcomes. That is not the only problem, of course, but it may be one of them.

  14. Nate Oman on July 20, 2005 at 10:13 am

    Jonathan: One of the reasons that I went to law school (aside from the fact that I find law really interesting) is that I figured that if academia didn’t work out, I would still have a set of reasonably marketable skills. On the other hand, law school is expensive and no one gives you financial aid, with the result that I have lots and lots of student debt. As you point out, this places lots of constraints on your options as well. At this point, it is unlikely that I could afford to be anything other than a practicing attorney or a tenure-track faculty member. Law, however, doesn’t seem to have been adjuctized to the extent that the humanities have been, in large part, I suspect, because law schools have to compete with law firms for the pool of qualified people. It becomes harder to string people along with a series of adjuct positions when they can always turn around and say, “Screw it! I am going to go sue doctors for a living.”

  15. Elisabeth on July 20, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    To add to Nate’s point, many practicing attorneys also teach part time at a law school – either in the ever popular legal research and writing programs or as a clinical instructor in trial advocacy or something of that nature (lots of sitting judges teach trial ad). This way, you can get the benefits of teaching without having to to give up a decent income. Anyway, guess my comment isn’t that illuminating, but just wanted to add my two cents.

    Alles Gute, Jonathan.

  16. Jonathan Green on July 20, 2005 at 5:24 pm

    Frank, I’ve heard that the field of economics took some very sensible steps beginning in the 70′s to limit the number of grad students admitted and Ph.D.’s produced. That and the availability of obvious options outside of academia for economists probably explain much of the rosier employment picture. Still, what little I’ve heard of the academic job search process for economists sounds brutal.

    There are benefits to having a large pool of relatively cheap qualified labor to draw on. Since paying employees is one of the biggest expenses in higher education, hiring adjuncts (or at research universities, using grad students) keeps tuition from rising too quickly. Colleges and universities can pick from a pool of applicants who have not just Ph.D.’s, but years of teaching experience and a track record of self-initiated publishing. The short-term benefit to the bottom line gets balanced against the possible long-term toxic effects, which are harder to quantify.

    Nate, while I still don’t understand how legal academia works, I think it makes a good test case. I don’t have a good grasp on what makes a lawyer qualified to teach law, but the pool of people with a J.D. does not seem to be small, and competition for teaching positions seems to be fierce. What prevents a law school from replacing some or most or all of its tenure-track faculty with part-timers or term appointments?

    Is it the higher tuition? That is, are law schools rolling in so much cash that they are insulated from the pressure to keep costs down? Or is it a matter of reputation? School rank seems to be much more important in law than in many other fields, so that overreliance on adjuncts would lower peer perception of a program’s strength, even if it was not factored into the ranking directly. Or maybe there’s collusion among law schools to avoid competition and keep salaries up. Whatever it is, a lot of other disciplines could learn something from it.

  17. Nate Oman on July 21, 2005 at 11:16 am

    Jonathan: I think that there are a number of things going on in legal academia. Not everyone with a JD is really qualified for a tenure track job at a law school. The problem is that the set of necessary qualifications is not as formally defined as it is in the humanities. The degree is not a sufficient qualification, and there is no other formal process of scholarlly certification, like a dissertation. The result is that to be qualified you need a JD (from a fairly small subset of schools that are more geared toward producing academics), law review experience, a clerkship with a certain sort of court (mainly a federal appellate court), a record of scholarlly publication, a certain level of legal experience, preferably at a national law firm, etc. It gets very muddy. Hence, the pool of qualified applicants is not quite as large as it appears.

    However, it is important to realize that the pool of potential hirers is much smaller. Every liberal arts college, junior college, and community college in the country has a history department or english department. In contrast there are a comparatively small number of ABA acredited law schools in the country, less than two hundred I believe. So it is a very competive process.

    I think that the salaries are higher for two reasons. First, law schools charge their students more, and the students seem to be willing to pay. Not really surprising. A law degree — particularlly from a top tier school — can be worth quite a bit of money and people will pay. Also, it is very easy to get student loans to finance the education, and students seem to be less wary of taking out such loans, since they figure that even with student loan repayments law school will significantly increase their income. Couple this with the fact that the alumni base of a law school is likely to be wealthier, and law schools are economically in a much better position than are the humanities.

    Law school cash is only part of the explanation. The people who are likely to be well-qualified academics are also the people who are likely to be qualified for the upper eschelons of the legal profession where the salaries are quite high. The median salary for lawyers is actually pretty average. However, this is not true for the median salaries of lawyers who have the qualifcations to be academics. These people still take a very significant economic hit (especially over the long term) by going into academia. However, this still puts pressure on academic salaries.

    It is not clear, however, how stable this situation is. First, there are signs that certain sorts of classes are being farmed out to adjuct professors. These, however, tend to be practicing attorneys teaching part time, rather than rootless academics wandering from school to school every year or two. Some of the adjuct positions are being self-consciously created as half-way points between practice and tenure track, a way of taking a year or two to get some research done, eg the Bigelow Fellow program at Chicago. These programs, however, are not seen as being permanent places. First, I don’t think that one could bounce around the country getting them. After one or two years, I think that the attitude of hiring committees would be “Get a tenure track job or go back to practice.” Second, increasingly law schools are hiring those with Ph.D., often time with a joint JD. In some cases, these people are probably not as marketable to the profession, and hence their opprotunity costs for taking the academic route may be lower. (This is not, I think, a big issue). I actually think that there is some limit on the extent to which Ph.D.’s will be able to penetrate the legal academy, simply because ultimately it must train lawyers and it is not clear that Ph.D.’s necessarily provide lawyers with the skills and knowledge that they need. It will be interesting to see what happens. I worry, however, that if Ph.D.’s become the norm in the legal academy, the academy will start being able to treat law professors like they have other professors, ie badly.

  18. Mike on July 21, 2005 at 3:09 pm

    One of the most important facets of this discussion is how portable are our children?

    When they are pre-schoolers about the only consideration is taking them away from grandparents. They move easily. In early grade school their friendships are tenuous and broken at the end of the year anyway, so they move without much difficulty. But by the end of grade school children feel atttached to a place. By junior high the trauma of moving increases, peer group membership is crucial in their minds and friendships of years duration begin to appear. Moving can strengthen family ties or disrupt them with the rebellion and delinquency of youth. By high school it is exceeding difficult to move children and they will often stay back with family or friends. They will have great difficulty adapting to a new school and seldom fit in as well as the others. Funny thing by college we expect them to become nomads.

    The various wards around the country can really be of help to parents when they move. But I have noticed that inspite of the best efforts of Priesthood correlation to lift all wards to the same standard; that the less dense the population of Mormons, the more difficult it seems to be to provide excellent youth programs. And in the vaccuum of poor youth activities many of our youth seek them at school, other churches or worse. Around here it seems that anyone with children who can is moving away, at least to a few elite wards in the suburbs if not further out west. I heard a disturbing stat in church recently; about 40% of Mormon boys in the wasatch corridor go on missions but only about 10% in the southeastern US. Is this true? Presumably places like Oregon or Colorado, with large but not majority populations of Mormons are somewhere in the middle if not better. I would be interested if any sociology studies have been done looking at the relationship between successfully keeping offspring active in the church and the density of the Mormon population.

    Finally, I wonder if our children do not attend college either at BYU (or the other church schools) or a western school with a large population of Mormons, but instead attend state schools or private schools with only a few dozen active Mormons on campus, what are their chances of marrying within the church? The church can’t grow any larger than it is now if additional youth outside of the Mormon strongholds do not marry each other in large numbers. For real growth, the church colleges might need to be expanded, institute may not be enough.

    Not all children and families are the same. But I am amazed at how quickly the family transistion form nomadic to settled occured for me and how important it was. I was in the military and most of the teenagers who had moved around every two years or less had severe problems. One day you realize that your career is far less important than you imagined it to be and many have committed professional harikari for the sake of their children.

  19. Jonathan Green on July 29, 2005 at 1:02 pm

    Mike, thanks for your comments, which exactly describe the problem, and sorry I didn’t see them until now. We don’t know how long our children will continue to be transportable, or when the cost of uprooting them will start to outweigh the career benefit. The clock is ticking, but we have no idea when the alarm is set to go off.

  20. Julie Allen on July 30, 2005 at 4:47 am

    Hi Jonathan,

    I for one am grateful to have garnered some adjuct teaching on short notice. We didn’t know until March where my husband would be attending grad school this fall, so I was not on the job market last fall in a very engaged way. When I graduated in June, I still had no firm offers. Miraculously, in my opinion, I’ve been offered three classes for this fall and four for the winter semester at BYUH. Even more miraculously, we have been able to buy a small condo even though the real estate market in Hawaii is almost as bad as California (the median price for a single-family home here is hovering at around $600,000 right now). I am too grateful about having some way to pay a mortgage (which is going to work out to being about $200 a month cheaper than renting the exact same condo) to feel angry about being exploited about making a fraction of what full-timers make. That anger will doubtless come later…It sounds to me like you’ve done a great job making your way as a medievalist and I know from the experience of my colleague and good friend Bill Layher (a Scandinavianist-Germanist medievalist who finally landed a great job at Washington University in St. Louis after several years of getting closer and closer) that it can happen for you. Good luck to you!

  21. Jonathan Green on July 30, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    Julie, your story exemplifies how adjunct teaching can be a good fit for some people. It sounds like BYUH is paying its adjuncts reasonably well per course, which is good to hear. I imagine you’ll have the teaching support you need, and hopefully a little bit of research support as well. Adunct teaching doesn’t have to be, or even feel, exploitive.

    Ironically, the job Bill Layer now has is the first one I ever applied to or interviewed for. The interview was a good experience for me, but, considering how far I was from finishing my dissertation at the time, I figured out pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be a serious candidate compared to people like, well, Bill Layher.