Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Adjuncting Mystery

Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces.  Why?  Because I cannot imagine why people would continue to teaching as adjuncts, making, on average, $2700 per course.  This means that to make a meager wage of $30k per year, one has to teach eleven classes.  These jobs have few, if any, benefits, that they often require someone to drive all over a locale (adjuncts often do not get enough courses to teach at one place), and that these folks are essentially second-class citizens, left out of department meetings (bonus?).  The high teaching load means that people cannot work their way into better jobs with more publications--they have no time to research and publish. 

So, the question du jour is this: why do people do it for any length of time?  I get it that one might want to try a year or two while struggling to find a tenure-track position or even a visiting assistant professor position (which has a more finite teaching load and benefits).  Yet it seems unsustainable, so do folks do it for years?  If so, is it because they are only looking for partial wages and a part-time job?  It is a tough job market outside the academy, but there must be jobs that either pay more or require less time?  Given that this is not a new problem or just a recession problem, I guess I wonder what folks were doing in 2005 adjuncting? 

While there is much data on the trends, there is not so much on who is doing the adjuncting.  How long does an adjunct professor stick with it?  I could imagine a world where the folks who adjunct do so for a few years and quit and then are replaced by the next generation of folks washing up on the shores of a bad academic job market, but staying in such a spot for the long term?  I just don't get it.  I do not mean this to be a failure of empathy but perhaps a failure of imagination.


Frances Woolley said...

Steve, in economics a lot of people choose to work as contract instructors to supplement the salaries they earn as a consultant or a government or private sector economist. It's not a bad gig - teaching is intrinsically rewarding, it's high status, and once one has a stack of powerpoint notes ready to go and a backlog of old questions to generate exams and assignments from, the wage rate isn't punishingly low.

That people in the humanities cobble together full-time jobs out of a series of sessional contracts tells you two things: first, their alternative employment opportunities are pretty miserable and, second, it's hard to let go of a dream - to take an administrative job, and admit that the payback to those years spent doing a PhD is, at best, zero.

Sam Ladner said...

I think think you are mistaken,Frances. I beg your pardon, bit it is unfounded beliefs such as what you write above that perpetuate the second-class status on adjuncts. Even in economics, undergraduate studies would grind to a halt without adjuncts. This false rhetoric of "choice" completely masks the deeply desperate constraints many adjuncts have.

and no, this is not a simple case of supply and demand for the social scientists and humanists. There is ample demand for PhDs in industry, but little status or respect for such roles within the academy. Moreover, engaging with a non academic social network, is largely discouraged. You must be totally committed to even the potential of an academic career.

It is ironic that you say non academics enjoy the status of adjuncting. Within the academy, they are largely ignored.

Steve Saideman said...

Not a bad gig if it is just a class or two to supplement income. But universities are employing more than just part-timers. My twitter feed has blown up on this topic today. Perhaps sunk costs uber alles?

JWells said...

I wonder about this from the other side: is it rational for departments to keep hiring adjuncts? Why put all the time and effort into hiring multiple people to teach (on average) one or two courses each, stifling their ability to do scholarship (as you point out), instead of just hire one or two full-timers? I understand having graduate students in the department teach a course to get experience, but why all this hiring of other universities' graduate students? One highly reputable department within driving distance of mine is hiring more one-year positions and already has a list of adjuncts, one of which is a professor in my department and another is a fellow ABD classmate. It seems very inefficient to me at the department level.

Jen said...

Imagine being in your 30s, perhaps with a small family, and saddled with large student loans that are now due. You need a job, and fast. The immediate prospect---adjuncting--isn't appealing but it's an obvious route. Changing careers completely takes a huge amount of time and energy.
Plus, as Sam points out, there's a lot of psychological, emotional stuff that must be addressed before non-academic jobs even become a possibility. The myth of the life of the mind is extremely powerful and pervasive, if crippling and false. (Hey, the American dream is too.)
Life's tough for PhD students, and it usually just gets tougher once you finish.

Frances Woolley said...

Sam "It is ironic that you say non academics enjoy the status of adjuncting. Within the academy, they are largely ignored."

Agreed, but outside the academy, who knows the difference between an adjunct professor and an associate professor? Do you think I get any more status at dinner parties from saying "I'm a professor" than an adjunct does? (If you doubt this, look at the way that Globe and Mail writer Mike Moffatt is given exactly the same media cred as a full-time tenured biz prof).

If you're a consultant, and you can put "adjunct professor, Carleton U" on your home page, that's probably good for a few thousand dollars worth of extra consulting gigs. Also, most students can't really tell the difference between contract instructors and full-time faculty, except for the greater size of the full-time faculty members' offices, and the differences between the quality of teaching. They give contract and full-time instructors the same respect and deference.

Steve Saideman said...

JW: Oh, depts may hire the same adjunct over and over again. Filling holes is a whack a mole kind of thing. But is it smart, rather than relying on full timer? For university: yes (don't have to pay benefits, pay lower wage, etc). For dept? Nay, but they don't have a say.

Jen, absolutely hard to escape. But after a year or two of adjuncting, one must realize and face reality and look for an escape. I would be doing something else if my search for a tenure track position failed in year three.

sam ladner said...

Frances, I can absolutely tell you that having adjunct professor on your CV most definitely does not land you more consulting gigs. In fact, depending on the department, it might even cost you consulting gigs (few in business have as much respect for the academy as you suggest). As a former adjunct and consultant, I can tell you that it is correct outsiders know little of the differences in rank and title, but they certainly do know what it means if no one in the department knows your name were they to call for a reference. It also certainly means something to outsiders when you don't have business cards, an office, a secretary, or even a regular email address (adjuncts regularly lose contracts year over year, particularly when they are junior). It is also strange to outsiders when you have multiple teaching gigs at several universities.

So no, the benefits you describe of adjuncting are not automatically accrued, particularly to junior aduncts

Jane Smythe said...

Why adjunct? In my case, I have little choice. I made a decision when I had children to pull back from my career to focus on parenting. My husband stayed on the academic track and got tenure at a 4 year college in a rural area. Now that my children are older, there are no jobs locally that require my education or skills and there's no institutional commitment to placing educated trailing spouses in viable positions on campus (unless said spouse is an almun, there actually seems to be a bias against hiring spouses). My options are to drive 60-90 minutes to work at institutions in larger towns (it's been rare to find a fit that hasn't been adjunct) or cobble together a series of part time adjunct gigs closer to home in order to supplement my husband's meager salary and do something that approaches intellectually stimulating. He's not going to leave his position and I'm not interested in having a long distance marriage (living either with or without my children) so what choice do I really have?Walmart? McDonalds? Go back to school to try to get a K-12 teaching degree in hopes of landing a job with the local schools and then praying to survive RIF layoffs every year until I manage to get tenure, racking up student loan debt in the process? If you've got suggestions for how to use an advanced degree in an economically depressed region with no options for mobility, I'd love to hear them. If I can make the same money in one third to one half the time by adjuncting, why would I go check groceries or stock shelves?

Anonymous said...

I am surprised by the lack of supply and demand analysis. Universities are the primary beneficiary of a deep pool of candidates for their job openings. It all begins with their outsized acceptance rates for their PhD programs. Academia benefits from having low paid teaching assistants while they are in graduate school (some even paying for the privelege of working), then when and if they graduate, they provide more than ample workforce for their positions. Think about it this way: how many industries have the opportunity to have people pay them to learn how to do their jobs. It is one thing for very high ranking universities to have cohorts of 10-20 students per year. It is quite another for lower ranked universities to do the same. If your program matriculates more PhD students per year than tenured faculty in that department, there is something wrong with that equation. Even with a 50% or 75% attrition rate, graduating 5 to 10 new PhDs per year in a department with 10 tenured faculty members is flooding the market. Tenured faculty are notoriouly long lived, and the turn over rate is micro scopic. I graduated from my undergraduate institution 10 years ago, when I recently looked up the faculty from my program, there was only 1 person I did not recognize!

Steve Saideman said...

This is the kind of story that makes sense to me. That the choices are few and the calculation is that teaching as an adjunct is better than working at Walmart. I do wonder if the math works out the same way for those teaching 5/5 loads. Thanks for providing your experience.

I have no doubt that there is a perverse incentive structure going on--that universities want bigger and larger PhD programs. Having said that, I think your math is slightly off, as a small program with 10 tenure lines is not going to produce that many new Phds. Still, that is a minor detail. The reality is that universities benefit in rankings and in funding if they can say they are producing heaps of PhDs even if they cannot place them. I still find that there are new PhD programs being set up these days despite the mismatch of supply and demand. I was not trying to avoid leveling blame at universities (see earlier blog posts), but still wondering about the folks who do not quit the racket after a few years.

Jane Smythe said...

Don't get me wrong, it sucks and on my bad days I'm bitter. But I can't make $20-30 per hour anywhere else. I also work part time in an office at slightly higher than minimum wage. If you'd told me in undergrad I'd be taking a job away from a high school graduate in a county with 10% unemployment, I'd have laughed at you. Supposedly thousands of STEM jobs are going unfilled but it does people like me not a lick of good.

TSGM said...

The answer to your question is simple: adjuncts do it because they were taught to believe that an academic career was the *only* respectable career.

There is also a simple solution: professors need to inspire a passion from their undergraduate students for careers outside of academia. Read, for example, Matt Welsh's post about why he left Harvard for Google.

The problem, obviously, is that most of the people who are doing the teaching have no idea why non-academic careers are just as fun as academic careers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above comment by TSGM. To remain relevant, PhD programs need to start acknowledging that very few of their graduates will become professors. They should begin preparing students for careers in the private sector or government: exposing them to all of the interesting career choices outside of academia, and giving them the skills necessary to compete for these jobs.

Anonymous said...

I agree with TSGM. I bet if you queried how many PhDs with non-academic spouses leave academia, you'd fine the numbers are huge. I'm a recently minted PhD, my husband is not, and his job looks great to me (warts and all). I'm outta here.

Diana said...

I have a non-academic spouse who has a job that supports us both. For the past ten years, I have put almost 100% of my "pay" from being an adjunct into a retirement account. None of that answers the question. I became an adjunct because there are no full-time positions in my geographical area. At this point, I also have four children, including one whom I will call "high needs." Perhaps this discussion can be tied to another one appearing in the past week, that of the gender wage gap: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/labor/news/2013/04/09/59658/what-causes-the-gender-wage-gap/

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Jane, I found myself nodding at all of your posts. The differences in our scenarios are that I am now 50 years old and after adjuncting as the trailing spouse for 20 years, my tenured husband left me (for a former student, I might add). Note that 20 years ago I had a fine job offer--so did he, but at better pay and benefits so we pursued his golden carrot and I was the primary parent.

We live in a small town--one child is in college, and other about to be launched. I'm still adjuncting--I love what I do. That's one reason I continue to do it. I also have other part time jobs that enhance my value at my institution (my dept caters to adult learners who appreciate my experience--however limited--in a business environment).

So, I don't know what to do at this point...I've thought about going back to school (already paying tuition for my kids), but for what that would be of value, I've applied for tenure track jobs (I'm out of the academic world too long and my age is not attractive), move to a larger area (my children regard this small town as home for right now). So I continue to cobble and hope--all because my institution (and others like it) refuses to hire full time instructors and limits the # of courses I can teach per year (I should add that I teach predominantly online.

Unknown said...

One aspect of the adjunct problem is what Janet & Jane & Diana said: it is often a woman who has by need or choice, restricted herself to a geographic region with few alternatives.

From the Universities' perspective it is incredibly cost effective, particularly in sciences, when even a new young faculty can command several 100K$ in start- up costs. You hire one superstar to get tenure and grants and glory and three adjuncts to do the teaching.

Anonymous said...

If you're stuck in a small town with few job prospects and you're adjuncting, I'd say you're not doing that badly. It's stimulating work, especially compared to what else is available, and though it should be paid better, you don't have the expenses of a large city and by definition you're doing better than a lot of people around you, otherwise you would leave. Saideman's question seemed aimed a different category: those who keep adjuncting when there really are better alternatives. So I still (I'm Anonymous from earlier agreement with TSGM) think the issue is that academics unreasonably look down on non-academic work. You may not, but many do.

Anonymous said...

Last year, I taught 15 courses at two local colleges in the Midwest and made $30K. My personal health insurance through Blue Cross is $629 a month. I have had my insurance for years, have no special conditions and take care of my health. After health insurance, I was left with a little over $22K for everything else from car and house bills, to food, to clothing and the rest. If it is not already obvious, I can aver that I barely get by.

I don’t think it will pay for us to become overly romantic about the "stimulating" nature of teaching and dreamy about the perceived beneficence of academia. It is in fact a caste system and what many of us have seen in every other arena (for example, I just read that the wage gap between McDonalds' executive staff and its workers has doubled in the past ten years) is a kind of layering up at the administrative level and a stripping down at the professorial level.

A recent WSJ article offered that across the country the average tuition increase was an unprecedented 8.3%. Why and where does the money go? Good question. I haven't seen a raise in years, and neither have my adjunct colleagues.

Last week, I received two emails almost back to back from the one college where my "office" is also the kitchenette and interdepartmental copy room. The first email indicated that Obamacare is coming. The second indicated that our maximum course loads would now be cut in have.

I don't teach history, but if I did, I might find the quality and persistence of my own professional servitude ironic enough to over a real life example to exemplify and illuminate at least one lesson on labor and labor rights.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating discussion.

I became an adjunct professor over 20 years ago, for only one quarter (I date myself). No benefits, money was so poor I don't even remember if it was over $100. The reason I became an adjunct had nothing to do with what has been mentioned so far - and profoundly effected the supply and demand of teachers at my college.

I became an adjunct professor teaching Networking, in Computer Science. (I had enough education for the job - a BS in CS). What was my compensation? I learned the topic better than the students, I got to grow by teaching a class, I got to help others, I was able to put adjunct professor on my resume (which was not very long at that time). I got to fulfill a long term dream. I would have worked for free.

Obviously, the world runs through supply and demand. As college tuition increases faster than inflation, there is pressure to decrease costs. On the flip side, when you have a supply of people that will teach a class for free, that is not a good primary profession to go into. And this was Computer Science!

Jen said...

Sure, but you make it sound easy. Transitioning is hella hard. And when your confidence is in the toilet and you've got zero financial buffer, your outlook can be pretty grim. At least adjuncting is a job you can continue getting, even if it pays below poverty wages, which is common south of the border. (This is not my situation, but I have enormous empathy.)

Anonymous said...

I was asked not to go on the TT market by my then-wife, who (as an attorney in a high-demand specialty in a high-demand market for that specialty) was inevitably going to earn more in 3 months than I would possibly be earning by the time I made Associate with tenure. The advantages of that arrangement included more flexible time for children and, as it happened, a better health plan from the Uni than her firm offered.

The disadvantage is that, at some point several years further down the road, the itinerant professor was no longer a high-status enough spouse for the high-performing attorney, but by the time the divorce was finalized I'd been so long on the adjunct hamster wheel that I found I wasn't taken seriously by search committees, though I had managed a moderate publications output, a book contract, several grants, and 5 years academic program management experience in addition to a credible teaching record.

And that's how I became a professional adjunct. 2013-2014, however, will be the last academic year for me. It's really tough in emotional and psychological terms -- sunk costs and all -- but it's time to hang up my gown and start selling real estate. Or driving a UPS truck.

The irony being, of course, that I'll make far more driving a UPS truck than I do when teaching students about things that interest me, like International Security, American foreign policy, and the like.

Anonymous said...

I do think it's the pervasive prejudice on the part of academics against non-academic work that compels adjuncts to stick it out - that and sunk cost bias. I think it's also the fact that too many people conflate their calling and their job. People might say: "But being a professor is my calling." No. Being a professor is your job. Education might be your calling - teaching a particular subject, or demographic of students even - but being a professor is only one way to live that out. If people focus more on what they see as their purpose and less on the conduit, it might give some adjuncts the clarity (and bravery) to bail out of a bad situation. If you're on a road trip, you can drive a Lexus or a Camry. Both will get you to your destination. And both have as much or as little value as you choose to assign to them.

hrodbert696 said...

I had a one-year lectureship that turned into four years, with a little adjuncting to supplement it, then a couple of years to adjunct solely. Luckily my wife's salary meant we weren't wholly dependent on adjunct pay. Now it looks like even the adjuncting is drying up, and I'm finally looking elsewhere seriously. I think that part of it is the nature of the academic job-seeking process - nothing quite panned out this year, but keep your hand in the business, and a tenure-track job will come up next year. Another part is that it's difficult to change gears. I've applied for marketing jobs and banking jobs, and been turned down with lines about how I'm overqualified, and assuring me that I don't really want the job I applied for. No, actually, I do. I have to put groceries on the table for my kids.

Anonymous said...

I had been an adjunct for just over two years and I recently decided to pursue a PhD. I moved my family from the U.S. to the UK for my pursuit. On one hand I chose a PhD to increase the possibilities of getting a full-time faculty position when I graduate. On the other, I pursue it because I want one. It's my selfish pursuit--that also allows me to feed my children and be some sort of a role model for them.

While I pursue my PhD I will continue to write and to adjunct. Right now being an adjunct suits my commitment issues. Do I want to teach full-time? I enjoy teaching and would like the opportunity to teach less and make more; to have benefits; to be able to provide for my children; but to teach full time? I'm just not sure.

When I graduate there are no guarantees: I know the PhD after my name will not guarantee I will have a job or an office but I will have the degree I want; I will have spent the time to write; and ideally I will have an idea of whether I want to teach full-time or not; and because I will have spent the time researching my studies also researching the job market, I will have an idea of other possibilties and a timeline in mind for how long I can afford to adjunct.

I cannot afford to be a career adjunct but I will continue to make time to teach a class or two per semester regardless of where my future full-time employment takes me.

Interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

This saddens me...decades ago my history major friend gets his PhD only to be stuck in Adjuct Twilight Zone (what we I.T. folks's today call Contracting!)

How little has changed!

Anonymous said...

I don't want to let some things Frances said in her otherwise sharp comments go without reply.

"teaching is intrinsically rewarding, it's high status, and once one has a stack of powerpoint notes ready to go and a backlog of old questions to generate exams and assignments from, the wage rate isn't punishingly low."

Yes and no. Good teachers - the sort who get rewards from teaching - don't rely on old notes. They're continually updating their materials, which does turn the pay rate into something far less than it appears to outsiders.

"Also, most students can't really tell the difference between contract instructors and full-time faculty, except for the greater size of the full-time faculty members' offices, and the differences between the quality of teaching."

This gave me a chuckle. Any suggestion that tenured faculty are better teachers than adjuncts should be backed up. My experience is the opposite. Having tenure relieves professors from concerns over how their teaching is received, and relegates it to the time they leave for pedagogical development. For some tenured profs, that's zero.

The far bigger issue is tenuring professors whose research is essentially worthless - the vast majority, in other words. That knowledge typically doesn't filter down into the broad run of educating
the rest of us do. It's a scam, one I am quick to point out to all of my students when have the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

I had an revealing experience recently at UC Merced as a summer term instructor. It became evident that everyone else on campus had greater job security and respect from the employer than short-term instructors. They did not even want to give me an office, or a computer so I could do the job. Whether it was a 20 year old secretary, or a 50 year old janitor, all others were given what they needed to do the job, and they knew that they would be there, gainfully employed, 6 months, a year, or 5 years down the line.

Anonymous said...

In economics i have never seen the stigma against non-academic-work that supposedly is so common in other disciplines.
On the contrary: outside experience is a huge plus and appreciated by students and faculty alike. Almost all the popular professors spend half their week at university and half their week at The Big 4 or some other prestigious employer.

Michael A Cavanaugh said...

Sunk money, yes; but don't forget "good money after bad." "Good money" here includes foregone salary, benefits & retirement; a lifetime of adjunct labor may kick back $1M or more to the employing college or university. (And still they won't name a building for you, after all this philanthropy.)
Don't forget fear: OMG I hold the PhD in Medieval Icelandic Theology, I can't possibly do anything else in life. In 1985 after 2 years of adjunct teaching I quit. I went into the wine trade, as a salesman on straight commission. I learned something there I did not learn in grad school: how to sell refrigerators to Eskimaux. I didn't like the hustle; but I learned, I would never have to starve. That is something many academics never realize, and I think it keeps many tied to the adjunct life. (Eventually I quit sales too, even though I got good at it; the point is, I failed miserably at an academic career, but I did get a life. Priceless.)