The life of an adjunct professor

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a while since I’ve taught college, which I’ve done at Concordia University in Montreal, Pace University in New York and elsewhere. This fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I’m teaching a two-hour writing class to freshmen and a two-hour blogging class to seniors.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I work as an adjunct, i.e. someone hired to work only part-time, with no benefits or security or chance of attaining a full-time position. I’m paid a set fee, negotiated in advance with the dean, paid every few weeks.

In return, I offer my skills, experience, wisdom and advice. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a locker. (I do have a mailbox.) I can make photocopies for my classes free.

I don’t live on, or anywhere near, campus, which means a two-hour commute each way and my physical unavailability to students between classes, held once a week.

If I want to meet with students — which, technically, I’m not paid to do — it’s on my own time and in the cafeteria. If they want additional advice, or just a chance to chat, it needs to be then, (when I also need to rest and recharge between classes!), or by email or phone.

I risk looking aloof and uncaring, yet my re-hiring, as it does for many adjuncts today, relies on student evaluations. So does my income.


Should I hand out high grades like candy bars on Hallowe’en to placate them?

Grade harshly, if fairly, to prepare them for the reality of life as a working writer?

Minimize my time and energy out of the classroom to save both for other revenue streams, and for my own life?

Give them the most possible to prove my commitment to them; (see: student evaluations)?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don't they?
Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don’t they?

The irony?

Most undergraduate students have no idea what an adjunct is, or why we’re there — (cheap! lots of daily practical experience to share! plentiful labor supply!) — or why we might view them and their school somewhat differently than those with tenure or working towards it.

To them, we’re just another professor, someone they can shred, or praise, on Rate My Professors, even adding a chile pepper, (yes, really), to show  how “hot” they think we are.


And, here in the U.S. where a year of tuition alone can cost $40,000 or more, we’re also fighting a consumerist mindset; I’m acutely aware that every hour I spend with my students represents a parental investment of  X-hundred dollars.

Am I worth it? Am I providing sufficient value? (Am I fun/likeable/relatable/helpful?)

And what are the objective metrics for those?

Unlike most aggrieved adjuncts, I don’t have a Phd nor multiple advanced degrees. I haven’t invested thousands of dollars and hours in acquiring academic credentials, in the hope or — worse — expectation that all this time and energy will produce a steady, well-paid income.

So, as much as working solely as an adjunct makes for a nasty, low-paid and tiring existence, as this Salon piece makes clear, it’s working for me.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

I was also fairly appalled to read this piece about how colleges are racing to blow millions on sexy, cool facilities like a “lazy river.”

I blog frequently about income inequality and the difficulty many Americans, even those well-educated, now have of finding well-paid work. It’s an odd and disturbing issue if professors who have invested their lives preparing to work in academia are, as the Salon piece says, on food stamps to survive.


But my industry of 30 years — journalism, specifically print journalism — has also fallen to pieces and I now expect very little any more from the formal “job market.”

After losing my staff job at the New York Daily News in 2006, I had few choices:

1) return for re-training into a wholly new career (costly, no guarantee of work upon graduation); 2) keep trying to find a full-time job, with many fewer available; 3) learn a wholly new-to-me skill set (coding, HTML, etc) and compete with 25-year-olds; 4) remain freelance, but supplement/broaden my income with as many other revenue streams beyond print journalism as possible.

No. 4 is the course I took.

Have you had to re-tool or re-invent your career?

How’s it working out?

Are you an adjunct? Do you enjoy it?

Students….how do you feel about this?


19 thoughts on “The life of an adjunct professor

  1. I thought very seriously about getting my master’s degree so that I could land a job teaching at a college. But the reality that I would not earn enough to pay off my student loans in a reasonable amount of time led me to give up on the idea. The sad part: I think I would have been really good at it and would have liked teaching a lot. And I think I would have had something to offer students.

    1. Bummmer! I would have taken your class!

      I have been able to teach without a Master’s but it is much harder to find that work — and the additional $$$$ investment in one, as you know, just doesn’t repay itself later with well-paid work. That’s why I’ve also avoided one.

  2. This is very interesting. I am getting my masters right now and will probably do adjunct after I get it until I get my PhD. It is very hard to find jobs in general where I live (In Arkansas) so after I got my undergrad, I stayed at the same company but I did get a better job. I actually just got REALLY lucky and it came open at just the right time. It is a little bit of an unconventional job compared to what my degree is in but, whatever its a job and its a salary which is better than having nothing. A lot of my friends that I graduated with (last December) are still just looking for a job, anything.

      1. The Catch-22 of connecting with students to remain “popular” at the price of giving up your own time must be very frustrating. I think I will apply at the library instead.

  3. I work as an adjunct in my “spare time,” on top of a full-time job as director of an in-house government training agency. I have Master’s degree in my field (Adult Education) but without a doctorate would never qualify for a regular faculty position. (I think, in my part of the country, there might be one of those in existence.) I teach because a) it’s a supplement to personal finances which have never fully recovered from my divorce, and b) I love to teach, and my day job mostly consists of making it possible for other people to teach!

    1. Interesting.

      I am very much enjoying it because it allows me to connect to a larger community (Pratt), get to meet and know bright, young students and really examine my craft, which I usually have no time to do at all as I crank it out for income. It’s also satisfying to feel my decades of skill might be useful to others, as I have no kids or close young relatives to share them with.

  4. i’m sure many people have no idea, about the two alternate realities of the people teaching them at the college level. bravo to you for taking this on, you seem like the kind of person who would give it your all, regardless of the circumstances.

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  6. This is indeed an interesting dilemma, Caitlin. If it were me, it would all depend on the salary. If the salary they proposed was insultingly low and unworthy of my time-dedication-talents, I wouldn’t accept the job. What’s worse is that your 2-hour commute is also unrewarded (I don’t know if you drive or take a train to get to Pratt.)

    1. The salary is terrific or I wouldn’t be doing it. The commute is really out of their control; I drive. The students are also both motivated and pleasant, and that also makes it appealing. It’s a combination of factors: small classes, decent pay, attractive campus, a lot of academic freedom — all of which are highly variable and not guaranteed anywhere!

  7. One month ago, I accepted an adjunct position at the University of Houston. I wasn’t ready to begin work after having recently moved. My plan was to take a year off and consider other career options. The position fell in my lap and I have really enjoyed it. I’m glad you told me about the evaluations. I’ll have to be sure and discuss this with my students. 🙂

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