Adjunct professors used to be a small subset of the teaching population. A few decades ago, most professors teaching at the college level were employed in full-time or tenure-track positions. Now, a large number of available teaching jobs at colleges and universities in the U.S. are adjunct or part-time positions.
How Adjuncts Became the Norm, Not the Exception
While this trend in higher education has been happening for decades, many in academia aren’t exactly happy about it. Adjunct professors earn less pay, get fewer benefits and don’t have the same job security as their full-time or tenured counterparts. Adjuncts typically earn between $20,000 and $25,000 annually, while the average salary for full-time instructors and professors is roughly over $80,000.
Some adjuncts do teach full-time by teaching classes at more than one university. However, these professors who “moonlight” at multiple colleges still don’t earn the same salary or benefits of a full-time instructor. There are other downsides to being an adjunct professor, like having your class get cancelled last minute, not having a voice in faculty decisions, dealing with student concerns without faculty support, and doing all of this on top of a heavy workload.
Adjuncts Who Choose to Teach Part-Time
Despite the bad news about being an adjunct, some instructors and lecturers have figured out how to make part-time teaching work for them. Some studies report that a significant number of part-time adjuncts don’t want to be full-time professors. This includes adjuncts who are retired, working professionals who teach on the side, and instructors who teach part-time while raising their kids because their spouse works full-time.
For those who really want to be full-time teachers, no one is going to argue that being an adjunct professor is the ideal job situation. Many adjuncts have a passion for education and would love to teach full-time, even if they’re not on the tenure track. However, it can be helpful to see the benefits of being an adjunct, even if part-time teaching is not your first choice for a job in academia.
The Case for the ‘Happy’ Adjunct
Adjunct professors who enjoy teaching part-time usually have different reasons for why they prefer to not be a full-time instructor. However, there are a few common themes that many of these “happy” adjuncts mention when talking about why they choose to only teach part-time:
- Flexibility — Adjuncts have more flexibility in their schedules than full-time professors. Some parents with young children choose to teach part-time, as a full-time schedule would mean spending less time with their kids. Some adjuncts might want to teach at more than one college and lecture classes in multiple subjects. Being an adjunct can allow for more flexibility in these areas.
- Avoiding the hassles of the higher education system — Some adjuncts don’t want to deal with the “politics” of academia and just focus on what they actually love doing: teaching. For retired teachers and others who aren’t interested in becoming full-time professors, being an adjunct allows them to focus on sharing their knowledge and educating students.
- Teaching part-time is less stressful and demanding — Full-time professors can be under an immense amount of pressure to publish their research, write grants, handle issues with students, and often must put in long hours to get tenure. Full-time professors can also be at the mercy of anonymous peer reviews and committees when they publish research or submit a portfolio for a promotion. Without the stress of tenure, adjuncts have more time to seek out opportunities outside of academia and get to be fully present when teaching in the classroom.
- Intellectual stimulation beyond the business world — For working professionals, teaching as an adjunct is a chance to grow their knowledge base, while also imparting wisdom to their students. Most college graduates will not become teachers. Adjuncts who have jobs outside academia can provide valuable insight and help students connect what they’re learning in the classroom to today’s workplace.
How Successful Adjuncts Make It Work
If you look at adjunct professors who’ve made a successful career out of teaching part-time, you’ll notice many have goals and aspirations beyond higher education. Those who come into adjunct teaching with a plan fare far better than professors who see it as a desperate, last-ditch effort to continue teaching.
“As an educator, you need to have an impact on students, so I made sure where I want to teach, where and what hours so I can be effective,” says adjunct teacher Sherese Duncan. “The opportunities are there but I think adjuncts are sometimes limited by past experiences and perceptions but you have to pick what you want to do. But you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to network.”
In addition to teaching, Duncan works as a consultant. For adjunct professors, consulting can be a lucrative venture that can expand one’s opportunities in the business world. A professor or someone with a Ph.D. can lend their knowledge and expertise to nonprofits, startups and government agencies by acting as a consultant on a wide number of projects.
Making the Move from Adjunct Professor to Adjunct Entrepreneur
So much of the news about adjunct teaching is pretty negative. Because of this, it can be hard to see the benefits of teaching part-time and how one can be successful as an adjunct teacher. It’s important to remember that, even as an adjunct, teachers can made a significant, valuable impact on the lives of their students. Many students don’t even realize that their professor is an adjunct. For professors themselves, seeing students succeed can be more rewarding than earning a higher salary or getting tenure.
“There are profound pleasures in teaching,” writes adjunct professor Carmen Maria Machado in The New Yorker. “Seeing your students figuring things out, and flourishing, is like nothing else I’ve experienced.”
Outside of the classroom, professors can also bring an enormous amount of value to a business or an organization. In many ways, adjunct professors are already free agents who should leverage their skills and experience as a professor to seek out higher-paying opportunities in the nonprofit or corporate world. But it all begins with a shift in mindset: adjunct professors have to starting seeing themselves as adjunct entrepreneurs, not poorly-paid, part-time teachers with no other options.
It’s Time to Explore Opportunities Outside Academia
Adjuncts who love teaching don’t have to give up being professors in order to make a good living. By understanding the benefits of adjunct teaching — and its possible downsides — professors can feel more empowered to take charge of their career in academia. Adjuncts shouldn’t wait for the higher education system to change. There are many things part-time instructors and lecturers can do now to increase their earnings and create better opportunities for themselves.
Inside Scholar is an educational resource for adjunct professors, graduate and Ph.D. students, and anyone trying to navigate a career in higher education. Inside Scholar seeks to bridge the gap between academia and the corporate world by offering valuable tools, resources and information on what’s happening in higher ed today. Inside Scholar also helps connect nonprofits, companies, startups and organizations with skilled and experienced professors. Keep reading Inside Scholar for more ways to succeed in both academia and in business as an adjunct entrepreneur.