What is an adjunct professor?

An adjunct professor, a term most often used in the U.S., is a temporary, part-time appointment brought in by college administrations to teach. Many adjunct professors teach at short notice on part-time contract; many more teach at more than one institution, looking to supplement their income from their other careers.

Adjuncts will often need to create their own curriculum for their classroom, often with days to spare before the start of their appointment. Colleges and universities will often prefer hiring adjunct professors if course attendance varies per semester; of course, if a course doesn’t attract the number of subscribers the institution is expecting or overall admission is low, the instructor might find that their gig is canceled right before she’s meant to be hired.

Adjunct professors enjoy none of the benefits, networking opportunities or long-term career or job security of a tenure-track professor. Moving from a part-time, adjunct position to a salary-based, tenured role is extremely rare, although not unheard of.

Permanent faculty positions are usually out of reach of adjuncts, and many get caught in a vicious circle of having no opportunities to publish the academic research needed to get a role as an associate professor, and not being able to get a role as a professor because they don’t have their research in journals.

More than half of faculty are part-time, according to the American Association of University Professors. Compensation is often the equivalent of minimum wage, with no benefits or security and an uncertain future in academia.

Despite all of this, adjunct professors find that using their industry and academic expertise to teach undergraduate classes—particularly at the community college level—is extremely personally rewarding. People who take jobs as adjunct professors are often not career academics, and are usually looking for part-time work.

However, a vastly decreased job pool of permanent faculty jobs within academia often means that a doctoral candidate or a postdoctoral job-seeker looking for a tenure-track position as a scholar might be forced to take a position as a lecturer in an adjunct role to make ends meet—and thus cannot fulfil her career path.

Adjunct professors and career isolation

One major difference between an adjunct and an assistant professor or full professor, as well as wages and career security, is that adjunct faculty find themselves working with no long-term contracts or links to the academic community.

Todd Bernhard is a former adjunct professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s computer engineering program and an app developer by trade, Bernhard taught ‘Designing the User Experience’ for two semesters.

Like many adjuncts, Bernhard wasn’t pursuing a career in academia, but rather was looking to supplement his income. As with many professionals today, he is piecing together an income through part-time projects.

“It was a joy to teach. I wish I could have kept doing it…I didn’t have enough hours, enough classes, and no guarantees,” he says. “My profession is finding gigs, whether it’s software development or teaching a class, or doing marketing services—and I think that’s kind of the way of the future.”

Adjuncts are cut off from formal faculty and administrative assistance, which means that they’re often left to find their own support structures. Bob Ertischek founded the online community Profology, for university staff to make connections, advising and collaborating with fellow peers.

A former adjunct professor with a law degree, Ertischek says there are two types of adjunct faculty: those there by choice, and those there by circumstance.

Ertischek says: “Adjuncts, by circumstance, are people who have devoted their careers and their educations to working in academia and to becoming professors.

“They are the ones who are suffering because they rarely have professional development opportunities, and they don’t generally get an opportunity to work with the rest of the faculty in a level playing field.”

Adjuncts often suffer from a lack of interaction with the institution, and decisions are often made without their input, says Ertischek. That lack of communication compromises teaching and learning.

The solution to this problem, says Erticshek, is to make sure adjunct faculty are acknowledged as part of the community. Everybody must be involved.

“If there are platforms or events that offer adjuncts the opportunity to work with the full-time faculty, they are often top-down,” he says.

“Higher education is very stratified—it’s like a caste system. It doesn’t need to be—we can all learn from each other.”

Looking forward, Ertischek says the focus should be on creating “cohorts of educators that are mixed. Not just tenure-track, not just adjuncts. It’s going to depend not only on each and every school, but each and every department.”

Without this kind of broad strategy, the foundation of the teaching profession is on shaky ground. As Bernhard says: “It’s kind of what the new economy is becoming, where people don’t ‘own’ employees—they rent them.”

Work as adjunct faculty? Considering it? Looking for where to go next in your career?

We have a free webinar, Strategies For Succeeding As Adjunct Faculty, with the authors of Adjunct Faculty Voices, Roy Fuller, Marie Kendall Brown and Kimberly Smith. Watch it on demand by filling in the form below.