It’s Hard Out There For an Adjunct

This week’s Working Life column at the Times is about a guy named James D. Hoff, an adjunct lecturer in New York City who is struggling to make ends meet.

He is not a professor. He is an adjunct lecturer, holding an increasingly common and precarious position that offers him no job security, no health benefits and no assured pathway to full-time university employment.

Nearly 18 months after being awarded a Ph.D. in English, Mr. Hoff has yet to find a full-time job. He cobbles together a living, struggling to line up courses to teach at different colleges around the city. If he is lucky, he lands four classes a semester, a full-time workload that pays about $24,000 a year.

This semester, only three classes came through.

“Scared,” Mr. Hoff said, describing his emotions when he learned he would have a $3,000 hole in his budget. He is 42 years old, with a wife, a toddler and mounting credit card debt.

Admittedly, academics are not the first people on my list of people to feel sorry for, but things are looking bleaker and bleaker for them by the year. The rise of non-tenured faculty members, many of whom are adjuncts, is up to 70% nationwide, which means a whole lot of very educated people working for no benefits, and with no job security and no path to full-time employment.

As the Times mentions, many people think of ‘adjuncts’ as the grad students who teach undergrad classes while they earn their Ph.D, but that’s just not reality anymore.

Photo: gavinandrewstewart

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42 Comments / Post A Comment

Aunt Scar (#5,377)

There comes a point where you have to admit that your chosen career is a bad boy/girlfriend and BREAK UP WITH IT. Forget the sunk costs and move forward. I think the horrible dead end of adjuncting should be that point. I made as much money working retail, and I got vacation and health insurance.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Aunt Scar indeed. If you’re not in a tenure track position by the time you’re 35, it’s time to get out.

highjump (#39)

@Aunt Scar Over half of college classes are taught by adjuncts, what happens to the students if they all leave?

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@highjump there are a lot of adjuncts out there. Supply greatly exceeds demand. If there are fewer people seeking adjunct positions, there are more classes available to teach.

highjump (#39)

@WayDownSouth But that doesn’t solve the underlying problem: that the adjunct model provides poor quality education to ppl who are probably paying quite a bit for it.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@highjump I think that adjuncts are perfectly good instructors for the general lecture hall courses (e.g., those courses taught in year 1 and 2 to undergraduates). Given the basic nature of the material, I don’t think it’s necessary for a tenured professor to teach them. A graduate student or adjunct could do just as well.

For more specialised courses and graduate seminars, I agree with you. I suspect that tenured or tenure track teachers already present most of those courses. I don’t think an adjunct would teach too many graduate-level seminars.

Markovaa (#1,509)

@WayDownSouth
…So I know adjuncts who teach graduate level seminars in NYC and I know NYC grad students who have taken graduate level seminars taught by adjuncts–and been advised by adjuncts.

For me the issue is that students are paying more and more in tuition and that the actual educators do not seem to be receiving that money. There is a disconnect somewhere. Perhaps its that tenured professors salaries are too high? Perhaps its that universities (especially in NYC) spend more and more money on real estate?

The other issue is that a grad student friend of mine, who is adjuncting part-time while working on her dissertation is also working part-time within university administration and fully expects better job prospects from her second part-time job.

highjump (#39)

“Admittedly, academics are not the first people on my list of people to feel sorry for” Well, what about the students? As we’ve seen over decades in K12, well-paid well-supported teachers produce better prepared students. If we want to be a society that values education and bills higher ed as the ticket to the middle class then the education has to be quality. Students going tens of thousands of dollars in debt deserve instructors whose biggest concern is THEM, not paying rent.

limenotapple (#1,748)

@highjump I’m really glad someone said this. I’ve seen a lot of great adjuncts come through the colleges and universities I’ve worked at, but it takes time to know the characteristics of a population and fit in with the campus. Also since adjuncts need to work at many different schools to make ends meet, they are less available for students, take longer to return papers, have shorter (or no) office hours, etc. It’s a situation that’s not good for anyone, the adjuncts or the students.

WriteBikeBobbi (#3,938)

@limenotapple I beg to differ. I’m an adjunct. I hold office hours weekly without fail, for more than the required period of time; I conference with my students twice a semester; I return papers the class period following when they were due, (and these are writing classes, which means a lot of reading and responding for me) and I email/text with my students whenever they need. It’s exhausting. But the sweeping generalization that adjuncts are less available is not accurate. And not all work at many different schools, either.

limenotapple (#1,748)

@WriteBikeBobbi I guess I should have used different language. In my experience at the several schools I’ve worked at, this has been a complaint from both students and adjuncts alike. Instructors would say that they would love to get more involved on campus, but they have to get to another school 35-40 miles away to teach a different class. Of course, that doesn’t mean all adjuncts are like this (I’m also an adjunct at two schools and don’t feel that push), but most of the adjuncts I know would rather have a full-time gig. If you can do better by your students, good for you and good for them…really. So, to rephrase, not all adjuncts, not everywhere, just the feedback based on my own observations at several schools.

highjump (#39)

@WriteBikeBobbi That’s great – but shouldn’t you be fairly compensated for all that? I’m honestly impressed you even have access to an office as an adjunct.

Yes, generalizations can be inaccurate. I’m sure there is that one prof out there grossly abusing tenure too. But in general, the deck is stacked against adjuncts being able to provide a great education to students. Some are able to make lemons into lemonade, but not all.

WriteBikeBobbi (#3,938)

@highjump I don’t disagree at all; it’s not an ideal situation, being an adjunct. And compensation is lacking, to say the least. And I know more than one prof grossly abusing tenure; that’s the reason I have extra classes this semester (they bail on them a couple weeks before the semester and leave the department chair to figure it out). It’s hard to do well by every student all the time, under the best of circumstances – especially difficult for adjuncts. Not every teacher can be flexible as to when they’re available or how much extra (unpaid) time they can invest.

garysixpack (#4,263)

“[Mr. Hoff] recently moved with his family from Manhattan to the Bronx to find a cheaper apartment. He and his wife, who works for an academic journal, cannot afford to buy a home or start a college fund for their 22-month-old daughter.”

Maybe he should move his family somewhere with a lower cost of living than NYC? It’s a big country out there.

Allison (#4,509)

@garysixpack wasn’t there a report last year of an adjunct in Dubuque dying in poverty after teaching for 13 years or something? So this probably isn’t just a “move out of New York” problem.

Allison (#4,509)

@Allison oh it was Pittsburgh, Duquesne University. (I obviously only remembered 3 letters from the name)

garysixpack (#4,263)

@Allison
Yep, I remember that. Margaret Mary Vojtko, age 83, died on 9/18/2013 from a massive heart attack. An op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gasette blamed her death on low pay as an adjunt (less than $10k a year), which didn’t cover her cancer treatments.

Now, I always found this case confusing. The woman was 83, which meant she was collecting social security and was eligible for Medicare. She could also get Medicaid for non-covered medical costs and probably all kinds of other social assistance. I suspect there’s much more to the story than her just being an underpaid adjunct.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@garysixpack Yes. Unfortunately the teacher in question had a combination of mental issues and family problems which were large contributing factors in her death. It’s a very sad story.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@garysixpack The solution isn’t for every adjunct–remember, 70% of the academic labor force–to move somewhere with a lower cost of living. The solution is to pay fair wages for labor.

garysixpack (#4,263)

@BillfoldMonkey
I bet you’d see adjunct salary go up after 70% of them move elsewhere. That’s how the market works; as supply reduces, price increases.

sea ermine (#122)

@garysixpack Right but if they’re making 24k a year they might not be able to save up enough money to move elsewhere (that’s assuming that if they did they’d be able to get a job somewhere cheaper).

Meaghano (#529)

@garysixpack SUPPLY AND DEMAND!!!! OMG why didn’t anyone think of this sooner.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Meaghano that’s the best contribution you can make? I think you can do better than this

Eric18 (#4,486)

@Meaghano Gary makes a valid point, Meaghan.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@Eric18 except he doesn’t, because where does he think there’s demand for all these adjuncts that he wants to move out of NYC? I live in a shitty small Midwestern town with a very low cost of living, and my (humanities) department can only provide classes for about 40% of the people who seek adjunct positions with us. If we artificially extract 70% of the adjunct workforce from NYC, sure, theoretically the salaries for the remaining people might rise. But that’s not a real-world proposition. Universities employ adjuncts because there is an enormous surplus of humanities graduate who no longer can count on tenure-track employment because universities are more focused on the economic bottom line than on quality of instruction and fair compensation for labor. Vicious circle.

garysixpack (#4,263)

@BillfoldMonkey
There are about 300 colleges in NYC and about 4000 in the US. Offhand, I would adjuncts who move out of NYC should look for work at the other 3600 or so colleges in the US. If your school isn’t hiring more adjuncts, then it still leaves 3599 other colleges.

Allison (#4,509)

@garysixpack I think it’s interesting that every comment in this post ignores the fact that his wife has a job that might not be particularly mobile (I have no idea). I mean, if there are 300 universities in New York AND his wife has a good job there, isn’t that a good reason to try to get a job at one of those 300 universities even if NY is expensive?

zeytin (#4,005)

@Allison Yes, or there could be other reasons, like family living nearby that provides child-care. If they move away, paying for childcare might offset any gains in cost of living, etc… We don’t know their situation.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@BillfoldMonkey So perhaps we don’t need as many humanities PhD’s as you might think we do. Again, supply and demand.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@Eric18 That’s not what I think at all. We have far too many humanities PhDs–in part because graduate instructors are an even cheaper labor source than adjuncts. Which exactly undermines the “well but if they’d just move they’d all get jobs” strawman. They won’t, because there aren’t enough jobs, nationally, for the people qualified to hold those jobs.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@BillfoldMonkey Look, the bottom line is that the job prospects for humanities PhD’s suck and is going to suck. The demand for them is just not there and producing less of them would help reduce the oversupply we have of them.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@Eric18 That’s…exactly what I just said?

clo (#4,196)

I think the media coverage of this issue only talks about humanaties students and I am curious about the experience of STEM PhD grads. My wife is in a STEM field and these articles just make me feel hopeless but her prospects seem pretty good since academia is not the only place for her to find employment.

Also I totally agree that people who are willing to leave the coasts have more opportunities.

And while I also agree that at some point you have to give up, 35 seems like a low age since I know quite a few people who will be that age at graduation.

garysixpack (#4,263)

@clo
I have several friends who were adjuncts while working in the industry, and they do it for the prestige, for the enjoyment of teaching or the research environment, or as a stepping stone to tenure track. These are friends in engineering and CS though.

BTW, I would not say that 35 is a hard age to quit dreaming of tenure track. However, the longer you wait, the harder it will be to start over, and the less time you will have to do anything else.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@clo You’re right. The age at which you give up on your dreams of tenure and look outside academia is a very difficult decision to make. It’s always tempting to wait another year and another.

I picked age 35 for two reasons.

1. By that time, people are often picking up significant financial responsibilities (e.g., house, child(ren)). While it’s certainly acceptable to live on 24k as a single person in NYC, it’s difficult to support extensive financial commitments. In the article, the subject of the interview said he can’t support himself and is going into deeper credit card debt (at age 42).

2. When you leave academia, you’re going to be competing against younger people when you search for an entry-level job in private industry. Once you get past age 30, your salary expectations will probably be higher and you’ll presumably have different levels of outside demands on your time than someone right out of university. The longer you leave it, the more difficult its going to be to get an entry-level job in private industry. It gets much more difficult in the 35-45 age range.

You are absolutely right that a person who invests a lot of time in getting a doctorate and seeking a tenure track position wants to make every effort to get that position. I completely understand that. The question is when you need to walk away from the investment in time and try something else. It’s obviously not easy.

clo (#4,196)

@garysixpack Sure that’s true, but 35 just seems arbitrary. I think the guideline should be more like ‘give yourself 3 years’ than ‘academic life is over if you haven’t started by 35′. My wife is an environmental scientist and could easily get a job. She wants to teach though and the employment prospects tend to be better in STEM fields.

Karebot (#5,803)

@WayDownSouth 35 is a ridiculous deadline for obtaining tenure in academia. Do you realize how long it takes to complete a PhD and dissertation work? Keep in mind students are stretching that process out as long as possible to keep their health benefits and delay paying back loans, and oftentimes following it up with a short-term postdoc until they can make it in the job market. Even then, it usually takes six years to obtain tenure at a university, and in this climate people aren’t always sticking around at their first job to get it (assume their starting position is even tenure-track). That’s because once you get tenure, your next job has to honor it and no one wants to pay $60K for a tenured professor when they can get an adjunct or assistant prof for $30K.

The trend that’s pissed me off lately is universities hiring profs in one-year positions to justify low pay, then letting that person slip into the full-time position (with barely more pay) after the first year. This exploits desperate young PhDs and often doesn’t net the best qualified person.

You should feel sorry for academics, just like you should feel sorry for K-12 teachers and other people getting screwed in their profession because of an imbalance of power and stagnant wages.

garysixpack (#4,263)

@clo
I haven’t seen any study, but I would bet your chance of finding a tenure track position goes down precipitously with age. You can spend more time looking for a tenure track position, but you should be aware than you’re likely squandering the precious resource of time.

zeytin (#4,005)

@garysixpack It depends on when you graduate moreso than your age per se. The longer you’ve been on the market, the less attractive you look to committees. Often unfair, but true.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Karebot if you read my post again, you would note that I referred to being in a tenure track position by 35, not achieving tenure by 35. As you said, that’s a six-year difference.

To be honest, I don’t feel that sorry for academics regarding tenure. I think that tenure is an out-of-date concept and isn’t relevant today. I do understand why teachers want it (i.e., guaranteed job security regardless of job performance). However, I also understand why universities are phasing it out and finding ways to work around it.

I do have a lot of sympathy for adjuncts. It’s a low-paying, high-stress job. That’s why I suggest that the give it a few years, then get out into the real world, in order to achieve some degree of financial security.

andnowlights (#2,902)

I wonder how much of this is his completely unwillingness to leave the NYC area, though. When my husband was a student at an Ivy, there was a guy who was an adjunct for the school (which he got his degree at) and he WOULD NOT LEAVE the area, despite applying for numerous tenure track positions at the school and getting rejected. If you spend any time in academia and keep your ears/eyes open, you understand most schools will not hire you straight out of the gate for a tenure track position if you got that PhD at that school. You have to go elsewhere to “prove yourself.”

My husband is a humanities PhD and we’re well aware of the dangers of the job market once he graduates. Academia is HARD and it is SCARY and it irritates me to no end when people think they can waltz into a position just because they have a PhD. There are too many PhDs in the humanities. There are not enough jobs. People in academia have been saying that for years and yet everyone thinks that THEY are the exception. The odds are against you when there are 300 people applying for the same job.

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