Adjuncting is something that's often discussed in academia as a temporary condition ... as something that grad students or recent Ph.D.s can do to supplement their income during their last few semesters before they go off and get their "real" tenure track jobs.
And indeed, in some cases/places, that is how adjuncting works. In my department, grad students would occasionally take a one-course adjuncting gig at a nearby institution to earn a few thousand extra dollars and some additional teaching experience ... in exchange for giving the instructors at the smaller regional campuses a much-needed break from their huge course loads. No harm, no foul. Alternately, I'd taken a few courses at Grad U with instructors who had day jobs but taught a class at night, just because they loved doing it. Again ... no harm, no foul.
What I didn't realize until I started reading postacademic blogs, however, was the degree to which adjuncting is becoming the norm in higher ed writ large, especially in urban areas with their captive pools of recent Ph.D.s and their high number of campuses in small geographic areas. Sadly, what I've learned since starting this blog is that adjuncting is gradually becoming the "new normal" in faculty appointments at many universities, particularly in the humanities (but also with a growing number in the social sciences as well).
Now, if you were a person who really enjoyed teaching and enjoyed having access to a variety of students and colleagues? Theoretically, perhaps an adjuncting gig wouldn't be all bad. However, because adjuncting is viewed by administration and other faculty (with serious intentional blindness, in my opinion) as a temporary/side/voluntary position, these positions are low paid, often have no benefits, and definitely have no security.
Most adjunct pay scales seem to hover somewhere around $3000/class. Certainly, for someone with a full-time job, this might be a great opportunity to earn some vacation money! But if you're someone who's trying to string together a full-time adjunct career by scheduling yourself a 4/4 or even 5/5? You're going to be lucky to top out at $30k per year before taxes.
And you can deduct your health insurance premiums from that salary, since none of the universities you adjunct at are likely to offer you insurance.
And sure, $30k per year might be an okay salary if you're living in rural Nebraska with a wealthy spouse. But for someone who's single and living in DC or NYC? Different story.
And finally ... (apologies for going full-tilt academic-snob for a minute) ... I'd argue that if someone spends an average of 10 years in graduate school, teaching and doing research while barely pulling in five figures? They deserve - yes, I said deserve - to make a living wage once they graduate. Sure, there might be a few outliers who are terrible at their jobs. But for there to be hundreds if not thousands of Ph.D.'s running around DC and NYC making $30k per year or less? That's ridiculous. And incredibly wrong.
That is not what those Ph.D.'s signed up for at 22 when they got their graduate school acceptance letters and danced excitedly around their rooms at the prospect of someday being college professors. That is not what current professors tell their incoming cohorts is waiting for them at the end. Instead, we get the starry-eyed "life of the mind" nonsense and continued repeating of the mantra "if you're good enough, you'll get a job. If you publish/teach/network enough, you'll get a job."
And then at the end, when these new Ph.D.'s are spit out on the other end and can't find work that pays a living wage, they have no choice but to think it was their fault. They weren't good enough ... or if they can manage to think critically enough about the structure of higher education ... they weren't smart enough to realize it was all a sham when they applied to graduate school.
That is wrong. And it's not wrong on the part of the students who come into graduate school wanting the "life of the mind." It's wrong on the part of the advisors and departments who continue admitting full cohorts and perpetuating the job market myths that let the system continue without reform.
This turned into a bit of a rant. Really, I wanted to make a couple of observations about the above posts I linked to, and encourage you to go over and read them:
- There is a collection being taken up to help adjuncts pay their rent. There are adjuncts living in homeless shelters. On food stamps. This is what the university system is creating. A class of faculty who not only struggle to make ends meet, but literally can't pay their rent. This is their reward for all the years of university teaching and the long, arduous work of completing a Ph.D.
- Is the economy hard everywhere? Yes. But at least there is some public awareness of the high unemployment rate and of the way people working in other industries are struggling. But those of us who teach or have taught at the university level are seen as privileged, even elitist. The reality looks much different for a large segment of us ... but it gets no attention.
- It's worth thinking about (as a commenter on the Chronicle piece points out) that this shift is likely deliberate, and is unlikely to get better. Universities may not be for-profit, but are they going to stop perpetuating a system where they can hire instructors to teach four classes at about a third of the salary that they'd need to spend to pay a tenure track faculty member? I highly doubt it. Of course, they will continue to hire some tenure-track faculty to not completely blow up the myths. But if you're in grad school, you need to seriously think about your chances in this shifting system.
- It's also worth thinking about why (as another commenter points out) grad programs are continuing to admit full cohorts of students, all while knowing that the job market looks worse and worse every year, and that the shift toward adjunct/temporary faculty is underway. The university that is happy to take your money and give you your graduate degree is not your friend in this. If they're not shrinking their cohorts these days, this does not mean things are going to get better. In fact, I'd argue it's quite the opposite. Remember ... grad students are cheap teachers, just like adjuncts.