The Myth of the Minimum Wage Adjunct

The plight of beleaguered adjunct professors is back in the news, following a national “adjunct walk-out day” event last month and extensive discussions ever since. At issue is the pay level of adjunct professors, or contract university faculty who get paid per course taught. In addition to substantially lower compensation levels, adjuncts generally lack the employment benefits, voting power, and, in the case of tenure, job security of of full-time university faculty.

As someone who spent the last ~1.5 years of grad school as a so-called “full time adjunct,” constituting my only real source of income at the time, I can state first hand that it will not make you wealthy. But is the adjuncting life also a pathway to poverty as many suggest? One of the most pervasive claims about beleaguered adjuncts is that they make the equivalent of minimum wage salaries, if not less, when one takes the prep time outside of the classroom into account. Consider the following claim from a recent Huffington Post article about the plight of adjuncts:

Adjuncts are hired to teach a course or two, a semester at a time. Point Park told her it would pay $2,244 a semester for each class. With preparation and instruction time, grading, and meetings with students, adjuncts figure that’s less than minimum wage — for workers with master’s and doctorate degrees.

The claim of the “minimum wage adjunct” is repeated as a matter of fact in article after article after article on the subject. But is it true?

Let’s do a little arithmetic. Adjunct pay for a typical 3-credit hour class fluctuates, but about $3,000 is the norm give or take by the subject matter and location (it actually gets closer to $5,000 in high-demand markets, or drops to $2,244 in the aforementioned instance). Granted, that’s not much in the grand scheme of things for academia. But it’s not minimum wage either. In fact it’s not anywhere close to minimum wage. Consider:

At the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a salary of $2,244 for a single class converts into just under 310 hours worth of compensation. The workload of that class can be calculated as well. The lecturing part of it is more or less fixed to about 3 hours of classroom time per week over a 15 week semester, or 45 hours. To hit minimum wage equivalents, that would mean an adjunct professor would have to work an additional 265 hours outside of the classroom, per class, in the course of a semester.

265 hours divided by 15 weeks comes to just under 18 hours per week on top of classroom obligations. Not to discount the time commitment of grading, meeting with students, and preparing for lectures, but 18 hours outside of the classroom for every 3 hours teaching either (1) represents an absurd over-investment in teaching well beyond the point of diminishing returns, or (2) shows that the instructor is so horrendously inefficient at time management to meet the minimal obligations of a course that the person ought to seriously reconsider if he or she is even suited for teaching at all!


Now let’s consider a couple additional features of adjunct teaching:

1. Exceptions exist, but as a rule adjuncts are usually hired to teach intro level “general ed” courses in their fields. They should not be spending multiple hours on end preparing for lectures in “American Government 101” that any competent political scientist should be able to give off the cuff.

2. As a rule, lower level courses should also require less complex assignments and thus easier grading. Instructors who find that grading eats up too much of their time should also be looking to tweaking their assignments to make this process more efficient.

3. Adjuncts usually have no obligations to attend faculty meetings, to serve on committees, or to do any of the numerous “university service” expectations of full time faculty. This is actually an advantage for adjuncts.

4. Adjuncts also have no fixed research expectations (although they will never break out of the adjuncting cycle if they do not publish academic work)

5. Like virtually all university teaching jobs, adjuncts enjoy an extremely generous schedule that includes 3 months off over the summer, a 1.5 month winter break, and numerous other smaller breaks throughout the year.

All of these features considered together mean that even an adjunct on a 4/4 teaching load should have ample additional free time to do other things as long as he or she is an effective time manager when it comes to teaching obligations. That includes everything from publishing (in order to strengthen your chances at attaining a full time teaching position or equivalent research position) to seeking out other sources of income. I can also speak to this first hand as it is something I learned to do quickly during my own period as a full-time adjunct ca. 2008-2009. I was not anything close to well off during this period of my career, but with a little basic time management I not only met my teaching obligations but I (1) finished a dissertation, (2) wrote several peer reviewed articles, (3) composed a substantial part of an academic press monograph, and (4) found more permanent employment.

So what does time management mean for an adjunct or otherwise? It means setting specific goals of how much time you spend per week on preparation, grading, and meeting with students. As a general rule, 2 hours per class per week is very attainable for a competent instructor. For intro courses and classes you’ve taught before, it is feasible to be even more efficient. Obviously there are some variables, and more time will be spent on grading the week after a final exam than the week after a minor quiz. But contrary to many of the claims of the “beleaguered adjunct” movement, the time you spent on out-of-classroom activities should not approach anywhere even remotely close to 18 hours per course per week, which as we established above is the requisite time to make adjuncting a single course into the equivalent of a minimum wage job.

Academia and the Plight of the Adjuncts

Now all of this should be taken with the general caveat that the academic employment market still faces numerous obstacles, many of them unfair. Higher education is something of a beast onto itself, particularly in the over-saturated fields of the “soft” humanities. In addition to a simple shortfall of job openings vis-a-vis applicants, it is slow-moving, bureaucratized, nepotistic, overattentive to obscure niche interests, and generally poor at matching personnel to positions. The result is a substantial and often infuriating time lag in employment that has its greatest adverse effects on younger, newer entrants into the workforce. The implosion of the academic job market ca. 2008 during the financial crisis took a huge hit on new tenure track university employment opportunities, and there are many fields that have yet to recover. Add in the vast amount of favoritism and politicking at play in many academic employment decisions, the entry barriers of the tenure process including its tendency to protect underperforming and unproductive senior faculty members, and the product that emerges is very far from a pure meritocracy. In fact it’s not unreasonable to note that the cumulative lingering effect is something of a “lost generation” among scholars who have entered certain sectors of the academic market in the last ~5 years.

The rise of dependence on adjuncting is both an extension and symptom of those problems. But rather than spreading mythologies about “minimum wage adjuncts,” our discussion of the subject needs to be grounded in a heavy dose of fact. Compared to tenure track positions, adjuncting is far from lucrative. But it is a manageable option for those who want to remain in the academy and are adept at efficiently allocating their time, as opposed to simply expecting a salary that they mistakenly believe is automatically commensurate with an advanced degree. That option is almost certainly going to be less than ideal, but the pathway to move beyond it likely does not entail unionization or collective bargaining – actions that will further sclerotize the adjuncting job market, as opposed to improving its already-limited mobility options. Rather it entails effectively managing one’s time, and using that time to assemble a published, scholarly research portfolio that could facilitate advancement into a more permanent and higher paying academic position. And if that fails, as my friend Jason Brennan points out there is always the exit option of seeking employment in another sector of the economy.