Dispelling Further Adjunct Mythology

My previous post on the “Myth of the Minimum Wage Adjunct” stirred up an unusual amount of discussion of the issue, including additional commentary on the nature of the adjuncting job market. It warrants reiteration that I in no way believe that adjuncting is a route to wealth, but neither is it necessarily a path to abject poverty, as asserted in many media portrayals of the profession. This does not mean that adjuncting, or academic employment for that matter, are problem free or even defensible in their worst attributes. But what we see passing for dialogue in the “beleaguered adjunct” movement is far from tempered or factually grounded.

Let’s consider a few more common adjuncting myths:

MYTH 1: An advanced degree alone is sufficient for full time academic employment.

There may have been a time when it was possible to graduate with a PhD and step into an academic job with no further accomplishment than a strong reference letter, but it is seldom if ever the case in today’s weak academic job market. I do not make this observation to be critical of those who lack such credentials, but rather to illustrate the reality of a very competitive job market. Adjuncts who desire to move into a full time position will not alter that reality by complaining about their current wages and asserting that their degrees and teaching alone should warrant a full time hire.

There are certain things you CAN control, though few of them are easy:

  • You need to have peer reviewed publications. This is the closest thing that academics have to a metric for research output. It is no guarantee of a job, but you also will not get a job without them. You will also find that your competitiveness on the job market increases exponentially when you obtain (a) more publications in (b) higher ranked journals. Unfortunately many of the adjuncts who falter in their quests for something more permanent simply lack the publications on their CVs that would attract consideration for a full time hire. Also note that self-published novels, newspaper editorials, personally published poetry, blogging etc. do not count as publications for purposes of academic hiring, no matter how great they may be (or you think they may be).
  • You need to deliver finished research products. Fortunately, publications are evidence of this – so get your worked published! But this also means that an applicant whose CV only boasts 4 incomplete articles under revision, an unfinished book without a publisher, and a half dozen conference presentations that went nowhere will be strongly signalling that he or she has trouble carrying a project to fruition.
  • You need to have a terminal degree. There are almost no ways around this one. It is nearly impossible to get hired into a full time academic position if you lack a PhD, unless you already have a very rare and exceptional career distinction outside of the academy (as in you won a Pulitzer Prize, or you’re the former Ambassador to Japan). If you are an adjunct and your highest degree is an M.F.A., nobody is going to hire you to a tenure track job because there are hundreds of other PhDs competing for that same job. (Update: a friend alerts me that MFAs have historically been considered sufficient for fine arts faculty hires, although evidence suggests that expectations have changed in recent years to strongly favor a PhD. In any case, in a highly competitive job market with far fewer positions than applicants, a person with a PhD will almost always receive greater consideration than someone with an MFA alone).
  • You need to be actively working in your field. This should go without saying, but if your research is in Anthropology, you are not going to be competitive on the job market in Political Science. And if your highest degree is an M.A. in English, you are going to have an extremely difficult time finding a full time job in English let alone Art History, even if the latter is your true passion.

If you don’t have all of these things, then the bottom line is simple: you will not be competitive for a full time academic job. Even with them, you may face a tough road. But adjuncts who don’t publish, don’t research, lack terminal degrees, and only focus on teaching don’t even have that shot.

MYTH 2: My teaching evaluations warrant my promotion to a full time position.

Teaching should not be neglected, but it also isn’t sufficient to get you hired on its own. You might have perfect 5/5 evaluation scores from your students, a letter from your department chair calling you the greatest teacher in the history of his or her tenure, and a teaching award to back it all up. If you don’t have any publications to match it though, very few departments are going to be interested in you – even if your evaluations are better than their own full time faculty. Complaining about the “neglect” of teaching does little to address this problem, because – as much as we may feel that way at times – there is no shortage of teaching opportunities in a university environment. What does exist, however, is an abundant supply – even glut – of willing teachers amongst the ranks of existing full time faculty, new job applicants, and other existing adjuncts. Teacher awards, though nice, therefore carry very little weight compared to publishable research (and indeed you may find yourself competing against applicants that are both highly rated teachers and accomplished research scholars). What is certain though: if you place all of the eggs of your academic basket into teaching, you will find yourself unable to get anything more than a contract teaching position.

MYTH 3: I work just as hard as an adjunct as full time faculty do, only at half their wages.

This is a difficult myth for many adjuncts to disentangle, precisely because there are a number of full time faculty who under-perform at their jobs and yet have job security. This is a serious problem of academic employment in general. It is caused by inefficiencies of the tenure system, academic politics, and a number of other factors of a highly bureaucratized career path. But as an adjunct, your objective is not to compete against the worst full time member of a department – it is to compete against the best, and the best applicants for that full time position.

This is where a little math can also be helpful, because I can guarantee you that the best full time faculty member in your department is doing far more work than you are as an adjunct, even if you are both teaching the same course loads. The best of your faculty peers are also being paid to spend their time on several things that are not required of you as an adjunct: (1) research output – including getting that researched published, (2) departmental commitments, which are expected to advance through the tenure process, (3) university service, also required for tenure, and (4) formal student advising, up to and including serving on dissertation committees if they are at a research institution.

Perhaps with some surprise, the math also actually bears this out. Suppose you are an adjunct with a 4-4 course load at $3,000 a course, giving you a salary of $24,000 (assume you don’t teach in the summer). Suppose next that your entry-level full time colleague also has a 4-4 course load and makes $50,000. Is this person really making twice what you do for the same amount of work? Probably not! Let’s assume that both of you are good teachers and each class taught requires 120 hours of time over the course of a 15 week semester (this is actually quite a generous estimate: 45 hours are fixed in the classroom, so that’s another 75 hours of prep time, grading, and meeting with students). At 8 classes a year, that comes to 960 hours of teaching. Your contract commitment ends right there, and nothing more. Your colleague, however, must also (1) produce research, (2) attend to departmental commitments, (3) provide university service, and (4) formally advise students as part of the path to tenure. The amount of time this requires of him/her will obviously vary, but note that a full time 40 hour-a-week private sector job usually clocks in around 2,000 hours a year. If your full time colleague is indeed researching at the levels that would sustain tenure, he or she probably needs to be actively writing/researching about 3 hours a day. Allowing for holidays and time off, 3 hours * 300 days = 900 hours a year on researching alone. Add in all that other stuff, and your full time 4-4 entry level colleague is easily above 1,000 hours in addition to teaching per year.

Remember that this colleague makes $50,000 a year, which at 2,000 hours worked comes to $25/hour. Now multiply that by the number of hours from the teaching commitment and you will arrive at $24,000, or $3,000 per class taught – the same that an adjunct is making for teaching alone. Granting fully that there will be exceptions to this rough calculation and anecdotes galore on where it does not hold, it is nonetheless a very reasonable representation of expectations for the average full time faculty member.


MYTH 4: My adjunct wage does not reflect the amount of time I put into this course.

The mistake being made here is that you are being paid for the time you put into your teaching as an adjunct. You are not – you are being paid to deliver the product you contracted to provide, which is course instruction. How much (or how little) time you put into it is something you can control, noting that quality will vary accordingly. It’s also the case though that some of us are simply more effective and more efficient teachers than others. Some people can adequately prep for a class in 1 hour, others in 3. Some people can finish their grading by spending 2 hours a week, others may take 10. Remember though that in a saturated teaching market, you are competing against those who teach their classes efficiently as well as effectively. This was the point of my post last week: if you are managing your time effectively as an adjunct, your per-hour dollar rate conversion is actually pretty high – as in well above the median wage in the United States, and not anywhere near the “minimum wage level” that is commonly claimed.

It bears note that many arguments tied to time spent on adjuncting (or commuting, as if other jobs pay their employees for hours spent driving to work – they generally don’t) are actually rooted in an old and yet demonstrably false economic fallacy called the Labor Theory of Value. I strongly recommend reading the discussion at the attached link, but the problem here for adjuncts is that the Labor Theory of Value tells us absolutely nothing of value about your teaching. If you doubt this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • If you take twice as long to write your lectures than your adjunct colleague does in the same class, do you deserve to be paid more than her?
  • If you spent 10 hours grading midterms but your adjunct colleague took 20 hours to grade the same number of midterms, would you be okay with him receiving a higher wage than you for the same exact class?
  • If one of your students turned in a terrible term paper, received a D-, and then came pleading to you that he spent several long sleepless nights working on the paper despite its obvious poor quality, would you reverse your decision and award him an A?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no” then I submit that you see the fault of the labor theory of value, and should consider how the same might also apply to arguments about long hours allegedly spent outside of the classroom while adjuncting.