Illustration by Jim Cooke

American universities spend half a trillion dollars a year. Very little of that money goes to the people who do a huge part of the teaching: the adjunct professors, academia’s hidden underclass. They are telling us their stories. They’re not pretty.

I am a ghost

I am an adjunct professor at a mid-sized liberal arts college in the southeast. The title the university gave me is part-time instructor, (despite the fact that I hold a terminal degree and have been a working professional in my field for more then 10 years). They call us that so they can diminish our worth and pay us abysmal wages. I have been living this hell since I graduated four years ago. When I first started I was promised that they would hire me full-time, if only it was possible within the complicated and tight budget. I realize this was never their intention. There will never be any extra money in the department’s budget for adjunct faculty.

When I first started my pay was $1800 (now a whopping $2100 - still below the national average) per 3 hour credit course. I have yet to make $10k in a single year. I teach for a 16 week semester, and get paid for 3 hours a week for one class. The catch is that the classroom hours for my courses add up to six hours each because I teach art studio classes. There is certainly no extra compensation for hours spent grading, planning, meeting with students, completing university paperwork, or answering emails - which add up to at least another 3 hours each week. On average I teach two or three classes per semester.

I do not have an office. I have to use my personal laptop to perform any necessary computer tasks. I do not see my contract until the semester has already begun, usually about a month into classes. I do not see my first pay check until six weeks in. My contract states that it can be cancelled for any reason the university sees fit. I am not given a faculty parking decal and have been issued parking tickets from the university on two occasions that required me to file appeals or pay $40 tickets.

When I was pregnant with my first child I asked for a filing cabinet to store my heavy books, supplies, bags. I was told I could be reimbursed if I purchased one myself. Since my pay was so minimal, I opted to keep carrying the bags everyday. I was not offered any classes to teach the semester that my child was born, despite my willingness to keep working. When I returned and needed to use my breast pump in between my classes, my boss told me I could use the ladies room. Thankfully one of the full-time faculty offered me access to her office.

I have no say in any department decisions. I am not invited to faculty meetings. I am a ghost with a generic plastic post box in the department’s main office. The full-time faculty express how they wish they could help my situation. It’s all empty. No one in higher Ed ever wants to rock the boat.

The truth is that I have watched the university flood millions into new facilities. There is no shortage of funds. There is only an administration intent on perpetuating the surge of dollars that lines their own wallets and increases the sparkle of their legacy. They don’t see adjuncts as people. We are a second-class answer to a budget problem and receive no accolades, no benefits, no professional titles, no grant money, no sabbaticals, and no other perks afforded to the full-time faculty who perform the exact same job.

Adjuncts are the new normal and no one even bothers to learn our names, since most don’t stay for very long. It doesn’t help that tenured faculty in their 70s and 80s are deciding not to retire. They draw huge salaries and benefits, while they teach fewer classes than their non-tenured counterparts.

When I first started teaching at the university, I was excited. I used to love my job. Now just feel exploited. I used to believe that my adjunct position was temporary. I was foolish to believe that. Universities have no intention of changing course. They will just keep pretending that adjuncts are not real people who deserve a living wage.

I am really not sure why I am still doing it at this point. Every dollar I make from teaching goes to paying my student loan. It is a ridiculous cycle. If I didn’t have a secondary income I would qualify for government assistance. I know plenty of adjuncts who get by on food stamps and live in questionable neighborhoods. That is the kind of image that most people assume is pretty far from the ivory tower. But it is the new reality.

The hiring process

I’m not sure if you’re aware of the hiring process in academia, but it basically goes like this:

-Send out a 70+ page packet including cover letter, cv, syllabi, writing sample, letters of rec, syllabi, student evaluations, statements on research and teaching, etc etc. You’ll probably never hear back from them.
-If you’re lucky, you get an email for a phone/Skype interview. You’ll have a 20 minute conversation, and you’ll probably never hear back from them.
-If you’re lucky, you get an email for a “flyout” interview. You pay out of pocket (you’ll get reimbursed a month and a half later) to fly to College Town, USA. You’ll spend ~12 hours interviewing every goddamned person at the university (who all ask the same questions) and fly home. You’ll hear back from them, but not for another month or two. If you’ve gotten the job, celebrate! But keep it short since now you’re on the tenure clock.

I came to academia out of working in DC for a financial services lobbying firm (long story). I was offered a pretty well-paying promotion that would likely lead to a long career of making oodles of money by enabling banks and insurance companies to do the same. I turned it down and went to academia largely because it was hard to sleep at night: If I worked hard and did a good job, it meant that overdraft fees still existed. In a sense, I was helping to solidify a system that caused immeasurable harm to poor people. I couldn’t do it anymore...

My love for the work is really what makes my current situation more depressing. I gave up a lucrative and prestigious career in lobbying in order to chase something that, while certainly less financially rewarding, was nonetheless stable and provided some sort of psychological reward. After two years on the job market chasing tenure-track jobs as well as visiting positions, post-docs, etc etc, it seems that I’ll have none of the above. I refuse to work as an adjunct, simply because I don’t want to further legitimize the practice. I truly love what I do, but I simply can’t find stable employment doing it (to be fair, I’m waiting to hear back from a flyout but it’s been long enough that I assume the worst. This will have been my 12th interview/flyout without a job offer). So I’ll likely end up falling into something I could’ve done 6 years ago, just further behind and way too overqualified. But at least people will have to call me Dr., so that’s a win I guess.

It’s no Quiznos

I‘m currently an adjunct at [a UC school]. I teach a Public Speaking lecture class of 150 students. I make 15k.

In theory the work is “part time” however none of that accounts for the prep, the administrative logistics, dealing non-stop with individual students’ drama, being asked to write letters of rec for roughly 10 students per quarter, being asked to attend or present at faculty workshops or guest present in a faculty member’s class, writing letters of rec for TAs every time they apply for something, and doing all of the general labor involved in being an ideal colleague in order to maybe-possibly eke out a better deal. I easily work 35 hours per week.

To scrape together a living I work a bunch of other part-time jobs in which the work ebbs/flows inconsistently. I freelance for a screenwriter for 20/hour, I test surveys for a friend’s computer company, I read scripts for Sundance... but all of this work is inconsistent and none of this work provides healthcare.

Hands down, the biggest NIGHTMARE of this whole situation (aside from the obvious indignity and abysmal pay) is the lack of healthcare. Because I make such little money at the university I qualify for Medicare. However, because my income keeps oscillating due to the part-time work I pick up I have to report income change every month. This means I oscillate on and off Medicare and Covered California and have to deal with the circle-jerk paperwork of healthcare on an almost monthly basis. You can imagine what a sh*t show this is. At this point I just don’t EVER go to the doctor and I’ve gone off birth control because I have to meet with a doctor every time I change health care providers and my prescription won’t be honored every time I change insurance status. Thus, it’s just easier to say F*ck it...

I made better money when I was 14 and worked at Quiznos. I made significantly better money when I was 21 and drove a beer cart on a golf course. It boggles my mind that being a college adjunct pays less than fast-food service. The way we treat adjuncts is down right criminal and the discrepancy between what we make and what regents and coaches and faculty make is also alarming.

From an adjunct teaching in California and Texas

What is your quality of life?
Like a squirrel: always in fear of what might happen, squirreling away what little money I can when I can because I know there will be long periods of un/underemployment, and vulnerable to even the smallest of disasters that can befall a person. I recently had to pay almost $3000 (all my savings) for dental work, which could probably have been prevented if I had been able to see a dentist in the years before. I frequently live at home between jobs, and that is incredibly disheartening and depressing (my family is very supportive, though). My boyfriend recently had to move out of his house, and he’s now living at my own parents’ house while I work in multiple states. That’s a level of humility I’ve never achieved before. $1500, or maybe even $1000, more a month, and I’d be able to support my bf and I living in our own place. To be frank with you, I am frequently suicidal, and I’d probably be more stable, but my health insurance (when I have it), doesn’t pay for therapy.

What needs to be done?
More tenure positions need to be opened up. My home university actually needs another tenure-track faculty member in our program; if one opened up, I’d likely get it, and I’d be doing much better. When tenure can’t be offered, faculty need to be guaranteed a salary for more than year. And if the university can’t come up with the classes? TOO FUCKING BAD. A person who works as a secretary gets paid even when there’s no one in the office, flight attendants get paid even when they’re not on a plane serving customers … most of the jobs in this nation guarantee a salary even if the employee isn’t always engaged in work. Faculty need the same.

You’ll be safe in your nonexistent office

It’s the most isolating thing in the world. I’m damn lucky at [a large Texas University] now, because I’m teaching some with the Women’s Studies department, and they go out of their way to make sure all the adjuncts know one another, get together, and share information. I’ve never felt like part of a department before. I’ve taught places where I literally never met anyone else in my department, and barely anyone else in the whole school, save my students. The WGSS department is making a concerted effort to work against that kind of isolation, and I really do appreciate that.

I’m left out of “faculty” decisions and information. Here’s a big one: There’s been a lot of to-do lately about Campus Carry. I wasn’t invited to the faculty information session. No one has reached out to me about the new rules. There are important things about it I need to know - like, uh, I make the University legally liable if I ask if someone is carrying a weapon??? - that no one has told me. I went to a big public forum and begged the panel to please, whatever they decide, tell the adjuncts. No one has told us.

I’m also not invited to the faculty/staff Christmas party, the back-to-school reception, or a lot of the cool campus goings-on... Only rarely do I have anything approaching an office, which means I have to meet with students either in public spaces or in whatever lounge my department is willing to give me (which I get kicked out of the second someone else needs it). Speaking of Campus Carry, they’ve made a big deal about banning guns in faculty offices. Guess who doesn’t have an office.

Don’t stay in school

I applied to 50+ jobs this year and got one interview. ONE. Friends in the industry say it will take more than 2 years of being done with the PhD to get a job and if I want to do this I’ll have to live in a financial minefield for that time. It takes most people 4-5 years right now because schools aren’t opening new jobs. This is hitting when I am 32 years old, right when otherwise I would have been saving to buy a house or start a family. I have no job security and very few prospects in spite of earning the top degree from one of the best universities in the world. I have gone on one vacation in the last six years, and it was a couple hundred miles away to Vermont for a 2 day weekend trip. Everyone I know is going through this. A friend who finished his 2 PhD years ago has over 100 files in his cover letter folder on his desktop. Someone else told me that no one at Harvard in their field got interviews this year. Universities stopped producing jobs long ago but they continue to produce PhDs...


Thanks to all of the adjunct professors who wrote in. Even if we don’t run your story, please know that we are impressed with your writing ability.