Illustration by Jim Cooke

America’s well-manicured universities are supported by an entire academic underclass of very smart and very poorly paid people: the adjunct professors. They would like to tell you about the “insanely bleak” job that keeps academia chugging along.

We are publishing true stories from adjunct professors about the realities of their jobs and the inherent inequality of the higher learning industry. This is worth considering before you take out all those student loans.


I have been an adjunct for about 5 years. First did it for experience and to supplement my already low wages as a social worker. Then I tried to go into private practice and needed some additional work to supplement. If it weren’t for my husband’s salary, I would not survive.

I teach two classes with are each 3.5 hours. For 16 weeks, I make under $6,000. Each month, I make about $1,150 and spend approximately 40 hours a month working sometimes more. The only reason I only work that much is because I put a boundary around how much time I spend and use lesson plans from previous semesters.

The real problem is aggressive men in class. If they don’t like me or what I have to offer or when i give them a bad grade, they will harass me endlessly until the end of the semester. I have been yelled at, intimidated and threatened by them because they can’t handle the fact that education is not something you purchase. You invest in it and the work is how you succeed.

I have tried to get the school to address the problem. They have no counseling program and refuse to refer students out for help with their anger issues. I have told them repeatedly that one day, there will be a school shooting and when that happens, I will not be surprised. I only hope I will not be there when it happens. Patriarchy!

Motherhood as an adjunct

I’m an adjunct English professor at a school in NYC... I have only part-time childcare, 20 hrs a week—the job pays so little that I really can’t justify additional hours, since I’m already at a net loss if only my salary is considered. I also value the flexibility that lets me collect my children from school each day and have them home with me a few days a week. But, this means nearly all my childcare hours are taken up with teaching and commuting and I don’t have enough time to prep my lessons, keep up with my grading, or meet with students. I grade late into the night and wake very early in the morning to teach. I prep lessons while my kids swarm around me during our spare half-hour at home before I make them dinner. And I am never on campus outside of teaching or my one office hour per week. (Fitting dissertation writing into this schedule was another beast. I’m glad that’s behind me). I struggle with the fact that I don’t give my students the time and attention my professors gave me as an undergrad. But I’m also aware that all of the hours I put into my courses on my own time not only come at the expense of something else (sleep, time with my family, my own research and writing)—they’re also totally uncompensated.

My story’s not a dark or depressing one— I’ve got various forms of privilege. Yet even with all that, I can barely make this schedule work. And unlike the busy corporate mom who has to work on deals late into the night around her family’s schedule, I’m literally not paid for the work that keeps me up until 1 am. I’m not going to stay in it for the long haul— a year or maybe two until my kids are in school full-time and then, if I haven’t landed a TT job, I’m leaving academia, possibly for high school teaching, possibly something else. I just hope I’m able to find something outside it— I worry that employers will see the PhD on my CV and decide I’m too over-educated for whatever job I’m trying to get.

Life as a for-profit adjunct

I work as a rep for [a large] for-profit provider of post secondary education. I work remote from home office and attend recruiting events at high schools. Not working in an office is the only reason I stay with this company.

I recently attended a high school college fair where my campus ‘allowed’ one of the adjunct faculty to go with me. The shit he told me that he has to deal with in the office is PSYCHO. And I got the eerie feeling that the company doesn’t like to let the adjuncts out of the office to attend events for fear they’ll say too much to other employees about what goes on...

As an adjunct faculty member every second of every day is monitored by a system the company has set up on his computer - every time he gets up from his computer he has to give his reason and clocks back in when he returns.

He’s not allowed to step out for lunch! He has to eat crap from the vending machine. And restroom breaks are fucking clocked too! If he steps away from his computer too long he gets ‘dinged’ from the timer on his computer and is immediately reprimanded by the campus President or HR Director and their report goes to corporate.

This company has been through several rounds of lay-offs during the last couple of years and employee turn over in the office is churn and burn. Every time there’s a lay-off there’s more work expectations thrown on the adjuncts. I think the majority (if not all) of the faculty is adjunct, to keep cost down and shareholders at bay. He said his emails are off the chart, hundreds a day from students, from corporate, and he must respond to all of them in between teaching classes. His time on the phone is monitored as well.

He often works 12-14 hour days, didn’t say what his salary is or if he’s paid overtime. He’s been with the company for awhile but says everything has gotten much worse in the last couple years

Treated like less than janitors

I have been an adjunct faculty at [a university in Massachusetts] since 2000 in the finance department. I always did that as a hobby because I could never justify the hourly pay given the time I spent. I do it because I love teaching and interacting with young minds and I love to talk about finance.

I get paid 5,000 per class but this number used to be much less until we started to talk about union 3 years ago. Since then, the number has not moved.

After a vote where we lost by 2 votes, we voted 2 to 1 last year to unionize. Since then, the administration has been doing all they can to stonewall us. Every tactic you can think off, they use it. “We do not have the money, you are not worth it, etc.” The kicker is that they are about to build a brand new hockey rink. And this is D2 ball. The size and pay of the administration is out of control. But we are worthless.

It is to the point where we are using a mediator because the talks are going no where. I believe we will end up having to involve the NLRB.

Adjuncts here are treated like less than janitors in the administration’s eyes (because janitors have a union). You are never guaranteed a class until the first day of school. If they assign you a class, you do the prep work and they cancelled it last minute, you get nothing. This happened to me after 14 years. I basically had to get mad and they gave me the most entry level class they had that semester to keep me happy. The kicker is that I found i lost my class because I could not find it on blackboard to post my syllabus. No one bothered to tell me.

Last year, I lost my inbox but somehow regained it this year. I used to have an office in the finance department but now it is someone I am not sure where. I talk to my students after class or meet in a public area.

We are portrayed as professors to our students but not treated like ones. I once told my students how much they paid me and my students could not stop laughing. It is a true labor of love for me.

Insanely bleak

I have taught at four different schools: a community college (where I also taught in a local high school as part of their early college program), a private four-year, and a public four-year. I tell people that when you’re an adjunct, you’re basically a whore. You take what they’re willing to pay you and you lie about what you’re able to teach. I have never said “no” to a teaching job. So, outside of history, I’ve also taught composition courses and public speaking, and I reckon I could “teach” just about any course offered. But that doesn’t mean it’s a pleasure, and it doesn’t mean that students are getting the best education, but it’s the grind.

The average you cited sounds high (I am from Northwest Ohio). The average I’ve seen is around $2,000 per class (cost of living is down). The only way it makes economic sense for me is to double up on classes, teaching as many as four times in a day at one place or taking online courses on the side.

I can lie and tell myself that this is temporary (and I do!) and that when I finish, things will be different, but it’s insanely bleak. There has not been a moment wasted in my doctoral program, but making ends meet by teaching courses all the time means that you’re always prepping courses, grading, communicating with students, commuting, and that doesn’t make for a lot of time to write. To show for it, I will soon have a doctorate, but it’s increasingly clear that many institutions frankly don’t value the work I’ve put into it, and they don’t value the students whose pockets they’re robbing.

That part IS depressing. I used to believe in the liberal arts tradition, and in the value of the humanities (I still do), but it dims all the time because of self-interested decisions made by administrators and government officials that minimize what we do.


I just read your article on adjunct professors. I teach English—3-4 courses in spring and fall and 2 during the summer. These are grading-intensive courses, and I spend so much time marking papers and doing class prep. Last year I barely cleared $20k. I spend 10-12 hours a week just commuting to and from my college, so a not-insignificant chunk of my pay goes into my gas tank just to get me to work. I have over $40k in student loans and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay them. I hate summer because it means less money. In the fall, we start working in August and don’t get paid until mid-October. In what other profession does one work for two whole months before their first paycheck? They do this because they’re afraid we’ll quit a month in and walk away with a little bit of money, heaven forbid. I can’t tell you how stressful this life is, especially for someone who has no financial support from elsewhere. If I could be happy doing something other than teaching, believe me, I would get out. Unfortunately, I love my work and my students, and I feel like my life has some meaning. But I don’t know how much longer I can suffer like this. I am always one unexpected bill away from total financial crisis.

Here’s the deal: administrative positions (Assistant to the Assistant Assistant) have exploded (something like 250% in the past couple decades) and administrative salaries have skyrocketed. Administrators who have far less education than faculty, and whose jobs frankly serve very little purpose, make six figures. Meanwhile the faculty—the backbone of higher ed—try to keep from starving. This is obscene.

Thank you to all the adjuncts who have written in with their stories. We will run more of these in coming weeks.