Getting Caught in the Adjunct Trap

March 11th, 2014 | Posted by Erica House in Life

I have been teaching at the university level for 7 years.

Writing that out makes me feel so old! When I told people I taught at the university when I was 23 they were super impressed, now, I get an ‘oh, that’s cool.’ Every year I swear it seems like the students get younger and younger. It always reminds me of that line from Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older but they stay the same age.

Over the last 7 years I’ve taught some amazing courses; General Psychology, Human Growth & Development, Drugs & Behavior, Experimental Psychology, Careers in Psychology and Research Methods. I love teaching. I love that it forces me to learn more. I love helping students do their best and achieve their academic and professional goals. Last year I did a video on what it’s like to be an adjunct.

I currently teach at two universities and while I’m on Spring Break from one I’ve been dealing with the other regarding my teaching schedule for the Summer and Fall terms. For those outside the world of academia here’s a short background on adjuncts. They were originally hired on by universities to teach one, maybe two, classes in the areas they actually worked in. They brought ‘real world’ insight and taught only a fraction of the overall courses offered.

Now, adjuncts teach the majority of classes in many departments. As a full-time instructor you typically teach 4-5 classes, are expected to be a bit more invested in college activities (serve on committees, etc.) and you get benefits. As an adjunct you usually don’t have any obligations outside of showing up for your class, get zero benefits, and usually don’t get paid for office hours. When I teach a class for the first time I may only spend 3 hours a week in the classroom, but at least that same amount preparing the lecture, grading papers and developing exams. Also, the pay is abysmal. If I taught 5 classes a term 3x a year (which has never, ever happened) I’d still be making about 60% of what a full-time instructor does, putting in the same amount of hours a week, and getting NO benefits.


A few years ago I found myself caught in the adjunct trap. The schools I work at put their schedules for the term together a few weeks before they start. So, three times a year (Spring, Summer, Fall) I’d have no idea how many classes I’d be teaching, when, or on what campus. I didn’t know if I’d be making $300 a month or $2000. To say I was stressed is a significant understatement. After the first few years I built up a reputation as being a pretty good instructor so I could always count on at least two classes in the Spring/Fall (the Summer terms I’m still lucky if I get that many.) I worked full-time as an academic adviser for 3 years, then at the hospital last year for a few months, to supplement my income.

The problem with never knowing what your schedule will be like is that it makes it very, very difficult to find employment to supplement that income. This semester I teach 2 online classes and 2 in person so I’m only on campus Mondays and Wednesday afternoons. In the Fall, I will be on 3 different campuses Mon-Thurs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and it looks like I may be teaching two nights a week. Since I love what I do so much I’m absolutely okay with that, but the inability to have stable income and inability to maintain part/full-time employment in conjunction with teaching always weighs on my mind.

Thank goodness this blog has opened up the opportunity for me to make additional money while working during my off hours. When I say I make money from the blog most of my income actually comes from freelance writing work I get because of my blog, so not actually money from ad space or sponsored posts (although I do make money from both of those venues.) When I first started this blog almost 2 years ago I would put about 10-20 hours a week into it and I didn’t make a dime the first 6 months. That’s a minimum of 240 hours invested before any financial return! I didn’t get into it for the money though so I would still be doing it now even if I still getting my 20 page views a day.

I was talking with my parents recently about how great it feels to not have to worry about if I’ll be able to pay rent anymore. Not that I still don’t get a little anxious at the end of each term when I’m emailing department heads and trying to casually bring up, “So…any idea what I may be teaching next semester?” But, thanks to writing and this site, my stress over the issue has been significantly reduced. I’m working on opening up my etsy shop again mostly because I’ve been crafting up a storm lately and love having a ‘justification’ for going out and buying tons of art supplies. It’s also another nice way to pad my monthly income a bit.

If you are thinking about teaching at the university level chances are you will start off as an adjunct. If you haven’t taught before and are trying to break into it I’d suggest emailing the department head and letting them know that you are interested. While I 100% encourage those who would like to teach to do it I also wish someone had told me some of this ‘behind the scenes’ info before I got started in the field. It may have saved me a bit of stress (probably not though since I’m a chronic worrier!)


Have you ever been stressed over job instability?

What do you do for extra sources of income? 

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34 Responses

  • noladot says:

    Interesting! I have always said I wanted to teach, but I don’t know if I ever will.

    I wish I could think of a way to make some extra money…but…I am thinking crafting and writing probably won’t score me any cash! LOL!! And I am super picky because I am already gone from my house 12 hrs a day, and I have my bulldog who needs love and attention :)

    • Erica House says:

      I honestly don’t know if Etsy will bring in any substantial income and wonder if the time I put into crafting wouldn’t be better used in a ‘real’ part-time job. But, I LOVE making stuff and I can’t imagine finding an opportunity outside my house that I would enjoy doing as much.

  • Andree says:

    I’m basically in the same boat except I don’t have as many courses that I teach. I’ve been a sessional at an undergrad university for two years now. Just this week I had to apply to get the Spring appointment for a course that I’ve been teaching for 4 concurrent terms and I’ll probably find out if I get it the week or two before term starts. I currently teach under the Anthropology department, but my school is going to have an Archaeology department in a year or two. Between that and some faculty who are planning to retire, I hope something permanent will open up.
    More and more the issue of universities relying on adjuncts and offering less tenured positions is being discussed but I don’t know if steps are being made to deal with it. It’s frustrating. I often feel like if we were not under many of the constraint that come with the position, we could offer students more. Not having an office, non-personal phone, or parking greatly limits my ability to meet with students outside of class. Some publishers make you jump through hoops to get review textbooks, etc.
    I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had funding for my own studies, but the funding ends this year. I’ve been considering maybe doing some tutoring or trying to etsy route as extra income.

    • Erica House says:

      I’ll keep my fingers crossed you get a permanent position soon!
      There have been a lot of great articles in the last year in major publications highlighting the problems of relaying to much on adjuncts. As you questioned I don’t think anything is actually being done about it. From a business standpoint I can absolutely see why colleges rely on adjuncts, they are dirt cheap!

  • I hope someday my blog provides extra income, but I’m happy doing it just for fun. :) oh my goodness would I love to work from home.

  • I bet your students love you! That’s great you have etsy and blogging for extra income and it’s inspiring that you’re doing what makes you happy.

    • Erica House says:

      I typically have a great relationship with my students, but this term is a struggle as I’m teaching an advanced class that everyone HATES to take because it’s so difficult and I’m not getting the same warm fuzzies I do from my class when I teach the ‘easier’ intro courses.

  • Helen says:

    That’s great the students love you. That’ll probably help out if you decide to become full-time. But the insecurity can suck. It seems like once someone becomes a full-time professor, it’s really hard to fire them.
    Blogging is a great way to supplement your income.

  • wow this was super helpful!! I have actually wanted to adjunct teach forever, i just really didn’t even know how to get started. this puts a really interesting spin on that idea for me.

  • I think it’s awesome that you teach college! My father was a history professor and my mom taught Spanish and German to high schoolers so I feel like teaching is in my blood. I currently don’t have any plans to do that (I’m in college at the moment) but I love reading about your experience.

    Also, it’s pretty cool that blogging has opened up other doors for you :)


    • Erica House says:

      I never, ever, ever, thought I’d want to teach. The first semester I taught I think I broke out in hives at the start of every lecture I was so nervous. Now, I am absolutely in love with it!

  • Coco says:

    Great insight. Adjuncts are used in law schools, and I have partners who teach, but it is such a huge time commitment I couldn’t do it.

    • Erica House says:

      I’ve known quite a few lawyers who adjunct! I think that’s the perfect example of what adjuncts should be – professional working in their field who can teach one class a term and provide some amazing real world examples to the students.

  • Jules says:

    Wouldn’t the solution to being stuck in the adjunct trap be to go for a PhD to be more marketable for the instructor or professor positions? Today there are so many well-qualified and well-published PhDs on the job market, that it doesn’t make business sense for a college or university to give such a permanent position to someone with only a Masters level credential (unless s/he has many years of professional experience).

    Not trying to say getting a PhD is just a simple choice, or that there aren’t a myriad of options for people with Masters degrees, but with the current state of universities and the oversaturation of PhDs, there really isn’t a sound business reason not to bring in someone with those credentials.

    • Erica House says:

      You stated the prime reason I decided not to purse a Phd: Oversaturation. I also realized that I’m already doing now what I’d love to do if I had a Phd, teach and write. If I won the lotto tomorrow my first action (aside from flying to Europe) would be to apply to Phd programs. I’ve done the math and it just doesn’t add up financially for me to do it now that I’m relatively stable in my job/s. Even if I had an assistantship I think a Phd over 5 years would cost me about 50k. I’d also lose out on the 175k I’d be making if I continued working. So, I’d graduate with a hypothetical deficit of 125k. At the schools I work at the starting salary for a Phd is about 45k a year, which is about 10k more than I make now. I’d have to work 12.5 years after my Phd to break even for the financial loss. If I assume I’m working for another 40 years that would still net a profit, but not substantial enough for me to go into a program now. Plus, I know the same issues I’m facing now would still exist with a Phd. We had 2 positions open up for fulltime faculty last year and had over 80 applications to each.

  • Cindy says:

    I’ve been “adjuncting” for 15 years now. In CA, adjuncts have some benefits– we have a union, and I do get health bennies from the university. We’re also offered a three year contract starting in the 6th year. I never know my exact schedule in advance, but I generally know the number of classes I’m teaching. I’d love a full time position, but they’re pretty hard to get. nevertheless, I cannot imagine doing anything else…even for half the pay of my full time colleagues. I comfort myself by telling myself I don’t have to deal with committees, and my vacations are absolutely my own!

    • Erica House says:

      Now that is an adjunct situation I could get used to! At PSC we have ‘super adjuncts’ that get paid office hours if they teach 5 classes a term, and UWF has something similar.

      • Cindy says:

        I get paid office hours, too. Funny, I’m so used to hearing complaints about the inequities from my fellow adjuncts that I take for granted the good parts. Thanks, Erica, for reminding me to count my blessings! (Not that it helps you…want to move to sunny CA? Not much different from FL!)

        • Erica House says:

          Outside of my parents and brother every single family member I have lives in Southern California (Lompoc/Santa Maria.) I’d love to move close enough to be near them!

  • Hello Erica,
    It’s really nice to hear that it has passed 7 year successfully of teaching at the university! It feel good when we do a work successfully. I hope to see more good result in future too. Good Bless you Erica,

  • melissa a says:

    I’m not a teacher but I do work for a university on staff and also take part time classes in a masters program. And all my favorite teachers have been adjuncts! :)

    • Erica House says:

      I think adjuncts are a bit more realistic with what to expect from students. My tenured professors seemed to forget what it was like to be working full-time, taking classes, and maintaining relationships/family life. It seems adjuncts are more aware of the balancing act most students are facing.

  • Jess says:

    Thanks for this. One of the reasons I am pursuing my Masters in Psychology is so I could potentially teach as a way of making supplemental income. I have no interest in only teaching; I’m too crisis-oriented for that. But I like the idea I could bring in a little income for teaching. I’m currently trying to get an assistantship now where I’d TA. I used to TA in undergrad for chemistry and LOVED it, so would want to pursue something like that in the future.

    I also agree with your Ph.D. ideas. I have lofty ideas about pursuing a Psy. D., but that will come after babies. My big goal is to work full-time, maybe pick up some private practice and a class to teach, and then start thinking about kids and how best to provide to them. Unfortunately, a BA in Psychology doesn’t do anything, so I needed the higher education! Huzzah, psychology!

    • Erica House says:

      I still feel bad when I see the color drain from the faces of my students when I tell them most people with a BA in psych start out at minimum wage. If your planning to work fulltime and just adjunct for supplemental income then I’m sure you would love it. It’s when you start relying on it for stable income that it becomes a total anxiety-trap!

  • I was an adjunct for 5 years & loved it. I had to support my family, though our income was supplemented with student loans (when my husband was in law school), & for a brief time, Joseph did work a bit too when he was able.

    It is a pretty lame deal though if you’re trying to make a livable, steady income. It can be quite stressful. I always stressed about student evaluations–believe me, I had no idea when I was a student filling out those things how much they meant to the person on the recieving end! I would love to teach again at a university level, but I don’t see that happening as long as my husband is in the military. Also, I feel I need to go back to school for a PhD, which is only happening if we stay in the A.F. long enough to qualify for the G.I. bill. Do you think you’ll pursue a PhD at some point?

    Anyway, glad things are beginning to pay back for you. And, I don’t even want to think about how much time I put into my blog before I started making any money!! Probably thousands of hours. Kinda pathetic, but like you, it’s something I love, so money or no, I’ll still keep doing it.

    • Erica House says:

      I would love to get my Phd at some point! It just doesn’t make sense financially for me right now to go back to school for 4-6 years and go more into student loan debt. The difference in annual income for me would maybe be an extra $10-15k a year and it just isn’t worth it to me at this point. If I won the lottery I’d be applying to grad programs the next day!

  • Annie says:

    Interesting blog! I was quite close with several of my professors in college, and each told me how lucky they were to receive full-time status, because when they applied, the school was expanding at a rapid rate. One even received tenure at 22 or 23; she had to sign that she would receive her master’s, though. (Unheard of, right?? Eventually she did receive not only her master’s but her doctorate as well.)

    I was also close to another professor who was an adjunct handling 5-6 classes per semester at the same school! After reading your blog, I do realize how strange it was that she was an adjunct, because still had her own office – well, more like her own desk in a large room with other professors with their own desks – but she did have all other benefits of being tenured except for health benefits, I think. Since I graduated, she’s received her doctorate and received tenure, so maybe it was because they were going to make her full-time that she got some kind of an “elevated” status.

    Anyway, I recently stumbled upon your blog and have been enjoying myself. I initially came here for the healthy living stuff, but find myself enjoying your words about your professional life equally. I also I once considered going along your path (thanks to the encouragement of some awesome professors), but changed my mind a long time ago, so I love reading what could have been for me. :)

    P.S. I also love your cat posts, because kittehs rock!

    • Erica House says:

      Kittehs do rock! What did you end up pursuing instead of teaching? I hope I didn’t come across negative in this post as I truly do love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else now! It just has it’s struggles, as every career would.

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