This Job Can Kill You. Literally.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

As you likely already know, Margaret Mary Vojtko – an adjunct professor of French for 25 years – was found dead on her front lawn on September 1st. Facing mounting medical bills and lacking money to maintain or even heat her house, she died of a heart attack earlier that day.  As Daniel Kovalik writes, “Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.”  His article, “Death of an adjunct,” has been widely shared across social media, been reprinted in the Huffington Post, and inspired stories in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Gawker.

In some senses, her death was not preventable: she was 83 and fighting cancer. It’s likely that she would have died sooner rather than later.

But in other senses, her job killed her. And I’m not speaking figuratively. As Mr. Kovalik notes,

in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Full Time Respect for Part Time Faculty!

Her job left her unable to meet her basic needs (heat, food, medicine). Furthermore, that level of stress has an adverse effect on a person’s health. People forced to cope with large levels of extreme stress – and poverty is definitely an extreme stress – have shorter life expectancies. A job that reduces you to poverty also hastens your demise.

I would not suggest that Duquesne University acted alone in killing Professor Vojtko, nor that all individuals at the university lacked sympathy for her. But the university is certainly an accomplice. While it claims to be a Catholic university, Duquesne has fought its adjuncts’ attempts to unionize, alleging that it deserved an exception on religious grounds; in contrast, Georgetown University, citing the Catholic church’s commitment to social justice, recognized its adjuncts’ union.

Duquesne has many accomplices. Its treatment of Professor Vojtko was cruel, but not unusual. Exploitation of adjunct labor has become the norm in academe. Faced with rising costs (and, in “state” schools, decreasing support from the state), colleges and universities consider adjuncts an “economic” solution to their staffing needs. They’re highly qualified cheap labor, and – as the number of tenure-track jobs decreases – there are more Ph.Ds. to choose from each year. It’s a buyer’s market. Duquesne only did what other universities and colleges have done. Indeed, at American universities, 73% of all instructors are non tenure-track (adjuncts or grad students).*

Adjuncts United!

Yes, some institutions treat adjuncts more humanely than others. Some provide health insurance and even retirement plans. Some. But, even under the best conditions, adjuncts are second-class citizens. And, yes, some make it on to the tenure track. But most do not.

Relying on adjuncts as the primary way to teach classes has become normal, but it’s not good for the adjuncts and it’s not good for higher education. Adjuncts owe no loyalty to the institution that employs them; so, at the beginning of term, heads of departments must scramble to find people to cover classes. That’s no way to run a university. As Professor Vojtko’s death makes all too clear, that’s also not a humane way to treat an educator – or anyone, for that matter.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

One reason that universities rely upon adjunct labor points to the third group responsible for killing Professor Vojtko: all those who mock academic labor, consider teaching a cushy job, argue that educators are lazy (as in the familiar misconception, you only teach a few classes and then you get summers off!). The concerted effort to refashion intellectual labor as a form of leisure diminishes sympathy for a hard-working group that has much to contribute. It deprives them of their humanity. It makes them easy targets. They become easy to neglect, easy to ignore, and easy to crush beneath the weight of indifference and poverty.

Certainly, teachers – at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels – are not the only people who have been maligned in this way. Factory workers (especially unionized ones), policemen, firemen, all public-sector workers have all been criticized as somehow unworthy of the salary and benefits they receive.

I’ve been using the passive voice, failing to name just who is doing the maligning, because this is not merely the fault of one particular faction. Certainly, responsibility lies with pundits on the right who complain about “the takers” mooching off “the makers,” governors who slash education budgets while simultaneously giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and businesses pushing an “educational reform” because it serves their financial interests. But people on the left are also at fault. In an effort to reduce the cost of college (certainly a laudable goal), President Obama fails to address the single greatest contributing factor to the rising cost of tuition: decreasing state support requires universities to find money from other sources. This is not something that the privately funded Duquesne University (Professor Vojtko’s employer) faces, but the president’s move to hold colleges accountable without a comparable push to restore public funding simply perpetuates the myth that educators are too highly paid. This myth obscures the fact that many of us are not well paid at all.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

I spent three years as an adjunct. Those years (1997-2000) were not happy ones. I was often angry. Indeed, I am frankly surprised and grateful that I have friends from that period of my life: a bitter person isn’t fun to be around. Today, I am tenured, a full professor of English at Kansas State University (which receives 20% of its funding from the state). As an ex-adjunct, I find stories like Professor Vojtko’s especially troubling. Her path might have been my path. It wasn’t, but it has been and will be the path of many others. The exploitation of adjuncts has only increased since my days as an adjunct.

This brings me to the fourth and final group I would indict in the death of Professor Vojtko: me, and people like me. No, I did not create the conditions that foster the exploitation of adjuncts. Nor do I support those who think that college should be run like a business, and am frankly appalled by the efforts (by President Obama, and others) to apply a capitalist ethos to institutions that strive to serve the public good. And, sure, I’m sympathetic to adjuncts. But that’s not enough.

American Association of University ProfessorsThose of us who have attained even a modest amount of institutional power need to speak up. We need to support organizations fighting for adjunct rights – such as the American Association of University Professors. I have been intending to join this group for years, and only now – while writing this paragraph – did I actually join. Writing this essay and joining that group aren’t sufficient, I know. But it is at least a step in the right direction.

We need to stop exploiting adjuncts. It’s killing them. And it isn’t good for the rest of us, either.


* Note and Correction (added 22 Sept. 2013, 5:40 pm): According to the study, the 73% includes full-time, non-tenure track faculty (15%), part-time/adjunct faculty (37%), and graduate employees (21%). Those first two groups are both adjunct: that is, “full-time, non-tenure track faculty” is the equivalent of adjunct. So, if we add these two together, then we get 52% adjunct, plus an additional 21% graduate students, for a total of 73%. A more recent study indicates that  non-tenure track faculty (adjuncts and graduate students) now comprise 76% of instructors at American colleges and universities.  The correction here is that my original post stated that “73% of all instructors are now adjuncts”; using the source I originally cited, the more precise way to state this is that “73% of all instructors are now non-tenure track (adjuncts and graduate students).”  So, when Chris pointed this out (comment no. 37, below), I made the change.

Resources (updated 18 Nov. 2013, 3:00 pm)

Image sources: “Adjunct Professors Petting the Short End of the Stick” (Politics 365, 4 June 2013),  “Precarcity Everywhere” (Disorder of Things, 1 Feb. 2012), American Association of University Professors.  The Doonesbury strips come from “Mathematicians and the Market” (, 1997), but check out Doonesbury at Go! Comics for more of Trudeau’s work.


  1. Tosha Sampson-Choma


    Phil, this is an important issue. Thank you for empathizing and for taking the time to write this article! Tosha

  2. Reply

    That’s kind of you to say, Tosha. This has been troubling me for some time. I hope Professor Vojtko’s death serves as a catalyst for institutional change. As Rosemary Feal just tweeted,

  3. Charles Hatfield


    Phil, this is a lucid, revealing, and most especially honest piece that points out our general complicity in a terrible situation. You lay out the larger, macro reasons very well. I am heartened by your voice and your activism here, and determined to join you in speaking up about this issue. Thank you for the nudge, the sound, solid reasoning, and the resources, and most of all for the gift of clarity.

  4. Reply

    Thanks for this piece. Thanks also for reprinting the Doonesbury strips from the 90’s. I had them taped up in my cubicle when I was in grad school. Looking back, Trudeau seemed to see how bad things were getting before anyone else noticed. Then I thought they were really funny. Now the strip where the math doc laments “what was it all for” hits me right in the heart. I am that guy, and I am Margaret Mary. I told my own story a couple years ago:

  5. Charles Petterson


    This is a sad story, to say the least. There is a point that needs to be made with regards to adjuncts and I make this, not from having been in the academic system, but from the viewpoint of having one of my best friends slaving away in that capacity and my own experience as an hourly, contract worker in industry.

    Friends, you have fallen for your own hype and over-inflated sense of place in society. I applaud your dedication to obtaining education and meeting the requirements for varying disciplines. Along the way what you did not come to appreciate is your need to be competitive in an over populated job market or to make a pragmatic decision to take a job at Mayville University versus hanging around waiting for a spot at Yale.

    I spent the last 22 years of my career as an independent contract writer. Where opportunities presented themselves, I went. Folks in academia are no different, especially contract instructors. It’s a JOB!! If you come back with “my life is dedicated to….” who cares? You can suffer with that thought or figure out what you need to do to pursue your dream and make a living at it.
    Just because you have a terminal degree in something does not excuse you from the realities of life and does not mean you are entitled to a job or a certain station in our culture.
    If your dream or goal is unobtainable, lower your sights or shift your outlook to one side or another.

  6. Reply

    Christian: Thanks for the link. That’s a great essay. I hope you’re re-sharing (-tweeting, etc.) it now, in light of the renewed attention that Professor Vojtko’s death has brought to the exploitation of adjuncts. There’s nothing “temporary” or “part-time” about a group of people who do the majority of university teaching!

    Charles Hatfield and Frances: Thanks for your comments. I’m glad that my modest contribution seems to be resonating with people. And, Charles, I very much hope you write something, too. You write well, and all of us need to speak up.

  7. Reply

    Charles Petterson: Thanks for your comment. It’s true that one must be pragmatic. For example, even academics fortunate enough to find tenure-track jobs cannot choose where they want to live; they must go where the work is.

    However, I think our perspectives differ in the following respect. Do correct me if I’m misunderstanding you, but you appear to be suggesting that one should accept whatever working conditions one finds, even if those conditions are exploitative or cruel (“It’s a JOB!”). I would argue that one should strive to change exploitative or cruel working conditions. Merely getting by is not enough.

  8. Erin Wilson


    Charles Patterson:

    I’m not sure you have a full grasp of how bad the situation is. Most of us would be happy to take a job at Maryville University instead of waiting for a job at Yale. The problem is that Maryville University isn’t hiring either. I went on the market for the first time 2 years ago. I have a Ph.D. from an R-1 university, I have publications, and I have an exceptional teaching record. Ten years ago, I’d have my pick of all the Maryville-type jobs I wanted. I would have happily accepted any of them. In fact, I would prefer such a job to a job at Yale. The jobs simply aren’t out there.

  9. Brigitte Fielder


    Charles Petterson has written that “Along the way what you did not come to appreciate is your need to be competitive in an over populated job market or to make a pragmatic decision to take a job at Mayville University versus hanging around waiting for a spot at Yale.”

    Sir, I can only assume that you don’t know anyone who is currently on the academic job market. The need to be competitive and make pragmatic decisions is crystal clear, I assure you, particularly to graduate students or recent graduates in the humanities. We are well aware of the need to engage in practices of professionalization, research and publishing, networking at conferences, service to the profession, keeping up with current work in our respective fields, and developing our course-planning and teaching skills. Those “pragmatic” decisions we must make often involve things like being willing to live anywhere in the country, even if that means not getting to live near family members and friends, or even getting to live in the same region of the country as one’s spouse, or possibly leaving one’s home country for an academic job. We are mindful that our plans for reproduction must revolve around the year-long job market cycle, and women are especially attuned to the fact that appearing visibly pregnant for an interview could thwart our chances for employment – academia has not yet risen above sexism. We consider alternatives to the tenure track (although most universities offer little preparation for such career paths for their PhD students.) We also consider accepting the exploitative, cruel working conditions described here, even if they may leave us in poverty.

    To suggest an “over-inflated sense of place in society” is both ignorant of current job market conditions and academics awareness of them and cruel to those who are burdened with the crushing realities of these conditions during their search for employment. The time one spends on the job market is full of worry and angst for the vast majority of academic job-seekers, who often struggle with questions of self-worth during this arduous process of continued evaluation, despite one’s level of education, relevant job skills, or prestigious place of degree. Where opportunities present themselves, we will go. We know this is a JOB because most of us spend upwards of 60 hours a week doing academic work (perhaps even more on the job market, if one is lucky enough to be employed in the meantime). (Thankfully, I can corroborate this number since Phil Nel has so meticulously and so helpfully documented his academic work schedule for a typical week here:

    You’ve written that “Just because you have a terminal degree in something does not excuse you from the realities of life and does not mean you are entitled to a job or a certain station in our culture.” I cannot think of a single contingent faculty member or academic job-seeker who is materially “excuse[d] … from the realities of life.” These people have bills, student loans, debts incurred during that period of under-paid labor which is graduate school, medical needs, spouses, children. But they also have decreasing options for finding a job that will pay a living wage, and a living wage is something all workers ought to have. Blaming workers themselves for their poor working conditions is beyond unhelpful.

  10. Gwen Tarbox


    Well said, Phil, and might I add that tenure stream faculty at non-union campuses need to unionize. At our institution, it was the presence of a strong union that enabled us to aid our part-time instructors and our graduate students to also unionize and to improve their compensation and benefits.

  11. Reply

    Blaming workers for the conditions foisted upon them when they have little to no power to actually affect change is, using Brigitte Fielder’s words, “beyond unhelpful”, but it is more than that. It is downright cruel, and ignorant of the problems people in and out of academia face.

    When you scrimp and save and endure massive amounts of debt just to have a *chance* at a job that *might* help you support yourself, if not a family as in my case, sometimes it feels like you may as well have shoved that $60,000 worth of student loan debt into the lottery for all the good it does you. The deck is staked, and pointing this out is not complaining, but pointing out a cruelty whose weight is crushing not just adjuncts, not just their students, but our society as a whole. If we cannot get good jobs the entire structure that girds the economy will fall out sooner or later.

    Looking at basic infrastructure that is going unattended in my home state, I can say we’re already feeling that impact between cuts to Fire, Police, EMTs and other emergency services, cuts to road repair and bridge maintenance, and a wealth of other cuts soon to come that will render our State less able to weather the financial needs present before us now and in the near future, let alone meet the basic needs of our citizens. Educators, and all they touch, help form the basis for the structures in place. It helps us build and maintain all those things, from Police to bridges, that we need to operate our daily lives safely and well.

  12. Mary


    Charles Patterson: I would like to know when you last tried to live on an adjunct salary. I have medical expenses that run, on a good year, up to at least $3500 a year. We won’t mention what they come to on a bad year. Such high bills make it impossible to obtain insurance for my needs. Who is talking about a job at Yale? I wouldn’t want one anyway. A nice job at a small college would’ve been preferable to me.

    I calculated the amount I was spending just to APPLY for jobs, and how much I was making as an adjunct, and I gave up. I worked as a temporary secretary until I could get a good editorial position. It wasn’t anything great, but at least I could get my bills and student loans paid.

  13. Janet blackman


    I literally stood up in front of my computer and gave you a big high five and a fist pump!…and I hasten to add that the only thing worse than being an adjunct in this economic environment, is being an adjunct who teaches in the Arts…talk about bottom of the food chain and first to have your course cancelled with virtually no notice. After doing this for 13 years, however, and juggling at least two other jobs, at the end of the day there isn’t a lot of fight left in me. I can also honestly say that I have never felt the love from any of the tenured profs where I work, but I am so glad you wrote this in support of us lowly adjuncts,and to be honest, you might have just fired me up to make some noise.

  14. dreamingchange


    Thank you for this. I’m in my ninth year of being an adjunct and though I remind myself regularly that I’m there for the students, it is definitely hard to be paid so much less for the same work. I am an AAUP member in one college but it’s not an option in the other college. If I didn’t have other income in my household, it would be impossible.

  15. Lisa


    Thank you, Phil, for your thoughtful articulation of these issues. I work as a full-time, non-tenure faculty member at a regional public university. Although we have made major strides in the last fifteen years as a direct result of unionizing both full-time and part-time non-tenure faculty on my campus, much remains to be done to bring my school into alignment with socially responsible practices. So we continue the effort. In the meantime, the help and support of our AAUP colleagues is much appreciated, and contributes to a change in culture that is needed if we are to avoid the divide & conquer trap of class/status divisions and instead, work together to advocate with one voice for the needs of our colleges, universities, and the students we serve. Thank you for taking notice, as much as anything.

  16. Victoria Brockmeier


    A few numbers to support those refuting Charles Patterson, and anyone thinking along his lines. I have an MFA in poetry and a PhD in literature; this permits me to apply to jobs in two of the major divisions within English, creative writing and literature, in my case modernism. I have a book out, I’ve gotten grants to do international research, I have over a decade of teaching experience, and my students love me and learn tons in my classes. This will be my fourth year on the job market looking for a full-time job. Each year, between CW and lit positions, plus postdocs, there are about 50 jobs in the entire country to which I can apply, and that’s stretching my qualifications every way I can. There are only 1-2 per year that really fit what I’m trained to be, a poet-critic.

    About 250-300 people apply to every CW position, and about 300-400 to every literature position. So far, I’ve had one interview per year, with successively less desirable schools, in fact — though with so small a sample, I don’t have to decide that I’m somehow becoming a less desirable candidate. Yet.

    Last spring, I got thrown out of my apartment because my landlord finally got tired of me having gotten behind on rent over winter break, when I didn’t get paid at all, and moved into a neighborhood with much higher crime rates; a few weeks ago, my car got repossessed. I’m extraordinarily lucky that I get insurance as an adjunct, so I can maintain a couple prescriptions that I need and get basic care — I’m represented by AAUP, in fact. But I’d pretty much give up a kidney or a leg or one of each for something like a visiting position, not guaranteed year to year, for $35k. Department secretaries make more than that — and not to disparage secretaries, without whom I think some of our buildings, never mind programs, would collapse, but to emphasize the poor conditions that would still be vastly better than what I, and every other adjunct out there, live daily.

    Philip Nel is absolutely right that the root of our problem is how appallingly undervalued academic labor is. I went to London to work in the British Museum archives, and I met regular, non-academic people in bars and cafes who had a basic idea of what I do and who thought it was great. Computer engineers and business lawyers who had favorite exhibits at the museum and favorite Virginia Woolf novels. Even the ones who didn’t like poetry had informed reasons for not liking it. This side of the Atlantic, I rarely meet anyone outside academia who even gets that teaching is hard work, let alone has a clue about what a creative or scholarly career looks like. It was very eye-opening, finding out that things don’t have to be the way they are for me. Ignorance of and disrespect for professors isn’t some ineluctable weight of the human condition. We need to speak openly and explicitly about what we do and why it matters to our students, to our administrators, to policymakers, and anyone else we can get to sit still for two minutes, if we want the rest of these numbers to start to change.

  17. Reply

    Thank you for a thoughtful essay. Fortunately there are more and more tenured faculty members willing to speak out. And organizations like AAUP are indeed committed to the issue.

    I hope you will consider adding New Faculty Majority to your list of resources. As the only national nonprofit devoted exclusively to ending the exploitation of adjunct faculty, we need all the supporters we can get. We work in coalitions with all constituencies who take this issue seriously and we have been responsible for helping to get and keep this issue in the public eye.

    Please visit us at

  18. Reply

    Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Maria Maisto: I’ve added the New Faculty Majority to the links above. Thanks for the suggestion. And Gwen: Thanks for the suggestion that non-union campuses need to unionize.

    Thanks to Erin Wilson, Brigitte Fielder, Tim Schneider, Mary, and Victoria Brockmeier for their cogent arguments, refuting the claims made by Charles Petterson.

    Thanks to Liz Evans, Janet Blackman, dreamingchange, and Lisa: Glad to hear that the piece resonated with you. And Janet: yep, I didn’t even address the disciplinary hierarchies (in which people in business and the sciences earn more than people in the humanities). That divide exists among tenure-track & tenured folks, too, but of course the effects are much more deeply felt at the adjunct level. I hope people at all levels do get fired up! This has to change.

    Colleges and universities need to offer adjuncts job security, benefits (health and retirement), and a path to tenure (if that’s something the adjunct choses to pursue, and if she or he has the necessary qualifications). Institutions also need to rely less on underpaid adjuncts and create more tenure-track positions. We need to push these numbers back in the other direction.

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  20. Reply

    Not to rehash what others have posted, I’ll settle for saying I’ve been reading, sorting, reposting, tweeting and very briefly commenting on Mary Margaret Vojtko to do my bit for New Faculty Majority, my adjunct cohort and myself. Much, even in higher ed media, rehashes Dan’s story, adding little. Few add as much value, contribute so richly the overdue discussion as your piece.

    Still too overwhelmed to be jaded yet.

  21. Julia Eichelberger


    Phil, I wholeheartedly agree with you that tenured faculty share some of the responsibility for the growing use of adjunct labor by our institutions. The College of Charleston, a “state-supported” institution that receives 8% of its revenue from state funding, uses more adjuncts than we should and pays them less than we should. The problem is especially acute here: we are not an R-1 school, we have only a few masters’ programs, and we very rarely use graduate students as faculty. This past spring when I was working as a Faculty Administrative Fellow for our Provost’s office, they invited me to suggest projects I wanted to work on, and I asked to investigate our adjuncts’ working conditions. I will send you the report I wrote.
    If adjuncts were better paid, then the contingent nature of their labor would not, in my view, be inherently evil. Published research on adjuncts observes that not all adjuncts are hoping for a full-time career as a professor (“aspiring academics”); some are happy to teach one or two courses as an add-on to another full-time job. In addition, working as an adjunct does provide aspiring academics with valuable experience in being in the classroom and in working with more than one institution. The fact that so many adjuncts accept these positions rather than turning to another line of work shows that many people like us love college teaching and are grateful for the chance to do it, even at a very low wage.
    Of course, of course, this does NOT mean it’s OK to pay such a low wage, especially to people with so many years of experience at the same institution. Tenured faculty should not be complacent about poorly paid contingent labor. But I’ve often heard my colleagues here criticizing adjunct working conditions as if only the faceless administration is responsible for them. We tenure-stream faculty benefit from our institutions’ willingness to use adjuncts; sabbaticals and other release time (including the release time I got to work for the Provost’s office) almost always are made possible via adjunct labor.
    My report, which I will send you, contains recommendations for what my institution should and actually can do to treat adjunct faculty more equitably. Pay is increasing, slightly, and the Provost’s office is providing some funds for adjuncts professional development (currently a pilot program). We’re not where we should be, but we’re now paying attention and moving in the right direction, at least in my opinion.
    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts, complete with all those helpful hyperlinks.

  22. K. Mushtaq Elahi


    From my observation and experience as an adjunct, I found out that the worst enemy of adjunct faculties are the full time professors. these full time professors think because of these adjuncts, their teaching overload is being reduced. That even reflects in their treatment of the adjuncts.

  23. Barbara


    While I also object to the harsh tone of Charles Patterson’s comment, he makes an important point. It’s impossible to negotiate anything if the other side knows that you will never walk away from the table. As long as people are willing to lay down their lives to stay in the profession, there’s less pressure on the people offering these non-jobs.

  24. Tim Warneka



    Can you — or someone — please write, comment, or suggest resources for alternative viewpoints to the Business model:

    “Nor do I support those who think that college should be run like a business, and am frankly appalled by the efforts (by President Obama, and others) to apply a capitalist ethos to institutions that strive to serve the public good.”

    I’m an administrator at a small non-profit. I’m struggling with this issue. We can no longer run the way we did in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, but I’m looking for a viable alternative to business models.

  25. Michael Marsh


    Everybody deserves to have the basic necessities of life, no matter what they do for a living. In a country as prosperous as ours it is a crime that people who work their whole lives are left without the means to sustain their lives in a humane manner. We are all complicit in this crime. The pervasive myth of individual responsibility as opposed to interdependence is the main driving ideology. We are all responsible for each other. Anybody who has wealth has earned it in cooperation with many others, and to horde that wealth as if you earned it alone is a crime for which we all suffer.

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  27. Alyssa


    “Faced with rising costs (and, in “state” schools, decreasing support from the state), colleges and universities consider adjuncts an “economic” solution to their staffing needs.”

    I feel like we often hear this vague term, “rising costs,” as an explanation for why even private universities and colleges use adjunct labor. Aside from government de-funding higher education, what are the sources of these “rising costs”?

  28. Reply

    Vanessa: Thanks for your kind assessment of this blog post. Glad you’ve found it thoughtful. Julia: Yes, adjuncts deserve a living wage, respect, and (if they seek and are qualified for it) the path to a tenure-track position. As Michael Marsh writes, “Everybody deserves to have the basic necessities of life, no matter what they do for a living.”

    Alyssa: As is the case with everything, prices rise. This is also true in academe. A major source of the problem in state universities is that costs keep rising while state support decreases. There are many contributing factors, such as the gradual abandonment of a progressive income tax, and the lie that slashing taxes for the wealthiest will allow their wealth to “trickle down” to the rest of us. I would also argue that the corporatization of the university has made it more expensive. There are a number of factors, all of them reversible. But people need to elect legislators who believe in a progressive income tax and adequate funding for public services (schools, roads, and so forth).

    This is why Tim’s question is hard to answer: We need a sea change in public policy. Since the 1980s, America has abandoned the policies that allowed its middle class to grow, and instituted policies that concentrate the wealth with the wealthiest. This has effects across society, including in non-profits and higher education. My answer involves systemic change, which doesn’t help Tim right now — though it could help the next generation.

    Finally, thanks to all for offering your comments and sharing your experiences.

  29. Vincentius Patricius


    No socio-economic group will ever admit to issues that they themselves created. If there are problems, it is always because:

    a) they are not getting enough resources; and
    b) their freedoms and values are not respected enough.

    Furthermore, society would greatly benefit (according to them) if more resources and freedoms were bestowed upon them.

    The argument between them and the “other side” almost never follows a rational debate pattern. There is always a flat-out rejection the opposing side’s argument by essentially calling it the language of the enemy (logically, it makes no sense whatsoever, but from a propaganda standpoint it is incredibly effective).

    In this case, the main issue is that of severe oversupply (honestly, I would put severe in bold and caps). There are not that many hard truths in economics – but supply and demand is one of them. Adjuncts can be payed so little because there are so many of them and the demand is actually really low. In other words, schools pay them so little because they can. For many adjuncts the alternative is, after all, unemployment.

    Now who exactly created the adjuncts? Well, primarily research universities. Throughout the decades, they architected veritable Profzi schemes ** where naive young researchers are suckered in to get PhDs thinking that they would become tenured professors, much like their own advisors, all while doing what they love. However, the PhD actually makes them less employable for pretty much anything else. So – overly specialized, for a job with incredibly high supply and low demand (it is a pyramid after all) – what could possibly go wrong?

    Seriously, how about blaming the people who actually created the problem to begin with? And, when it comes to solutions, how about outlawing Profzi schemes? Financial pyramidal schemes are already outlawed, after all.

    Though I suspect that you (I am using an archetypal you here) will keep blaming those greedy capitalists for pointing out basic economic facts to you.

    ** A remarkably apt description coined by Jorge Cham.

  30. Aaron


    I’d like to join almost everyone else posting here in thanking Philip Nel. I’ve been a full time adjunct for 15 years at one institution. I have healthcare and compared to most adjuncts–at least those who tend to contribute to conversations such as these–I’m reasonably fairly compensated, though it is a struggle to make ends meet at times.

    I’m writing specifically in response to Vicentius Patricius; first, where I somewhat agree: R1 universities have contributed to and continue to contribute to a sort of myth about academic life, which may on the margins contribute to more Ph.D.s being produced than can be employed in the present tenure-structure at universities in the U.S. But I disagree strongly that that is the primary reason for the “adjunctification” of the academic workforce, and I think he gets his “basic economic facts” basically wrong. First, there’s plenty of work. For adjuncts. The problem isn’t that there’s high supply and low demand for these jobs. Wait–you didn’t mean adjunct jobs? You meant tenure-line professorships? That’s the second point: “supply and demand” is a very poor concept with which to try to comprehend why the number of professorships doesn’t even closely match with the number of qualified candidates. I do lots of work, both in teaching and in committee work (and I also try to publish) that would the prime responsibility of a tenure-line professor. So why don’t they hire the tenure-line professor? In detail, the answer is complicated, but the basic idea is simple: because it’s a lot cheaper and because they can. And that’s really all there is to it. Adjunct labor is a great boon–or seems to be–to departments, colleges and universities. You can get the work done–the courses taught, the committees filled, etc. etc.–for a fraction of the cost and with significantly greater flexibility. Tenure was instituted in the first place in large measure to prevent colleges and universities from exploiting faculty labor back in the first half of the 20th century. It was the product of a labor movement. But the system in the US has now, without getting rid of tenure (which would be politically extremely difficult to do) gotten around tenure.

    Arguments like Vicentius’ are very pernicious. They promote a myth supported by some supposedly immutable economic law, and they’re yet one more way to blame the victim.

  31. Kate


    Thank you for this. I also want to say, though, that we have to make it less horrifying to imagine stepping OUT of the profession. Why was she an adjunct making those low wages for 25 years? An academic job is great, but it is also just a job. At a certain point we have to take ourselves off the carousel and figure out a way not to feel like that means we have failed. I will never have a tenure track job. I know that. I’m in my last contingent faculty position, and when this one ends, I’m off to other fields. This isn’t blaming adjuncts for our position, but it is saying we have to support each other when we decide to finally say no, it isn’t going to work out for us, this faculty dream. There are other dreams, and some of them even come with health insurance and respect.

  32. Joanna


    I worked as an adjunct instructor teaching ESL during the late 90s at Georgia State University. At the time, there was a burgeoning movement to fight against the adjunct model, and I joined the organization that had been formed to address this. I sought to get support from within my department, but I had mixed reactions. One new full-time instructor felt that she worked harder and was “around more” than the adjuncts (it was worth noting that she was young and childless, while many of the adjuncts were older and had families). Other full-time professors supported the movement in name, but had little to contribute otherwise.

    Even after I was offered a full-time position, I began to fight for adjuncts. But that abruptly ended when a group of adjuncts sent an open letter to everyone in the department stating that, “unlike some,” they were completely happy with the working conditions for adjuncts and proud to be able to work within this department, etc., etc.

    I was young, took this very personally, and ended up breaking my contract to leave for a position outside academia. All of this is to say that the problem also lies within. Adjuncts are so frightened and competitive that they will accept almost anything gladly, and will not rock the boat. Stuck at the bottom of the barrel, they fight for scraps, sometimes biting the hands that try to pull them out.

    Looking back, I wish I had stayed to fight the good fight. Like another comment-er noted, in most countries, educators are highly valued, both socially and professionally. It’s sad that social and working conditions for academics and teachers have so eroded in this country that people are actively encouraged to not follow the path of higher education because “market conditions” don’t allow for it. We are losing the culture and soul of our country by so devaluing education.

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  34. Chris


    Interesting post, but could I query/point out, that your statement about 73% of instructors being adjuncts is false, backed up by the link you used to support it? Your link ( states that 37%, not 73% are adjuncts, the rest being made up of FULL-TIME or graduate employees (who could also quite well be full time).

    It might be worth correcting the article so that it’s not misleading to its readers.

  35. Laura Winton


    I am so tired of people talking about the arrogance of academics, too, and how we “expect” good jobs. Does an MBA expect a good job when he gets his degree? Of course! If you think there are too many PhDs in the world? How about the number of MBAs?!

    I went back to school in my 30s and 40s in part because I wanted to, but also because I wanted to make a career shift OUT of working clerical and administrative jobs to do something that I was passionate about for the last half of my life. And I am passionate about teaching! Why is being passionate about educating the youth and even the adults of America considered a bad, worthless thing and so unworthy of earning a living wage?

  36. Jenna


    Thank you for writing this. I can sympathize. I’m in my 5th year of being an adjunct. I teach 5 classes per semester, at two different universities, one private and one public. I still make less than $20,000 per year, absolutely no benefits of any kind. I work my tail off, yet I’m still partially financially dependent on my parents for loans and I’m almost 30 years old. That’s beyond ridiculous. And yes, I did choose this profession because it’s where my heart is, and I love it. Don’t get me wrong, I have thought about finding another job, and I have actually sent out many applications for various things. Here’s the catch: in the “regular” job market, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get a job that is outside of your academic background or practical experience. Most employers won’t even look at your application, much less consider it. No one wants to take the time to completely train someone, no matter how smart they might be. I feel very much stuck. Having kids one day will be very difficult because no benefits means no maternity leave of any kind. If I want to get another job, I’m going to have to go to school all over again. Also, even for those who have/get their PhD, the vast majority of positions, if there are any, are almost always the same as the adjuncts. Many I know don’t even feel there’s a point to getting a PhD right now because what’s the point? It won’t necessarily get you anywhere…

  37. JD


    Do you know what one of the highest paid jobs in the country is? A football or basketball coach. Maybe if we stopped putting millions and millions of dollars into sports programs, things might change. Doubt that will happen though.

  38. Reply

    Chris: Thank you for pointing that out. The 73% includes full-time, non-tenure track faculty (15%), part-time/adjunct faculty (37%), and graduate employees (21%). Those first two groups are a way of saying “adjunct”: that is, “full-time, non-tenure track faculty” is the equivalent of adjunct. So, if we add these two together, then we get 52% adjunct plus an additional 21% who are graduate students. I’ve modified the sentence to “73% of all instructors are non-tenure track (adjuncts or grad students).” I’ve also added a note and correction above, crediting you.

    Kate: True, alt-ac is one way to go. To be fair to Professor Vojtko, alt-ac is a relatively recent phenomenon. Or, at least, awareness of the alt-ac route is recent. When I was a graduate student, neither the term nor any awareness of that option existed (though, of course, people did pursue what we now call alt-ac careers). I’m pleased to see that the alt-ac path is getting more visibility. And you’re right to advise people to consider this as an option.

    Aaron: Thanks for your response to Vincentius Patricius. I would add to your (Aaron’s) response that I’m not blaming “greedy capitalists,” though I would point out that capitalism isn’t a moral system. So, invoking it as one (as Mr. Patricius does with his “supply and demand” analysis) is not persuasive. As Aaron points out, while supply and demand may be part of the problem, it’s not the full picture: there IS a demand, but it’s being filled by (cheaper) non-tenure track teachers instead of tenure-track professors.

    Everyone else: Thanks for sharing your comments and stories.

  39. Michael


    You know, I can excuse the working class like myself for allowing ourselves to be exploited, never complaining about injustice such as this until it happens to us, then all of a sudden the system is not fair, that we worked all our lives for our benefits and when WE need them, for some reason WE are not moochers or left wing communists who can’t seem to find our own bootstraps. But the so-called academics, those who prepare our children for the future, who should KNOW better than to accept working conditions such as these, if for no other reason that we all hang separately? EDUCATED people lined up to take the crap jobs that should not be accepted by sane people? No, please, this is a co-dependent exploitation. They depend on US to be willing to be exploited, and we are MORE than willing, because the Rockefellers have fed us this line that in order to be good, God fearing Americans, we have to shut up and do what we are told, at a pentance if they can get away with it. The “free market” hasn’t functioned in this so called capitalist democracy for years now and the growing gap between rich and poor proves it. Quit crying about this crap for once and start shedding the blood our unions had to in order to earn our “rights” and I’ll start symphathysing. (please excuse what got past spellcheck; I couldn’t afford a college education….)

  40. Reply

    Dear Phil,

    Thank you for this article. I have been an adjunct for fourteen years. At the last minute I got a full time contract for this year only. Living this way is beyond stressful.

    In Peace,
    Caroline McAlister

  41. Ahli Anggur


    Yet I was paid $40/ class hour by a for-profit institution to teach chefs-in-training how to wait tables. Go figure.

  42. Chris


    It’s interesting as over here in the UK, or at least at my local university, we don’t have Tenure. As such I’d have lumped about 80% of the teaching academics into the “full-time, non-tenure track faculty” the other 20% being made up of Post-grads earning a little bit of cash, and part time visiting professors, who have either retired and visit for the love of it, or are working in industry and have a “guest lecture” slot once or twice a term.

    Maybe I just wasn’t privy to the “dark side” of the academic business though.

  43. Emma Watson


    I am completely baffled by your collective complicity in your current situation. Migrant workers needed to unionize and were easily exploited because they had no other job options. But adjunct professors do: from teaching high school to taking a job in the private sector (and I’m referring to *all* jobs in the private sector: Trader Joe’s starts employees at around $40-60K/year plus generous benefits, including health care. If your academic job is only paying you $20K/year, then pride aside, Trader Joe’s is a giant step up.)

    Once the universities realize that you have other options, that you’d rather work at Trader Joe’s or Pleasant Valley Country Day School for twice the money, they won’t be able to offer you minimum wage. As several others have pointed out, they do that because they can, because someone else will take it.

    Which brings me to my final point: non-tenured professors are often marketed to the end consumer– students and parents– as “working professionals from the community who we have been fortunate enough to get to teach you a class.” In professional schools such as law, business and medicine, this is often true – it’s a nice resume boost for an up and coming lawyer to teach a law school course, and they see the salary as a bonus – the main benefit is the line on the resume.

    While I fully understand there are far fewer professional poets or sociologists than doctors and lawyers, this notion– that adjuncts and associates can be people with other sources of income who see teaching as an honorarium of sorts– has caught on with administrators and is contributing to the low status of those who view it as a full-time job.

  44. Alex. Arthur


    This problem is becoming endemic in the UK as well, despite our ‘socialised’ employment practices.

    Academic establishments have always exploited dreams, and often brutally – for economic reasons, and because the ‘failures’ help to sustain the narcissitic myth of excellence which sustains our culture.

    It’s easy to say that this is rotten and cruel, but hard to make the changes. We may try to be honest with aspiring students about what their prospects are, and to advise them on tolerable exit routes, but this can have a perverse effect: We may weed out many who are talented and realistic, and be left with those who are most deluded and resistant to advice …

    I came into academic life quite late, and was surprised at the very poor employment conditions and the routine abuse of junior staff. It was almost as though the sector’s reputation for civilized behaviour protected it from realistic appraisal of its actual practices.

    Many individual academics are horrified, but little is done beyond wailing and finger pointing. The UCU (University and College Union) is active in this area, but most affected staff feel too vulnerable to risk joining the union, or to ask for its support when they are being disadvantaged.

    Like many victims of abuse, they blame themselves. And so they should, we secretly believe, because, after all, it’s a competitive environment and not every one can be first rate. Or lucky. Or sufficiently manipulative. Or something or other that makes us the best of the best.

  45. Dawn


    What Trader Joe’s starts you off at 40K a year? Hell I’m a nurse and I don’t make that.You go apply to stock shelves at Trader Joe’s and ask for 40K and you will never hear back.Wake up.

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  47. Pam


    Full-time, non-tenure track is NOT the equivalent of adjunct at my institution. All full-time faculty, regardless of tenure-track status, receive the same salary and benefits.

  48. John


    Massively depressing issue, and important article. Thank you.

    The part I see most clearly is the terrible negative effect is has on the actual teaching. You see many skilled and energetic teachers in the classroom doing everything they can — and you know that they could be doing a much BETTER job if they didn’t spend every night applying for dozens more jobs, worrying about how they’re going to pay to have that cavity filled or buy a new bus pass.

    Let’s not forget the effect on mental health. The number of confessions of suicidal thoughts and self-injury that I alone have heard from people in these positions is just way too many.

    For the record, I have a PhD that’s ‘only’ two years old, and have completely given up on ever working in my field. Of course, as another comment says, I’ll never get a normal job elsewhere, either. There are certainly days when suicide sounds like a very rational move.

    No department I have heard of tells any part of this to its incoming graduate students or applicants, which is criminal.

  49. MBG-ITH


    I don’t think you can count full-time non-tenure track as “adjunct” in the same way as you count part time. The difference in contract is important,and often translates into very different working conditions. Per class (the part time adjunct) and per year (full time non-tenure track) faculty also have very different compensation. Research faculty, professors of practice, clinical faculty (especially in professional schools like Architecture or Law), lecturer/instructors, etc. – the full time non-tenure track – are often well paid, get benefits like medical coverage or disability pay or retirement, have possibility of promotion in rank (if not tenure), participate in University governance (some aspects, especially those related to their roles, e.g. instructors = curriculum committees), and have offices/home bases. Part-timers, however, get none of these benefits/responsibilities. Full time non tenure track faculty are also far from itinerant, and many work at their employing institutions for years. Of course, it varies by discipline. Sometimes “visiting (assistant/assoc) professors” are full time non-tenure track positions that are not expected to last longer than three to four years (much like a teaching postdoc). But to lump together these very different kinds of positions hides some really important differences within the group, and especially, between the full time and part time employment contract.

  50. Emma Watson


    @Pam Said – you can find your answer in the first paragraph of this article from The Atlantic. “The average American cashier makes $20,230 a year, a salary that in a single-earner household would leave a family of four living under the poverty line. But if he works the cash registers at QuikTrip, it’s an entirely different story. The convenience-store and gas-station chain offers entry-level employees an annual salary of around $40,000, plus benefits. Those high wages didn’t stop QuikTrip from prospering in a hostile economic climate. While other low-cost retailers spent the recession laying off staff and shuttering stores, QuikTrip expanded to its current 645 locations across 11 states.”

  51. Emma Watson


    ^^Which is, of course, about QuikTrip, but the article also cites Trader Joe’s. This article from CNN/Fortune is specifically about Trader Joe’s and again uses the $40K figure:
    “You can’t buy engagement from employees, but the pay at Trader Joe’s helps. Store managers, “captains” in Trader Joe’s parlance — the nautical titles are a holdover from Coulombe (newly promoted captains are commanders; assistant store managers are first mates) — can make in the low six figures, and full-time crew members can start in the $40,000 to $60,000 range. But on top of the pay, Trader Joe’s annually contributes 15.4% of employees’ gross income to tax-deferred retirement accounts.”

  52. Emma Watson


    @John Said – rather than committing suicide, have you considered teaching high school students? I can only imagine that many private schools and elite suburban public schools would be thrilled to have a PhD on staff. Is that not an option?

  53. Vincentius Patricius


    Let me start by clarifying a few things:

    * I do not consider the situation right in any particular way. I agree that the people in question are victims.

    * I’m not making any moral arguments whatsoever. Most certainly not a Gekko-esque one.

    * I’m not saying that educators are not doing an important job for society.


    * I do think that being on the losing side of a highly disproportionate “supply and demand” curve is harmful. I’m not calling supply and demand an immutable law, because few things should be, at least in a real scientific context. In particular, the economists’ propensity to call their findings “laws” irritates the Popperian in me. But, if looking at the long term – decades at least – these supply and demand imbalances end up correcting themselves, and the corrections are oftentimes quite brutal to the people involved.

    * I believe that most people who end up adjuncting do so not because that they want to but because they have to (I know of counterexamples, but those are few and far between).

    * Doing what one loves is a luxury that most people do not have. In many situations it involves a trade-off. I think a cultural context may be to blame as well, as not all ethnic components of the North American society seem equally naive about following one’s dreams. Though I do not subscribe to the extreme “everyone for themselves” view (unfortunately a rather pervasive view these days), I also do not think that society as a whole should be responsible for one’s life choices.

    Aaron, at least we agree that “they do it because they can”. All I’m saying is that they can because there’s an oversupply of people capable of doing that job. Don’t want the job? Fine, we can and will find somebody else who will do it for the same amount, or maybe even less.

    Why don’t they pay professors in Engineering at the same level as those in the Humanities? I doubt that the same university administrators like them better. And it’s not that they teach more, on the contrary. The answer is – because they cannot. And the two major reasons are:

    1. Unlike a big portion of the Humanities, graduate engineers are not restricted to academic employment, thus greatly reducing the supply of teachers. If they want good talent, they have to pay for it. Humanities’ talent is, to put it bluntly, abundant, commoditized and dirt-cheap.
    2. Engineering gets considerably more research money – those departments are wealthier.

    And sure, given that adjuncts are cheaper (by a factor 2, to the best of my knowledge), they can afford to hire more of them to teach larger classes – they make more money that way. The demand increases because the costs are so low.

    Honestly, your reluctance to view the situation from a supply/demand perspective reminds me of how currency inflation was not really accepted until recently – the 19th century. Though people understood coinage debasement, they more or less believed that a fixed quantity of pure precious metal (silver and/or gold) has fixed value. If someone charged higher prices for goods or services, it was because they were greedy. And people had these views for millennia. But the price revolution caused by the massive introduction of bullion from South America by Spain eventually caused a change in views in Europe.

    Modern economics has accepted that, by and large, people are greedy (though not always in obvious or even rational ways). There’s a supply of currency, and there’s a supply of things one can buy with the currency. If the supply of money grows faster than the amount of good and services, there will be inflation. A clear case of supply and demand.

    I believe that Academia needs to adapt. Stop training people for yesterday, but rather focus on tomorrow. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to train legions of American Studies specialists and Egyptologists (just giving examples, don’t mean to offend anyone) that won’t be able to find quality employment when they graduate.

    Oh well, let me finish with a bit of the Simpsons. Maybe this is what many departments should show before they admit people:

  54. Reply

    Hmmm…about those continuing Trader Joe’s references. Note that the text says “can start in the $40,000 to $60,000 range.” They are talking about what “can” happen in Manhattan and California. Don’t expect that in all other locations.

    Adjunct salaries also can vary regionally. I’m currently a voluntary adjunct — retired from one of those historical and over-worked tenure track positions. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see even these traditional adjunct positions replaced by yet cheaper alternatives with online courses.

    My bottom line is now telling folks NOT to go to grad school in the humanities and social sciences (unless perhaps for a simple minded Masters — what is now becoming a simple minded job required for simple jobs). I told this to folks at my Graduate Reunion at Princeton — they were not particularly pleased. There is a cost to this, of course — my academically capable students often are business students nowadays. They are scared. I would hope not to be dumb enough to go to psych grad school nowadays, if I were young (much as I enjoyed it, THEN).

  55. Reply

    p.s. A correction/addition is needed to my prior comment. I would certainly advise a young person to go to graduate school who really enjoyed the work and understood the financial realities. That is a different story from what this article is focused upon.

  56. Vincentius Patricius



    I couldn’t agree more.

    Let me ask a slightly different question, and I hope you mind the digression – how realistic is it to expect 19 year olds to understand what’s good for them in the long term?

  57. America Danvers


    Did it for 5 years and couldn’t live that way any longer. Threw the English PhD in the dustbin and decided that it was a total waste of the sort I should not pass on to others–a bourgeois indulgence with little redeeming value. Took a secretarial job and will never earn more than 35k, but have full medical. Couldn’t make any payments on student loans, so the defaulted amount is now about $140k. I will never be a position to repay any part of that debt.

  58. Reply

    Thanks for writing this. When I started out thinking about my future career, I had attended a month-long program on the Literary and Cultural arts that trained prospective and promising students to apply to and gain acceptances into top programs in English and other cultural programs. The goal was to assist us in attain a doctoral degree. I am grateful for this opportunity and support I received; however, after working in Higher Ed as adjunct and graduate assistant for over 6 years, I finally decided that I had to get into an arena that perhaps would offer methe benefits that any human being deserves at a critical time of their lives. I even stopped my PhD focus in Education to think about an administrative track that would eventually lead me to a stable position (such as in Higher Ed. Administration, Educational Leadership, and so on). It is a shame that many of us have to trade our passion and areas of expertise to settle for professions that will allow us to make a livelihood. I honestly applaud and revere my colleagues who have stuck it through with more positive hopes–they’re braver and more competitive than I am. From a pragmatic point, however, I simply could not continue investing down a road that may not offer me something as essential as health insurance; or a stable salary to ensure that my family’s needs are met.

    Also, when you mention that you’re tired of higher education institutions being run like corporations, a thought came to mind. What are your thoughts on for-profit and not-for-profit universities? I don’t have an opinion yet, but I found a lot of great positions at for-profit universities that offered excellent benefits to all levels of employees. I guess I am thinking about the negative association with for-profit universities as money hungry corporations, but not-for-profits are not very different if we come to analyze tuition rates, the number of part-time positions without benefits, and the corporate sponsorship that some non-profits receive. It’s an interesting dynamic that I keep thinking about.

    Sorry for the long post, and thanks again!

  59. Vincentius Patricius



    I consider that the discussion should start with how a particular higher education program is helping its students. It’s not an easy question to answer by any means, but in many circumstances the effect is obviously harmful – e.g., high graduation debt, low (or no) employability.

    I believe that colleges and universities should track their alumni for at least a couple of years after graduation, see how they’re doing and publish those statistics. It’s hardly ideal, but I believe it will help.

  60. Reply

    Some of us are doing what we can to change contracts for the better; we have a union where I teach.

    Meanwhile, some of us do the job because it is a deep commitment. We are not part of some loser glut.

    I began teaching as an adjunct — my first job in higher education — at age 60. I’d worked from a laborer to running my own computer corporation, all in service of my ‘real’ job as a composer for the past 45 years. (Think being an adjunct is tough? Try being at artist where being on the edge is simply outside the supply/demand structure.) Two of us were asked to fill in with no notice when a full-time instructor got sick and retired.

    Though the salary is dreadfully low (far from half of the full-timer’s salary we replaced, and with no benefits), there is a deep sense of obligation to students. Yet the worst part for me is not the dreadfully low salary, but the lack of respect from full-time colleagues. The institution has created an adjunct ‘machine’ where we can be replaced or moved around if we don’t fit precisely into the faculty-administration mechanism. It doesn’t matter that all the adjuncts in my department have more, deeper and broader experience in the field than do the full-timers. Our opinions are not sought in development of course content nor degree pathways. We watch this academic mess, doing our best to fill in students’ knowledge and keep their enthusiasm alive with our part-time schedules.

    It’s my understanding from adjuncts at other schools that this is often the case — adjuncts are frequently more qualified but always less respected. Lack of respect filters upward to the administration and outward to the public. Much of the apparent adjunct supply/demand issue is actually one of perception by parents and institutions paying tuition, a perception created by full-time faculty and administration. Promote a school equally because of its full-time faculty as well as its adjuncts for their skills and experience, and greater respect (and possibly even higher salaries) may follow to the adjuncts.

  61. Chris


    I think what Charles Peterson is saying is that you cannot limit your possible job prospects to academia. What he’s saying is that you need to be more creative, and more humble in what you consider to be a job possibility. Can’t get a tenure track job teaching 18th Century French literature? Consider a job as a professional tour guide in Paris; your knowledge will enliven your tours and make them more interesting than the average boring tour.

    What, you’re too good to be a tour guide? Well, then don’t complain. I know the commenters on here are denying it, but I know plenty of PhDs and they really are snobs who find non-academic work beneath them.

    Ultimately, the way academics win is by no longer playing the universities’ game. Imagine if all adjuncts went out and found other jobs, and when the universities came calling they found a seller’s market?

  62. Vincentius Patricius



    Having read more about you all I can say is wow.

    May I ask if being an adjunct is a choice or a necessity for you?

  63. Reply


    It’s a choice, assuming you’re talking about money. It was a choice when I was first asked to step in, and remains so. This is only my sixth semester.

    The money isn’t good (after expenses it averages $4.06 per hour of class time, travel, grading, preparing course materials, administrivia, etc. — yes, I did the math) so I have had to decide each semester whether I can afford to teach the next one or expand my freelance work.

    Apparently you looked me up, so you know that I do many different things to earn my living, some quite far from music. The teaching is the least profitable but keeps me adept at a broad range of musical topics, and at my age I certainly value adeptness. There are some intense questions and challenges, especially in nonpop (classical) music’s role in today’s culture. And, because my own work is largely solitary, I also enjoy the interaction.

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  65. Vincentius Patricius


    I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but here’s a paragraph from the “Mathematicians and the Market” article, which is linked in the main post.

    “A variety of external factors have contributed to the present situation. Changes in funding levels, recent immigration legislation, and the finances of higher education have all contributed to the present problems faced by Ph.D.s. *** It is all too easy to blame outside forces beyond our control for our troubles, however. The truth is that we in the mathematics community share the responsibility for the current employment crisis. Our community has dramatically expanded production of Ph.D.s without questioning whether there was sufficient demand for our product. *** Even after five years of serious and sustained employment problems, we have done little to adapt to the changes in the market for mathematicians.” (emphasis added)

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  68. Reply

    See the current post at campusreports dot com. You might also like to read Greer’s anthology, “Paper Graders,” off, by, and for adjuncts. And “Notes from the Academic Underground.”

  69. Frank BC


    Charles Hatfield writes that this article “is a lucid, revealing, and most especially honest piece that points out our general complicity in a terrible situation.”

    There is only one thing that is equally “terrible” to being an adjunct. And that is to hear tenured faculty oh so bravely writing articles about an experience they no longer have to endure, now that they’ve grabbed the brass ring.

    So tell me, Phil and Charles, what are you going to do about your “complicity,” other than write more self-serving articles about your deep feelings on the subject? I’ll tell you what you should do, if you had any ethical courage: you’d quit your job in protest.

    But of course that isn’t going to happen. In as much as writing articles like this, that have already been written repeatedly over the past 30 years, have ZERO effect on anyone. So do us a favour: stop it. Write an article on how lucky you are to have tenure; how mercenary the system is; and how you go home at night thanking god that somehow you got a committee of these five people instead of those five people who gathered together and, despite the dozens of equally or more talented people than yourselves, voted to admit you into the cadre of the Select Few.

    And the next time you feel an urge to write an article like this, wait a few minutes until the feeling passes. Your “honesty” is absolutely lost on the the (non-tenured) rest of us.

    Sign me

    yes, disgruntled

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