Also known as contingent faculty, adjuncts teach college courses at all kinds of institutions from two-year schools to private universities. Historically, adjuncts were mainly hired to bring professional expertise into the classroom in fields like engineering, law, and other professional studies.
Today, working professionals still teach as adjuncts because they enjoy the work and appreciate the extra money. However, the number of part-time faculty in academia has risen sharply since the 1970s. Adjuncts now make up more than half of the professoriate. Many of those adjuncts hold terminal degrees in their fields and would prefer to have one full-time job. Instead, they cobble together a living from teaching at multiple schools.
Despite the pitfalls of the job, I count myself among those adjuncts who love teaching and enjoy the flexibility that comes with setting one’s own schedule. I’ve been an adjunct for five years, since I graduated from an MFA program in creative writing. My income has always fluctuated, which is sometimes within my control and sometimes not.
I count myself lucky to have a higher-earning spouse whose full-time job provides health insurance for our family. There are many reasons adjuncting could be a good fit for you, whether you’re considering it as a side hustle or a full-time career. There are also good reasons to stay away from this field. Keep reading to learn the basics of the adjunct life and find out if you’re suited for it.
There’s no typical adjunct
I know a lot of adjuncts, and the more I meet the harder it is to classify them. I feel confident in saying that nearly all of them share a love of teaching. Many also want to avoid the nine-five cubicle experience. Many hope for a tenure-track job—except, of course, adjuncts who already have a full-time job or run their own business and teach because they enjoy sharing their cutting-edge knowledge with students.
At the community college where I taught for several years, more than a few of the adjuncts I met were retired from careers in other fields. Adjuncting would also be a great gig for those on the early retirement track. You earn some money, get out of your house, talk to other people, and have the intellectual stimulation of choosing topics that interest you.
As far as adjuncts who consider teaching their primary or only source of income, some live alone, some are parents, some have a higher earning partner, and some live in dual-adjunct households. Some use the flexible schedule to pursue art, writing, music, and other passion projects.
Will you be happy as an adjunct? My best advice is to go into it without any illusions. This isn’t what I did—my visions of grandeur appeared the second I was accepted into graduate school, and reconciling those dreams with reality has been a long and sometimes painful process. The most important thing to be frank about is your financial expectations. Working as an adjunct probably makes the most sense as a side hustle, unless your material desires are minimal or you have a partner whose job provides benefits and a more stable salary.
How much do adjuncts make?
Before you can figure out if adjuncting will provide or contribute to your desired standard of living, you need some sense of how much you’ll make.
Adjuncts are usually paid in stipends. That means you agree to teach a course for a predetermined figure—$4,000, for example—which is distributed in a lump sum, monthly, or bi-weekly payments.
The amount of the stipend depends on how many credits the class is worth. Most courses are three credits, but occasionally you could encounter a class worth less or worth more. For example, some of the writing courses I teach are worth four credits, but most other classes in my department, such as creative writing, only count as three.
Stipends vary widely from state to state and school to school. They’re often different even within the same institution, where a business department, for example, might pay more than other subjects. Since most adjuncts aren’t part of faculty unions, information about pay is usually not available unless you ask your peers how much they make. Sometimes pay is scaled to match seniority, but more often you’ll make the same per class as the adjunct who just started. Most schools give a small cost-of-living increase each year.
I’ve never tried to negotiate for a higher stipend, and I couldn’t find anyone who had when I asked my friends in the field. Unless you have very specialized knowledge, you probably wouldn’t be in a strong position to negotiate anyway, as the supply of adjuncts is always bigger than the demand.
Chronicle Data is a crowd-sourced database of adjunct pay per college and department across the country. Use it to research pay rates in your area before you decide to pursue adjuncting, or to figure out where you could move to make the most money.
What’s the average workload for an adjunct?
Many adjuncts are attracted to the position because of its flexibility. Theoretically, you can work as little or as much as you like. Each school sets a limit on the number of courses or credit hours adjuncts can teach per semester.
For enrollment-related reasons that I’ve never fully understood, most colleges have more courses to offer adjuncts in the fall than in the spring. Consequently, I know people who take on extreme workloads (which in my opinion means five or more classes) in the fall in order to save money for the spring and summer, when the work is lighter or nonexistent.
To reach their preferred number of classes, most adjuncts teach at more than one school; some teach at more than two. I’ve never taught at more than two schools simultaneously and I’ve always tried to manage my schedule so that I wasn’t driving to more than one place in the same day.
To estimate how many hours of work you’ll need to put in on a weekly basis, consider the time you’ll spend in class, commuting, communicating with students in person and electronically, preparing lesson plans, and grading. If you can teach two sections of the same class, you’ll save on prep time. And grading will be more or less time-intensive depending on the assignment. For example, it will take longer to read an essay than to score a multiple choice test.
In the past few years, adjuncts across the country have won the right to join faculty unions. As unionization increases, more adjuncts will have access to benefits. For now, the variety and quality of benefits offered ranges from school to school. They may include:
- Free on-campus parking
- Health insurance
- Office space and computer access
- Use of campus facilities such as the library, gym, etc.
- Faculty discount at the bookstore and/or cafeteria
- Access to continuing education
- Retirement accounts
Now that you know more about what you can expect from adjuncting, do you think it’s a good fit for your life? Personally, I don’t have any regrets even though my career hasn’t worked out exactly as I hoped. Every time I think about giving up and pursuing something more lucrative, the “high” of making a difference and getting positive feedback from students compels me to fill out the course request form for next semester.