The compounding disadvantages of adjunct life

November 25, 2013

In my last year of grad school, a tenured professor gave me some sage advice: “It’s okay to teach one or two adjunct classes. But it’s almost impossible to get out of adjuncting once you’re in that track.”

She’s right, though I don’t see how I could have avoided the adjunct track in my own career. I had the things that most grad students need: papers at major conferences in my field, two paper prizes from my home society, and publications. However, I defended my dissertation on September 15, 2008. It was exactly the day that Wall Street crashed, and over the next few months, about half the job searches dropped from the wiki. I watched my hopes disappear, but I kept working, teaching four classes each semester, and two over the summer. I had rent and bills to pay, I was engaged, and neither my fiance nor I had trust funds or well paying jobs. And so I got on to the adjunct track, and I’ve been stuck there ever since.

Once you’re on the adjunct track, these things keep you there:

1) You’re not eligible for most research funds. This means that any research you conduct comes right out of your own pocket. So: no fieldwork. No trips to archives that are not accessible by subway in your own town. Buying new recording equipment (as I had to do that year) goes on your credit card. Oh, and if you need a new computer, forget it. It’s not happening. The laptop I’m typing on is from 2008, and I’m not getting a new one any time soon.

2) You have no protection for your research. I’ve stopped conducting ethnographic research with private individuals for this reason. I just don’t think it’s ethical. On the other hand, I have continued oral history based research with public figures who are used to being interviewed. Even that, sometimes, makes me uneasy. But the further I get from ethnography, the less legible I am as an ethnomusicologist.

3) You’re not eligible for travel funds. Two years ago, a tenured professor complained to me that her university only gave out $1,000 in travel reimbursements for conferences per year, so she didn’t go to more than one. “I refuse to go into debt for conferences,” she said, defiantly. Well, sure, that sucks, but the choices that adjuncts have to make are much starker: can I go to ONE conference this year? If I do, how do I manage to keep up appearances? It’s hard to meet with people for meals that are outside your budget for the weekend, or drinks you can’t afford. And, sometimes that’s the type of networking you have to do when you’ve got a degree but are still on the job market–people think you surely must have some money. Even when you don’t.

4) You’re going into debt, so you teach more classes. Now you have even less time to work on your research. You might have a few more classes on your CV, but it’s nothing compared to the benefit of a publication or two. But can you afford, in a real financial sense, to gamble that those publications will make a difference?

5) If you take any time for research or writing, you will not only be broke, but you may lose your job.  If you take off a semester or two as an adjunct, you can be replaced. Only rarely does it work out that you’ll be back in the classroom at the same institution. Even if it does work out, you’re more likely to be viewed as a backup now than as someone they hire every semester.

6)  You are not eligible for research funding or paid leave. I’ve been really depressed lately looking at Facebook, where it seems like every day someone from my program is announcing their book is done. I would love to be at that stage, but I have two-and-a-half chapters of my not-dissertation-related book written. But I haven’t had free summers, due to teaching, or any sort of paid leave. Most “outside funding” requires a home institution, and, if it doesn’t, it usually requires a promise from an institution to sponsor you for the next year. And it’s almost impossible for an adjunct to get that funding because:

7) People evaluate your work differently. Your work as an adjunct has to be twice as good to overcome the adjunct bias. But even when it’s excellent, people still remain suspicious. Why did you choose to publish in this journal, not that one? Are the journals you publish in good enough? Do you have the same number of publications as someone in a tenure-track position? Your CV is thrown out in the first cut. Meanwhile, the ABD from your program who hasn’t published a damned thing is interviewed for the job/gets the postdoc/gets outside funding. Why? They still have potential. You don’t.

8) Search committees don’t want adjuncts. I once interviewed for a job at a school where I adjuncted. The interview process was hellish: I was given a half-day interview after another candidate, whom they took to lunch. My interview was pushed back by a half an hour, and, when it came to my teaching demo, I was asked to condense my 50-minute presentation into 25 minutes. Then, they canceled my dinner, making it clear that I wasn’t being hired. Now, all of this bad behavior could be excused by sheer incompetence if it were not for the interview with the dean, in which he told me, “We’re really hesitant to hire an adjunct at all. I know you have excellent teaching evaluations, but if you adjunct here, we’re not going to hire you.”

9) People think there’s something wrong with you. We all can talk about bad colleagues and academic infighting, but when that is the standard of behavior and you still can’t get a job? Well, there must be something wrong with you. This piece is satire, but it reveals a very real attitude toward adjuncts: Adjunct jobs are more plentiful, but they are not good jobs and I believe anyone under 35 who is an adjunct has a psychological problem, an inferiority complex, or is just terrified to move out of a miserable but comfortable rut. You don’t have the courage of my friend Gary, who is now comfortably enjoying a prosperous and fun retirement after a successful career at various corporations in varied industries.

10) Because of all of the above, your entire career is a game of catch-up. You can’t earn half of the accolades that your tenure-track friends do, because you aren’t eligible for them. With every year past earning your degree, the distance between you and them becomes greater. By the time you reach five years out–where I am now–you realize that it’s an impossible gap to overcome.


12 Responses to “The compounding disadvantages of adjunct life”

  1. Yeah, pretty stark. Thanks so much for writing this! And you? What comes next? Sending best wishes your way 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    A good summing up of what we should already know – a necessary reminder for any still in denial

  3. Ah, true enough! I was lucky enough to land at a school that I really like, and that likes me. But I’ve still seen hints of all of the above, especially when on the prowl for additional employment. Thank goodness I am reasonably happy where I am, because leaving would be the tricky bit, I think! Not that this should surprise a cultural anthropologist like me, I suppose– any system of class or hierarchy comes with controls built in to ensure the continued population of each rank. If that makes it hard to leave a rut, so much the better in terms of macro social mechanics. It can rather suck to be IN one of the ruts, though! I wish you all the best in meeting these challenges. When I was starting out, the recession hadn’t hit yet and they told us there were going to be an abundance of full time positions by the time I graduated, as all the older generation professors retired. This has yet to happen. But perhaps it still will, if the budgets ever thaw and department heads become less afraid that retirements will lead to program cancellations or post-retirement poverty.

  4. I was given the exact same advice about adjuncting in 2004: “It’s alright to ‘do that’ [suppressing sneer] for a little while, but not for too long.” A new grad is like a new car. Just as the new car depreciates the minute you drive it off the lot, the graduate loses value the minute he or she agrees to the contract work needed to stay on the market. It’s a catch-22.

    Nice summary of the many aspects of the trap we call adjuncting!

    • I WISH I had known this back in the day. The “new car” analogy is apt. I was actually sold the opposite back in the day:
      “People are retiring! Now’s your chance to snag an awesome teaching job!”

      “We just want to try you out, first. We do this with everyone.”

      “This could lead to a full-time position. We may have an opening soon!”

      “It’s a great way to get your foot in the door, and get teaching experience.”

      “It always looks good on a resume.”

      No one actually said, “this is a limited time offer….”

  5. Oh, gosh, Elizabeth Keenan. We agree wholeheartedly. It’s like an abusive relationship. We posted 2 articles about this on Modern Disappointment that echo your sentiments as well. Too bad I get the feeling that it’s almost like an echo chamber for us adjuncts. At least misery loves company.

    My own experience is documented here:

    and an hilarious perspective from Bert:

  6. […] * The compounding disadvantages of adjunct life. […]

  7. D said

    Story of my life, really. I also got my degree in 2008 and since then I’ve had three years worth of post-docs and nearly four *gasp* of adjuncting. I’m done this June. What do I really regret? Not having taken an extra year to write a really shiny dissertation (instead of an adequate one) and, with that, leave academia (this is the reasonable fantasy–the best thing would have been NOT to get a phd in the humanities).Since my academic “quest” has extended way beyond the realm of what’s sane, I decided to wrap up by publishing my manuscript (hence this last year of adjunct-ing). Several articles are also coming out and, sad to say, I paid my way for most of the research that went into them. My head is shaking as I write this, incredulous at my own naivete and self-destructive behavior. Anyhow, badconversion, I totally hear you. You are not alone and thank you for speaking up!! ps-I actually still get tenured acquaintances telling me to apply to jobs because “you never know–and you have all this experience!” I truly feel like shredding them. Do they really think I’m that stupid when they tell me such nonsense? Umm. Don’t answer that, please! :)These are the types whose Ivy credentials and social capital got them the TT on the first year–before the market crashed in 2008.

  8. Doktordeb said

    My greatest worry is protection for my research. The concern is so strong that I am hesitant to conduct research.

  9. […] Bad Cover Version blog post from late last year on the “Compounding Disadvantages of Adjunct Life” circulated again, and is a useful read for those who are trying to work out how casual […]

  10. […] and spending for necessity as an adjunct is another example of what Elizabeth Keenan called the “compounding disadvantages of adjunct life.” The more you spend (and forego) to perpetuate your status as an adjunct, the greater the value […]

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