Academic realities

Oh, great, another depressing article about the state of American academia.

My friend is an adjunct. She has a PhD in anthropology and teaches at a university, where she is paid $2100 per course. While she is a professor, she is not a Professor. She is, like 67 per cent of American university faculty, a part-time employee on a contract that may or may not be renewed each semester. She receives no benefits or health care.

According to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced website revealing adjunct wages – data which universities have long kept under wraps – her salary is about average. If she taught five classes a year, a typical full-time faculty course load, she would make $10,500, well below the poverty line. Some adjuncts make more. I have one friend who was offered $5000 per course, but he turned it down and requested less so that his children would still qualify for food stamps.

Why is my friend, a smart woman with no money, spending nearly $2000 to attend a conference she cannot afford? She is looking for a way out. In America, academic hiring is rigid and seasonal. Each discipline has a conference, usually held in the fall, where interviews take place. These interviews can be announced days or even hours in advance, so most people book beforehand, often to receive no interviews at all.

By the way, five course per year — the standard 3/2 load — is what I teach. It represents about 20 contact hours per week, and doesn’t include all the preparation time. Or in the case of adjuncts, the commute time: I knew of adjuncts in the Philadelphia area who taught 5 or 6 or more courses, each one at a different university.

And as the article points out, there are additional costs to being in the professoriat. I’m at a small university, and we get several hundred dollars per year for travel (although we’d be in trouble if every faculty member tapped into that fund), but adjuncts typically get nothing, and are entirely on their own. A lot of journals also have page costs if you want to publish…that has to come out of your pocket if you’re an adjunct.

This is a telling quote from the article:

The adjunct problem is emblematic of broader trends in American employment: the end of higher education as a means to prosperity, and the severing of opportunity to all but the most privileged.


  1. dianne says

    Are these year long or semester long courses? And how much contact time does each course require? Because I have grave doubts about whether §2100 per course is more than minimum wage.

  2. Reverend PJ says

    The university I recently resigned my teaching position at has a 9-12 credit hour per term load for tenured and tenure-track faculty. This translates to 3 or 4 courses per term, with an increasing demand for publications in “high-quality” venues. I decided to leave teaching at that institution, taking a research position so I could rebuild my research program and maybe find a better position elsewhere. My particular institution wants to be a top-tier research institution, while at the same time continuing to operate as a third-tier regional school.

    I’m torn between staying in academe, or heading to private industry. Posts like this one are making industry look more attractive.

  3. craigbertram says

    Is that $2100 per course per year? That’s a terrible state of affairs!

    I’ve worked a few hours a week as what might be the equivalent of an adjunct in the UK (associate lecturer). I get about £40 ($65) per hour of contact time, that’d be around $1300 for a 20 hr week! The per contact hour rate is high to take into account that an hour of contact time takes an hour or two of prep time, so I think it’d work out as a full salary if I taught 20 h/week for the 38 or so teaching weeks of the year. I’d just have to save up for over the summer.

    I’m looking at what to do with my life at the moment, and one of the options is to go do a post-doc (potentially in the States, although not necessarily). Things like this make it seem like the US system is set up to squeeze the most work out of people with the least support in return – it doesn’t make it look like an appealing choice.

  4. No One says

    I teach at a private “Art & Design” school. Work 4 quarters at 5 classes max per adjunct. The only full time positions are for chairs and assistants. I teach in three depts that are being phased out. I’ve been offered to teach online (5 week terms!) but they insist I get a Masters in education. Fuck that. Luckily I’ve been freelancing in parallel. It’s not as steady as teaching, and I will miss my students…

  5. Reverend PJ says


    Things like this make it seem like the US system is set up to squeeze the most work out of people with the least support in return – it doesn’t make it look like an appealing choice.

    The US system is set up squeeze. The administration at my university looks at faculty productivity according to the following equation: productivity = (tuition dollars/faculty pay). Lip service is paid to doing research, but the reality is that there is minimal support for research and the deans care primarily about student credit hours.

  6. says

    the end of higher education as a means to prosperity, and the severing of opportunity to all but the most privileged.

    The first part was always a bubble that would burst once most people obtained a Bachelors degree, but the second part – call me paranoid – but I do not think this was an accident.

  7. sirbedevere says

    Yep. I’m currently stuck in adjunct-land (or perhaps adjunct “no-man’s land” would be a better description). I kept track of all my time spent on preparation, in-class and grading for a semester last year. It worked out to be just under $14.00 per hour. And I suspect I’m one of the better-off adjuncts — I can’t imagine the amount of time grading must take for an an English professor who has to read through long papers.

    Shouldn’t parents be outraged at the tiny fraction of the tuition bills they pay that go to the people actually doing the educating?

    Shouldn’t schools be required to disclose what percentage of their courses are taught by adjuncts vs full-time professors?

  8. Sunday Afternoon says

    Makes me feel better about what I viewed at the time as “selling out”: taking a job in industry instead of academia. Not that I had a choice, I was offered an industry job, but got no bites from the academic side.

    The need for PhDs is still incredibly strong in certain places in the US, but stories like this make me worry greatly for the future. The next generation of PhD advisors, and hence their students, is being screwed over.

    Why would anyone choose to impoverish themselves? Why is the US shooting itself in the head?

  9. dean says

    houldn’t schools be required to disclose what percentage of their courses are taught by adjuncts vs full-time professors?

    Schools are now beginning to advertise having adjuncts as a benefit, not from cost-saving: the common line is that these are people who have real-world experience (typically phrased as “work in the field”) – leaving parents and students to infer that full-time faculty aren’t as grounded in the applications of the discipline. It seems to go along with the shift from discussing “education” in advertisements for colleges and universities to saying “come here and prepare for a real-world career”.

  10. TGAP Dad says

    Here, once again, the foreign press is where we have to turn for the unbridled truth about our own country. Further proof that the republic is doomed…

  11. Orakio says


    $2100 per course per semester. My wife, who is also an adjunct, gets ~$700 per credit hours taught, and is capped at 12 credit hours per semester at the community college where she teaches most of her credits. The average course is 3 credit hours, but it can vary – some courses are 4, some are 2. This limits her to less than $17,000/year for the two main semesters, and maybe another $4,000 from June through August… if she’s lucky.

    Of course, she’d rather teach in the secondary school system, but since the Governor of Pennsylvania is a Republican with a Republican house and a Republican senate, we don’t get to have teachers.

  12. says

    The more I read stuff like the the more happy I am that I left academia. It’s a shame too, because I really did enjoy teaching, but after dealing with this kind of thing for a little while I decided to do something else with my life.

  13. ashartus says

    Wow, that’s a pathetic amount of money. I get $4000 for teaching an online course through a Canadian university, and a few years ago taught a course at a technical college for $5000, and in both cases viewed it more as a public service than as a good way of generating income (since I have a regular job with a decent salary). $2100/course is way out of line with the qualifications and skills needed to actually teach those courses.

  14. says

    Hmm. Back when I was an adjunct, I was paid $2,500 per section at BU, and they gave me 2 sections, i.e. $5,000 for a one-semester course. At Tufts, they paid me $6,000 for a course. By teaching three or four courses per semester and summer sessions you could cobble together an above the poverty line living, albeit no benefits and little security, also albeit you’d be lucky to be able to put together such a full portfolio. So either things have gotten worse, or there are better deals at better-heeled universities.

    I now have a good steady job, as a research professor. They do exist. The adjunct thing was actually a good deal for me as I completed my dissertation and hung out on the fringes of academia while I worked full-time at a private research institute, but it would definitely be a lousy career.

  15. jonh says

    In a few decades, the principal way for a US citizen to pursue an academic career will be to emigrate.

    Or to get a good education at an acceptable price point. I’m a US citizen and I’m doing a Master’s degree at an Ivy-league equivalent University in the UK for about $30k (distance learning). My local State university want’s nearly $60k. An Ivy league school wants in the region of a $100k.

    According to the World Economic Forum (2010), the US ranks 48th for college graduate science and engineering literacy. And we are expected to pay a premium for this?

  16. macrophage says

    I looked into adjuncting locally. The maximum I could hope to make was $6000 a semester teaching 2 4-credit laboratory classes with discussion sections to nursing students. At 3 semesters a year that’s $18,000. Assuming I’m able to get the maximum number of sections, as there’s a huge surplus of adjuncts in all areas. That’s without benefits and without the college so much as taking out taxes for me.

    That’s less than I make as a grad assistant, where I get half benefits.

    I can work as a lab tech and make $30,000 with full benefits. Or I work as a postdoc and make $38,000 – $46,000 (varies by location) with benefits and publishing fees paid.

    I love teaching but it’s not worth it for me to pursue it.

  17. rtp10 says

    It sounds horrible, but as I am finishing up my PhD and looking for a job- any position sounds better than none. I am hoping to get an adjunct position somewhere, as 2-5k a course is better than the 0 I am making now.

  18. growlybear says

    I taught at a small liberal arts college in Illinois for 11 years and was in a tenured, associate professor position when I left. That is almost 30 years ago now. Economic reasons were key factors in that decision and when I moved into the private, non-academic sector I realized a raise of about $10,000. It might have been more, but was close to a 50% raise at the time. I didn’t like leaving, but I couldn’t afford to stay.

    Knowing how things have changed to an adjunct world is really depressing. Two of my friends who teach at the local community college have been adjunct faculty there for 15 plus years. One is going to “retire” without ever having a real faculty appointment at the school. Every year they have to wait to see if they will be rehired and for how many hours. Their dedication to their fields and profession are admirable, but they certainly “pay a price” for that. Our country is likely paying a price too, but it is hidden from view. Most people in the community have no idea how college faculty are being treated. What a shame.

  19. starguts says

    I always thought that the struggle with poverty would be over after obtaining a degree, guess not. I’ve run out of money and credit half way through my degree and there is no recourse other than giving up and going for some blue collar entry level job that may offer some opportunity for slow advance. So I am now off to join the military.

    I am idealistic to a fault, but I refuse to let my wife and I live in abject poverty for another half decade whilst I struggle towards a career that society deems not worth the cost of a used economy car.

    I’ll never stop loving math, or teaching, so perhaps I can still work something out once my contract with uncle sam is up.

    Let’s please just try to avoid another war for the next 4-6 years…

  20. J Dubb says

    I have a 4/4 load. And research expectations. And service to the university (advising, committees). I have a monthly student loan payment that rivals my mortgage. I make less than 50 grand a year. Even for many of us on the tenure track, academia is not a prize anymore.

  21. says

    Why PZ, WHY! My mother already ditched academia after decades within it and now you make me want to drop well before I get a PHD. You and your facts, and depressing figures. Maybe I can teach somewhere that values education and research? Somewhere that doesn’t simultaneously screw over edu and then complain about how much teachers/professors/adjuncts make?

    I haven’t finished my BS yet (lots of delays, ok!) and I make well over those numbers. Depressing, really that I make more than someone who spent years and created original research in order to teach me how the world works (yay physics). :(

  22. Sunday Afternoon says

    To amplify my point about the need for PhDs in the US.

    I’m currently at a US scientific conference that has a strong industry presence. Over half the attendees are Asian in origin. Easily less than 20% are non-immigrants or foreign visitors. There is a clear demand for more PhDs than the US can produce for this subject. I benefitted myself when I joined the industry.

    Don’t get me started on how few women are here…

  23. says

    Wait, aren’t universities raking in piles of cash from all time high tuition fees and other assortments of inward cash flow?


  24. says

    @24 I have no idea. Both working at and attending the same university, I really don’t see where it goes. Oh, wait. Never mind the fucking football program! The goddamn coach makes 7 digits while department heads with tenure make maybe a bit over 100k, in an area with one of the highest costs of living in the US.

    Still, though I am not sure. Most of the research is paid for by grants and new buildings come from rich alumni. Although where I am is better about actually hiring faculty over that adjunct crap.

  25. says

    $10,500? jesus. I already make that (and also with no benefits), but with the advantage of setting my own schedule and not having to deal with people. And I haven’t even finished my BS yet.

  26. says

    aren’t universities raking in piles of cash from all time high tuition fees and other assortments of inward cash flow?

    what other assortments of inward cash flow? unless you’re an institution in the habit of graduating millionaires, alumni donations don’t account for much, and state funding has nearly dried up for a lot of universities. That’s why tuition has been going up so much, in the first place: to account for funding loss elsewhere.

    Though, yeah, the distribution of what funding there is is completely fucked up, since it favors admin and sports over academics.

  27. pramod says

    Isn’t it obvious that the adjuncts need to unionize? Surely this will benefit everybody – students, universities and of course the adjucts themselves. Why isn’t this happening? Would there be laws against this sort of thing?

    PS. If $10.5k number is accurate, professors in second and third-tier universities in India make more in dollar terms (!) than adjunts in the US. This is surely fucked up because when I was a (IMHO fairly well-paid) engineer in India I was making between 1/3rd and 1/4th of what my counterparts in the US were making.

  28. scottjohnson says


    In my experience, that’s the salary WITH unions. Of course, here in Wisconsin we’re losing the union representation, so things are bound to improve, right?

    Seriously, it’s really, really depressing being so poorly compensated for your hard work, because it makes life pretty difficult.

  29. katansi says

    $10,500 a year is not “well below the poverty line” because our poverty line is set at fucking ridiculous. That’s about $600 below the poverty line for a single person. I would really like to love my country but we are just collectively assholes. At least if that’s her real wage she can get some aid like food stamps or utility assistance even though that’s enough to screw pretty much anyone out of welfare or section 8 housing which always has a stupid long wait list anyway.

  30. skinnercitycyclist says

    I was in a Ph.D. program in the late 90’s in a lucrative field (Germanistic, heh), saw tenure track faculty denied tenure, and decided this was not the way to go. During that time we had a candidate search for a Baroque lit position and we had over 250 applicants for the one job. Descriptions of the whole MLA meat market also turned me off, and I headed into school teaching, first in language arts, then in special education. Doing just fine economically, so far.

    It is true that universities viciously exploit adjunct and other faculty (I do not count coaches as faculty), but why is it that so many people go on to get that Ph.D. in the humanities, and then wonder why they cannot get a job? I mean, they have been hanging out at their prospective place of employment for at least 10 years, you’d think they would notice the raw economics of the matter. Universities simply turn out too many qualified applicants for too few jobs. I understand the allure of “follow your bliss,” but at some point you have to follow your way to a pot to piss in.

  31. Jerry says

    Following up skinnercitycyclist in comment 31,
    When I was in a science PhD program in DC, the profs just assumed most of the grad students were headed into academia. They seemed put off by the fact that half of us were not going their route. Then again, they seemed put off by the fact that half of us were older, employed, and had job experience. We kept getting treated as if we were all new college graduates, including in the required career skills class. My CV was at least as long as the recently hired professors’ that he used as an example, including the list of publications. Not the only problem. The pathology class was VERY unpopular after the two MD professors put down scientists as researchers. The enzyme and protein structure class had only one protein structure lecturer- a student, me. The program had professors supplemented by unpaid adjuncts. I wonder if George Washington University has gotten any better faculty since then, or if they’ve spent all of their money on buying more buildings in downtown DC? Sorry, got off the topic of adjuncts.

  32. orneryengineer says

    After finishing my Bachelors in Engineering at a Florida college I went to work in the power industry. I left that company after a few years of working 16 hour days and being on-call 24/7. My old advisor offered me a grad student slot working on a project he was about to get funding for.

    Then the economy crashed and things were getting canceled left and right. All he had left to offer me was a $600/Month TA or RA position. He even told me that it was the same amount of money he got as a graduate student over 10 years ago. You can’t even get a place to stay for that down there now, so I turned it down.

    @32. Jerry
    I work in DC now and attend GWU part time for my Masters. They are still buying up and constructing new buildings while charging me $3,700 a class. I have thought about going back and finishing my PhD full time, but I keep hearing more and more stories like these. It’s really making me reconsider that. :(