Are you visiting colleges? Here are some questions you should ask

One more story of academic inside baseball — I’ve been following John Wilkins, a brilliant philosopher of science who just can’t get a job, and I’ve been sensing waves of resentment at the rotten state of academia. I will be the first to tell you that I’ve been exceptionally lucky and privileged to get a job at a university that does a lot of things right, and one reason I can criticize freely is that UMM actually handles academic positions well.

Elsewhere…not so great.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get any kind of academic job at all, other than the miserable, harrowing, exploitive position sometimes called “adjunct”, or sometimes “lecturer” — temporary positions in which the instructor is hired on a per course basis. Bad jobs are driving out the good as university administrations cut corners, and somehow, it’s always the faculty who suffer the first painful snips.

This is the time of year when high school students come around to visit various universities and make decisions about where they want to go next year. Are you one of them? Or perhaps you’re a parent of a prospective student? You’ve got some power. Universities may be courting you, because they want your tuition dollars, or they see you have some skills that would bring honor to the school. Use your clout. Ask questions.

Here are some questions I wish more prospective students were knowledgeable enough to ask.

  • Ask, “Who teaches your introductory or service classes?” You may be thinking ahead to those lovely upper-level courses with the big names teaching them and the shiny lab equipment, but before you get there you’ll be expected to take courses outside your major — service courses in disciplines like math and English — that have big enrollments. At some universities, those will be taught by an ever-rotating set of temporary faculty called adjuncts. They are often treated like dirt, poorly paid, and given overloads. Often they’re so poorly paid they have to take adjunct positions at multiple colleges to make ends meet.

    Those course are important. You’ll take a lot of them. You want them to be well-taught. And that’s precisely where many schools cut corners on the quality of the education.

  • Ask, “How many of the faculty in your department are temporary faculty?” There are a great many colleges, some of them quite prestigious, where the swarm of adjuncts outnumbers the tenure-track faculty. Tenured faculty are in a privileged position where they get more money and lighter teaching loads, while the adjuncts are being victimized. Do not go to those colleges. Tell them why.

    Now adjuncts are often very good teachers — they have to be deeply committed to the profession to put up with the crap they have to take — but they are often spread thin and given frustratingly difficult workloads. My wife was an adjunct for a while, and she was commuting all over eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to cover her scattered positions, on top of all the coursework. I think she was a marvelous professor, but the burdens compromised her ability to deliver to the students to the best of her ability.

  • Ask, “Can I talk to some of the other instructors?” I know the runaround. You’ll go to the university, they’ll have a lovely canned presentation of all the benefits, and you might get to sit in on a course or meet for half an hour with Professor So-and-So, who will show off their lab and talk about the great things about being in their profession. Ask to talk to any of the people who teach that first year course in your major; if you’re lucky, Professor So-and-So will say, “That’s me!” and you’re off to a good start. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll be led to a cramped office divided into cubicles with a group of temporary faculty crammed into it.

    They’ll probably still say nice things about being at the university. Partly because they do love their job, but also partly because they’re in terror of losing it.

It would be very nice if more students and their parents paid attention to the growing inequity within academic ranks, and if the tuition-paying people would regard that as important, and that the voting citizens would recognize that their state legislators are all conspiring to strangle higher education. It would be especially nice if students refused to support universities that were happily screwing over their teachers.

But I’m a realist. I know what university PR departments do and emphasize and tell prospective students is important: will your education get you a job after graduation, and how is the football team doing? Those are great smokescreens to hide the decay behind the scenes.

I’ve had a few prospective students ask the really important questions: will I learn many great and interesting things in my years at this institution, will it make me a better and wiser person, is this school investing in improving the educational experience? Those are the students I really want to keep.

By the way, I can tell you to ask those questions because I know UMM will pass them with ease: almost all of our introductory and service courses are taught by tenure-track faculty, we have almost no temporary faculty (occasionally some, to cover faculty on sabbatical leave, for instance), and I can walk you right down the hall and introduce you to each of the professors who teach every one of our courses, and they’ll be right there in those same offices when you come back in the Fall.

(This has been an advertisement for the University of Minnesota Morris. An advertisement I enthusiastically endorse.)


  1. says

    Another question: “Is this university getting any ‘donations’ with conditions attached that affect the content of any classes in any department?”

  2. says

    their state legislators are all conspiring to strangle higher education.

    Actually conservatives have traditionally tried to strangle all levels of education. Those in power can’t make their own children any smarter so they help them win anyway by making their competitors dumber.
    Also, I’m pretty sure there is a correlation between the level of education and liberal political beliefs.

  3. says

    We have lots of adjuncts in my college district. This is par for the course at California community colleges. The official statewide goal for our schools is 75-25 (75% of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty and 25% by part-time instructors), but my math department is closer to 65-35. Adjuncts must meet the same academic requirements (master’s degree or equivalent) to teach a subject and we are fortunate to have a strong adjunct pool, from which tenure-track hires are often made. My school is also less than 15 miles away from a college outside our district, and our respective math departments have a tradition of cooperation in setting up schedules that permit our shared adjuncts to have full (or close to full) teaching loads on which they can survive. As a result, I don’t think our students are unduly disadvantaged when they enroll in adjunct-taught classes. As PZ noted, adjuncts are generally dedicated instructors who may be disadvantaged by burdensome circumstances. Colleges serve their students better when they treat their adjuncts as the professionals they are.

  4. says

    we are fortunate to have a strong adjunct pool, from which tenure-track hires are often made

    That’s important. Too often, adjuncts are treated as dead-end jobs; once you start, there’s almost no way to get out.

  5. says

    Speaking as a teacher at a major university (in fact, your alma mater, in fact I may have been teaching Biology 210 in the year when you would have taken it), I note a terminology issue. At our university, an “adjunct” faculty member is one who has a courtesy appointment in a department but is actually paid and given office space by another department. I have a couple of these Adjunct appointments, but I am not one of the people you are talking about

    In our case, the title for low-paid, non-tenure-track faculty who teach introductory courses is “Lecturer”.

    So the prospective student should not just use the word “Adjunct” but should find a way to make it clear that they mean non-tenure-track lecturers. The exact title may vary from university to university.

  6. jd142 says

    it’s always the faculty who suffer the first painful snips.

    As someone who is staff at a public university, I guarantee you that faculty are not always the first to suffer any painful snips. It is the people making $20,000 a year who are furloughed one day a week while faculty get raises who suffer those first snips.

  7. says

    And this is part of the reason I’m not going for a job in academia after I graduate, even though I’m apparently a very good TA. (The other part of that reason is that I can’t stand the thought of being expected to make my entire life about teaching with maybe a little time for research and little to none for hobbies.)

  8. says

    #6, Joe Felsenstein:

    I missed out on being in any of your courses, unfortunately. I did bump into you a lot when I was an undergraduate lab and office lackey, though — I was working in a lab just around the corner from your office. You don’t remember me? Skinny, totally intimidated, entirely forgettable generic young college student, one among the many tens of thousands?

    Good point about the terminology. When my wife was stuck in the rat race on the east coast, that was the term of art. At the University of Minnesota branch campus in the big city, they do the same thing UW does, with an immensely confusing arrangement of joint appointments with the plethora of finely divided departments.

  9. says

    #7, jd142:

    This is always the way of it, isn’t it? The lower you are on the totem pole, the more people you have stepping on your head.

  10. Zugswang says

    Maybe this could be a good project – to make a list of colleges that include numbers of different types of faculty positions, those that are adjunct, tenured, etc, information regarding professional compensation, publicly available donation sources, etc. The kind of stuff that doesn’t show up in a US News ranking, and that would be a good resource for students as well as those seeking faculty positions, potential donors, etc.

  11. ChasCPeterson says

    adjuncts. They are often treated like dirt, poorly paid, and given overloads. Often they’re so poorly paid they have to take adjunct positions at multiple colleges to make ends meet.

    True (I was married to one).
    One thing, though: there are degrees of exploitation within the general adjunct/lecturer (i.e. non-tenure-track) category.
    The ones getting overloads are the ones who are “lucky” enough to have a full-time lectureship. Much more often, it’s a nominally part-time gig. For example, at my last institution, the standard tenure-track teaching load was nine contact hours per week; adjuncts were hired to teach a maximum of eight, making them part-time and therefore no benefits. Those are the folks teaching at multiple schools.
    The latest wrinkle is the advent of the so-called “teaching postdoc”…you hire some poor sucker right out of grad school, pay them a piddling post-doc salary and get full-time or overload hours taught from them.

  12. says

    Nationwide, part-time, non tenure track instructors make up about 70% of the academy. Students and parents need to ask themselves how this affects educational quality and institutional loyalty. Unfortunately, students aren’t the power players in this dance. If we really want to address this problem, and it is a problem, we need to seriously consider the accreditors. Is it reasonable that a college with less than 40% of instruction being given by part time, non permanent faculty gets full accreditation? Should there not be some sort of standard at the WASC level that says that faculty is a key component of a college’s ability to offer a quality education?

  13. gussnarp says

    I was really lucky in this respect. While my alma mater definitely is guilty of having too many adjuncts and paying them too little, not to mention the courses taught by grad students, I think it was actually much better than many big schools. Some of my foreign language classes were taught by grad students, but they were native speakers getting PhD’s in their native language and I think a good value educationally. I also had the department chair for two of those classes as well as another tenured professor. The most basic introductory classes in my major were taught by tenured faculty, including the department chair. I took no classes in my major from grad students and only one by an adjunct (I signed up for another but dropped it, as it turned out that adjunct had other reasons for not getting a tenure track position). Even my stats classes, taken in summer term, were taught by tenure track faculty. So I think the school does well, given the ever shrinking funding trickling down from the state.

    But even there this is a problem, and I’m sure it’s bigger elsewhere. I think this is a really good idea and an important post.

  14. gussnarp says

    @#7 jd142 – Yup. Also cut: funding for facilities and equipment, student scholarships, and any number of other items. But always the lower tier employees before the upper tier, and always coaches and administrators last.

  15. doublereed says

    I was planning on going into academia but I realized it would require like 3-4 consecutive 2-4 year postdoctoral positions before I would probably be offered a tenure track position. And those postdoctoral programs usually give more like a stipend than a salary.

    So I went into the corporate world. Which has been surprisingly fun, actually.

  16. says

    Cross posted from the Lounge thread:

    What many far right conservatives actually think is that public education is socialism, oh great evil! Occasionally, they even say that out loud.

    A Republican member of the Ohio House of Representatives denounced the entire American public school system as “socialism” […]

    […] Rep. Andrew Brenner (R ) wrote in a post published Mar. 3 on Brenner Brief News, a website founded and edited by his wife. “That seems to summarize our primary education system. Public education in America is socialism.”

    Brenner serves as vice-chair of the Ohio House Education Committee.

    […] He noted that the Tea Party, which “will attack Obama-care relentlessly as a socialist system,” rarely brings up “the fact that our public education system is already a socialist system[…] and has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.” He addressed teachers unions — “an outgrowth of our socialistic education system” — which he granted originally improved things “temporarily” before they ultimately “became bureaucratic and they started to take the place of school boards and school management.” […]

    This reminds me just how much some conservatives hate public education, or even publicly-supported education. They have a hard time doing away with public education entirely, so they conduct sneak attacks via charter schools, which they say are “public schools.” They also remove regulation from some of their non-traditional school options so that they can introduce religion, so they can rewrite history, and so that they can promote faux economics.

    Conservatives seem to be also laboring under the mistaken impression that education should be a money-making corporate venture. This ties in with PZ’s post about shopping for education at the university level and finding that too many universities have taken counter-productive cost-saving measures, counter-productive to the goal of education anyway. Perhaps productive in reaching the goal of saving money.

    Conservative politicians also love to bleed public schools and publicly-supported higher education facilities of funds. After the bleeding, they point to failures produced by their anti-funding campaigns as being someone’s else’s fault. Maybe its the teachers’ fault and we should ban unions. Maybe its the fault of creeping socialism.

    Here’s Andrew Brenner’s summary of free market education:

    “In a free market system parents and students are free to go where the product and results are better,” he wrote. “Common core and standardized tests under such a system will not be necessary, because the schools that fail will go out of business. Government will not be there to prop them up with more tax dollars and increased regulations. Successful schools will thrive. The free-market system works for cars, furniture, housing, restaurants, and to a lesser degree higher education, so why can’t it work for our primary education system?”

    Yeah, more privatization. That’s the ticket, the ticket to separate and not equal school systems.
    Prepare yourself for encountering a big red hammer and sickle at the top of the page.

  17. randay says

    Another question I would ask: “If you treat your faculty as garbage, why should I expect that you don’t treat your students as garbage?” Garbage that pays maybe.

  18. futurechemist says

    I don’t like the adjunct system, and would love to get rid of it, but is there a practical way of phasing it out. Let’s say a standard size flagship state research university has 2000 teaching faculty, and half are adjuncts (as opposed to tenure-track or full-time lecturers with a benefits package). How much money is it going to take to convert those 1000 adjuncts to full-time status? All that cost to increase salary, pay health insurance, retirement, and other benefits is going to get passed down to the students in massive tuition hikes. And that will lead to fewer lower-class students not attending college and further widening the gap between rich and poor.

    A much better solution would be for there to be a lot more state/federal money going to colleges to let the colleges avoid adjuncts, but let’s be realistic. That’s not going to happen in the current socialism-phobic society.

    So is there another option besides a) raising tuition drastically (likely, but unpalatable), or b) raising taxes drastically (desirable, but unpalatable), or (c) drastically cutting student enrollment (undesirable and unlikely) ? I wish there was, but I can’t think of it.

  19. weatherwax says

    It’s been probably 20 years since I had any involvement, but I used to see very similar situations in elementary schools. Many of my family are/ were teachers, and for a long time most of them, and most of their co-workers, were in temporary teaching positions. They got paid less, got no benefits, and every year it was an open question whether or not they would be re-hired, which caused a lot of stress.

    It occurred to me one day that none of them were ever not re-hired. They quit and went on to other districts, but were never not re-hired. Which told me it was just a way of keeping them from asking for more money or benefits.

  20. rpjohnston says

    My wife was an adjunct for a while, and she was commuting all over eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to cover her scattered positions, on top of all the coursework.

    I had a history professor who commuted from central Penn to Northern Virginia to teach at the Nova cmty college every single day. I just about shat myself when I heard that.

  21. otrame says

    I’d like to point out that just because a teacher is one of those adjuncts or lecturers or whatever excuse they use for paying them shit, does not mean that some are not great teachers. I had a primate behavior teacher who absolutely rocked. He beat us nearly to death, but we learned a hell of a lot and we loved every minute of it.

    Of course the university didn’t put him in the tenure track job that came open the next year.

  22. neuroturtle says

    Currently adjuncting after my post-doc ended, waiting for my TT position to begin. For that, I sent out 42 applications and got 2 offers. I feel very lucky to have gotten any offers; the market is terrible and at least one of the positions I phone-interviewed for lost their tenure line and had to cancel the search.

    Both schools I am teaching at now are about ~75% adjunct faculty. I think I cost about a third of what the TT faculty cost. Thank the FSM for Obamacare, or I’d be screwed.

    One of the first questions I asked on interviews was how many adjunct faculty were in the department. I accepted the offer at a school which explicitly rejects the college-as-job-training philosophy and only rarely has adjuncts… some rural liberal-arts college in the hinterlands of the upper Midwest, very into environmentalism, really engaged students and faculty, seems like a great place to be a professor. ;)

  23. ChasCPeterson says

    just because a teacher is one of those adjuncts or lecturers or whatever excuse they use for paying them shit, does not mean that some are not great teachers.

    That’s absolutely true.
    And conversely, tenure does not a good teacher make.

  24. brett says

    @#21 futurechemist

    Many of them may not want to go full-time (about 65% of part-time faculty have indicated a desire to stay part-time in surveys), but there probably are a lot who do want to become full-time, tenured professors.

    That’s pretty expensive. I don’t know exactly what the comparative costs are for a full-time faculty member versus an adjunct, but Clay Shirky has pointed out that a proposal back in 2013 to convert the non-tenure-track jobs to tenure track jobs in the NYU locations would have cost an extra $250 million/year. Here’s also an Inside Higher Ed piece about the comparative salaries of full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, and so forth.

    So is there another option besides a) raising tuition drastically (likely, but unpalatable), or b) raising taxes drastically (desirable, but unpalatable), or (c) drastically cutting student enrollment (undesirable and unlikely) ? I wish there was, but I can’t think of it.

    If state funding doesn’t increase, then it would probably be a combination of major tuition hikes and a freeze/reduction in enrollment spots at the college. Even state schools would become much more selective, and private colleges would abandon anything resembling need-blindness except those with the biggest endowments.

  25. ChasCPeterson says

    from central Penn to Northern Virginia

    Hour and a half each way (Chambersburg to Annandale)? Not uncommon at all.

  26. David Marjanović says

    But I’m a realist. I know what university PR departments do and emphasize and tell prospective students is important: will your education get you a job after graduation


    The times when anything got you a job are over.

  27. says

    I’d like to point out that just because a teacher is one of those adjuncts or lecturers or whatever excuse they use for paying them shit, does not mean that some are not great teachers.

    I agree. The injustice is that they aren’t getting the pay or respect they deserve, or the opportunity to exercise their skills fully.

  28. Cinzia La Strega says

    I’ve been an adjunct at the same community college for nearly twenty years. It blows people’s minds when I explain I sign a new contract four times a year. When tenure track positions open, they are often filled by adjuncts already in the system, but only two have opened in my program in the past ten years. Now I’m pushing sixty, I have become indifferent. I no longer have the energy to deal with the politics and administrative minutiae that is part’n’parcel of being a tenured instructor: I just want to serve my students. As unfair as the current system is, there are benefits to remaining an adjunct, no least of which more personal time and autonomy which at this stage of my life is as important as money and respect. I do wish my college would offer adjuncts one or two year contracts, however. It seems ridiculously inefficient to push contracts back and forth every twelve weeks.

  29. redwood says

    Here’s some perspective from outside the US. I’m a tenured professor at a private university in Tokyo. It’s a kind of pre-law college, with five majors in the fields of Law, Economics, Public Administration, Journalism and Legal Studies. I teach English (really ESL), which is required of all students, so there are many classes, but because students can’t major in our field, we don’t have much say-so in how things are run. There are ten full-time staff in the English department, including full professors, assistant professors and what I guess would be called a lecturer, which is a three-year contract that could lead to a tenure-tract assistant professorship. There aren’t any TAs but there are over 50 part-time teachers, who teach around 60% of the classes. We used to have 13 full-time positions, but they have been whittled away and that trend is continuing as more and more part-time teachers are being hired. They do the bulk of the teaching and they don’t have to be given health care or any of the other perks full-timers get. It saves the college money and I wouldn’t be surprised to see US universities go down this path.

  30. carlie says

    And conversely, tenure does not a good teacher make.

    In fact, it can be the opposite directly as a result of the high number of adjuncts hired: when a college starts relying on adjuncts and shrinking the number/percentage of full-time faculty, the few faculty who are left (the ones who are already tenured) end up with a much larger burden of administration and governance, which pulls a heckuva lot of time away from things like class prep and keeping up in one’s field.

  31. stwriley says

    Your wife and I worked the same territory as adjuncts, PZ. I did ten years of adjuncting in and around Philadelphia and taught classes at most of the smaller colleges and universities at one time or another. Philly is actually a pretty good place to be an adjunct, relatively speaking, because of the high number and concentration of colleges and universities in the area: there are just more opportunities and some pressures that keep the pay a bit higher than normal. That last part is mostly due to the unionized professors of the state university system (which is all the small state-owned schools, like West Chester, Slippery Rock, etc. rather than Penn State, which is its own separate entity) whose negotiated contracts include provisions to make adjunct pay a direct percentage of Asst. Professor pay (i.e., they end up paying the same rate for each class no matter the teacher, minus only benefits costs not provided to the adjunct.) That helps keep the other schools in the same class to a slightly higher pay scale for adjuncts than they might otherwise have.

    That said, I still got out of higher ed altogether when it became apparent that I was never going to get a tenure-track job because they were disappearing while my competition for the few that remained was far younger and better published than I was. I might have been able to overcome the second part (though it was the demands of adjuncting and trying to be a good teacher to my students that curtailed any real effort at publication in the first place), but there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about the first. I had also realized, as some adjuncts do, that what I really loved was the teaching. So, I went back to grad school, got an MEd in Secondary Ed to add to my alphabet soup, and started teaching high school (I teach biology now, by the way.) It’s been highly rewarding, though now it look like I may have to fight to keep this profession from becoming the province of temporary teachers and bottom-line labor practices no better than what I experienced as an adjunct.