What is an Adjunct Professor and Why do Colleges Hire Them?

The role of adjunct professors is continually expanding in education, due to ever-tightening budgets and many qualified applicants for relatively few jobs. According the Washington Post, the percentage of adjunct versus full-time faculty increased from 22 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 1999, and the current percentage is bound to be even higher.

Adjunct professors: qualifications, duties, and pay

Adjunct professors are hired by schools on a contractual, part-time basis as opposed to the traditional university model of full-time employment. They do not get employment benefits, including health insurance or retirement plans. Adjuncts are often hired to teach a specific course that regular faculty may not have expertise in.

Like full-time professors, adjunct professors have usually earned a Ph.D. However, some colleges may only require a master’s degree to teach courses.

Adjunct professors typically spend all their time teaching students. Many of the duties required of tenured professors are not required of adjuncts. They are not expected to conduct research, publish papers, or attend staff meetings and events. Adjuncts generally share offices with other professors, if they have offices at all.

While post-secondary teachers made a median salary of $62,050 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adjunct professors are most often paid by the course. This, combined with the fact that they do not have to fulfill other academic responsibilities, may move adjuncts closer to the bottom of the salary scale, which was less than $30,720.

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Pros of being an adjunct professor

The position of adjunct professor has advantages for  the person doing the teaching and the higher education institution that hires them. For someone looking to start their career as a university instructor, an adjunct position might be a good strategy for getting a foot in the door. For a university looking to stretch its budget, an adjunct professor is certainly cheaper than a tenured professor.

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Adjuncts are easy to hire temporarily, allowing schools to adjust rapidly to student demand or other unforeseen situations. Adjunct professors are also much easier for a university to shed if necessary. They do not have tenure. If the school is dissatisfied with the adjunct’s performance, it simply has to wait until their contract expires. And just as a school can allow an adjunct’s contract to expire, he or she can leave a position with relative ease.

Cons of being an adjunct professor

Because the number of job seekers is much higher than the number of faculty positions in most academic fields, an adjunct professor hoping to become a tenured professor will likely face fierce competition. Some adjuncts endure a long and frustrating wait, but never manage to make the transition to tenure.

Adjunct professors also face the same difficulties of all part-time workers without benefits: an illness or injury can greatly impact their lives if they can’t afford health insurance, and may lead to lost wages. The uncertainty of future employment can also make it hard to save for retirement, especially for someone with an advanced degree who may carry a considerable amount of student loan debt.

The source of these difficulties can certainly be debated. Some say it is the fault of the university system and its attempts to pinch short-term pennies by hiring many part-time instructors instead of investing in a smaller academic faculty.

Strategies for adjunct professors

Not everyone who teaches at the college level desires tenure. The role of the adjunct professor was, and still often is, sought by people who want the teaching experience without taking on all the responsibility of a full-time career in education.

Take retirees, for instance. For older individuals who want to put their experience to good use in the field of education, becoming an adjunct professor is an excellent option. It allows for great flexibility, a minimal workload and the opportunity to give back to the community. Real world experience counts for a lot. Who better to teach than someone with real-world experience?

The position of adjunct professor is an important one. Colleges always need instructors, and this position allows prospective academics the opportunity to try out the role of professor. There are certainly limitations to being an adjunct professor, but there are also definite benefits. Depending on the desire of the prospective professor, the role of adjunct may be a perfect fit.

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