To Adjunct or not to Adjunct, That Is the Question

By Dr. Esther Ra, Advisor in the School of Nursing, Graduate School of Education, and School of Social Policy and Practice

Recently, I have had several students inquire about teaching as an adjunct in community colleges and in neighboring universities in Philadelphia. Have you ever wondered about teaching as an adjunct faculty member? What exactly is this and what does it entail? As someone who has been teaching since my doctoral student days, I do get frequently asked about how one can break into this arena.

What exactly is an adjunct faculty member and what do you do?

An adjunct faculty member or professor is someone who teaches university level courses on a contractual basis, sometimes renewing a contract from semester to semester. The word “adjunct” means supplementary or auxiliary, and as an adjunct professor, you are exactly that, an additional faculty member who has been hired to help teach courses for a department. While adjunct professors are not hired at the level of a tenure-track professor, nor are they one of the main professors in the department, adjuncts are relied upon to do a part (and sometimes it is a large part) of the load of teaching in the department. Typically, adjunct faculty are not expected to participate in research, partake in department committee work, or delve into university service. While it’s not expected for an adjunct to do such activities, many do dabble in some of the same work as tenure-track professors, depending on their interests and time. Above all, an adjunct faculty member will be expected to have an experienced skill set in teaching at the college level, (and in some cases, the graduate level), which will most likely be the sole focus and expectation of the adjunct.

Why Do You Want to Adjunct?

In some respect, it’s important to think about why one would like to take on an adjunct faculty position. Do you want to improve your teaching skill set? Do you want to become more familiar with a topic in your field? Do you want to have a better understanding of working with undergraduate students or graduate students? There’s a myriad of reasons why many people would like to have an adjunct job, but it’s important to pinpoint a direct reason. Adjuncting is not always a glamorous position, nor does the pay and recognition correlate to the level of education a typical adjunct achieves, often a PhD or a master’s in a given field. Knowing why you want to pursue this path, as well as, what you’d like to gain from it, is important to know before jumping two feet into this world. The frustrations of adjunct life are notorious (and I won’t delve into them here), and one may grow jaded early on in the process. Without a clear understanding of goals, the teaching load may sideswipe a newbie, if not tempered in thought and expectation.

How Does Adjunct Hiring Work?

Without getting into the controversy of adjunct hiring, if you would like to enhance your teaching in higher education in a part-time capacity, adjunct teaching is a great way to develop this skill set. Even with lesser duties than a tenure-track professor, an adjunct position is often difficult to negotiate. I am often told by students who come to see me during appointments, that they have a difficult time breaking into this world. I would have to agree with them, that it IS a difficult arena to crack, however, it is also important to note, that even though an adjunct is auxiliary in a department, your CV cannot be “auxiliary.” Your CV still needs to be impressive and polished. With many students in the wings eager to become an adjunct – whether it be a doctoral student, a newly minted PhD, or a seasoned higher education administrator, positions do not avail themselves equal to the number of highly qualified individuals who graduate from master’s and doctoral programs. Keep this in mind as you apply to jobs! It can very much be a waiting game, but if you’re patient, the right opportunity may come knocking on your door.

With that being said, depending on where you are interested in teaching, typically most adjuncts have their doctoral degrees and are well versed in the courses they teach. They are often familiar with the content and courses books for the courses taught, by way of their own research or interests. In some cases, particularly in smaller colleges and community colleges, an accomplished individual with their master’s can also fill an adjunct role. Knowledge and extensive practical experience in the content area is a huge plus in this case, and highly valued.

Networking to Find an Adjunct Position

As with many jobs, networking to find an adjunct position is likely one of the best strategies for finding a job in the field you hope to teach. Start by talking to your advisor. Perhaps you could serve as a Teaching Assistant in one of the courses you’ve taken before that you enjoyed. Perhaps, you could offer to grade and take care of administrative duties of a course before attempting to teach one on your own. Likely without direct teaching experience or course management experience, either in a teaching or graduate assistantship, it will be difficult to be competitive for an adjunct position.

If you’ve already talked to your advisor, consider approaching other professors, either in the same department or in other departments. To do this successfully, you must look to see what content you are familiar with and what you would feel comfortable teaching. There is a lot of overlap in departments and you could be eligible to teach in several departments, depending on the need. For example, an individual who studied educational policy, may be useful in a higher education department, but could also be relevant in a social policy department. Often the interdisciplinary nature of one’s own interests lends itself to opportunities, not just in one field, but in several fields. Take a good, hard look at your training and comfort level, and I am willing to bet, ideas to pursue several different departments will emerge. Brainstorm with your advisors and get their input.

Contacting Departments/Schools to Apply/ Strategic Informational Interviewing

It may seem archaic, but sometimes, cold contacting or networking is a strategy one may need to employ. Why? As a student or a newly minted PhD, these positions may already be filled by senior adjuncts, who have been teaching the same courses year after year. In this case, it may be beneficial to look outside your department. In addition, your interest area may be quite specific and only a handful of universities will have the fields you are interested in teaching. This is often the case, particularly in certain fields with those who have obtained a PhD. An example of this may be a newly minted PhD graduate, a historian of a specific era of US history; some departments can only have allowances for one or maybe two adjuncts in this area, depending on the size of their school. If it’s a specific niche, the opportunities may be even tougher to find. This is when contacting department heads and or hiring professors, or even human resources of colleges and universities who host your field, would be a strategic move. Call the appropriate professors or email them. Introduce yourself and your interest areas and ask to set up an informational interview. Send your CV. It may be that your CV is held “on file” with a “pool of adjuncts.” You may need to play the waiting game, at which time, you may be called when a position becomes available. It takes strategic networking and follow up. This all takes much time and patience. Obtaining an adjunct position isn’t impossible, but it can be challenging without taking strategic steps. As a teacher educator myself, I will tell you that it can be an immensely rewarding position. There is a joy in sharing your expertise and experience with students, and/or new trainees in your field.  While I am fully aware there is a whole host of politics that accompany adjunct hiring, almost all faculty members I know, don’t stay teaching as an adjunct for the compensation (because the pay can be dismal) or for the recognition. They enjoy developing and keeping abreast of their skills, furthering themselves in a field of interest, and sharing their trained knowledge with university students.

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