Why do people become adjuncts?

May 11 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I don't know all the reasons, because I don't know all the adjuncts. But I know some.

Let's be clear about whom we are speaking. We are not talking about practicing professionals: doctors, dentists, lawyers, businessmen who come back and do some teaching, of various time commitments. Such folk have a variety of reasons for doing this, some reasons are even altruistic. But none of the reasons is money. These are the folks who make real money at their day jobs.

What we're talking about the ABD's, the recent grads, the young people who work for something like $3-4K per class, and given their hours, they make less than minimum wage.Indeed, most of the these folks would jump at a TT job. Most of these folks have been trying to get a TT job, and send out reams of applications, while trying to publish just one or two more papers. And, yes, an adjunct position is definitely a second-best option for the people I know.

So. A comment said that adjuncts are paid in a false coin: the promise of it being a stepping stone to a "real" job.

I disagree. There may be hand-waving and vague comments in that direction, but nothing substantial. Nothing that smacks of "promise".

Many of the people in adjunct positions that I knew/know, both IRL and in the blogosphere, have other considerations that prompted them to take an adjunct position: family issues (spouse, children, parents) that keep them from being able to take a job in the hinterland, a commitment to living in a Certain Place. Some I've known are married, with kids, and struggling to finish a PhD with no support, and need/think they need a job. Of course, people who can afford to stay in a postdoc position, often do. It certainly pays better than adjuncting.  And I have seem a few, by and large single, white, male, footloose and fancy-free, who can't find anything else, and are willing to try to stick it out in the system for a bit longer to see if they can get a job.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I think there are two things operating here, the first of which is choice. No one is holding a gun to anyone's head and saying "I will blow your brains out if you do not take this adjunct job". There is lots of information around about alternatives, columns in SCIENCE, and internet resources that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago. There is more than one choice being made here.  Choices that say: I don't want to move, I've commitments to this geographic area. Choices that say: I do want a SLAC, I don't want a SLAC, I want Ivy League, MRU, or I want to be in A Big City.

Some of these considerations are not frivolous, and they are valid life choices to make. We each decide what is important to us, and frequently our decisions look irrational or stupid to someone else who has made different decisions.  I'm not saying that its right, let alone a good thing, to make people balance two careers, to make people choose to be near family or take a job somewhere else or to ask a person of color, a LBGT person to move to place that is blatantly hostile to who they are, just because that is the only job there is for them. I also know that a choice to stay where one's spouse has a good job is a very different thing than the dilemma of a  POC or LBGT have to make. My point is only that there is some choice operating here, and no one takes an adjunct position without being aware of those choices.

The other operational consideration here, one more time, is too many mouths at the trough. If you are a faculty member, and over your lifetime, let alone right now in your lab, you've trained more than 1-2 PhD's who go into research, you are not part of the solution. This is true even if you are the Most Important BSD doing research to cure cancer, make disable children walk, or solve Global Climate Change. The reason there are not enough jobs, not enough grants, is because more people want these things than are available. Even if grant money flowed more easily, more frequently, and in higher aliquots, the positions available would be soft-money ones, that depended on continual funding, and not tenure track. It would be a marginal improvement, in terms of salary, but not in terms of security and future. Universities are not about the expand the number of TT positions.

So we've got adjuncts. Make sure your trainees know the score. Make sure the trainees in your department know the score.

19 responses so far

  • Cerastes says:

    I think the "promise of a real job" comment has a valid point, just phrased badly. Adjuncts have invested huge amounts of time and effort on the academic career track, but that career track "looks down on" those who take non-academic jobs (unless it's some special industry-academic partnership thingy). So part of the "compensation" for an adjunct is getting the opportunity to take a few more runs at the job market after (hopefully) bulking up their CV. And in a sense, this isn't inaccurate; the adjust position does fulfill that promise of "getting to stay on the academic track". But because of the "mouths at the trough" problem, that promise translates into a large labor pool which allows employers to offer terrible wages.

    "Promise of a real job" might be better phrased as "potential for a real job" - the adjunct gets to stay in academia (presumably advantageous) and take a few more whacks at the TT job piniata, versus leaving academia and being consequently disadvantaged (possibly very much so) in all TT job applications to the point it's a virtual impossibility.

    Of course, the disadvantage is based on my subjective perceptions. Is there good, real data about how your odds of getting a TT job decline if you become an adjunct versus another postdoc versus a stint in industry?

    • potnia theron says:

      I haven't seen the stats, but maybe some enterprising reader will enlighten us.

    • Rheophile says:

      In fact, I didn't say "promise of a real job" but "the perception that this is a stepping stone to a faculty position." But maybe the "stay in academia" part is a better framework.

      All of the choices that Potnia mentions are completely valid and important - not everyone can move across the country for work, nor should they have to. But I think those of us who have succeeded in the academic system should acknowledge that our culture promotes the idea that leaving on any terms is failure. And, because of this culture, we get away with paying adjuncts and postdocs far less than they could command outside academia. Part of the way this system works is to promote the idea that with "one more year" you gain a better chance - when this is often not true. This is why I said "false tender."

      Caveat: probably there are adjuncts and postdocs who are fully aware of the job market outside of academia, have worked in industry, but choose to sacrifice earning because they enjoy academia or its flexibility more. Great! But... I have to say that all the people I know who worked in industry prior to coming to grad school hopped off the permadoc/adjunct treadmill pretty quickly. That's part of why I suspect academic culture plays a large role in filling PD/adjunct positions.

      • potnia theron says:

        I do take exception to the phrase "nor should they have to." No body "has to" do anything. But, if you are not willing to go where the job is, you may not get one. Really, no one owes anyone a job.

  • L Kiswa says:

    Great post, agree on all counts.
    A challenge for jr faculty is balancing the "too many mouths at the trough" problem with expectations for advancement set by our chairs/deans. Many of us are expected to have graduated a PhD student by tenure, and are constantly reminded that ranking of our department's graduate program is measured, in part, by number of PhD graduates. So as we advance, there remains pressure to train PhDs, rather than, for instance, working with postdocs.

  • qaz says:

    Do not underestimate the differences in what these people hear as compared to what was said. "It is possible that one could transition from an adjunct to a real TT job" may mean "we'd never do it, but it's not impossible" but may be heard as "If you do well, we'll move you over." Promises are not contracts. The administrators who hire adjuncts are very good at those empty promises that sound better than they are.

    But actually, all of these problems are going to go away soon. Much of the problem with the academic pipeline has been demographics. In the 1960s and 1970s, the baby boom filled every academic job (and lo! NIH grants were given to young "exciting" faculty). Since then, the average age of NIH grants has been rising (I wonder why that could be), and only the very absolute best (and luckiest, with all the right markings) of graduates slipped into faculty jobs, leaving the rest to put up with adjunct appointments because there weren't better options that they wanted. (Yes, they could have done something else. But that's true of any job that doesn't pay well. ) However, those baby boomers are about to retire. Look at any academic department and there is a bimodality with a gap in the lost generation (GenX). I estimate that between a third and a half of the academic workforce will be retiring in the next decade. It is going to be up to those of us who survived the famine to repopulate the tenure track faculty world. We're already seeing a massive uptick in faculty job offers available and former students taking tenure-track faculty jobs in my field.

    • becca says:

      qaz, no. We've seen the argument based on demographics come and go over the decades. It's always wrong.
      By and large, universities will replace research jobs with soft-money contingent "research professor" track jobs and teaching jobs with adjuncts. Forever. It's not like the number of full time tenure track research professors are a Fact of Nature. It's not even like the specific amount are What The Market Demands. Instead, they are a relic of an earlier era, when jobs in general were better. Because of tenure, the crapification of jobs in academia is slower than many other middle class high-labor-cost sectors of the economy, but Baumol's cost disease is ruthless and the robots are coming for the grading jobs anyway.

      The problem isn't that some people take adjunct jobs. The problem is that universities will never offer anything else again now that they've discovered how much cheaper they are.

      • qaz says:

        why would you say it is always wrong? the demographic data is absolutely clear. no one should have expected it to burst until about now.

        in my field, my university has 22 open positions (all tenure track) to fill over the next 3 years and most of the other R1 research universities have between 1 and 6 open positions this year. Our graduates are getting faculty jobs right and left. This is similar in many similar departments. In my field, adjuncts are dead because no one will take them. We'll have to see what happens with soft-money positions, but all of the open positions that I've seen advertised have been hard-money positions.

        Yes, it is certainly true that it is about what the market will bear. But that has always been true. (Computer science jobs, for example, flow against the dot com booms.) it is true that it has always been hard to make a living in some fields (such as the humanities), but in the sciences, particularly biological ones, where there is funding, the tenure track jobs are starting (finally) to re-open up.

        • potnia theron says:

          You're both right. And different schools (medicine vs. A&S) will respond differently, and different tiers/quartiles/levels (Ivy League vs. 3rd level state college) will too. All schools are under a financial crunch. All universities are *always* in a tight situation. There will be different strategies (cheap adjuncts vs. investing in folks that can bring in external funding and IC/overhead).

          As for the demographic data, I've started a post on that, but trying to find data. Yes, the boomers will retire, especially the leading edge who got jobs when NSF & NIH were busy starting to fund, and Universities grew greatly. But keep in mind that the middle of the boomers are 62 right now (that's me). A good third or more are under 60. They are not going anywhere for at least 5 years, if not 10. It may be enough to help Millenials & Gen Z, but I fear we have lost a significant chunk of GenX.

          • qaz says:

            Yes. (And of course there are a lot of data on the loss of the public funding for higher education, which is tightening budgets and increasing tuition.)

            The best data on demographics that I know is that video on NIH R01 distribution. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL_J-Yl55K0
            That's med-school only, but I suspect other fields are similar. It also ends in 2010 (which is now 7 years ago). I don't know if there's an updated version.

            One point about retirement is that we don't want the entire baby boom to retire. All that would do is to thrust the survivors of the GenX famine into a massive hell of administration. We've already lost that GenX generation. We're not getting it back. The best would be for the baby boom to start retiring slowly to let the GenY/GenZ generations in slowly (restoring us to a more regular pipeline). In my field, that is what seems to be happening.

            PS. If you haven't seen it, take a look at the new GSI proposal from NIH (https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2017/05/02/nih-grant-support-index/), which seems designed to attack those GenX labs just reaching large-lab senior stages.

          • potnia theron says:

            Thanks for the links. I've seen the proposal, and been thinking. My first response is up today (in response to one comment about getting rid of K-awards).

        • becca says:

          "so many open positions"
          "adjuncts are dead because nobody will take them"

          Do you not see you are undermining your own point?

          If the labor supply is *actually* in high demand, wages will rise and artificial barriers to entry will get broken down.

          I'm sure your institution, and your field, might be having a hotter job market than a few years ago. We did just undergo the greatest economic catastrophe since the great depression, it'd be wretched if it *wasn't* getting better.
          But that is not the same as "there are lots of jobs opening up". Relative to supply of PhDs, there are few jobs, and the pickiness about anyone who has the taint of adjuncting is much better evidence of that than the number of positions listed.

          Ultimately, there is also the demographic reality that we probably won't see student populations rise as fast as they did during the period Millennials were educated. The generation after Millennnials is smaller, and so there's going to be less need for teaching once the baby boomers finally die (I have given up with the notion they will ever retire slowly and gracefully). If we educate more people that may mitigate it somewhat, but there is no plausible analysis that rests on the assumption one Boomer leaving a good job leaves one good job vacancy.

  • […] So here is a list of most of the K-awards. Go through the kiosk and look at the K-awards. Some are for "scientists" but most are for clinicians. Keep in mind not all IC's sponsor/accept/give out awards for all of these mechanisms. The K-awards that exist for experienced post-docs, but not TT, don't have a lot of money. But they are a damn good alternative to being an adjunct. […]

  • Ola says:

    I think you're wrong on the assumption that being able to do a 2nd or 3rd post-doc' is an option that's commonly available, even for a small number of people. It doesn't really matter what the PDF themself may want, they need to think about this from the PI perspective, because we're not running a fucking charity here. There are a number of problems...

    First, thanks to the FLSA, ever-increasing NRSA stipend levels, and better benefits (all of which are good things) post-doc's aren't cheap any more. Hiring a PDF with 4 or 5 years behind them is going to be $75k/yr off a grant (including the fringe). The person had better be dynamite in the lab to justify that cost.

    Second, a lot of institutions are now placing upper limiis on total post-doc' time (here at my MRU it's 5 years). So if you're a PI hiring such a person for their 2nd gig, it'd better be a candidate with a clear path to bringing home the bacon (e.g. K99), because you're going to have to promote them to RAP or another grant-eligible junior faculty position after a year or so (and that raises the personnel cost to ~$100k, soft money).

    Third, there are a lot of reasons people look for a 2nd or 3rd post-doc, but having "failed" at an earlier one is a big reason I see. And let's be clear - by failed I mean not published enough. Yeah yeah, reasons schmeasons, (crappy PI, competition in lab, got scooped, old PI's grant ran out). Did you write a review article while you were waiting for the project yield data? Did you have 2-3 side projects running in the lab' so you had a fallback if one didn't work? Either way, if you're looking for a 2nd post-doc' and you didn't do much in the old position, it's not a good sign to anyone hiring.

    As a PI, I have absolutely no interest in hiring someone as a 4th year PDF, who published maybe 1 paper since graduating, and only wants a position so they can hang out and have a salary while they get their adjuncting shit together. If they're a millenial snowflake and haven't yet decided what they want out of life, just get out of my email already! My key question is "what can this person do for me?" If someone has a VERY specific skill set that we need, and has the tools to move to the next level (#1 = ability to write independently), then maybe it can work.

    So yeah, don't assume there are reams of PI's out there with spare money for you to extend your PDF timeline while you disappear 1 day a week to figure out how to land a teaching career at a nearby SLAC. First fgure out what your bringing to the table in a 2nd post-doc, and build from there.

  • PaleoGould says:

    I think this is all correct, but there's another post 2008 specific factor worth bearing in mind (which heavily affected someone very close to me when they graduated college). After the recession, with limited jobs and limited money, employers became very reluctant to hire anyone without degrees and experience directly relevant to the work. Thus one reason people with PhDs became adjuncts is, quite simply, that getting any other job (so one outside their area of expertise) was highly unlikely. As the economy grows and job creation restarts (albeit slowly), we will hopefully see PhDs get out of adjuncting hell faster, which may make it harder for universities to find adjuncts, which may in turn help universities create better teaching positions.
    Because the other thing to bear in mind particularly when you talk to young grad students: more and more of them are making the decision to opt out of academia before their PhD is done. So they're not even going to give those adjunct jobs a look.

  • anon says:

    choices? Are you kidding? I am willing to move anywhere, and take any university job. I adjunct because I am trying to stay in academia and I can't always get a position. The job market is awful and there's little other opportunity in my field.

  • anon says:

    At my R1 there are adjuncts making more than TT people. With labs, personnel, R01s, etc.
    Minimal teaching requirements. Adjunct means different things to different places or even different detps. at the same place. Not sure about transition rates to TT or other titles - I have not seen many but this means nothing.

    • potnia theron says:

      Yes, adjuncts in med school departments, and even chemistry dept, can be professionals who are spending time/energy/effort to work in academia. They are not the classic humanities adjunct teaching for $2-3K per class. I think the figures on the number of adjuncts is inflated by the professional ones, who are not interested in a TT job.

  • M says:

    Very few, if any, of my grad students (or the grad students in our department) are planning to stay in academia. Most want to go into industry. Some government labs (we are a big DOD group). Some start ups or other entrepreneurial ventures. Some want to go back to their home country. From my experience so far, PhDs in this field (Physics - specifically, experimental Physics), at least coming out of our group, are highly employable.

    So the "too many mouths" thing is not generally applicable (though unfortunately it's probably more applicable than not). However, I do think that it is important that grad students know what they are in for. If one of my students even hints at being interested in academia, I tell them that they had better get their s*** together because it's going to be a hard road.

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