A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

The Pros And Cons Of Working As Part-Time Adjunct Faculty


It's been about six months since I started working part-time, and because I've found myself reflecting on the experience over the last couple of weeks, I figured I'd share those thoughts here on the blog.



My Current Part-Time Job


I've worked in higher education - online higher education, specifically - for a long time. I landed in this field accidentally: as a graduate student, I cut my teeth on a Blackboard-based class that nobody else wanted to teach, and opportunities snowballed for me during the online education bonanza of the early to middle aughts. I never intended for this to be my area of expertise, though, especially because there are several aspects of it that I don't particularly like or believe in. 

Going back for my PhD was an attempt to branch out and away from online education. Because I have so much experience and know all the lingo, it's also the realm where finding work has always been pretty easy. So here I am... again.

My current position entails a combination of teaching (more like coaching, as there are no live classes and all of my student interactions occur via email or phone), grading, and curriculum development and design. I work entirely from home on an hourly basis. I'm allowed to put in up to 20 hours per week (and I always, always work 20 hours, because I want that money!). Although I have two bosses, my communication with them is sporadic, and our online meetings are few and far between.


What I Like About My Part-Time Job


1. The flexibility. This is by far the biggest perk. I work when I want to work, and I set my own schedule. I have plenty of time each day to run, conduct petsitting drop-ins (not every day, but some days), read, mess around on Twitter (I'm working on not doing that as much), blog, cook, help my kid with homework, and tidy up the house. My life feels way more relaxed than when I was working full-time, and I think those benefits get passed on to my family.

2. The work itself. I'm comfortable interacting with my students, I usually enjoy reviewing their work, and I get a kick out of the curriculum design aspect of things. It requires subject matter expertise and creativity, and when I can utilize both, I really get in the zone.

3. The autonomy. Although my bosses will occasionally ask me to do something specific, they generally let me run the show with the courses I facilitate. I never feel like someone is breathing down my neck - an extremely welcome change from my previous two jobs, where my every move was recorded, analyzed, and critiqued. This being higher education, where the trend is always, ALWAYS towards micromanagement, I know my autonomy could dissolve at any time. But I'll appreciate it while I have it.

4. My immediate colleagues and supervisors are friendly, professional, and reasonable. This is a huge plus given that I had the opposite experience in previous workplaces. Even online, and even in a setting where my communication with other instructors is pretty minimal, collegiality makes a huge difference. Also, despite the negatives (see below), I feel like the higher-ups have acceptable expectations of me that reflect the limitations of what this job can offer.

In sum: as far as adjuncting goes, this is probably as good as it gets.


What Bothers Me About My Part-Time Job


At the same time, now that I'm six months in, I find myself wondering whether this position is viable over the long term. It is definitely not perfect. There are a few things that rankle me about it:

1. The pay. If I work as much as I can every week of the year, without taking any time off, I'll make a little over $20K annually (before taxes). Obviously, I can't expect to make as much as I did when I was working 40 hours a week, but given my education and expertise, the pay is low. Everyone in my position supposedly makes the same wage that I do, so I'm not sure how to approach management about a raise. It doesn't feel like the right time. Maybe at the one-year mark.

2. No benefits. To be honest, this is the part of the job that bothers me the most, both personally and in principle. It's not just that I don't get health insurance or access to a retirement account; it's that my employer actively works to ensure that I will never get those benefits. The way they do this is by dividing what could easily be full-time roles between two half-time people.

Moreover, I am officially listed as a temporary employee, meaning that my employer could let me go for any or no reason on any given day, without any repercussions. But in reality, my role and my colleagues' roles are critical: this entire program is dependent on a cadre of adjunct faculty. Without us, there would be no program at all. Without us, the organization would not be reaping the financial rewards of an online education option.

Note: If I had benefits, everything else on the "cons" list would be easier to accept. Part-time workers should receive benefits. Period.

3. People in my field don't take me seriously. They just don't. Former colleagues basically act as if I've left the discipline altogether. If you aren't a REAL professor or a REAL researcher, you are a washed-up, second-rate hack (fellow adjuncts, I know you know what I mean). Elitism runs rampant in higher education, and there's no greater evidence of this than the way in which adjuncts are treated by people who have the same level of education and experience that they do. Being kicked out of the club makes me very sad, and I try not to think about it.

4. I have to use my own computer. For multiple reasons, I disagree with this policy. If I'm doing online work for a big organization, said organization should supply me with the necessary equipment so that I'm not putting in extra miles on my own equipment. Moreover, I'd prefer to not view student information on my personal computer, as technically, my equipment could be seized if there's a work-related investigation of some sort.

5. No advancement opportunities. I suppose I could apply for my boss's role if she quits. But it's more of a management role than an instructional or designer role, and I'm not sure I want that. Instead, what I'd really like is the option to move into a full-time instructor role, which doesn't exist.

6. I get bored. While I don't want to work 50-60 hours a week as I did in my last job, and while I appreciate the flexibility, I think I'd be more satisfied with my work if it required more like 30 hours a week (I had the opportunity to put in extra time last fall and found that six hours a day was ideal) and if I had some real options for professional development. 

7. I have way, way more to give. This is something I thought about a lot last week. I could be doing so much more with the knowledge and experience that I have. Instead, I often feel that they're going to waste. I just don't know how to make that happen without ending up too far on the other end of the spectrum and overworking myself. That balance is so elusive. Although I look at the job boards on a daily basis, I haven't seen anything locally or online that fits the bill (but I'll continue to look!)

As I write this, I realize that I am probably not alone. I know there are other people out there in similar situations, especially people with PhDs who now find themselves in less-than-ideal adjunct roles.

I'd love to know what you think:

Have you ever worked part-time? What was that experience like?

And if you're working as an adjunct or part-time instructor in higher education, how do you handle the low pay and lack of growth opportunities?

Please note: Before giving off-the-cuff advice, please consider that most people don't really need advice when they're just sharing an experience (sorry, guys, I'm burned out on unsolicited advice). Yes, I have talked to my supervisors about benefits. Yes, I asked about a computer. Yes, I keep an eye on the job boards. No, I cannot just waltz in and demand more money, as pretty much anyone who's been in this position will understand. Yes, I am grateful for what I have. No, I will not be writing a gratitude list. Thanks!
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22 comments:

  1. I love this post as I have similar "dillemas" in my job. I really appreciate the flexibility and autonomy but I get no benefits and don't get paid a lot- especially for someone with my education. But it works for me now so I decided to prioritize the flexibility over everything else

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    1. Thank you for sharing your current experience! That's where I'm at, too. The pay and the lack of benefits bother me, BUT the flexibility is glorious right now. I think I'm just going to roll with it this year and then see if I feel like ramping up again in 2021.

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  2. So much of this resonates with me. One reason I’m to get into a masters this year/ take on a few more freelance clients is boredom and knowing I have more to give.

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    1. That's so exciting. Congratulations on working towards your masters!

      I do keep asking myself if I'd like to pursue an additional credential or (gulp) degree. Like, if I could go back and do it over again, I'd probably pursue a finance-related degree. But at this point, I'm not sure I want to invest the time or money.

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  3. I love your list of "what not to say in the comments" at the end of your post. I can imagine the internet trolls saying/doing every one of those things.

    I feel like the States needs to pass legislation mandating that employers 1) pay benefits or 2) pay an income supplement equivalent to benefits for part-time employees. It's ridiculous how much organizations are able to profit off of their employees. Of course, that would be socialism, so it will never happen....

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    1. I just can't handle any advice in this area because I've truly thought of every option, every angle. So I had to have that footnote!

      The health benefits thing is truly crushing, even for a healthy person. Sometimes it feels hopeless.

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  4. I 100% identify with several of the issues in your post. I also work in higher education, though not in teaching. I recently left my freelance/consulting business (almost four years in that role) to work a full-time job again (started in the fall), in part because of some of the issues you identify as being important: boredom, being able to offer more, and benefits. But, work culture being what it is (toxic or at least a little crazy, in my opinion), it definitely feels like a "between a rock and a hard place" sort of situation. I look forward to reading more on your blog because it appears we might have a fair amount in common.

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    1. Thank you so much! I appreciate that. Yes, it truly is a "between a rock and a hard place" situation. I have mental health issues, so although I haven't ruled out returning to FT work, it would have to be a nearly ideal situation. I can't go back to a toxic workplace... and as you said, so many workplaces are exactly that.

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  5. Hi 76K!!

    Yeah- although primarily with the federal government, I interact with universities a lot and got to watch how the adjunct roles have expanded over the past decade. I can definitely relate to what you said about adjuncts being secondary citizens.

    I often describe academia is a feudal system. You have the Lord (professors), their vassals (post docs) and their serfs (graduate students). Adjuncts are like the merchant class or something. They don't really fit in and are shunned.

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    1. Hi GovWorker! *waves enthusiastically* It really is an antiquated system. I sympathize with professors because I know many of them are feeling the crunch, too, but the system desperately needs an overhaul so that the serfs and merchant class :-) can maintain some semblance of life stability.

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  6. Adjunct life is tough. The lack of benefits is the worst part, as you identify.

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    1. Thank you, Diana! Yes, it really sucks. And the thing is, I really do think my organization can afford to offer its PT and adjunct workers health benefits. The HDHP plan is pretty inexpensive.

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  7. Yeah, I love the flexibility, but the pay is fairly low. Although, UH paid their adjuncts $10k/semester which would be amazing! I only get $6k/semester for my class. So even less than your $20k. Oh, what I'd give for $20k/yr (picture Eric Idle chained to the wall of a dungeon, wishing for different torture methods�� or you don't get it and are thinking wtf?) However, I keep getting emails about signing up for Fidelity retirement, and while I won't do that, it's nice to have an option for that as part time. I do get a lot of perks as faculty at a mega University too. Discount to use the pool, exercise stuff and all that is maybe $15/mo. Then all the other classes and trainings they have to offer and research availabilities, now that I can access those journals again.

    Sorry to ramble. �� This is my first semester and I'll probably check out the pay for OCC adjuncts and may apply there before next semester but the pros definitely have some big cons attached. Oh, and as far as elitism. Well, I'm just a lowly Master's degree having instructor, so I'm even more of a leprosied person invading the ivory tower of academia. ������ Oh and the sh!t that got stirred when my director asked of my title was professor... ����‍♂️ His quote,"You're right! They do take titles seriously! I got read the riot act too..."����‍♂️������ I'm an instructor. Never to be confused with professor. Never... Not even once. ����‍♂️ Oh, academia... ����‍♂️

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    1. $6K/semester if it is one class isn't bad - though you deserve every cent, bc teaching in person takes tons of energy and time and effort and patience. I'm sure you're great at it.

      So stupid re: the professor thing. To the students, you are very much a professor!

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  8. Hi, friend. As you know, Mrs. Done by Forty is also a PhD who didn't go the tenure track road and, yeah, a lot of the comments about elitism rang loud and true for me. Academia is certainly one of the most fiercely guarded elite circles around. Neither Mrs. Done by Forty or I can really stomach that sort of elitism: it's gross.

    I find myself liking a lot of the same things about my current job. Work from home, lots of autonomy...but it similarly is not particularly challenging, other than the overwhelming amounts of work & stress. I should say, it's challenging...but not particularly fulfilling a lot of the time.

    I'll end by just saying the way that institutions treats adjunct & associate faculty is a stain on higher ed. (As a former staff member at a university, I'd say staff suffer a lot of the same exclusion/elitism as adjuncts, too.) They don't value their people as they should.

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    1. That sounds like my previous job - not the editing one, but the one before that. It was boring (So. Fucking. Boring.) and pretty easy, but it was also incredibly stressful because all of the higher ups were OBSESSED with numbers and badgered us about them on a daily basis. Weird combination.

      I am so sorry it's been stressful for you, and I am super excited for the day when you can give them the big old one-finger salute and walk out the door.

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  10. Whenever I fight for more money for myself or my team, I think of you and get mad that you've not had a better experience with that.

    I'm glad for the life improvements this job has brought you but I hope that it's a step on your way to a job that keeps the pros AND adds benefits and provides working equipment and pays better.

    I have dear friends who came from the adjunct life and it just seems like an incredibly crappy abuse-rife arena. They have got to do better.

    I have dreams of going part time (or just quitting and streaming dog movies forever) but I haven't figured out how I would want that to look or feel or even if it's something I could accept considering how hard up we'd be if I cut my salary now.

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    1. Thanks, Revanche! Will you be my boss? LOL.

      I do look for other job opportunities, but right now, there's not much out there (that might change over the summer). It would have to be a VERY good fit. I want more money, but mentally and emotionally, I can't afford to ditch this job for another shitty job. It would wreck me. But yeah... this is a frustrating situation.

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  11. I am an attorney, not in academia at all. When I was in law school I was a TA for Legal Writing, a job they give to 4-5 high performing second and third year law students. It paid a couple of thousand dollars, which was great at that time given the small time commitment (also - this was late 90's and my tuition was about $3,000 per semester so this paid almost half of it). When I left law school I looked into being a legal writing instructor as I've always felt drawn to education (originally planned to go into elementary education) and I enjoyed being a TA. I knew a lot of professionals did this at local law schools as a part-time gig. This was early/mid 2000's. You know what they paid their writing instructors (adjunct faculty)? It was $1,400 per semester, per class, at that time. A complete joke. I can tell you I had new respect for those instructors at my school, who I now viewed as performing a volunteer service. My brother with a PhD just signed up to teach 2 online classes in health policy while he runs a non-profit (after a 30 year career in health care administration). I'll be interested to see what he thinks of it. I warned him about my insights into the law school instructors years ago when he said he might teach after he got his PhD. Thank you for sharing this information. I don't think students or parents have any idea how low paying these jobs are. My high school son works part-time at a retail store and if he worked 20 hours a week he'd be making close to what you are making. He's a high school kid!!! He folds shirts and helps people find shoes. That's absolutely ridiculous.

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    1. I really appreciate hearing other people's experiences with similar jobs/issues, so thanks for sharing this. Yup - $1400/class in the mid 2000s sounds verrrrrry familiar. LOL. Some schools do pay much more, but some are so cheap, it's gross.

      The problem with a lot of these teaching gigs not just the low pay, but rather the low pay + ridiculous time commitment + micromanagement. Been there, done that, not doing it again. At least at my current job, the time commitment feels okay and nobody micromanages me. And I do feel like I'm helping students, which I enjoy.

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  12. We pay $10K/class for adjuncts, but we need people that the university will approve to teach specialized subjects. We get a lot of people who teach a class in addition to their full-time job. We also have full-time lecturers who don't have tenure but do have some job security and benefits. Some of these are also full-time on top of another job.

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