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What is an Adjunct Professor?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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An adjunct professor is a part-time professor who is hired on a contractual basis rather than being given tenure and a permanent position. Many universities hire large numbers of adjunct faculty members because they are flexible and cheaper to maintain than traditional full-time faculty members. Just like regular faculty members, adjunct professors must fulfill basic educational requirements before they can teach, and many of them are very well-educated, talented people. The use of adjunct professor positions has grown in many universities in response to decreased funding, which forces these schools to make choices that are sometimes difficult. If the choice is between hiring adjunct professors and closing a program, many schools consider it better to hire adjunct professors.

Advantages for Schools

For a university, there are many advantages of hiring adjunct professors. They are viewed as temporary, so a university might hire a part-timer for a single semester to expand its course offerings or to meet student demand for a program that does not have a large enough staff. An adjunct professor does not have tenure or other rights, so a university also can easily get rid of one who does not perform to the university's standard — all the school has to do is decline to renew the adjunct professor's contract.

In addition to being essentially disposable in the eyes of many educational institutions, adjunct faculty members also are much less costly to hire. They are not entitled to benefits such as healthcare and retirement plans, and they usually are not given offices. Adjunct professors who do have office space typically have to share the space with other faculty members. Most are paid by the course unit, and their teaching loads vary from part-time to overloaded.

Advantages for Professors

From the point of view of an adjunct professor, there are certain disadvantages of this kind of work, such as a lack of job security, but there also are some benefits. The same flexibility that allows a university to easily dispose of unwanted professors allows adjunct professors to depart after a term if they are offered better work. They also do not have administrative duties, meaning that they do not need to attend faculty meetings and similar events, and most of them are not required to perform research or to publish work unless they are interested in seeking full-time work. Some people actually prefer working as adjunct faculty members because they enjoy teaching but dislike the tasks associated with tenure and full-time responsibilities.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon993835 — On Dec 19, 2015

It's important that schools hire cheap adjuncts so they can continue to afford overpriced football coaches and sports stadiums. After all, education is not why kids go to college... They go for sports!

By anon981838 — On Dec 15, 2014

I am a college student at Vincennes University in Indiana, and I know a small college doesn't treat its adjuncts any better than other places. Of the classes I've taken, the most engaging were all taught by adjuncts. I don't know whose butt the tenure track professors are kissing, but it is senseless to me that comparable skill does not receive comparable pay and benefits, no matter how "temporary" and "contractual" the arrangements.

We must correct these issues. If the United States wishes to remain competitive globally, we need future generations that are well-educated from preschool on up through college. Brilliant innovations rarely come from dulled minds.

By anon960174 — On Jul 09, 2014

If so many courses are taught by adjunct professors and there is so much discontent, why don't they go on strike to be heard?

By anon946045 — On Apr 16, 2014

If you are an adjunct you have no benefits. You get no tuition discount. "Adjunct" is not a term of prestige.

By anon940168 — On Mar 17, 2014

I've been an adjunct instructor for seven years, typically teaching four courses a semester. I have always been considered part time even though full time instructors in my field teach three courses a semester. I taught more yet had no benefits, no retirement, and made half to a third the pay of my tenured colleagues. At other institutions the pay disparity is even greater. I often hear tenured professors shrug off this difference, citing the pressures of committee work, assessment, advising, etc. But should going to meetings really make your pay triple? In fact, when 75 percent of college courses are taught by adjunct faculty, we often do the bulk of advising students (generally in an unofficial capacity), hold office hours even though we have no office, and contribute to assessment activities.

Many of us would love to have our voices included in the political process at our institutions, even if this meant attending frequent meetings because this would enable us to protect resources for our departments and help to shape policies that would benefit our students.

There is a real stigma to adjunct teaching. It is assumed that if we were any good, we would have full time positions. But how can this be the case when 75 percent of college courses are taught by "part timers"? In reality, there is often serious competition even for adjunct positions, which makes sense when you consider the instability of our employment and the extremely low pay. We cannot support our families and some of us are one step away from living on the street so we fight over the scraps.

I am in my 30s, with a more prestigious education than most of my tenured colleagues and a CV filled with professional accomplishments. But the longer I spend teaching as an adjunct, the less likely it is that I will ever have a tenure track job. Ironically, I would have had a better chance of being hired as a tenure track professor when I was a 27 year old hot shot straight out of grad school with zero teaching experience.

Recently, I moved home to care for my aging parents and I can't even get anyone to look at my CV or the glowing letters of recommendation from my previous Department Chairs. I finally pushed my foot through the door at a local community college, but I'm only teaching one course. Because it is new to me and involves a huge amount of research and preparation, I am making the equivalent of $2 an hour. After paying my student loan bill, I sometimes have to ask my parents for money just so I can have enough gas to get to work.

I never thought I'd move back in with my parents at 35, but even if I start teaching a heavy load, I'll never be able to afford to rent a studio apartment in this area. Even if I could move to a less expensive state, how would I find the resources to relocate?

I've always wanted to teach, and have approached each day in the classroom with my whole heart, years of hard won experience, and an increasingly battered sense of idealism. I love teaching. I treasure the connections I've made with my students. But I can no longer survive as an adjunct. I'm so filled with despair that I can barely make it through the day. Besides, it's hard to encourage my students to invest in their education when I would be more financially secure if I had dropped out of high school and started waitressing instead of pursuing higher education. Maybe one of my former students will put in a good word for me at Starbucks. I'm not kidding.

These are desperate times for many people in this country, but it really doesn't help to know that I'm not alone. In case anyone is reading this, I apologize for the long, ranting post. I appreciate reading the other posts. More of us need to speak up. People need to know the ugly truth of what it means to be an adjunct professor.

By anon340887 — On Jul 06, 2013

There are many things colleges can do to improve the situation for adjuncts: Pay more for higher degrees (I have a masters degree and make the same as a guy who's never been to college at all in my department); pay mileage; do not make statements that lead adjuncts to believe they will become more than adjunct by staying longer. It's a lie and it does a huge disservice to people already on the bottom rung.

By anon330227 — On Apr 15, 2013

Three-fourths of college and university faculty in the US are now adjuncts. They are grossly underpaid and overworked.

By anon323819 — On Mar 07, 2013

I am an Information Technology student at a college in Tulsa, OK. Many of our professors are adjuncts because they also work full time in the field they teach. This works out very well for the students because we are being taught by people who are dealing with current technologies and methods, instead of people who learned the stuff 20 or 30 years ago!

By anon322324 — On Feb 27, 2013

I teach at Quincy college in Quincy, Mass. For years we were treated like second class citizens, in both pay and respect. The new college president is at least addressing some of the problems, but to a number of deans we are an afterthought.

God forbid you try to survive on the pay, and of course there are no benefits whatsoever, regardless of how many years you have at the college.

The college like everywhere else is loaded with politics, and that will never change.

By anon319440 — On Feb 13, 2013

This article rather reminds me of an article written in the 1800s about how many slaves actually quite liked the arrangement. Skilled professors caught in the adjunct scam and earning less than a Wal-mart checker, do not like the arrangement.

The vast majority -- probably 99 percent -- would trade it for a tenured post in a heartbeat. If there's one thing crippling American innovation and progress today, it's the adjunct scam. Administrators and politicians are fleecing academics beyond breaking point. It is a scandal and a disgrace and don't be fooled by weasel-words that suggest otherwise.

By anon299843 — On Oct 26, 2012

A good resource for adjunct professor salaries is the Adjunct Project.

By anon280637 — On Jul 19, 2012

Once you have stopped teaching as an adjunct professor, is there any entitlement to the retention of the title?

By mtnrider — On Feb 20, 2012

Is one required to attain an 'Adjunct Instructor License' in the state in which they plan to teach before being hired on by a university?

By anon247540 — On Feb 14, 2012

Can anyone elaborate on adjunct professors compared to full time employees and the impact on the student?

My daughter is deciding on a college with an adjunct violin teacher or a full timer. She likes both colleges but I'm trying to help her make the right decision. Help?

By mroscar — On Feb 13, 2012

It sounds like you are suggesting that an adjunct professor is like a lower quality professor, did I get that right?

I have been in the teaching environment for over 20 years, both as an adjunct teacher and full time, and from what I have seen, is there is absolutely no correlation between the quality of teacher and whether they are an adjunct professor or not.

I know several adjunct teachers who are better than the majority of the tenured or full time professors but do it for less than half the pay, and that is before you factor in the difference in total compensation packages. When you include the entire compensation packages the adjuncts make in colleges that I am familiar with, they are about one third what the tenure or full time make.

How can anyone with even any common sense and morality not see this as a bad thing? How can it be good for the school, the student, the teacher or education in general to allow drastically different compensation packages for teaching the exact same thing, even the same class, even the same number of classes?

If the schools seem to think the quality of the education being taught by the adjuncts is adequate, then perhaps the pay needs to be drastically lowered on the full time, or (better fix) raise the pay package of the adjunct to be on par with their tenure and full time counterparts.

This is the white elephant in the room that nobody wants to address and believe me, it is taking a toll on education.

By anon247075 — On Feb 12, 2012

Obama was an Adjunct Professor at Harvard. First, you don't hear anybody talking about him as professor, so he had to be worse than bad; he is not even memorable. Two, you can tell it was all racial/political. It is obvious the guy is not qualified to teach at any level, especially Constitutional law, of all things. Read "Ameritopia" by Mark Levin.

By mroscar — On Feb 01, 2012

It is a big misnomer to conclude adjunct = part time. Yes, originally this is what I too thought, and yes often it is the case that adjunct teachers just teach a few classes, but I see examples where there is no part time requirement for adjunct teachers. In fact, I know of at least one case of an adjunct teacher teaching six classes in the semester (five is considered full time and is what the tenured teaching load is).

What I have seen is the only reason to largely rely on adjuncts is to get by on the cheap. Does anyone really think that there is not a tradeoff for quality here? Also, I have first-hand knowledge of the fact that some of the adjunct teachers are better teachers than some of the tenured and full time teachers, because there are lots of politics at this particular school. It is a pity this abuse is allowed to continue.

The college I have personal knowledge of also does things like getting the "better" adjunct teachers to fill the classes and then gives those classes to the tenured and full time teachers if they need a class in order to fill their five class requirement. It seems wrong to advertise a class is going to be taught by one teacher and then yank that class to give to another teacher who could not fill their classes up. It is dishonest at best and closer to fraud. By the way, I am not an adjunct teacher and don’t have any ax to grind. This is just an abuse I have seen going on for some time now and it needs to end.

By anon244374 — On Feb 01, 2012

Information is dual use technology. Students should not be taught because the information may be misused. I prefer to keep my enemies ignorant and in the dark.

By mroscar — On Aug 18, 2011

I want to thank you for the very lengthy and informative post regarding my question on adjunct professors, but I was really asking if anyone can tell me how many classes an adjunct professor can legally teach.

I see cases of what appears to be "adjunct abuse" where the adjunct teacher is given five or six classes to teach. Five classes is considered a full time load for the tenured and full time teachers. The abuse of adjunct teachers is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Not only is it morally wrong to treat and pay people drastically differently for doing the same work, but I fail to see how it is good for the students, the school, or education in general in the long run. --JJ

By anon206798 — On Aug 17, 2011

One thing this article did not mention: an advantage for adjunct professor is that it can supplement his or her current income/resule while teaching relevant material from his or her job.

For example, my university has real, experienced, and highly educated practicing lawyers and accountants that teach law and accounting classes. They give insight to how the 'real world' operates in that field. This is valuable.

By mroscar — On Oct 29, 2010

Can someone tell me how many hours or classes an adjunct teacher can have? I know of some that are teaching five classes which is considered full time and the same work load the full time/tenure teachers have.

By anon94158 — On Jul 07, 2010

Can an online adjunct professor claim such work on taxes because they work from home?

By anon88364 — On Jun 04, 2010

I hold a masters degree in electrical engineering with about eight years of industrial experience. How can I became an adjunct professor?

By anon78069 — On Apr 16, 2010

Adjunct professors do not necessarily need a phd; the institution will dictate the level of education required. I teach part-time at a community college and I have a master's in my field.

If there were other individuals capable of teaching the course with terminal degrees, I would likely not be teaching, but the resources available to teach the specialized courses I teach just aren't present in the area.

By anon50010 — On Oct 25, 2009

Does an adjunct professor need a phd?

By anon44625 — On Sep 09, 2009

Why would you think an adjunct professor has a right to be called a professor in the first place? So why talk about graduate students or child's tuition?

By anon42413 — On Aug 21, 2009

I am an adjunct professor at a local university. While my priority is to prepare the next generation for excellence, it is sad that adjunct professors are typically paid one-fourth to one-third the rate of a full-time professor on a course for course basis.

By anon31656 — On May 09, 2009

Can adjunct professors take/supervise graduate students?

By annchen1 — On Feb 08, 2009

If you hold an adjunct professorship, does your child qualify for a tuition discount?

By anon25649 — On Feb 01, 2009

There's a great forum for adjunct professors online.

Great discussion about academic life, the sad reality of teachers, and the wonders as well. I'd highly suggest you fellow teachers, instructors, adjuncts and professors check it out.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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