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Adjunct Faculty: Highly Educated, Working Hard for Society, and Struggling To Survive

By Gretchen M. Reevy, PhD (Lecturer, Psychology Department, California State University, East Bay)

When we think of people who live below the poverty line in the U.S., we often picture individuals who lack adequate medical care, who are homeless, who are unable to provide nutritious food for themselves and their families, and if young, people who are unable to prepare for their old age. Would you put college teachers in this category? A fact that may surprise you is that many college teachers earn very low incomes and some are even among the poverty-stricken in the United States.

These individuals possess Master’s degrees and PhD’s and are doing professional work. I am referring to non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty. These include adjunct professors, lecturers, post-docs, and others. The impoverishment of NTT faculty is an unknown and unexplored issue.

In the United States today, 76% of faculty in higher education are hired off the tenure track (AAUP, 2014). However, if you are an NTT faculty member, that nearly always means you are hired on a contingent basis. This means that each class you were hired for may be cancelled at the very last minute, due to insufficient enrollment, budgetary issues with the university, or other reasons.

According to Adjunct Action (2014), adjunct professors in the United States make $3,000 per 3-unit course, on average. Let’s say that as an adjunct faculty member you teach four courses per semester for two semesters. You supplement this income by teaching three additional courses during summer session. This translates to $33,000 per year.

In order to survive, NTT faculty take on workloads that make it nearly impossible for them to develop their careers. It is difficult to spend less than 10 hours per week teaching a class (including face time, preparation, grading, emails with students, etc.). An NTT faculty member may spend 15 or more hours per class per week if they are an experienced instructor (and even more if they are inexperienced). Therefore, I estimate that teaching four courses means working 40 to 60 or more hours per week for NTT faculty. This leaves little or no time to supplement what is, for most, an already inadequate income.

The shaky financial situation NTT faculty face is even worse when you take into account that they are typically saddled with student loan debt, often from both their undergraduate and graduate educations. NTT positions also rarely include the possibility for promotion or for enhanced job security over time. While adjunct positions are often the only professional work available to many qualified candidates emerging from graduate school, many can tell you that experience as an adjunct effectively labels you as “sub-par” and severely reduces your odds of obtaining a full time or tenure-track position.

The NTT faculty member making $33,000 per year would actually be among the relatively lucky. Many NTT faculty teach only one to two classes a semester because their institution limits the number of classes that part-time faculty may teach. They have to work their way up to a full-time load, which can take over two years or more. I just heard from an adjunct who has been teaching four courses a semester at $2,000 per course, and he is rarely allowed to teach in summer. He makes $16,000 a year.

The NTT faculty problem is too large for us to ignore. In the United States there are now at least 1.4 million NTT faculty (Curtis, 2014). It is certainly not the case that all of these faculty are impoverished or nearly impoverished; some are fortunate enough to work for universities that pay them relatively well and some have spouses or partners who make more money than NTT faculty do. However, the number of people affected by the impoverishment of NTT faculty also extends to their families (many NTT faculty are single parents).

If we work to help these faculty, we will aid a large number of Americans and we will be “doing the right thing.” My position is that most of the NTT faculty positions should not exist in their current form. Many aspects of the positions are simply immoral (in my view), in particular:

  1. the exceptionally low pay,

  2. lack of access to health insurance,

  3. contingent nature of the employment, and

  4. lack of opportunity for advancement.

The administrations of many universities argue that they can no longer afford to hire most faculty into secure positions and pay professional salaries. However, the AAUP (2014) counters that the decline in secure positions and salaries for NTT faculty is not economically necessary. In the last few decades universities have prioritized investing in facilities, technology, and other segments of the university over investing in faculty.

What can we do to help NTT faculty?

  1. Educate ourselves about NTT faculty and their working conditions. The best places to start are the New Faculty Majority, the American Association of University Professors, and the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, which has produced an excellent report on working conditions of part-time faculty.

  2. Researchers can study psychological effects of the working conditions of NTT faculty. My colleague, Grace Deason and I recently published an article on correlates of contingency. We found that several demographic and psychological factors were associated with elevated rates of depression, stress, and anxiety. Appropriate to the current discussion, one of these factors is low family income. Another is the NTT faculty member’s emotional commitment to his or her university. The more committed faculty suffer higher rates of depression, stress, and anxiety. Grace and I found that, at the time of publication of our article, no one else had studied the psychological effects of contingent appointments on faculty (to our knowledge).

  3. Encourage our professional organizations to join the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW). The CAW is a group of disciplinary associations and faculty associations whose mission is to improve faculty working conditions (particularly for part-time faculty) and thereby improve higher education for our students. The leading professional associations for many academic professions are members (e.g., history, philosophy, modern languages); many other professional associations are glaringly absent from the list of members.

  4. Speak out publicly and put pressure on universities to alter their practices.

To conclude, I ask you—

  1. What does it tell us about our society that many of the faculty educating our future professionals are themselves barred, perhaps for the duration of their careers, from the security provided by a normal academic salary?

  2. And what does it say about the future of research when so many adjuncts receive neither the resources nor the time to do research, instead teaching full time just to survive?

NTT faculty make enormous contributions to our society. They deserve reasonable working conditions and pay that is commensurate with their education, experience, and other qualifications.


Adjunct Action. (2014). The high cost of adjunct living: St. Louis. Available online at: http://adjunctaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/18851-White-paper-st-louis-FINAL_E.pdf (Retrieved September 2, 2014).

American Association of University Professors (AAUP). (2014). Background Facts on Contingent Faculty. Available online at: http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts (Retrieved September 3, 2014).

Curtis, J. (2014). The Employment Status of Instructional Staff Members in Higher Education, Fall 2011. Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors.


Thank you to Kent Goshorn, who provided extensive feedback on this essay.


Gretchen M. Reevy received her BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her PhD in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1994 she has taught in the Department of Psychology at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) as a lecturer, specializing in personality, stress and coping, psychological assessment, and history of psychology courses. With Alan Monat and Richard S. Lazarus, she co-edited the Praeger Handbook on Stress and Coping (Praeger, 2007). She is also author of the Encyclopedia of Emotion (ABC-CLIO, 2010), with co-authors (and CSUEB alumnae) Yvette Malamud Ozer and Yuri Ito. With Erica Frydenberg, she co-edited Personality, Stress, and Coping: Implications for Education (IAP, 2011). Her research areas are in personality, stress and coping, psychological experiences of contingent faculty, emotion, college achievement, and the human-animal bond. Dr. Reevy publishes with CSUEB students, CSUEB alumni, and faculty colleagues in these research areas.

Image credit:

The above image is of a protester during National Adjunct Walkout Day on February 25, 2015. Permission to use the photo has been secured from the individual pictured.

#workrelatedstress #careeradvancement #adjunctfaculty #socioeconomicstatus #payequity #nontenuretrackfaculty #poverty

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