As an Adjunct, Your Eggs Should Be in More Than One Basket

December 10, 2001

Last month the University of Northern Iowa eliminated 146 of its 240 adjunct faculty positions in response to state budget cuts. (See an article from The Chronicle, November 23.) To make up the loss, full-time faculty members will have to increase their teaching loads, delay sabbaticals, and take on larger course enrollments. No one knows if any of the adjunct jobs will ever be reinstated. So, those unfortunate adjuncts are out of a job, out of earnings, and no doubt desperately looking for ways to pay their bills.

This story should strike fear in the hearts of all who make their living as adjuncts. Our jobs can simply disappear with the crisp signature of a board member or the ringing gavel of a state legislature. Granted, some scattered adjuncts across the country may have access to unions or other collective bodies by which to file grievances or collect some sort of benefits in the wake of cutbacks. The vast majority of us, however, are on our own.

Adjuncts join the ranks of other contract workers and freelancers in being vulnerable to budget cuts. Corporations, when faced with making layoffs, often choose to eliminate part-time and contract employees first before they begin cutting back the full-time force. Or, in another scenario familiar to anyone in higher education, employers phase out full-time positions in favor of increased part-time and contract positions because of the positive impact on the bottom line and the ease with which part-timers can be let go if things get bad. In either scenario, the part-time, freelance, or contract employees run the risk of losing their jobs.

Gaining some sort of union representation, severance benefits, or other such safeguards will improve substantially the plight of adjuncts. Until those things come about, however, what can adjuncts do to minimize their vulnerability?

They must diversify. That is, they must spread their teaching commitments across as many different institutions as they can so that all their income does not derive from one source. Only with proper diversification can adjuncts withstand the falling ax of budget cuts and layoffs.

To diversify is to respond in kind to the higher-education economy in which adjuncts work. If universities hire us to improve their bottom lines, then they must expect us to work with a view toward our own bottom lines. And that means taking direct steps to minimize our vulnerability within the system as it now stands. The first step is to begin thinking of our hiring institutions as clients -- not employers -- and then act accordingly.

Why "clients?" Because using this term helps us shift our thinking away from the institutional model of employment that has dominated higher education for decades. The institutional model is one in which you work for a company for a time, earn your tenure, or demonstrate your worth otherwise, and the company then takes you on permanently for the rest of your career. At your retirement, you get a party, a pension, and a watch.

Well, forget about it. Neither adjuncts nor millions of other professionals in America work under this institutional model of employment. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of Americans in recent years have left long-term corporate employment in favor of freelance consulting, contract work, or other forms of self-employment. Instead of having one employer, they have multiple clients. And the more clients they can hustle up and serve with quality and consistency, the more their businesses thrive.

Adjuncts must do the same thing. We must hustle up as many "clients" as we can in the "market" in which we live. We should teach at as many different higher-education venues as we can within a reasonable commuting distance from our homes. Just as no freelance accountant, graphic designer, or programmer would expect to make a living with just one client, adjuncts should not expect to either.

Having multiple streams of income offers its own kind of financial security. It may seem risky on the surface, but it is a time-honored model of economic health. Financial managers constantly preach diversification both within a particular type of investment (i.e., holding stock in different kinds of companies) as well as across investment types (i.e., have your money in a mix of stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.). As people approach retirement, they usually end up with several different sources of income: Social Security, company pensions, independent savings, real-estate returns, whatever. What is powerfully secure about all this is that money is coming in from a host of sources. If one runs out or has bad returns, there are others to turn to.

Adjuncts can apply this philosophy to our own situations. No one university or college has made a full-time commitment to us; therefore, we should not even think of making one to them.

In order to assemble a diverse mix of clients, you need to cultivate your "market." Each of us lives in a market -- that is, an area with potential clients or customers for what we have to offer. Those living in a small town with only one or two colleges will have great difficulty diversifying -- and even making a decent living as an adjunct -- simply because the market is just not there for an adjunct business. Small towns are not good markets for all sorts of businesses, not just adjunct teaching. Part-timers in limited markets can survive if they cultivate income streams from what I call "para-academic" work, like editing, freelance writing, research work. It's not glamorous but it can pay the bills until a better situation comes along.

Adjuncts living in or near any of the hundreds of midsize and large cities in America, however, can diversify quite easily by simply treating their area as a market and deliberately cultivating potential clients in that market.

Let's take an example: I have a friend who moved from Houston back to the Seattle area to be closer to his family while he was writing his dissertation. He had been an adjunct instructor in Houston and, after having a few brainstorming sessions with me, decided to try building an adjunct practice in Seattle. So, he started cold-calling all of the higher-education institutions in the area. He landed a few classes, and got started. He kept after the places that didn't have a spot for him the first time until eventually he got classes there, too. Within a few semesters, he had all of the income he needed for that time in his life -- enough to put him in the mid-$30s. He simply assessed his market and cultivated clients.

I did the same thing here in Houston in the early 90s. I started out teaching at the downtown campus of the city university, got my feet wet, then took that experience with me to land additional classes at a second, more suburban campus of this same university. In the meantime, I kept my name in front of the hiring administrators at the major private university here until I started landing classes on a regular basis. Finally, I took all of my teaching experience and course content and shopped it to a few continuing-education programs in town. So, as of this very semester -- fall 2001 -- I have five major, consistent sources of year-round income from adjunct teaching. I've had these same five sources for five or six years now. My class load at each one varies from semester to semester, but it evens out over the year. The main benefit of this kind of scenario -- for both me and my friend in Seattle -- is that we are not overly dependent on any one client. We are properly diversified.

Every person, every city, every situation is different. You may not be able to copy exactly my success or that of my friend's. Heck, you may do even better than either of us! My point is this: Diversify your client base to improve your financial health. Follow in the footsteps of thousands of other freelance, contract, and part-time workers in this country, and don't rely on just one client for all your income. It's just too risky. As I said in last month's column, we should take charge of the aspects of the adjunct game that we can control right now. This is one of them.

Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, is writing a monthly column for Career Network on adjunct life and work. She is author of a self-published book, How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual. Her Web site is and her e-mail address is