'Chronicle' Survey Yields a Rare Look Into Adjuncts' Work Lives

October 18, 2009

Adjunct teaching is known as the grunt work of academe: low-paying, part-time jobs filled by highly educated scholars who travel from campus to campus because they can't find full-time work in one place.

At least that's the common wisdom about part-time adjuncts, who have grown to make up about 50 percent of the professoriate nationwide. In a unique survey of 625 adjuncts in the Chicago area, The Chronicle found that some of that common wisdom is based on truth. But a lot of it is not.

For example, only a third of the people who responded to The Chronicle's survey last spring said they worked as part-time adjuncts because they couldn't find full-time jobs in academe. In fact, almost half said they preferred part-time work, some because they said it fit with the demands of their family life.

And despite the fact that 80 percent of the adjuncts who responded said part-time teaching earned them $20,000 a year or less, an overwhelming number said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.

Joe T. Berry, who worked as an adjunct for eight years in the Chicago area and is now a full-time labor-education specialist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, doesn't find it surprising that adjuncts would tell The Chronicle they are satisfied. Just because adjunct work may look like a bad job—as far as pay, benefits, status, and job security, he said—doesn't mean the people who do it aren't passionate about teaching.

"People have a pride in the job, a pride in the craft," he said. "Cognitively people also want to say, 'I like what I'm doing.' It makes it easier to get up in the morning."

How We Did the Survey 

The Chronicle's survey covers adjuncts' working conditions, their pay and benefits, and their attitudes about their jobs. We wanted to know how many classes adjuncts teach, how many campuses they work on, whether they receive subsidized health care, and how involved they are in campus activities outside the classroom. The Chronicle focused on Chicago because it is a large metropolitan area with a plentiful mix of public, private, and for-profit institutions.

Adjuncts by definition are not attached to institutions, which makes them difficult to find and to survey. Even figuring out how many adjuncts there are in a city like Chicago is nearly impossible. We sent the survey to 3,356 adjuncts whose e-mail addresses we found listed on 35 college and university Web sites. We also asked groups that represent adjuncts, like the New Faculty Majority and the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, to tell part timers about the survey. And we asked adjuncts themselves to pass it along to other adjuncts.

The 625 adjuncts who responded work at 90 institutions across the greater Chicago area. About half work at private four-year institutions, and about 40 percent said they taught at community colleges.

The survey, which was administered between April and July of this year, was not designed to yield results representative of adjuncts nationwide, and it may not reflect the views of part timers in the Chicago area who did not take it. Despite its limitations, The Chronicle's survey is valuable simply because not many of its kind exist. Mr. Berry, who is chair of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, called the results "substantial." He added: "This is a collection of data that is incomparable in a single metropolitan area."

While adjunct leaders nationwide have complained about the trend toward hiring professors off the tenure track, the Chronicle survey found that most of the adjuncts who responded would probably not be qualified for tenure-track jobs at four-year institutions. About half hold only a master's degree, and relatively few, about 25 percent, said they held Ph.D.'s—although an additional 14 percent said they held another "terminal" degree in their field. Most four-year institutions require tenure-track faculty hires to have a doctorate, although community colleges usually do not. Mr. Berry said the Chronicle data on Ph.D.'s are consistent with other surveys of adjunct instructors.

The survey also found that while adjuncts are often known as "freeway flyers," traveling from campus to campus to pick up courses, more than half of those who responded teach at only one university. Mr. Berry said those who taught at only one campus were probably also working part time outside academe. "I know people who have four business cards," he said. "One is being a part-time instructor somewhere, but they're also running a little business, teaching in corporate America, or tutoring."

We gathered responses from 625 part-time adjunct faculty members in the Chicago area about their working conditions and pay, through a survey conducted from April to July. Here are some of their answers.

What is the highest degree you have attained?
Master's 56%
Ph.D. 24%
Bachelor's 6%
Other terminal degree (e.g., M.B.A., J.D.) 14%
At how many institutions did you teach as a part-time adjunct during the 2008-9 academic year, including last summer?
1 67%
2 24%
3 6%
4 2%
5 or more 1%
Which type of class did you teach most often?
Introductory classes 33%
Courses in the major 27%
Advanced courses 21%
Remedial courses 5%
A mix of all in equal parts 11%
Did not answer 3%
Estimate your total income from your part-time adjunct teaching:
More than $20,000 18%
$15,100 to $20,000 13%
$10,100 to $15,000 16%
$6,100 to $10,000 21%
$3,100 to $6,000 16%
$3,000 or less 14%
Did not answer 2%
What is the primary reason you work as a part-time adjunct?
Prefer part-time work 32%
Cannot find full-time teaching job 30%
Already have full-time job 21%
Need part-time work to fit with demands of family life 12%
Did not answer 5%
Did the institution(s) where you taught provide you: Almost always Sometimes Never Don't know
Offices 41% 26% 32% 2%
Money for travel to conferences 6% 13% 66% 16%
Professional development and training 30% 38% 25% 7%
Support services like secretarial help 31% 34% 31% 4%
As a part-time adjunct, did you: Almost always Sometimes Never  
Help develop courses in your department 14% 31% 55%  
Serve on faculty committees 6% 17% 77%  
Attend faculty departmental meetings 15% 33% 52%  
On average, how many hours per week, per class, were you expected to spend advising students outside of class?
None 29%
Up to 2 hours 37%
Between 2 and 4 hours 16%
More than 4 hours 6%
Don't know 11%
Do you pursue your own research and writing?
Almost always 34%
Sometimes 38%
Never 28%
Considering all aspects of working as a part-time adjunct, are you:
Very satisfied 17%
Satisfied 51%
Unsatisfied 26%
Very unsatisfied 5%
Note: All questions referred to the period covered by the summer of 2008 and the 2008-9 academic year. Adjuncts were invited to take the survey only if they had worked as part-time adjuncts between June 2008 and the date they received the survey invitation this spring. Percentages are rounded and so may not add to 100 percent.
Source: Chronicle reporting