Getting Started as an Adjunct

September 30, 2002

Probably the most common question I get every week from readers is How do I get started in adjunct teaching? A lot of little questions follow from that big one: Is a master's degree enough to get my foot in the door? Whom should I contact? Will my "real world" experience help or hurt?

Glad you asked. The adjunct teaching market is fairly easy to crack, but it does have its own special rules, and it can be mystifying if you've never dealt with academe or if your only experience with academe is the standard full-time job market that revolves around the big annual conferences of professional associations in each specialty. So, let's talk about some specific features of the adjunct teaching job market that can help you land your first assignment.

Forget what you know about the tenure-track job market; none of it applies here. In the adjunct market, there are no formal searches or search committees. Institutions don't interview at the big association meetings to fill adjunct positions. Moreover, adjunct interviews are not conducted at any one time of the year, as are many full-time interviews.

The adjunct market functions completely at the local level, and usually even more specifically, at the department level. On a term-by-term basis, each institution or department determines how many adjuncts it needs and for what courses. Both the need for adjuncts and the pool of available talent changes from semester to semester.

What that means for you as a wannabe is that you must apply the job-hunting strategies used in the general population. Chief among these is the realization that every day is a good day to apply for an adjunct job. There's no need to wait for "the right time" to apply. Apply right now.

In general, you can work as an adjunct if you have a master's degree in the area of specialty in which you want to teach. Some institutions require a doctorate, but the vast majority will hire you with only the master's. While teaching experience is certainly a plus, it's not always a necessity. Graduate students in the humanities often use adjunct work as their on-the-job training in academic teaching. Finally, in many applied fields, such as business or information technology, an advanced degree plus "real life" work experience in that field can make you look quite attractive.

Don't forget about sending online applications to distance-learning institutions. These are the new kids on the block, so the protocol for applying for these jobs is not so established. The jury is still out on whether these types of teaching situations are worthwhile for adjuncts, but if you can't find work at brick-and-mortar institutions in your area, teaching for a distance-ed program may be worth a look.

So, how do you land that first adjunct job?

First, get your CV and a list of references together. Don't worry about impressing prospective employers with your publications, research, and committee experience. Those things will look great on your CV, but they're not why you're being hired. You need to emphasize your teaching experience and any credentials that show you know the subject matter you wish to teach. Streamline your CV to emphasize those things.

If you have an inside contact at the institution where you wish to teach, make use of that person. I got my first adjunct job through a fellow graduate student who was adjunct teaching at an area university. I told her I was interested in adjuncting, she mentioned me to the hiring administrator, I followed up with a phone call, went in for the interview, and within three days had two sections of freshman composition for the forthcoming semester. So, make a list of all possible contacts who work in institutions in your area. They may be the fast track to your first assignment.

If you have no contacts, you must do what salespeople of all stripes do every day of their lives. You must "cold call" departments.

The first question to ask: Who is in charge of hiring adjuncts for your department? Usually, one person in a department or division has been assigned the task. It may be the department head, but it's just as often not. Avoid human-resources departments if at all possible because of the likelihood that your application will get filed away or set aside or otherwise lost.

Once you know whom to contact, it's best to talk to the person "live" on the telephone, but an e-mail message is a good alternative. Say that you are interested in adjunct work in the department and would like to stop by to drop off your CV and list of references. The point is to meet the contact in person rather than sending your materials through the mail. An alternative strategy is to find out when the contact has office hours and stop by then, with your CV and reference list in hand.

In short, be assertive. Hiring administrators are overworked and underpaid, just like everyone else, and may seem unwelcoming to you. But they also need to continually renew and refresh their pool of prospective adjuncts.

If you send your materials through the mail or as an e-mail attachment, follow up a day or two later with a phone call. If the department doesn't have a slot for you now, ask when it makes adjunct assignments, and call back then. Be patient. Sometimes you have to keep reminding a department that you want to work there. Assuming you are qualified for the job, keep your name in front of hiring administrators until they either hire you or threaten to call security.

I followed this cold-call strategy for the second big adjunct gig I landed at an area university. It was nerve-racking at first, but I was assertive, cordial, and credentialed. My initial assignment turned into eight years of work at that institution. I used the same approach at a third institution, but it took several semesters to lead to anything. I called the hiring administrator at least once a semester. I reminded him of my availability when I saw him at talks or presentations. I remember he smiled and stopped me once, saying "Jill, I know you want to adjunct for us. I promise, I'll call you when we need you." He finally did.

So, this method works. You just have to talk to the right people, and keep talking to them until they hire you.

Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, writes 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