Adjuncting ruins lives

The recent kerfuffle in the blogosphere about advice for adjuncts, plus my own recent observations of friends’ lives, really got me thinking about my own experiences. I have done my time as an adjunct, and I remember it as a very dark period in my life. Unless you’re one of those happy adjuncts who enjoys the job, is treated well, and has financial stability, adjuncting can ruin your life. We are told that it can benefit our careers – and sure, it can be a good way to get some teaching experience. But in many cases, especially if you end up doing it for a long time, I think it can harm more than it helps.

At my graduate institution, being a graduate assistant or a teaching assistant wasn’t a common option. However, the university relied extremely heavily on adjunct labor, and was more than happy to hire grad students as adjuncts to teach classes. I taught my first class in 1999, and taught between one and five classes every fall, spring and summer after that up through spring 2006 (except for when I was doing fieldwork). I was usually paid around $2400 per class per semester, with no benefits. I taught at 4 different campuses. Almost every semester, at least one institution screwed up my paperwork and failed to pay me on time, and somehow tried to make it look like my fault.

I finished my Ph.D. in 2005 and had no idea what I was going to do next. I lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and my student loan grace period was going to end soon. I taught even more classes while I applied for tenure-track jobs, community college jobs, visiting assistant professor jobs, postdocs, government research jobs, you name it. [My former field is not one that has much postdoc funding, and many people don’t do postdocs in that field.] I finally did get a postdoc and moved to the Midwest, where I stayed until I got my current position.

The one thing I remember most about that stressful year was the awful, angry desperation. I was being treated very poorly. I had few options. I had no guidance (my graduate advisor was on the verge of retirement and had never done much in the way of advising me). I was falling deeper and deeper into debt, and I was tired of having to rely on financial assistance from my mother-in-law. I spent several hours a day on public transportation, traveling between my many adjuncting gigs. I wanted security, and to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to not have to worry about how I would pay my bills. I felt like I was being led on, strung along with comments from faculty that I was a great teacher and maybe a position would open up for me, and then being shot down, over and over.  I was tired all of the time – from the work, from the worry, from the noise that kept me up at night in our not-very-nice neighborhood. It was one of the worst periods of my life.

My more recent job search was also stressful, but at least I knew I could stay in my postdoc for a few more years if I needed to. I knew I could pay my bills. And I liked where I lived. I didn’t have the security and legitimacy that comes with getting a job, and I wanted it badly. But honestly, the stress of that period doesn’t even come close to the year after I finished grad school.

Recently, I met up with some friends from graduate school who are either close to finishing or have recently finished their degrees. These people are accomplished scholars, good teachers, and fun to be around – they are exactly the kind of people you would expect to succeed. But because of the terrible job market and decreasing funding availability, they don’t have a clear plan for what happens next, and they are adjuncting. I see that angry desperation in their eyes and it saddens me. I see it also in the comments on the job search wiki, on blogs, on friend’s Facebook statuses. The angry desperation affects how you approach everything in your life. It can ruin personal relationships, your perspective about what you want out of life, your ability to function as a scholar, and even (I hate to say it) your chances at getting a job. It’s horrible and unfair and terrifying.

I am not going to tell anyone not to feel this way. (And frankly, I find it appallingly condescending that a blogger suggested that adjuncts should not be angry.) But I will say that you deserve better, and you should go find it. If you find yourself in this position, the chances that continuing to work as an adjunct will benefit your career are very, very small. Your institution will probably not hire you for a tenure-track line. Some people say that postdoc-ing for more than a few years hurts your prospects on the job market – adjuncting for several years isn’t any better.

My advice is to find a way out, no matter what. Re-evaluate what is important to you: do you really love teaching, or does it just seem to be the only option available to you? (In my case, no, I did not love teaching, but I had convinced myself that it was what I wanted to do.) Can you move to a different city? If so, find something else, anything else. If you are unable to move because of family or other reasons, start researching other possibilities locally. I promise, the world won’t end if you decide to do something else – you might even be happier if you get out of academia. And make sure you have some other part of your life that you love – whether it’s spending time with family, playing music, or cooking gourmet food. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you deserve to enjoy your life. Don’t let them take that away from you.


7 Comments on “Adjuncting ruins lives”

  1. arbitrista says:

    Amen. Getting out of the tenure-track rat-race was one of the best decisions I ever made. I adjuncted for years and it only convinced me that I was in the wrong line of work. It’s far too tempting to fall prey to the “sunk cost” fallacy that you’ve devoted so much time to something you can’t possibly give up. Sometimes giving up on a very narrow, specific ambition is the bravest thing you can do.

  2. Anastasia says:

    I taught at three campuses last year and two of them managed to screw up paperwork and not pay me on time! Part of the issue is that two of them habitually didn’t pay their adjuncts until the end of the course (when grades were turned in, can you imagine??) and I told them no way, you’re going to need to pay me over the semester. But still. Sort of comforting to hear that it really isn’t me.

    Adjuncting is evil. It looks like I’m getting out. I really do love to teach, so it’s looking like a private high school for me. I have my eye on a certain kind of tt work and I don’t think this will hurt at all. With a narrower focus on my job search and limited geographical mobility, I think high school makes sense. Because I am miserable right now as an adjunct and I’d rather not be miserable.

  3. Leslie M-B says:

    Amen indeed. Although I put myself on the market for t-t jobs for five years and eventually succeeded and am now pretty damn happy with my lot, I consciously avoided adjuncting full-time (though I did pick up a class now and then because I enjoy teaching). Instead, I worked in academic staff jobs, which pay FAR better than adjuncting, and even better than my tenure-track job now.

    A few friends who are close to finishing and who have just ended their first year on the job market refuse to listen to my advice that they at least investigate other options. They see such options as “settling.” It really frustrates me to see them climbing into the adjunct hamster wheel, as I know if they allowed themselves a modicum of curiosity about alternatives, they would excel and likely be happy in alt-academic positions.

  4. anon says:

    Yes, the angry desperation. I too have been there. It was an awful period. thinking laterally is critical.

  5. John says:

    I am currently working in the non-academic world but am considering a Graduate degree in English and possibly adjuncting to pick up some teaching experience. From this blog I wonder if that is a good idea.

  6. Angela says:

    Only the decisions you make can ruin your life, not the job itself. I take it that most disgruntled adjuncts go into it thinking it is a secure way to a tenure track position. I thought that in grad school 101 it was taught that this was not the case. I feel adjunct positions are a great stepping stone, providing you don’t put so much weight on it that you sink……..but that is up to you.

  7. Ah well, glad to hear you’ve got it all figured out. Guess that grad school 101 course must have been really helpful.

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