Many must find their reward in the joy of teaching, as these uncertain jobs often pay little
It's a rough life, as described by those who teach chemistry part time. "It's extremely difficult to make a living wage as an adjunct professor," one says.
"Unless you really like to teach, you wouldn't do it," says another. "If courses need to be taught, then you have a job. If for some reason courses don't need to be taught, then you probably don't have a job."
Another professor laments that "there is no feedback from the tenured faculty. I could be teaching geography and they wouldn't know any different."
But there are enough positives to keep part-timers going. "I love seeing the light bulb go on over the students' heads when they get something," one notes.
"I'm not doing research, so I don't have to worry about writing grant proposals," says a second. "It gives me the freedom to travel."
And a new mother says, "I have the opportunity to keep working and still take care of my daughter."
Although their working conditions are difficult, the ranks of part-time faculty are expanding. Twenty years ago, just 20% of U.S. faculty were part-timers, according to Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). A decade later, that number had risen to 33%, he says. Now, more than 40% of the 1 million faculty teaching at postsecondary institutions are part-timers, and the figure is considerably higher than that at public two-year colleges.
Figures in the natural sciences aren't as grim, according to "The New Professoriate: Characteristics, Contributions, and Compensation." Published this past October by the American Council on Education, an association of U.S. colleges and universities, the report compares conditions for traditional faculty with those who are working either part time or full time but without the option of tenure. The report says that 32% of faculty in the natural sciences were part-timers in 1998, the latest figures available from the Department of Education. Another 13% either weren't on the tenure track or their institutions didn't have a tenure system. The remaining 55% were tenured or on the tenure track.
Specific figures for chemistry are not available, although many chemistry educators have been concerned about the use of adjunct faculty (C&EN, April 24, 2000, page 57).
Higher education institutions have traveled far from the original purpose in hiring adjuncts, which was to "bring in somebody who had a specialty that no one on your faculty could offer," Horwitz says. "Or if you needed to add just one extra section but didn't have a need to hire a whole other staff person, that made sense." But that limited use for a defined need has broadened.
"As full-time faculty retire, they're being replaced increasingly by part-time or contingent faculty members," Horwitz says. Substitution of part-timers for full-time faculty is "seen as a way to dramatically reduce one of the principal costs of the university, which is the cost of labor," he adds.
"But in doing so, you're getting people who are not part of campus life, who don't participate--more often than not--in department meetings and decisions, who aren't available to advise students, and who are also not conducting research," he says. And they may be hard to reach when a student goes looking for a teacher to write a letter of recommendation. "Not only do they not have an office, not only do they generally not have a university- or college-issued phone number or e-mail address, but they may not be at the college anymore," Horwitz explains.
THE FACULTY who put up with these conditions go by such titles as adjunct professor, lecturer, instructor, and visiting professor, with definitions varying from institution to institution. And those who teach at multiple campuses, whether by choice or to make ends meet, are called "freeway flyers" and "roads scholars."
Part-time faculty come from a broad range of backgrounds. At Boise State University, for instance, the adjuncts in the chemistry department include a retired high school chemistry teacher, someone from industry, a faculty member who does adjunct teaching almost full time, a graduating senior who is waiting to go to graduate school, and a student who is pursuing a Ph.D. in education.
Part-time work is sometimes the only option available for teachers. Maria del Pilar Mejia, an instructional assistant professor of chemistry at Illinois State University, Normal, earned a Ph.D. at Baylor University as an international student and then did a postdoc at Northwestern University. After having a baby, she lost the working status allowed by her visa. That made it difficult to find a job in industry, and Mejia was out of work for a year and a half. After her husband obtained a position as a tenure-track chemistry professor at Illinois State, Mejia began part-time work at the university. She and her husband are applying for residency, which will permit her to work full time again.
Mejia coordinates one of the university's organic chemistry labs and teaches other chemistry labs. The previous lab coordinator filled her in on what should be covered, and she is gradually modifying the class content.
Mejia spends 20 hours per week on the job. She teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and holds office hours between labs. She also drops by campus on Saturdays to make sure everything is ready for the coming week.
ALTHOUGH SHE HASN'T encountered negative attitudes about adjuncts at Illinois State, Mejia says they're not treated so well elsewhere.
While Mejia would prefer to work full time, some adjunct professors choose the part-time path because it suits the demands of their busy lives. Anjali Bhattacharyya, an adjunct faculty member at the College of DuPage, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Detroit and did a postdoc at Ohio State. After her husband took a demanding job and they had a son, she decided to become a part-time instructor rather than take on the more consuming work of a tenure-track position. She teaches general chemistry at DuPage, a community college in Glen Ellyn, Ill. She has primarily taught evening classes, a schedule that allows her to hand off child care duties to her husband when he comes home from work.
Bhattacharyya usually teaches one course per quarter, which requires about seven hours of in-class time per week. She may go to class a bit early or stay late for student questions, but doesn't have official office hours. Because she has been teaching since 1991, she doesn't need to spend much time on preparation. So most of the four hours per week of work that she does outside of the classroom are spent on grading.
Mejia and Bhattacharyya both have begun their teaching careers as adjunct faculty. It's also common for tenured professors who are retiring to take up adjunct positions. For example, Sheldon I. Clare turned to adjunct teaching after a 30-year career as a full-time associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh offered Clare a year and a half of salary if he would accept early retirement at 61. He took the offer but soon realized he missed teaching, so he got in touch with the University of Arizona, where he had earned his Ph.D. He was appointed to an adjunct position and began teaching two sections of organic chemistry in 2000.
Clare prepared a syllabus and exams, taught for 10 hours per week in the classroom, and held four office hours per week. Grad students graded the tests. All told, the work took him 20 to 25 hours per week.
Clare wasn't offered training when he began his work at Arizona. Although minimal training is typical for adjuncts, some institutions take this responsibility seriously. Boise State, for instance, offers "an elaborate mentoring program for adjuncts," according to Clifford B. LeMaster, chairman of the chemistry department. Each adjunct works with a tenure-track faculty member who is responsible for the course and has had experience in teaching it. At the beginning of the course, the mentor explains course content and the types of things that are typically done in the course. The mentor may also provide notes that they have used, along with sample exams and syllabi.
Clare didn't receive feedback from the full-time faculty, either. But "since they rehired me, I assumed that they thought I was doing a good job."
But the situation unraveled last year. Clare chose to skip a term in the fall of 2002 and was scheduled to take up his duties again in spring 2003. But the chemistry department has now notified him that the budget has been cut and his position has been eliminated. "There's absolutely no security in adjunct professorship," Clare concludes from his experience.
The local community college is trying to recruit him to teach there. But the salary is just $2,200 per course, a far cry from the $36,000 he earned for two terms at Arizona. Arizona had been unusually generous in other ways, providing an office, computer, secretary, and money toward a pension.
Part-time faculty who come from outside academe can bring a unique perspective to the work. Joel I. Shulman, for instance, is a former Procter & Gamble employee. In 2001, he was in charge of the firm's Ph.D. recruiting and university relations. From that vantage point, he encountered "a real lack of appreciation within chemistry departments of what chemists do in industry, and a lack of preparation of Ph.D. graduate students for going into industry." Shulman felt that this was a serious problem that he could do something about.
"They can fire you at any time without notice. If a department decides not to teach several classes, you will be the last person they will look for to give a class."
With retirement looming, he contacted the chairman of the University of Cincinnati's chemistry department and proposed a program to remedy the situation. After Shulman retired from P&G, the department created a unique adjunct position to make the most of his industry perspective. Before he began teaching, Shulman met with the chemistry faculty to discuss what he had in mind and to ask for advice. Most advised him to "concentrate on the stuff that no one else can do."
"Adjuncts don't have all the fancy whiz-bang things and the huge classroom and 10 research projects on the side, but they devote their lives to teaching."
Shulman started a pass/fail course for third- and fourth-year grad students on making the transition from academia to industry. It has since expanded into a "life after graduate school" course, which he coteaches with a full-time faculty member. "We talk about industry and government labs, teaching at small colleges, and other things that graduate students don't have a lot of familiarity with," he says. The class also covers topics such as the type of postdoc position to look for.
In addition to teaching, Shulman runs the chemistry department's Industrial Affiliates Program, which facilitates interactions between the department and a dozen companies involved in R&D. He is also working with a faculty committee to increase minority participation in the department. In all, Shulman's work at the University of Cincinnati occupies about 25 hours per week.
Most adjuncts at the university are paid according to the number of credit hours they teach. But because teaching accounts for only a small part of his duties, Shulman receives a flat monthly salary. The university also contributes funds on his behalf to the state teachers retirement system and makes medical benefits available to adjuncts.
Some part-timers combine their teaching with a job in industry. David W. Lingner is a full-time consultant at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in San Diego. He earned a doctorate in chemistry at Purdue University in 1985 and followed up with postdoctoral research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. There he realized that he "wasn't too much into writing proposals and doing research." So he began teaching as an adjunct chemistry professor at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., and as an adjunct oceanography and chemistry professor at National University, San Diego. In 1990, he joined SAIC, where he is a senior scientist in the Environmental Sciences Division.
For some, adjunct work proves to be a bridge to a full-time, tenure-track position. James M. Briggs, an assistant professor of biology and biochemistry at the University of Houston, earned a Ph.D. in theoretical organic chemistry from Purdue University in 1990. Following a one-year postdoc at Houston, he took on titles there such as visiting assistant professor and research assistant professor. In 1994, he headed to the University of California, San Diego. After a year as an associate research chemist in the chemistry and biochemistry department and the medical school's pharmacology department, he became an assistant adjunct professor in pharmacology. In 1998, he moved back to the University of Houston as assistant professor in the departments of biology and biochemistry, chemistry, and chemical engineering.
Briggs says such a route is becoming more common. "There's a gap between being a postdoctoral fellow and having your own independent tenure-track position," he explains. "If you want to be competitive for an independent tenure-track faculty position, potential employers would like to have some evidence that you can compete for grant funding." But Briggs says it's difficult to do that as a postdoc. "Adjunct positions, research professor positions, and visiting professor positions help to fill that gap."
AS AN ADJUNCT, Briggs learned to write grant proposals and obtain funding in association with his mentor. In addition, he was able to take some of the funding with him when he took up his University of Houston professorship. As a result, "I started with three people on my first day. That was an incredible jump start over almost everybody else."
At UCSD's medical school, the experience of an adjunct professor is almost identical to that of a tenure-track professor, Briggs says. In addition to obtaining grant funding, adjuncts are expected to do research and to perform service work such as serving on committees, helping to organize a conference, or giving lectures at local schools. They carry a relatively light teaching load. For one quarter per year, Briggs taught a course in molecular modeling with a fellow adjunct. He also gave lectures in a few other courses.
Adjunct positions in medical schools are often funded through "soft money," says Briggs. That means the funding comes from grants rather than the teaching budget of the adjunct's department. Under such arrangements, an adjunct professor who doesn't manage to obtain grant funding works fewer hours or loses the job. Briggs, however, managed just fine, pulling in grants from National Institutes of Health and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Lingner's financial situation is also comfortable. "When you're a Ph.D. as an adjunct, you're at the top of the pay scale, and it's a pretty good ceiling," he says. He earns $50 to $60 per hour of in-class time--more than he earns per hour at SAIC. Miramar College also recently began paying for 20 office hours per semester, which Lingner holds on Sunday nights at Barnes & Noble. However, the pay doesn't cover time spent in grading, a task he often does at the beach. Nor does it cover the time required to prepare for class. Initially, he spent several hours a day reading the textbook, taking notes, and practicing, though that time commitment has dropped as he has become more experienced.
MORE COMMONLY, the financial lot of adjuncts is not a happy one. Illinois State's Mejia is making only about $16,000 annually for her half-time position--an amount comparable with a graduate student's earnings, she says.
And Bhattacharyya says, "The way we are paid is really unfair. The salaries are really bad." DuPage pays its adjuncts $3,000 per course per quarter. If an instructor teaches one course each quarter, the annual salary would total $12,000. The pay used to be even lower, Bhattacharyya says, but has been rising 7 or 8% per year in the past few years--possibly because campus adjuncts recently organized into a union.
The University of Cincinnati's chemistry department attempts to rectify the situation by using its own funds to supplement the university's base adjunct pay. Others on campus aren't so fortunate, and Shulman says adjuncts there are talking about unionizing in order to win better pay and benefits.
Many chemistry departments, particularly the small ones, use adjunct professors to avoid hiring full-time faculty members, Shulman says. The arrangement costs less and gives the departments added flexibility in terms of matching course offerings to enrollment needs.
Boise State's LeMaster concedes that hiring adjuncts is a cost-saving measure. But he notes that part-timers often don't have as many responsibilities as their higher paid full-time colleagues. "Most of our adjuncts don't have any service components or research obligations," LeMaster says. "They are just hired to do traditional in-class teaching." Adjuncts in Boise State's chemistry department most often run a lab section, which LeMaster estimates takes about six hours per week, including grading and prep time. Some teach freshman chemistry courses, which take about 10 hours per week, including office hours, grading, and prep. Many of the adjunct faculty who work in the labs do not have a Ph.D.
According to "The New Professoriate," the instructional services of part-time faculty members cost their institutions $2,200 per course on average. Full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty cost about $7,800. Adding in the value of medical and retirement benefits--which many part-timers lack--would make that spread even greater.
One of the key objectives of those who are fighting for part-time faculty rights is equal pay for equal work, according to "Marching Toward Equity: Curbing the Exploitation and Overuse of Part-time and Non-tenured Faculty," a report published by AFT in October 2001. Also known as pay equity, this principle states that part-time and full-time faculty with similar duties and credentials should be paid salaries that are equivalent on a proportional basis. AFT, which claims to represent more part-time faculty than any other union, lays out equity and other issues in its July 2002 publication, "Standards of Good Practice in the Employment of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty: A Blueprint for Raising Standards and Ensuring Financial and Professional Equity."
Another objective of unions is to make part-time teaching a less tenuous profession. For instance, Illinois State's nontenure-track faculty are trying to organize a union that will work to improve job security, at least for non-tenure-track faculty who have been on campus for a while, Mejia says. "They can fire you at any time without notice," she explains. "If a department decides not to teach several classes, you will be the last person they will look for to give a class."
Despite such unappealing aspects of part-time professorship, the job has its rewards. In "The New Professoriate," the American Council on Education reports that Department of Education data show that regardless of "differences in pay and benefits, nontraditional and traditional faculty indicated similar levels of job satisfaction."
In Briggs's case, the experience "gave me a flavor of what a regular tenure-track faculty member goes through. When you're a postdoc, you don't really have an opportunity to find out what really happens. There are a lot of financial accounting and human resources-type things that you have to deal with when you're a tenure-track faculty member that you don't get trained for. Having an adjunct position before getting your own independent tenure-track position helps to prepare you for that."
Likewise, LeMaster says, "if you are thinking of switching jobs, going from industry into academia, it's a great way to get firsthand experience to help you decide whether it's something that you'd like to do."
And Shulman says, "It's like going to college and selecting the extracurricular activities that you want without ever having to worry about taking tests or even taking courses. I'm free to do the things that I want and that play into my strengths."
Many part-timers take a great deal of pride in their work. "Adjuncts, and community college teachers in general, are some of the best teachers out there," Lingner says. "They don't have all the fancy whiz-bang things and the huge classroom and 10 research projects on the side, but they devote their lives to teaching."
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