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College adjunct professor jobs: what you need to know

Updated on October 25, 2016

There are many adjunct professor jobs out there. In fact, in this age of austerity, the majority of college and university teaching faculty you'll encounter will be adjuncts. If you are thinking of becoming an adjunct, there are some things you should know, so here is the good and the not so good about the adjunct life.

So, what exactly is an Adjunct Professor anyway?

Technically, the term means an add-on. An adjunct professor or instructor in a college or university is someone who teaches on contract. They could be teaching one course a semester or a full load. They perform many of the same teaching roles as full time staff do, but do not do research.

Who hires adjuncts?

Your local university, college or community college all hire adjuncts regularly. They will have varying needs depending on their programs and your expertise. In fact, as much as 60-70 per cent of an institution's teaching staff are working there on contract. They have titles such as lecturer, part-time professor, course instructor, or sessional instructor. You will find them in full-time day programs and you will find them in continuing education or extension programs, and you will find them teaching online. Most adjuncts live in the same city they teach in because institutions tend to hire locally first.

What do Adjuncts teach?

I worked as a adjunct and taught 20 different communications courses including remedial English, College English, Business Communications and Technical Communications for over 12 years. Colleges have varying needs for this subject area but these needs do fluctuate quite a bit, depending on enrollment and funding conditions (more on that later). An adjunct could be asked to teach where there is a sudden and immediate need: a staff member gets sick, someone is on sabbatical, a new program is hurriedly being put into place, enrollment is up, or internal staff have been seconded for a project.

Adjuncts are also often hired in specialized areas such as Business and Commerce, Law (criminal justice) Healthcare (especially a hands-on course, as opposed to a science course), E-commerce, Technology, Liberal arts Electives including Psychology, Humanities, and Literature. At community colleges, trade schools or applied degree programs, industry professionals are welcomed because they can offer a fresh, hands-on perspective.

What qualifications do I need to become an adjunct faculty member?

You can still can get adjunct work with a B.A., though I will tell you that is getting harder. When I started in 2000, I got my first contract having just a B.A. in Journalism and a lot of experience. In some areas, experience will matter more than credentials. The trades are one of these areas (HVAC, Electrician). These areas may require instructors to have other certifications, though, and typically these types of instructors will work at community, trade or vocational colleges.

The minimum qualifications for most institutions, though, is a subject area Masters. A teacher with a Masters will have more options. He/she can teach undergrads or diploma students. Teachers with B.A.s on the other hand, could be restricted to teach certificate or diploma programs.

A Phd is the most desirable credential for adjunct teaching. You'll be able to teach students at undergraduate and graduate levels.

How much can you make as an adjunct?

In the U.S., an adjunct can make about $2000 per course (some of these courses may be as short as 8 weeks). There is also variation depending on the size of the college, its reputation, whether it is private or publicly funded and whether or not the faculty is unionized.

In Canada where I live, I have made over C$4,000 per course at Ontario community colleges working on unionized contracts (day program) that allowed for 4 courses per semester (14 weeks per semester). I have made as little as $1800 (C$) per course working in Continuing Education. I've known colleagues who have earned as much as C$7,000 per course at universities,(teaching and tutoring the same course) but these jobs are competitive and unsteady. I know of universities that pay at least C$100 an hour on unionized contracts that include benefits, and colleges that pay as little as C$35/hour with no benefits. For online courses, the rates vary quite wildly depending on whether the institution pays on a per student basis, or a flat rate.

What areas are in high demand for adjunct instructors?

Applied degree programs in computer programming, healthcare, and business and commerce tend to have a high need for specialized adjuncts. If you want to teach liberal arts electives such as literature or psychology or other humanities or social sciences, be sure you have at least a Masters degree in that area (Phds are preferrable).There is also a certain amount of demand for ESL teachers in community colleges and English upgrading programs in universities, but to get the good contracts, you'll need a Masters degree and TESL certification.

What are some advantages of being an adjunct

There are some very distinct advantages to working as an adjunct professor or instructor.

1. Low entry barriers for part time work. It's much easier to secure a part time position at a college or university than a full time one. Part-time work, though, can be a foot in the door. The hiring process does vary from institution to institution. I have been hired at the last minute for a full term's work with only a phone call from a Chair. I have also had a panel interview to teach just one course. Mostly, the hiring process is not a long and drawn out process as with a full time job. In some cases, though, faculty may have to reapply for their positions each term if there are strict Union or HR rules.

2. You can gain a lot teaching experience and a reputation as an expert in your field.You can also gain a lot of self confidence from teaching.

3. You can gain a sense of satisfaction facilitating, mentoring, guiding and teaching college-age students.You will not only share your expertise but your life experience. Not only that but you will learn a lot from your students as I did from mine.

4. You are never tethered to a desk. When your class is over, you can go home, (or to the next gig). You don't have to get involved with office politics or go to departmental meetings.

5. If you play your cards right, you can earn an almost semi-permanent position in a department (if you have the right specialty and are in the right place at the right time). If the departments like you, you will get called back term after term.

Adjunct true tales (funny but true)

And now for the bad news

1. There is no guarantee of permanence. I lasted 10 years working on fairly large contracts until funding, enrollment and other factors cut my hours at both the colleges I was working at.

2. Many adjuncts don't know from term to term if they have a job the next semester. This can be aggravating and anxiety provoking as term ends.

3. There is very little upward mobility. In other words, it can turn out to be a dead-ended career path. For every adjunct who gets hired permanently, there are at least a dozen who will never get hired. I have heard of people waiting as long as 15 years before they got hired. If you stay on too long, the administration tends to assume that you're just fine being an adjunct.

4. You also have very little choice of what you are offered. Course assignments are always needs- based, and enrollment-based. For a while, this worked to my advantage because I was always willing to teach different courses. Now, it seems that versatility doesn't sell as well as specialization. The managers aren't keen to be your career facilitators, and once they associate you with a particular specialty, that's it. Plug and play. Just come back and teach it next term.

5. You could find yourself overloaded with too much marking and teaching. In your zeal to make a decent full time living, you could find yourself taking on way more work than a full-timer because of income insecurity. A fellow instructor I know teaches ten classroom courses in the Greater Toronto area and is always running himself ragged. If you are spread too thin, it can affect your teaching and your reputation.

6. You are at the mercy of the winds of change. That's what happened to me. Administrators changed, funding conditions changed, and enrollment changed. The institutions made classes larger and cut back on adjuncts, especially people on the higher end of the pay scale. If your area is seen as somewhat of a commodity (as English is many people want to teach it), then the institutions can always find younger and cheaper people to do the job and load as much as they can get away with onto full time staff. The people I know who are working steadily are highly specialized in their areas.

My personal recommendation

1. Make sure you have several income streams, and do not become overly reliant on one institution. The most successful adjuncts I know do consulting and teach at several colleges ( and have spouses who have reliable full time jobs). Others have a full time job and teach select courses part-time in their fields. Try not to get too overloaded, and keep networking in your field and at other institutions. You never know when you'll be working your last contract.

2. Be sure to nurture your relationships with the administrators and their staff. The students may love you, but the administrators are the ones who will hire or fire you. I have heard of one adjunct who buys flowers regularly for the Chair's secretary. That secretary might get handed the scheduling function, and on a whim, decide to schedule person A rather than person B. I was the person B in a few case. Viola, no work because of the stroke of someone's pen. so, make sure you are on good terms with that person. He/she has the Chair's ear, and is sometimes given discretionary decision-making authority.

3. Know your limits. In the end, it is not worth it to be overloading yourself if you are working 80 hours a week, wearing yourself out, and lacking in job security. If you need to drop anything, drop the lower paying gigs. If the institution hasn't hired you permanently after four or five years (and you want to be hired), find a day job in the private sector where you might be appreciated more, and teach part time; I have seen many an adjunct move on after about five years. otherwise, you might get stale, resentful, pigeon-holed and stuck.

4. Teach courses you genuinely enjoy and are passionate about. It can be hell on wheels if you jump into an area that you don't have much background because some Chair called you in desperation, looking for the first available warm body in to teach a course that starts...tomorrow.

4. Look for online teaching opportunities to better leverage your time. There are an increasing number of online adjunct teaching jobs available. Establish a reputation with the institution by teaching in class, and make sure you let them know you want to work online.

5. Pitch ideas for your own courses. If you have been around a school for a while, offering to develop a course can help you establish your own area that is not likely to usurped by a staffer.That way you become the "go-to" person for that course.


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