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If you're hoping to pursue a career in academia, you may be surprised to learn that not all college professors have the same job classification. The most prestigious positions are those which offer tenure, a contractual right not to have the position terminated without just cause. Tenure track positions include those of assistant professor, associate professor, distinguished professor, endowed chair, or professor emeritus jobs. Unfortunately, the bulk of positions available in academia today are adjunct professor jobs.
The exact number of adjunct professors at a particular college or university will vary, although it is estimated that nearly 50 percent of all instructors in the United States are classified as adjunct professors and that 60 to 70 percent of available positions at any given time are adjunct professor jobs. Adjunct professor jobs are typically non-tenure track positions that are part-time. The instructor is paid for each class he teaches instead of receiving a set salary. Depending upon the institution, an adjunct professor may be called an adjunct lecturer, adjunct instructor, or faculty associate.
The popularity of adjunct professor jobs at colleges and universities of all sizes is simply a matter of cost effectiveness. Since adjunct faculty are part-time employees, they may not receive employment benefits. They can be hired and fired depending upon the course needs of the institution for a particular semester.
For the most part, adjunct professor jobs involve teaching undergraduate courses. These are the large lecture classes that freshman and sophomores must complete in order to begin advanced coursework in their chosen major. Adjunct jobs do not normally involve conducting research, unless the position is specifically outlined as a research professor job.
Despite their lack of job security and the fact that they typically earn significantly lower salaries than their tenure track counterparts, the majority of adjunct faculty must meet the same requirements as an assistant or associate professor. They generally have advanced degrees in their subject area and relevant professional work experience. At most colleges and universities, the process for hiring adjunct professors is similar to that of selecting candidates for any other professional position within the institution.
Adjunct professor jobs have generated a fair amount of controversy in recent years, due to allegations that the system is abusive and unfair. It is true that many adjunct professors would prefer to be teaching in full-time tenure track positions. However, others say they actually prefer the flexibility of the part-time teaching gig. Adjunct professor positions allow them to indulge their passion for a particular subject area while still allowing time to pursue other projects, such as film-making or writing a novel.
@jennythelib - I think you are right that those two really do exist. But I think there's a third kind of adjunct professor that you have left out: spousal hires and/or people who want to work part-time in their chosen field and are willing to accept low wages in order to do so.
In an academic couple, often one member (usually the mom, but by no means always) will willingly step off the tenure track. S/he will accept an adjunct professor salary at a college or university that has offered a tenure track job to the spouse. The adjunct professor spouse can enjoy part-time hours, maybe do a little publishing, and continue to be a part of his
or her field while not submitting to the tenure track grind - at least not at that time.
The only problem is that if you change your mind, or when your kids are older, it's very hard to get off the adjunct track and back onto the tenure track. However, former adjuncts do sometimes score full-time non-tenure track jobs, like lecturer, that might come with benefits and better pay.
I feel that there are really two different kinds of adjunct faculty jobs: there are those adjuncts that are basically unsuccessful aspiring teachers, and there are those that are professionals in some other area and enjoy teaching part-time.
When I was in library school, I had several of the latter. One, for instance, was a retired cataloger. He did not have a doctoral degree but he had decade of his experience in his field and he enjoyed teaching a class a semester to keep his knowledge fresh. He taught online courses, so he never ever had to leave his house - in fact, he lived in the Pacific Northwest and taught for a major university in the South!
the first kind, those who really do want to be professors, make me sad. They are being exploited by low wages, but then they are full participants in that. As long as universities can find people to teach courses for as little as a few thousand bucks a class (or even less at some community colleges), they have no incentive to change the system.
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