Adjunct Professors in the Gig Economy

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When we think of professors, most of us imagine middle-aged, tweed-clad professionals with tenure, but the reality of collegiate faculty is a little different. Adjunct professors account for nearly half of American college and university teaching positions, according to U.S. Department of Education data. These educators work on a part-time basis, usually under a per-semester or school year contract. Much like a full-time professor, they give lectures, plan lessons, give tests and support their students.

While the responsibilities are similar, becoming an adjunct faculty member is vastly different than a full-time professor. Here’s what you need to know. 

Qualifications

Qualifying for an adjunct professor position usually comes down to the preferences of the institution itself. In general, you’ll need a master’s degree and a few years of teaching experience, though professional experience might be acceptable, especially if you are an expert in your field. For example, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, regularly recruits adjunct professors for their Education department, supervising masters and doctoral students on the path to educational leadership.

While their adjunct faculty is required to have a similar background in administration or counseling, there’s no mention of a degree requirement.

Similarly, an adjunct professor teaching Mechanical Design at Lake Washington Institute of Technology needs a bachelor's degree and five years of work experience to qualify for the position.

The moral: Don’t let your lack of a master’s degree deter you. Consider your academic strengths and professional qualifications as you search for adjunct positions.

Scheduling and Weekly Hours

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of adjunct employment is flexibility. Instructors who are busy pursuing another goal, whether it’s finishing a doctorate degree, raising young children, or running a business, usually don’t have the ability to take on a full-time job. Remember that Mechanical Design position? Classes meet from 7 a.m. to 11:50 a.m., Monday through Thursday, which might appeal to a stay-at-home parent who has relevant skills—but limited time to work. When interviewing for a position, ask whether you can choose which section times to cover and whether you can set your own office hours.

Given the nature of the job, you’re likely to receive some leeway.

Despite part-time flexibility, keep in mind that not everyone is thrilled with the hours required of adjunct professors, and it's wise to ask about what's expected of you before signing on. A perfect example is North Carolina's Durham Tech community college. Typically, they require an adjunct professor to adopt "75 percent of what a typical full-time load is in each instructional unit (outside additional duties such as student advising, curriculum development, and committee assignments)." In this case, part-time hours aren't exactly part-time, and it's a good idea to get your hours established in writing.

Average Salary

The pool of adjunct educators is growing for one important reason: budget cuts. Tenure-track professors earn more than adjunct faculty, leading some universities to increase their part-time staff in order to save money. Even so, the average salary for an adjunct professor varies dramatically by institution (i.e., four-year university instructors usually earn more than community college faculty) location, discipline, and your personal expertise. A Glassdoor survey reported a national average of $42,451 in compensation per year, but noted that the range can be as low as $19,000 and as high as $101,000 per year.

You can expect to be paid on a per-course or hourly basis, and depending on the hours you are required to work, it's important to understand the financial limitations of the position as you apply. A good place to start is the New Faculty Majority a group helps non-tenured instructors address the issues they face, including pay discrepancies.

Where to Find Open Positions

You won’t have to go far to find open adjunct positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 15 percent job growth between 2016 and 2026, much higher than the national average for all careers. A simple Indeed.com search for “adjunct professor” returned results from community colleges and four-year universities seeking instructors in every field, from German and History to Early Childhood Education and Mathematics. A similar search using Glassdoor returned nearly 14,000 open positions.

Certain fields are expected to grow more than others, which means an increased need for college instructors. A BLS data report cited the greatest growth for teachers in these disciplines through 2026 (check out the full report here):

  • Health specialties (26 percent)
  • Nursing (24 percent)
  • Business (18 percent)
  • Engineering (15 percent)

The Bottom Line

Becoming an adjunct professor can be a decent gig, but make sure to take stock of your value and availability before signing on. Not all teaching positions are created equal.