Thursday, August 22, 2013

So You Want to Be an Adjunct Professor?

Last year, I had the great honor to become an adjunct professor at American University and Trinity Washington University.  This semester, I am excited to teach "Gender, Power, and Politics" at American University and "Women and Leadership" at Trinity Washington University.  So what exactly is an adjunct professor and how do you become one? 

From an undergraduate student's perspective, they generally don't know the difference between full time or adjunct faculty members.  Basically, an adjunct professor is a part-time professor who is not on the tenure track.  You don't necessarily have to have a PhD. You are hired to teach a certain class for one semester, and are not necessarily guaranteed future employment. You generally do not receive benefits and most adjuncts are paid less than $5,000 per class.  For all the hours you spend teaching, grading, planning, and doing office hours, this is a job you do for the love of it rather than for money.  However, the adjuncts at American University recently unionized, so I am excited to learn more about the potential professional development opportunities and pay increases I can receive.  As universities and colleges nationwide are experiencing budget cuts, more and more school are hiring adjuncts, so more teaching opportunities exist for your taking.

Know What You Want

As with anything in life, I strongly believe in the power of knowing what you want far in advance of it actually happening.  For many of life's great accomplishments, you must dream your dream for many years, and take baby steps along the way to build your path. For example, in graduate school, I always knew I eventually wanted to teach, and participated in my school's Preparing Future Faculty program.

Know the Right People

I knew that many Washington, DC schools had adjunct opportunities, but I just didn't know how to connect to them, and thought I had to wait until I was older with more experience. However, one day I randomly received an email from a friend who used to teach saying her school needed someone last minute.  I asked if you needed a PhD, or just a master's.  She said all you needed was a master's degree.  She recommended me, I quickly interviewed, my experience spoke for itself, and I was hired.

My other teaching opportunity randomly came through LinkedIn.  A professor I did not know invited me to speak to her class.  The students ranked me as their favorite guest speaker that semester.  The professor and I began a professional relationship, and she gave me free executive coaching.  When she was thinking about creating a new class, she invited me to apply to teach it.

All of my friends who are adjuncts all knew someone where they applied, and did not apply cold.  The chair of a department generally does the hiring, so they are the right people to know.  If you are not yet connected to an academic community, create those relationships now.  Go to events on campus.  Offer to be a guest speaker.  Meet with professors for informational interviews.  Introduce yourself to department chairs months before the semester starts and suggest classes you can teach.

Also know that many adjunct opportunities arise right before a semester starts.  Look through the schedule of classes.  If a class does not have a professor's name attached to it, they are probably still looking for someone to teach it.

Know Your Stuff

So in addition to knowing what you want and knowing the right people, to be an adjunct, you have to know your stuff!  You really need to be an expert in your field.  You generally have a have a relevant graduate degree.  I have an M.A. in Applied Women's Studies.  Prior teaching experience or working with students is valued.  Publications definitely help.  As academia begins to value scholar practitioners more and more, having significant professional experience and demonstrated leadership in your field is important.

Own your expertise! I became an adjunct professor when I was 28.  You don't have to wait until you have decades of work experience to become an adjunct professor.  While it is a demanding job, teaching is one of the most rewarding professions.  Higher education needs more committed people wanting to teach!

More information about adjunct professors

Follow the adventures of my friend Michael Rodriguez as he follows his passion to teach architecture in Guatemala- Arch Abroad

Adjunct Project 

Adjunct Nation

Adjunct Professor Online


  1. cool, Pammy! what's the difference between Adjunct and Lecturer? or Visiting Lecturer?

    1. Good question, and it depends on the school. I believe adjunct refers more to strictly part-time teaching positions where the person usually has another full-time job and they are just paid per class. A lecturer can be a full-time or part-time position that doesn't involve tenure or research obligations, but possibly administrative. It may be more common for lecturers to teach introductory courses.

    2. Pam my, unfortunately, many if not most adjuncts are doing the job full time, scrounging up enough classes to get by. I'm glad to hear you guys have unionized as I think this is the only way for adjuncts to stop the abusive practices of universities. Great to hear that you're teaching, in any case! Welcome back :-)

    3. Yes, thanks for bringing attention to this important issue. I should note that this post primarily focused on adjuncts without PhDs who teach on the side in addition to other employment. I am still seriously considering getting a PhD sometime, but with the tough academic market, it is really making me think twice. I am glad AU adjuncts have unionized. Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts. Have a great semester!

  2. I love this, but I would add that it doesn't hurt to "cold call" for adjunct positions. I currently adjunct at three schools - a research university and two CC's - and both of my CC positions came from sending the chair a short email with my CV. Essentially, I just said "hey, I'm here if you need an adjunct, and I love to teach...". This isn't the first time that approach has worked for me. So yes, definitely network - but don't underestimate simply putting yourself out there.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this suggestion! Yes, putting yourself out there should never be underestimated.