Just last week, I met a young woman looking to change careers. Like me, she holds an MFA in Writing and was curious to know how she might make the plunge into adjunct teaching. For many recent graduates, teaching seems like a viable and obvious path, but how do they get started?
Although I recently started a tenure-track position, for the previous six years, I was a part-time lecturer at seven colleges and universities. Each semester, I’d shuttle between campuses, picking up classes whenever they became available, balancing student concerns with traffic concerns, and constructing full-time work from a slew of part-time jobs. I can tell you how to pay for your own healthcare, how to cope with the last-minute changes in your classes, and how to manage eight or nine classes every semester. So how do you become an adjunct, and what should you consider before you start?
Weigh the Pros and Cons
Before deciding to enter any field, it’s a good idea to do a deep dive into the various advantages and disadvantages. To get the nitty-gritty, visit online blogs that feature work from adjunct contributors. For a start, look to other articles in the MHE Higher Ed blog, as well as AdjunctNation and The Chronicle for Higher Education.
- Speaking succinctly, adjunct life is largely wonderful.
- Supportive Environment: Most departments work hard to create a lively, scholarly atmosphere for their part-timers—and the exchange of ideas can be truly inspiring.
- Creativity & Freedom: The main job as an instructor is to teach, but how you accomplish that is largely up to you. Learning objectives and standards have to be met, of course, but the way in which you teach and inspire students offers a lot of creative opportunities and freedom.
- Meaningful Work: It’s a stimulating job and, without resting on clichés, there is truly nothing better than shaping a student’s intellectual progress.
- At the same time, there are very concerning drawbacks.
- Uncertainty: One should never assume that a part-time position will automatically lead to full-time work.
- Limited FT and Tenure Track Positions: The reality of higher education in the 21st century is that departments are reliant on adjunct labor and not incentivized to create tenure-track positions.
- Low Pay: Although adjuncts make up a significant portion of any school’s labor force, their pay is typically low—without the requisite contact hours to warrant health insurance or other employee benefits.
- Complicated Work Schedule: To cobble together a living, part-timers may have to work at several institutions, commuting great distances, under the ever-looming threat of impermanence.
Know the Requirements
Before determining that part-time teaching is the path for you, do some research about the requirements for your field. Typically, adjunct professors need a master’s degree to qualify for their first gig; nevertheless, in some fields, professional experience (or a different advanced degree) may work as a substitute. Do a bit of Googling before you commit to anything. Check out some job listings in your area and make sure that you meet the standard requirements.
Should you be missing a degree or certificate, be sure to weigh the cost of education with the salary you can expect to make. Adjunct pay is typically low—fluctuating from school to school, state to state. If an additional degree is going to put you further into debt, with no reasonable hope of recouping, be mindful of that sacrifice.
Who Do You Know?
Do you know anyone who works in higher education—as an instructor or administrator? If so, reach out to them and invite them for coffee.
- Ask them for any advice they might have about getting your foot in the door.
- Can they pass on your CV and recommend you to the right people?
- Do they have any suggestions about making that CV more seductive to potential employers?
Remember that the specifics of adjunct teaching changes drastically from school to school. If possible, you’ll want to seek mentorship with someone who has an intimate knowledge of the school (or schools) to which you are applying.
Look to Community Colleges First
If you were to religiously check the job listings at all your surrounding universities, you might begin to think of the higher ed job marker as a big dead end. Most universities expect 2-3 years of teaching experience at the college level. But how, you may ask, is someone supposed to gain teaching experience if they need the experience to teach?
The answer is to build experience and connections at the community college level. Typically, these schools pay less than nearby universities but never fear: they often have more available sections of any given course and are very willing to hire qualified newbies.
Build Your CV
Before you begin the job hunt, make sure that your CV is written, formatted, and up-to-date. If possible, have a knowledgeable editor take a look at it and give you feedback. Include anything in your history that remotely looks like teaching experience—tutoring, coursework related to pedagogy, etc. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to include any and all experience that’s relevant to your field (teaching, writing, publications, coursework).
If you think it will help you to flesh out an underfed CV, look into professional development opportunities in your area or joining professional organizations within your field.
Send Your CV Everywhere
Rather than wait for a job listing to appear, make an Excel spreadsheet with the contact information of every community/county college and university in your area: the department chairs, their e-mail addresses, etc. From there, sculpt a cover letter that inquires about the availability of an adjunct position, announcing your bona fides, and asking the department to keep your information on file—just in case of a last-minute cancellation.
There are various points of view on this subject—and some may strongly advise against it. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for adjunct work, it can’t hurt to contact the department directly. The worst you can hear is “no.”
Square Away Your Letters of Recommendation
Keep in mind: you will eventually need to furnish letters of recommendation—either before your hiring or immediately after. If you have any teaching experience, contact colleagues and mentors that can speak to your classroom abilities. If not, reach out to your former instructors and ask if they’ll write a letter on your behalf that speaks to qualities that might lend themselves to effective teaching.
As the turnaround on these letters can be awfully quick, ask your recommenders to submit generic letters to Interfolio that you can pass on. If the schools to which you are applying require targeted letters (or don’t use Interfolio), at least your recommenders will only need to provide small tweaks.
Summer is the Time
One thing that gets left out of any adjuncting discussion is the issue of enrollment. In the spring semester, enrollment typically decreases. This means that there are fewer available courses and, thus, less need for adjunct support. For the already employed part-timer, there is a very real concern (each spring) that their course sections “won’t run”—or else might be revoked at the last minute.
So, what does this mean for the soon-to-be-employed adjunct hopeful? Well, unfortunately, with so little need for adjunct help, schools aren’t eager to hire in the months leading up to January. The ideal time to “get” a job is during the summer. During these months, last-minute schedule changes, instructor dropouts, and fluctuating enrollment figures force departments to scramble for added help. Be available during these months. Seize the opportunity to apply to any school looking for adjunct instructors.
Treat Your First Job as Training for the Next
Once you’ve snagged a teaching opportunity (or two or three), you’ll want to take it very seriously. This is your opportunity to accomplish two things:
- First, build connections and ace your first observations. Distinguishing yourself as a confident and collaborative “force for quality” in your department will lead to more teaching opportunities, a better schedule, and additional classes. Perform well and your department chair/course coordinator will always look out for you.
- Second, gain experience. Remember that adjuncting is a game of upward mobility; it’s not where you start—it’s where you finish. Teaching at the front of this first classroom for a year or two, participating in professional development projects, and making nice with your superiors will help you add heft to that underfed CV. It may be the ticket to the next job—which hopefully pays more.
The mixed message here is this: colleges rely very heavily on adjunct labor—but they aren’t always looking for it. As a fledgling instructor, the best things that you can be are knowledgeable and prepared for that first great opportunity. When your proverbial foot is in that proverbial door, the work should keep coming. It’s all about getting that first shot.