Being a Professor in the Gig Economy: The Precarious Nature of Adjunct Professorship

By Jared Colston, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The job market for higher education researchers is rough, and I think as graduate students in the field we are all experiencing the same squeeze. What happens when I graduate? Will the tenure track be derailed before I get there? Should I adjunct for a bit prior to seeking a tenure-track position in the same university? Will I have to? The idea of being an adjunct professor is often associated with precarious labor, a lack of job security, and the fear that the lack of benefits will threaten to overwhelm you should a medical emergency arise. These fears are often justified; as of 2009, 35% of part-time lecturers expressed the desire to be full-time without having an avenue for it (Monk, 2009). Unfortunately, the problem is not going away; the total proportion of part-time faculty is growing in institutions, being as much as 48% in 2015 (NCES, 2016). There is also a serious problem with the gig economy, where part-time positions reign supreme, entering higher education: there is a sizeable divide along gender lines between tenure-track and adjunct faculty. Adjunct professorship is divided based on gender, with 45.6% of full-time faculty identifying as female, compared to 52.9% of part-time faculty identifying as female (NCES, 2016). What we are also seeing in the faculty job hunt is a labor crowding effect that shows fields that are predominantly populated by women also being the most likely to employ adjunct professors (Women’s Bureau, 2010; NCES, 2016). These numbers are especially worrisome given that women are entering higher education at greater numbers than men and are still not as adequately represented in the full-time faculty.  

The fears of adjunct professorship are real, and they threaten to disproportionately affect women. The solution? I would like to say that we will return to only hiring full-time positions, but it cannot be that simple. The financial climate of higher education has given administrators the motive to follow in the footsteps of industry; without increased state funding we will likely not see this problem changing soon. This does not mean we are forced to accept it, nor should we. We as graduate students and new faculty members need to inform ourselves about this issue and understand what it means to be secure and respected in our employment. While we need to be cognizant of budgetary restrictions, we also must make our voices heard to ensure that our livelihoods are not slashed in the seemingly annual budgetary cuts. Though the predicament of adjunct professorship is not disappearing, we must take steps to acknowledge the problem.  

Unionization of adjunct faculty members is a pressing issue in the current higher education world (Edwards & Tolley, 2018). Overwhelmingly, part-time faculty members that have successfully unionized and bargained have gained significant increases in wages and benefits. By unionizing, adjunct faculty members and graduate student employees have been able to achieve respectable increases for their profession, allowing individuals to pursue what they love without breaking the bank to do it. Unfortunately, it appears that unionizing efforts have not reached a consensus on shared governance; graduate student employees and part-time faculty members still have less of a voice in campus affairs than is necessary to enact meaningful changes. While we are moving in the right direction, we have to seize our voice and ensure that campus leaders know that this sizeable population of the university has a right to speak up. 

Sources: 

Edwards, K. & Tolley, K. (2018, June). Do unions help adjuncts? What dozens of collective-bargaining agreements can tell us. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Do-Unions-Help-Adjuncts-/243566 

Monks, J. (2009). Who are the part-time faculty? Academe, 95(4), 33-37. 

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2016, Human Resources component, Fall Staff section.  

U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau. (2010). 20 leading occupations of employed women: 2010 national averages. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. 

Jared Colston is a Doctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose primary interest is in the sociology of work and professionalization and how it relates to higher education institutions. To this end, he pursues educational policy to provide a legislative foundation for change and equity. He conducts research on how higher education influences labor markets, as well as how traditional labor and economic theoretical frameworks such as Marxism and Neo-Liberalism impact student choice in higher education. He also investigates questions in the economics of higher education and social diversity regarding student access. 

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