Food Stamps For Adjuncts, Or: Is The Ph.D. Worth The Money, Even If It’s Free?

by Deborah Bailin on June 10, 2011 · View Comments

photo by jiruan/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Given the exorbitant cost of a college education these days, it might surprise loan-borrowing students and their tuition-paying parents to know that some professors have had to to feed their families because their salaries are so low.

What may be even more surprising is that such professors are members of what has been called “the new faculty majority” because, according to the American Association of University Professors, they comprise “more than 75 percent of the total instructional staff.”


The American Association of University Professors annually surveys over 1,000 degree-granting institutions and reports that for the 2010-2011 academic year, the average pay for full professors (those at the height of their careers) at institutions granting doctoral degrees ranges between $100,729 for the lowest paying twenty percent of institutions and $164,935 for the top five percent; the average pay for assistant professors (those newly hired onto the tenure track but who have not yet attained tenure) for the same type of institution ranges between $63,438 for the bottom twenty percent and $94,809 for the top five percent. At four-year institutions that do not have graduate programs, the ranges for average salaries, respectively, are $63,499 to $119,879 for full professors and $46,409 to $71,881 for assistant professors.

Based on these numbers, aspiring to be a professor and spending 6-10 years beyond your bachelor’s degree pursuing your goal doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Unfortunately, the AAUP figures don’t tell the whole story (although, it should be noted that the AAUP staunchly supports contingent faculty in many ways—it’s just very difficult, because of adjuncts’ transient status and fluctuating pay, to gather data on their annual salaries). For starters, the data aren’t broken down by discipline; professors in the humanities at all levels tend to earn less than those in business or engineering. More importantly, the survey does not include salaries for the majority of contingent faculty—that is, for those who also comprise, in 2011, the majority of total faculty at postsecondary institutions.

Indeed, the survey does include the category of “instructor,” but this designation refers to a relatively small number of nontenure-track yet full-time positions. Instructors surveyed are those working under renewable yearly or multi-year contracts that come with a fixed salary and benefits comparable to those on the tenure track. The AAUP’s survey, which only tracks full-time faculty, does not include data for those instructors teaching on course-by-course, semester-by-semester contracts because they are not considered “full-time,” even though they may be teaching, during any given semester, a full-time courseload.

To understand what ad-cons are actually earning (or not earning, as the case happens to be), we have to take a look at their salaries per course. A report released in 2011 by the Keystone Research Center cites $2,758 as the national average that contingent faculty earn per course. This number is in line with reports that can be found across the academic blogosphere. Numbers vary by discipline and by institution type, but the range most often cited is between $2,000 and $4,000. Teaching four courses per semester (8 courses per year) is generally considered full-time. Thus, using the KRC report’s per-course figure, the “average” contingent faculty member fortunate enough to teach eight courses in the 2010-2011 academic year would take home a salary of just $22,064.

That salary is grossly below what peers in other industries are earning.  To teach as an adjunct, most institutions require at least a master’s degree. Many adjuncts have Ph.D.s or are in the final stages of completing them. Yet the average salary they earn for teaching full-time is $3,836 less than the $25,900 cited by the Census as the salary for high school graduates and $23,336 less than the $45,400 cited for college graduates who have had no additional schooling. Adding two courses during the summer session, the “average” adjunct might increase his or her salary to a grand $27,580.

But it is also important to remember that adjuncts rarely teach 8-10 courses per year, although they may want to. A brief glance at the University of Maryland’s annual salary guide for 2009-2010 shows that 4-6 courses per year is more likely.

Adjuncts (called “lecturers” here) in the English department were paid typically between $3,994 and $4,330 per course—generous by national standards—yet of the 94 faculty designated as lecturers, the majority, 51,earned less than $20,000. The average salary for all lecturers, excluding the three earning over $50K (recall, these folks are not on the tenure track but are also not teaching on semester-by-semester, course-by-course contracts), is $19,960.

Worth noting, too, is that while the department employs 94 lecturers, it only employs 43 tenure-track professors—that is, there are more contingent faculty earning under $20K than there are full-time, permanent faculty employed altogether. Given that tenure-track faculty here typically teach five courses per year (two one semester, three another), the contrast is even sharper.

Of course, tenure-track salaries are supposed to cover research and service commitments in addition to teaching. On the basis of the eight courses per year considered “full-time” teaching, tenure-track faculty devote roughly sixty percent of their time to teaching. But even broken down this way, an assistant professor earning this department’s average salary for assistant professors of $60,400 is paid roughly $36,240 for the teaching portion of the job. In other words, at $7,248 per class, that’s some $3,000 per class more than the adjuncts earn.

And there’s nothing exceptional about this department’s conditions. If anything, they are better than average. Conditions are similar or worse at most public colleges and universities and at many private ones, too.

Moreover, as tenure-track faculty progress through the ranks from assistant to associate to full professor, their salaries increase. Adjuncts—no matter how good they are at teaching nor how brilliant and promising their research—are never rewarded financially for good performance. Their only hope is to get off the adjunct track, a hope increasingly remote as tenure-track jobs dwindle, increasingly replaced by more of the contingent positions that cost universities so much less.

That Doesn’t Sound Great, But Faculty Aren’t Really on Food Stamps, Are They?

Of course, not all adjuncts qualify for food stamps, but the fact that some do is disgraceful. If we return briefly to the KRC average adjunct salary of $2,758 per course, it becomes quite clear that the two-tiered system has the greatest impact on contingent faculty with families. For example, a family of three, in which one parent teaches full-time (that is, eight courses at an annual salary of $22,064) and the other stays home to care for their child, qualifies for $265 per month in food stamps. A family of five with a total annual salary of $38,612, in which one adult adjuncts full-time at $22,064 and the other, who may have requested full-time work, teaches only three courses each semester at an annual salary of $16,548, qualifies for $370 per month in food stamps. Adjuncts who are single or who have spouses working at better-paying jobs generally don’t qualify, but a single person who applied for full-time adjunct work during the spring 2011 semester but was only given 2 courses instead of 4, earning a total of only $5,516 that semester, would qualify for $159 per month in food stamps (estimates generated by state food stamp calculator).

Anecdotal accounts in the blogosphere abound. Blogger Anastasia, a recent Ph.D. and mother of three, writes about the difficulties of raising her children on a salary of $3,000 per course, a situation that has caused her to be on public assistance and, ultimately, to leave higher education for a better-paying, secure, full-time teaching position at a private high school that starts this fall. Blogger JC, another academic who has left for nonacademic employment, writes in comments here that “the children of more than half of graduate students and temporary faculty (the folks who were teaching a large percentage of the classes at my Grad U) were on Medicaid. In other words, more than half of the people teaching classes at Grad U didn’t make enough money to adequately care for their own children.” The Homeless Adjunct, who blogs here, writes, “I know adjuncts who are on the brink of homelessness.  I myself faced it last year.  I know adjuncts on food stamps.  I know adjuncts sleeping in their cars.” J.Otto Pohl, a U.S. citizen with a Ph.D. in history who sought academic employment in this country but could only find a full-time faculty position in Africa, writes here, “The options may very well be working abroad in places like Ghana or working outside of academia.”

In with researcher and activist , longtime adjunct Andy Smith explains how, while teaching full-time at public colleges and universities in Tennessee for over a decade, he still couldn’t afford to provide for his family’s basic needs, even after he earned his doctorate. Here is Andy’s description of the low wages and lack of job security he experienced:

The maximum wage—and I want to make this very clear: we have a maximum wage, not a minimum wage—for a 3-credit hour class is $2,100 and that policy—it’s not a pay scale but a Board of Regent’s policy—has not changed in the entirety of the time I’ve been in the Tennessee system for a decade. Moreover, there’s no job security for the adjunct. It is a one-semester contract, not a one-year, not a two-year, not a three-year, not a renewable contract but a one-semester contract, and we got our teaching assignments within seven days of the semester starting.

Shockingly, when Andy admitted to tenure-track colleagues in the departments where he worked that he had to go on public assistance to feed his daughter, he was dismissed and scolded. As Andy puts it, these colleagues questioned his integrity: “How dare you take money from the public coffers, from people who really need it! You obviously have a middle-class background. Why don’t you ask Mom and Dad for a handout? How dare you take this money when there are other people who need it!” Even if Andy’s parents could have helped to support his family enough to prevent them from going on food stamps, a mistaken assumption in and of itself, why should they?

The proliferation of these stories should concern anyone currently paying for college, helping someone else pay for college, or considering a career as a college professor in the future. Indeed, what are we paying so much for if not for instruction? What happens when our most promising young scholars and most talented teachers leave the profession or go abroad because they cannot find satisfactory employment in the U.S.? These questions should deeply trouble anyone who cares about the future of education in this country.


No one pursues a career as a college professor in order to become rich. Professors do what they do because they are passionate about research and teaching. And if you recently earned a Ph.D., you know well that the years you devoted to inquiry, research, writing, and sharing your knowledge in the classroom weren’t wasted.

At the same time, passion doesn’t put food on the table, and a middle-class wage is a very reasonable expectation.

A decade ago, it was possible to say that persistence and a year or two on the adjunct track would pay off. “Stick it out,” advisers would say, “You’ll get a job eventually,” and they were right. But that advice is outdated: “Since that time, faculty work has become more fragmented, unsupported, and destabilized,” and “the proportion of faculty who are appointed each year to tenure-line positions is declining at an alarming rate.”

If you are a prospective or current graduate student today wondering if completing the Ph.D. is worth it, the answer in 2011 is almost unequivocally no—not unless you are independently wealthy and can afford to live “the life of the mind” without ever having to worry about how to support yourself or feed your family.

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  • J. Otto Pohl

    Actually I worked in Asia as a full timeu00a0lecturer for three years in Asia before I got the job in Africa.u00a0 But the job in Africa is definitely better in terms of compensation and academic environment.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    OOps I meant to write I worked in Asia as a full time lecturer for three years before I got the job in Africa. I did not mean to type Asia twice. I am not completely illiterate.

  • Humanities Graduate School: A Response to Pannapacker |

    [...] So year after year, cohort after cohort of Ph.D. students dedicate hour after hour to the research and writing of scholarly dissertation projects, struggling over minutiae of citations and shades of meaning, attempting to please their dissertation chair and committee, without being told the truth by anyone in the department: that for the vast majority of them, the hoped-for tangible gains from this exercise are unlikely to materialize. For many, the result of 10 years of time and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of expense is crushing debt and the systematic underemployment of adjuncting at $2000 or so a class. Some Ph.D.s marginally employed on the fringes of the academic system have ended up living on food stamps. [...]

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