Her dream didn't turn out as expected, however.
Sympson has been an adjunct psychology professor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, for the last 11 years. With an annual salary of just $21,000 for three classes a semester plus one in the summer, she hasn't put a dent in the principal of her $500-a-month student loan debt. And with such low pay, saving anything for retirement has been impossible.
"There's a lack of respect for our training and for us as colleagues," says Sympson. "The administration acts like adjuncts are a dime a dozen."
Sympson's case is far from unusual. Non-tenure-track professors now represent more than 70 percent of the academic workforce, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). As tenure-track jobs give way to what some call higher education's "adjunctification," it isn't just adjuncts who are suffering. The trend also has ramifications for student learning, research and even academic freedom.
Set up to fail
While many assume that economic factors are forcing schools to use adjuncts, the contingent workforce has grown fastest during boom times, says AAUP. Instead of investing in a tenured workforce, AAUP says, schools have invested in technology and facilities. Noting the low pay, long hours, long commutes, instability and lack of benefits, professional support and opportunities for advancement, a 2014 report by the U.S. House of Representatives describes adjuncts as "the working poor."
What happens when students are taught by professors struggling to make a living? A 2014 review of the evidence by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation cites lower graduation and retention rates and decreased transfers from two-year to four-year institutions. Those outcomes aren't the fault of adjuncts but of the last-minute hiring decisions, lack of office space and other supports and other working conditions adjuncts typically face.
That inability to perform to their highest potential can weigh heavily on adjuncts, says Gretchen M. Reevy, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at California State University, East Bay, who credits her union for making adjuncts like her some of the country's luckiest.
In a study of non-tenure-track faculty, Reevy and co-author Grace Deason, PhD, a University of Wisconsin La Crosse assistant psychology professor, found that adjuncts most committed to their school were more likely to suffer stress, anxiety and depression (Frontiers in Psychology, 2014). Other risk factors included low income, inability to find permanent positions and coping mechanisms rooted in denial or giving up.
And being adjuncts renders faculty less able to influence their institutions' administrations, adds Reevy. Adjuncts are typically excluded from governance bodies, so the growing preponderance of adjuncts means faculty have less sway.
"A lot of people aren't involved in curriculum decisions and so forth," she says. "The power is shifting from faculty to the administration."
Research suffers, too, according to an AAUP report. Doing research requires stability and continuity—luxuries many adjuncts lack given their year-to-year or even semester-to-semester appointments, the report emphasizes. In addition, adjuncts often cobble together jobs at multiple institutions or take on extra classes to make ends meet, so they have little time for research. Plus, institutions may not grant adjuncts access to laboratories or even libraries and often exclude them from professional development opportunities.
"Most people with PhDs want to do scholarly work," says Reevy, who has been teaching 10 to 13 classes a year for more than two decades. "It's a waste of their talent."
It's hard to know how many psychology professors are adjuncts, says Eddy Ameen, PhD, who heads APA's Office on Early Career Psychologists. For many, especially practitioners, being an adjunct is "a helpful but minor secondary source of income," he says. Ameen himself is an adjunct professor, a side gig that allows him to keep a hand in academia.
The American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) is trying to determine how many recent grads are struggling as adjuncts, says Joanna Streck, a University of Vermont clinical psychology graduate student who serves on APAGS's Science Committee. She invites adjuncts to email her about their experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although advocates are working to change the system via living wage campaigns, unionizing efforts and calls to create teaching-oriented tenure-track positions, being realistic about your prospects is key, says Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD, associate executive director of APAGS. "Students are being trained for positions that just don't exist anymore," he says.
Instead, he urges academically minded students to consider what used to be called "alternative" careers that will allow them to use their research skills in nonacademic settings. "When half of doctorates may not end up in academic settings anymore, they're no longer 'alternative' careers," he says.
Sympson agrees. "There's no way this represents any kind of a future," she says.
By Rebecca A. Clay
- This article was originally published in the October 2016 Monitor on Psychology