American education relies on adjunct professors who teach in university and community college classrooms on a contract basis. The trend toward shifting teaching loads to an adjunct workforce is speeding up, with 75% of college classroom instructors now working in a non-tenure track position. While their numbers are increasing, many adjunct professors are considering a career change for the reasons outlined below.
Despite their extensive educational backgrounds, adjunct professors still earn low wages, receive no benefits, and face a dead-end career path. Most of the time, they don’t know from semester to semester how many classes they will teach, so job security is non-existent. The situation for adjunct professors worsened during the pandemic, when 40% of U.S. adjunct professors needed government assistance to make ends meet, and 25% earned a salary below the federal poverty level.
In one study of 4,000 part-time faculty members, 75% of adjunct professors said they felt underemployed and would prefer a full-time position. The odds of that happening are not good, with an optimistic estimate being somewhere between 10%-25% for new PhDs and worse for adjunct faculty because it is unusual for colleges and universities to hire adjunct faculty for tenure track jobs.
As working conditions worsen, many adjunct professors want to unionize, which has the potential to improve this career choice, but has not yet gained traction. What does this mean for adjunct professors who love to teach? It may mean that adjunct teaching makes a good side gig, but is a tough way to earn a comfortable living.
But there is still hope, because adjunct professors have many transferable skills that can enable them to analyze what they like best about their adjunct teaching career, and find other ways to use those skills. This article explores career change for adjunct professors.
Adjunct Professor Career Change Possibilities
Some areas to which professors can make a career transition include these options:
Content creation and management
Customer success management
Learning and development
Project or program management
Steps for Career Change
The career change steps for adjunct professors are:
1. Identify your skills and strengths. Your favorite parts of your current job are the foundation for your next job.
2. Research career fields that would make use of your skills. An excellent tool is LinkedIn’s Career Explorer, explained here by executive resume writer Donna Svei. In addition to using LinkedIn, you can read books about the new career area, take classes to gain new skills (preferably free and affordable classes, not new degrees!), listen to podcasts about academic career change and the new career area, and join professional associations in person or online to meet people already working in your new targeted career area.
3. Learn how to communicate the relevance of your skills to other career fields. Often, this involves learning a whole new career language. The best ways to learn the new language are to read materials published in the new career field and attend conferences or meetups in the new career area.
4. Make a plan to transition into a new career. The plan should include steps you learned from other people who made a similar career change or advice from career coaches who know about career changes.
5. Find practical and emotional support from others. This group could include family, friends, professional networking groups, or career development professionals. A mix of face-to-face and online networking is great, but 100% online networking can be effective, too, especially post-pandemic.
6. Implement the plan. This part can make you feel frustrated, impatient, and pessimistic, which is why you need the support described in Step 5. The people who make successful career changes are the people who persist despite challenges.
Resources for Career Change for Adjunct Professors
Here are some resources to explore (some free and some for a fee) – I only included options here that seem like a reasonable investment. I did not include some options that cost $3-5K and have mixed reviews online.
Beyond Prof – Empowering PhDs to Build Meaningful Careers ($297 for 6 months)
Imagine PhD – A Career Exploration Tool for the Humanities and Social Sciences (free)
myIDP (Individual Development Plan) – For Science PhDs. (Free)
The Versatile PhD – Helping graduate students, ABDs, and PhDs identify, prepare for, and excel in professional careers (Mix of free and paid content).
Having helped many adjunct professors make career changes, the best predictors of success are (1) A mindset that includes the willingness to learn whatever is needed to succeed in the new career path, (2) A determination to connect with people in the new career field because people in the new career field because successful career changes require their help.
Many adjunct professors have made successful career changes, and so can you. If you feel stuck and you don’t know what to do next, building new adding and making new connections are two tried-and-true career strategies. The key is to act because action creates momentum. PhDs are excellent at thinking and researching, but too much of those and not enough taking action can stall a career change.
If you are an adjunct professor thinking about a career change and you have career questions, submit your question to me and I may choose your question for my Ask A Career Coach column.
Photo Credit: UCLA