It’s a Trap: Academic Adjuncts Face a Catch-22

By Graig Graziosi 


Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those considered adjunct faculty both do and teach but are paid less than either.


While the veracity of the George Bernard Shaw quote disparaging teachers is up for debate, the unenviable position of adjunct professors at both Youngstown State University and colleges nationwide is a fact.


There are two distinct groups of non-teaching assistant part-time faculty at YSU. One consists of private sector professionals with industry experience who choose to teach part-time to share their experience with students hoping to enter their field. For that group, pay is less of an issue, as they often have full-time jobs outside the University to provide their needs.


Thomas Sabatini is an adjunct professor at Youngstown State University. He has taught at YSU for 15 years, but has yet to receive a raise or an offer for full-time employment.

The other group of part-time faculty consists of academics, many holding master’s degrees and some with Ph.D.s, that teach a few classes a semester on 15-week contracts. Often times these academics teach courses at several different schools to make ends meet, while some work side gigs to increase their income.


Adjuncts often return year after year to the same schools, working the same 15-week contracts, yet rarely are chosen for full-time positions at the universities where they’re employed.


While the details of their employment seem dismal — low pay with little hope of stability or benefits — many adjuncts continue to pursue it.


For Thomas Sabatini, an adjunct who has taught in the history department for 15 years, the work is more than a means to a paycheck.


“Something happens to somebody when you commit your life to a project … The notion that one should just bail from a profession because it doesn’t give to you in financial returns and in terms of respect exactly what you wanted on the other side seems to be quite frankly undermining the very idea of a profession,” Sabatini said.


Low Pay Profession

The modern understanding of the word profession is synonymous with career, however the root of the word stems from religious orders, whose members professed their faith and dedication to a given order or cause. Sabatini speaks of his work as a professor in accordance with the word’s origin.


“I think anyone who is doing this for the pay we get is doing this because they love it, and you love it not because of the esteem or the ability to further your career or rub shoulders with other professionals at conferences, you do it because you love students,” Sabatini said.


While passion can drive individuals, passion alone doesn’t provide food and shelter.


This is the trap in which many adjuncts find themselves ensnared. They possess a passion for education, and those with terminal degrees in their field — like Sabatini — possess the qualifications for teaching in a full-time capacity. Despite that, many adjuncts find themselves unable to compete for full-time positions.


The Adjunct Trap

For full-time positions at YSU and other universities, many applicants have been published in academic journals and done research that expanded the field.


For many adjuncts, the grind of teaching several courses at a variety of schools paired with a lack of institutional support for research projects and publishing makes it difficult to find the time and money to do research and attend conferences.


This is the catch-22 of teaching part time.


“Original research often requires travel. Original research often requires time. I can’t afford either of those things,” Sabatini said. “If somebody wants to say people with full qualifications who have fallen into the economic trap of being an adjunct are unqualified to teach in a university setting because they aren’t doing original research, I’d respond by saying it’s completely tautological.”


Bruce Waller, the chair of the department of philosophy and religious studies, is tasked with making hiring decisions for his department. In his view, the current model for considering candidates for tenure-track positions is weighed heavily against adjunct faculty.


“It’s really a brutal, ugly circle,” Waller said. “If you are teaching a heavy load and very often teaching at three campuses, which many have to do, after several years of that … you really haven’t had much time to do much research, so you’re at a huge disadvantage against people who’ve spent those years engaging in research.”


Department chairs find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to considering adjuncts for full-time tenure-track positions.


While most chairs sing the praises of adjuncts, with several saying they would be unable to run their departments without them, they still find themselves filling their tenure-track positions with professors outside of the pool of adjuncts.


High Standards and Endless Applicants

There are several reasons for this. Many adjuncts don’t have a terminal degree in their field and are automatically eliminated from consideration. For those who do, they must compete against a slew of highly qualified candidates from around the world. Chairs then must decide whether to reward loyalty and hire a veteran adjunct or select the most qualified candidate from their application pool.


“I wouldn’t have a problem hiring them. It’s just that there’s 50 or 60 people who have much better qualifications for the position,” Waller said. “It’s not fair, it’s not a just system. … They get into [adjunct work] and often wind up working really, really hard for very little return, and it becomes harder and harder for them to find permanent, tenure-track positions.”


Forces outside of the University are also putting pressure on chairs to make careful hiring decisions. YSU Provost Martin Abraham said accreditation agencies force chairs to only consider the most lettered candidates for full-time positions.


“The accrediting agency, Higher Learning Commission, is looking much more carefully at faculty credentials. All of the individual accrediting agencies are also very concerned about the credentials of the faculty, and they have expectations about the degree, and almost exclusively the full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty are expected to have a terminal degree, which in many cases is the Ph.D.,” Abraham said.


Many adjuncts don’t recognize the trap they’re caught in until it’s too late. To compete they must publish and conduct research, which requires money and time, and in order to afford either they must continue teaching large course loads, thus limiting their time to pursue publication or research.


“Honestly I don’t think I will get a tenure track position. In the ways the universities are now set up I’m stale bread,” Sabatini said. “You realize you have to reprioritize your life. Do you commit yourself to publishing in a field that very well may never hire you and commit yourself to chasing every job option no matter where in the country it leads you, or do you just start to live your life?”


For Sabatini and other adjuncts, these feelings of dejection are amplified by a stigma suggesting they are inferior.


Johanna Slivinske, an adjunct professor in the department of social work, likened the adjunct community to an underclass within the University.


“[The stigmatization of adjuncts] has left some feeling like a caste system exists on campus. This has demoralized some adjunct faculty, angered others who wish to be treated as respected professionals and has left others struggling to pay their bills,” she said.


Living with Stigma

This stigma is another facet of the trap. Adjuncts who fail to find full-time positions are eventually believed to be inferior educators, which further undermines their ability to find full-time work.


Matt O’Mansky, chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and gerontology, recognizes the stigma and its crippling effect on job prospects.


“There is a stigma over time where people think, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with you?’ if you’ve been out [of school] for four or five years without a position,” O’Mansky said. “A friend of mine who hasn’t gotten a position yet who’s been out [of school] for five or six years who is phenomenal — he has many publications, grants, research, he’s a dynamic speaker — but any job you apply to you’ll have eight or nine other people who will look just as good, and people tend to not leave the field until they retire.”


A market argument can be made that if people cannot achieve their goals in a particular career field, they should seek employment elsewhere.


Abraham said he’s read these arguments in publications like the Chronicle for Higher Education.


“They talk about the fact that after so many years of doing this, you need to face the reality that you’re not going to get a tenure-track position, and start looking for other work. Probably a true statement,” Abraham said. “There’s reasons probably why they’re not getting a tenure-track offer, and the further you get away from your Ph.D., the more difficult it becomes to get your tenure-track position.”


Sabatini views this thinking as undermining a sense of personal investment and purpose in one’s profession.


“I’m committed to the profession, but I’m not a zealot or a martyr … Do you really have to bleed in order to qualify for a job?” Sabatini said. “One’s passions should not make one a sucker.”