One rarely hears the word “perks” or “advantages” applied to adjunct work — and with good reason. But despite the often deplorable working conditions of adjuncts, there can be moments of opportunity. In this piece, I write about six potential benefits of adjunct work, which may be useful for individuals hoping to move into full-time teaching positions or doctoral programs.

Before I go further, I want to offer a disclaimer: I do not condone the way academia treats contingent labor. Having worked as an adjunct, I understand how exploitative, unfair, and (let’s be honest) downright shitty the working conditions can be. Moreover, despite the fact that I’m no longer primarily employed as an adjunct (though I continue to teach online classes to supplement my graduate student income), the hardships of those who do does not escape me. I have many close friends and colleagues (not to mention a spouse) who work as adjuncts, and the trials they face weigh heavily on me. While I focus in this piece on how to make the most out of adjunct life, I understand that my situation afforded me opportunities others may not have.

 I first became an adjunct after finishing an M.A. in English Literature at Appalachian State University. After completing my degree, the English department hired me, along with a number of my colleagues, to teach first-year writing and Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) courses for the General Education program. Over the span of four years, I continued to work as an adjunct while climbing my way up to a low-paying, yet benefitted position within the department. While the workload and salary were untenable (I still had to teach at two other institutions simultaneously to make ends meet), there were some benefits to working as an adjunct at ASU, many of which contributed substantially to my professional development as a teacher and scholar.

Over the course of four years, for instance, I was able to hone my teaching skills, complete a graduate certificate, become a Digital Media Consultant for the WAC program, and serve as the Assistant Director of Composition. In the midst of all this, I also figured out what I wanted to do professionally. At first I thought I wanted a Ph.D. in African women’s literature, but after teaching primarily writing-intensive courses as an adjunct, I came to realize that the teaching of writing, rather than literature, kept me motivated as a scholar and educator. This realization eventually led me to apply to doctoral programs in my current field of study, Rhetoric and Composition.

As an adjunct, I also learned what it was like to negotiate a demanding and divergent workload, particularly as I taught at three institutions and under three different supervisors. This experience, almost more so than any other, prepared me for the diverse work I now engage in as a Ph.D. student.

Yet another benefit is that I learned early on how to get funding and whom to ask for it. During my last year of service at ASU, the work I performed as the Assistant Director was entirely unsupported, and I received neither course releases nor financial remuneration for my work. I quickly learned, however, that even though I could not secure a course release or an equitable salary, I could successfully point to my unpaid work as a rationale for requesting additional travel funds from our department chair.

While the above narrative captures some of the personal rewards I gained from working as an adjunct, I want to share six other potential benefits of adjunct work, which may be useful for individuals hoping to move into full-time teaching positions or doctoral programs.

1.) Engage in Professional Development. Attend workshops and conferences, especially if you get funding. If these options aren’t available, see if your institution offers university-sponsored workshops (which are often low-cost or free) that allow you to engage in professional development without worrying about travel expenses. Take what you learn from these opportunities back to your classrooms and experiment. In addition, use professional development opportunities to improve not only your teaching, but to also beef up your curriculum vitae. You never know when a new job position or promotion might crop up.

2.) Build Relationships with Fellow Teachers and Mentors. Being an adjunct puts you in a good position to discover who it is in your department that you admire or want to work with. Get to know these individuals, especially if you think they can support you in your teaching or might be willing to help you advance your career. If you think you may work as an adjunct long-term, join forces with people who are willing to advocate for higher pay, improved working conditions, and benefits. Form coalitions with these individuals, set an agenda, and get things done.

3.) Experience the Life of a Department. Although adjuncthood often limits your ability to fully engage in the life of a department by voting or influencing programmatic changes, you can still get a feel for how a department operates (and what political alliances are at work) by attending meetings and serving on committees. This experience will be invaluable when you enter the job market.

4.) Develop a Professional Agenda. Now is a good time to lay the brickwork for a career beyond being an adjunct. If you can, carve out time to take classes to keep yourself energized and up-to-date on scholarship in your field. Talk to individuals who have experience or advice about where you might go or what you might do after you’ve had enough of adjunct life. Stay alert to the job market and how different professional tracks may help or hinder you.

5.) Make Waves. When you’re an adjunct, it’s easy to focus on the negative, but one of the few advantages is that we can be activists. Whenever possible, join or form on-campus and online activist communities (such as the New Faculty Majority) that strive to make adjunct working conditions visible to both academic and non-academic audiences. Talk to tenured and tenure-track faculty, department chairs, and cross-campus faculty about your employment situation as well as that of your colleagues. Emphasize to others that your working conditions are also student learning conditions. See yourself as someone who can make a difference.

6.) Understand What It’s Like to Work as an AdjunctEveryone should know what it’s like to live and work as an adjunct, if only for a short period of time. This is especially important for individuals who see themselves working in academia and who may very well end up supervising, working with, or voting on issues that shape adjuncts’ livelihoods.

While I hope some individuals find the opportunities I’ve outlined here useful, I want to again make it clear that I do not support the inherently exploitative nature of adjunct work. I also understand that in many departments the opportunities afforded me (and many of my colleagues who went on to pursue doctoral work or full-time employment) were the exception rather than the norm. I was fortunate to be able to work within a writing program run by a handful of exceptional individuals who recognized the value of supporting non-tenured faculty and who sought to make our lives as bearable as possible within a largely untenable system. Not all departments have the resources and inclination to help adjuncts in such a way.

The point I am making is that for those of us who find ourselves working as adjuncts, it’s worth knowing ways to make the situation better or to learn skills that can transfer to future career paths. It’s easy to get discouraged, but sometimes having “small victories” like being able to fill a research niche, building camaraderie with fellow adjuncts, or experimenting with innovative teaching practices can keep you going. Moreover, these accomplishments can help you lay the groundwork for moving beyond adjuncthood or for playing a role in reforming the system.

This piece is dedicated to the English faculty at Appalachian State University who have striven to create viable employment opportunities for adjuncts. Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do. 

[Photo by eren {sea+prairie}]