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What is Adjunct Faculty?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The term “adjunct faculty” describes university professors who are hired on a temporary track, often to teach only a course or two for a single semester or year. This sort of position is most common in the United States, but in other countries, the terms “visiting professor” or “lecturer” may cover roughly the same job. Adjuncts typically teach reduced course loads as compared to their more permanent peers, and they also have little if any job security. They are usually hired to fulfill specific university needs, like temporary boosts in enrollments or student interest in particular electives, and as such, their contracts are designed to be flexible and are subject to change at any time.

Differences Between Adjunct and Tenured Faculty

American universities typically hire faculty in two “tiers” based on permanency. “Tenure-track” professors are academics who are or who hope to become permanent members of a certain department’s teaching team. They usually have or are working towards contracts that make it very difficult for them to be fired or let go. This is often seen as the best sort of position to have, as it allows the faculty member leeway when it comes to setting a curriculum and engaging in independent research.

Adjunct and other temporary teaching staff make up the second tier. Faculty in this category are usually hired on a very loose basis, often just to cover a single lecture or to teach one particular subject. Even if these teachers are very good and well loved by students, schools can rarely offer them permanency. As such, they are much more constrained by official university rules and are not often able to be as creative in their teaching as those with stronger job protections. In some cases, faculty in this category may not receive all of the benefits a full professor would, either, including health insurance and paid vacation time.

Most adjuncts have the same basic credentials as their tenured peers. Both generally hold doctorate degrees in their area of expertise and usually also have some experience teaching or at least assistant-teaching at the university level. Adjuncts who hope to pursue professorship as a full-time career often view their work as a way to either gain experience or buy time while waiting for a tenure-track opening.

Temporary Nature of the Position

One of the most common reasons to hire adjunct faculty is to supplement existing teaching staff in the short term. Colleges and universities may do this when enrollment exceeds expectations or during the course of an expansion when hiring tenure-track professors would be too expensive. Universities often prefer this sort of hiring structure because it gives them maximum flexibility. When positions are no longer needed or if classes are no longer in demand, the professors can simply be let go.

Downsides for Academics

Taking a job as an adjunct professor can be somewhat risky for an academic when it comes to building up a reputation and establishing credentials. Adjuncts must typically arrange their schedules and research agendas around the needs of the university without regard to their own personal interests. It can be hard for those in these positions to get much original writing and research done, and they may have to put their creativity on hold when it comes to curriculum development and course design.

Student interactions may also be more difficult for adjuncts, depending on the specifics of the situation. In many schools, temporary faculty members do not have offices, or else they share office space with other people. This can make it hard to schedule meetings or provide mentorship outside of the classroom, which can affect the overall quality of the adjunct’s teaching as well as the overall value he or she brings to the school.

Possible Benefits and Flexibility

Not everything about being an adjunct is bad, though. Academics who are near retirement or who are merely visiting from other universities often appreciate the looser, more flexible nature of the position. People who do not need permanency frequently find the situation ideal. It is usually hardest for junior faculty who are just starting out.

Some adjuncts are not even academics at all, as is the case with subject matter experts and industry professionals. A renowned community lawyer may adjunct at a local law school to teach a single course on criminal procedure, for instance, or a corporate executive might teach a semester’s worth of business courses in a university’s evening program. The option to adjunct is often ideal in these situations, as students can benefit from the person's expertise without expecting those experts to give up their regular jobs.

Potential for Abuse

Some universities have been criticized for relying too heavily on adjunct faculty for financial reasons unrelated to expert flexibility or student benefit. It is almost always cheaper to hire temporary rather than tenure-track faculty, but skeptics worry that this trend will degrade academia over time. Many argue that the university system was designed to promote independent research and intellectual freedom as much or more than it was meant to provide classes on demand. Transitioning to a system where professors enjoy no security may hamper the overall effectiveness of teaching, they say, and could actually provide a worse experience for students.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon132751 — On Dec 08, 2010

Does anyone know whether part time adjunct faculty in PA and NY get health insurance from their employers? In PA one cannot get onto Fair Plan if having had any insurance the last six months, yet I cannot afford to buy one (unemployed for four months). I know not what to do.

By jsw23 — On Jul 12, 2010

Adjunct faculty members are often selected for employment at a university based on the person's high degree of specialization. For instance, a college may choose to hire a Milton scholar to be an adjunct faculty member based on his/her highly specialized knowledge about Milton.

By anon73402 — On Mar 27, 2010

This article's reference to "They do not have access to health care, retirement benefits, paid vacations, and other benefits provided to full timers." is not correct in Ohio.

Any and all classroom teachers of any subject in Ohio are mandated by Ohio to participate in STRS, State Teachers Retirement System.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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