Why you should not become an adjunct—yet

Some controversial and unpopular advice on ultimately succeeding in academia
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
November 1, 2019

Matthew Wright is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Physics at Adelphi University

There is a lot in the academic media these days about how tough the working conditions are for adjunct professors: little pay, significantly fewer resources, no benefits. Even though the lifestyle is difficult, many professionals with doctorates are staying put and holding on to the dream of academia—despite the fact that they might be wildly successful doing something else.
They pour into our colleges and universities, and many hope that veteran faculty will be so overwhelmed by their genius that they’ll be hired on the spot as permanent full-timers.

But here’s the reality: Full-time faculty positions are in demand and will probably end up going to other people. So I am going to offer some advice to future adjuncts that is really controversial and highly unpopular.
Don’t be one—until you look for a job outside of higher education first.

Go outside of academia

If your dream is to become a faculty member, don’t waste away in adjunct and visiting professor positions. Do something profound outside of academia once you’ve earned your doctorate, and then worm your way back into higher education after a couple of years.

While you’re outside of the academy, develop an arsenal of skills and a network of people. Explore solid, intellectual and well-paying jobs that can challenge you while inspiring your growth and success.

You may consider exploring positions at consulting firms, which serve as good starting points for academics who venture into the private sector. Such firms provide training and help smooth the transition. No matter what, know that looking for the right job is difficult, and it demands a team effort. Work with everyone in your network, and rely on your creativity.

If your dream is to become a faculty member, don’t waste away in adjunct and visiting professor positions.

Once you land a position, you’ll be able to prove to colleges and universities—especially in the humanities—that you have real-world experience beyond academia. In my case, the additional training has been instrumental in how I approach my professional activities, from how I write to how I teach and how I approach people.

Return to school

I am now a tenured professor and chair of the physics department at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. Being a professor is amazing. I love my job. I basically get to set my own hours, study whatever I am interested in, and get to know some amazing people. I am blessed and thankful to have this life.

But before I became a professor, I took my doctorate and found a job at Princeton Consultants. It’s an excellent firm. Each consultant did wonderful work. It was filled with intelligent, friendly people—many of whom had doctorates. Now, as a professor, I reference my work at that consulting firm more times than I can count.

Having for-profit world experience gave me prestige. It was satisfying work with challenging problems to solve, and it provided good money. I remember walking onto a car lot and the dealer encouraging me to take any car for a test drive. Now, I am a professor. I walk to work to save money, and until recently, my wife drove a 2003 Dodge Stratus with a broken transmission.

Let me be frank: Finding a full-time teaching position at a university is tough. Departments are usually focused on hiring people on the well-worn path. After trying and failing to score an offer, I eventually did another postdoctorate and was hired. But I made more money and created more career opportunities by leaving academia temporarily, rather than lingering and hoping for the best as an adjunct.

This isn’t as bleak as it may sound. If you obtained your doctorate, you are bright, successful and resourceful. You have skills that people need. So consider taking those skills outside of academia for a while, and using that experience to get hired as a professor down the road.
There is no doubt that it made a difference for me.

Matthew Wright is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Physics at Adelphi University in New York.