Monday, February 28, 2011

The Aging Adjunct Is Given a Chance He Might Not Take. He's Ready for Your Scorn.

I had a tenure track job - once. But it was 10 years ago. I ended up having to leave mid-stream because of my father's health problems.
Got Scorn?

But then I found myself unable to get back on the tenure track. I've been adjuncting at a variety of places ever since. I'm one of the classic whiners, too, always bitching about how hard it is, how little money it is, and how we get disrespected. I teach anywhere there are classes, and I'm able to just barely pay my bills. I'm an aging adjunct, unsure of my place in the profession, just scrapping and scraping to have a career.

I've been on the job market for ten years then, and I've applied about 350 times during that stretch. I've had - at most - 25 phone or skype interviews, and 5 glorious campus interviews over those ten years.

And on Friday, for the first time, I received a job offer.

Get ready to paint me as ungrateful or whatever.

The job is at a shitty place, a school I'd never want to tell people about. It's got a lousy reputation, is in a city where I could probably live, but where I would have to leave a good number of friends and family behind - I'm unmarried. The school suffers from OUD, or online university disease. It's mostly known for its wide variety of online degree programs, taught by a dispersed group of adjuncts.

Yes, I know I should have thought more about the place when I first applied. But I don't know how else to explain the desperation of 10 years of adjuncting. I felt as if I'd take a full time job ANYWHERE, and so I applied EVERYWHERE.

And then the job offer.

At first I was ecstatic: health benefits, salary, an office, an academic home, all the stuff I've told myself I longed for. But I called my first buddy to tell him and he said, "Xxxxxxxx College, what's that?" And I started to tell him, "Well, it's a college in Xxxxxxxx; it's got an undergrad population of about 5000, but mostly it's known for their online schools." And my buddy said, "Ohhhhhhhhhh, THAT school."

And all day it went like that. The most encouraging thing I heard was, "Well, at least you'll have a job."

It's ranked in the fourth tier of its region, within 2-3 spots of the very bottom. The facilities are old and in disrepair. They use an inordinately high number of adjuncts in their traditional undergrad college. The faculty in my department seemed unhappy and worn down. One of them drank to near blackout condition at my dinner. One kept saying, "Well, it's nice when class is over each day to go home to my little one and his daddy!"

My buddies are not snobby; I don't think I'm snobby. But the place has got little to offer except for the fact that it's desperate enough to hire me, who's proven to be unhirable for 10 years.

I know that there are much worse problems in academia, but could anyone weigh in with a sincere opinion about my dilemma. I have another day to reply. Of course I want a full time job. I want to be fully employed. I've spent ten years fighting for this chance. I just fucked up by applying to a place (others, too, I'm sure) where I don't think I imagined I'd ever have to consider. I want my career to mean something, to do good work at good places. The truth is, I'd be embarrassed to join Xxxxxxxxxx College.

Has anyone faced this problem down? Can anyone offer some perspective? I'm sick of searching, sick of sending out job letters every year, sick of adjuncting. But will I just exchange those problems for other problems? Should I stay put and keep pitching? What if it's another ten years?

Does anyone teach at a place you're embarrassed to call home?


  1. Larry -- I really sympathize with your plight. I think your response should depend on how much you want to stay in the profession. If you do, you should take the job. The chances that you'll get another after 10 years of adjuncting and what most places will view as a failed first job (not fair, I know, but that's how it goes) are spectacularly slim. The chances that you'll be able to move from that job are also slim, but not nearly as slender as they would be if you continue to adjunct. Bad work gets done in good places; good work gets done in bad places. Your career can be meaningful anywhere. You can also give yourself a deadline: if I can't move from this place after 3-5 years, I'll quit and walk away from the profession.

    If your sanity means more to you than staying in the profession, don't take the job and walk away altogether. Some folks stay adjuncts forever, but they usually have other really important things in their lives that keep them in the same place (kids, family, friends, church, etc) and make the gig liveable. This job will almost certainly kill your soul, but some people are ok with paying that price for the possibility of a good gig down the road.

    Good luck!

  2. Haven't you seen ANY movies about teaching? A professor needs a second chance and gets stuck at a run down school with kids who need a second chance. This could be a hit. A modern day Punky Brewster.

  3. What Cass said. Remember that, if your job is your entire life, you're a typical academic -- but that doesn't make it healthy.

    The place sounds like a shithole. But even shitholes can be livable if you have other things to keep you sane.

  4. Dear Aging Adjunct -- Thank you for reporting that there is another unmarried adjunct out there. The heteronormative bullshit taking place at my esteemed institution in which people say things like "Oh, well, you'll have to go where Atom Smasher goes, right?" is making me kind of insane right now. XO -- B.

  5. Kudos for getting something, anything that will enable you to move away from the adjuncting salt mines.
    Since during all your adjunct years you have probably accumulated a number of research ideas you didn't have time to develop, give yourself three years to write yourself away from that place and move to greener pastures.

  6. Some jobs are too shitty to do, but you won't know that until you give it a stab. I once took a job that had a bunch of warning signs on it because I thought, "well, it's an opportunity", and because it was an offer of a full-time 5 year contract. I lasted 2 months.

    Now, I was lucky because I had a spouse and options, so the whole thing ended up just being a learning experience. I guess my question to you is, can you easily go back to adjuncting if the job ends up being as horrifying as you fear?

    Because it's one thing to take a chance if you have a fallback if it doesn't work out, and quite another to be trapped somewhere.

  7. @Ben: there is now blueberry oatmeal on my computer screen, thanks to Punky Brewster.

    Larry- Cass nailed it. Your non-zero chance of finding employment will go up by a vary large amount while applying from this shit-hole school.

    Although, you may consider taking a lesson for future job applications. If moving away is seeming like such a big loss for you, be very selective of which jobs you apply for not in your chosen geography.

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  9. I say take the job. Both I and Significant Other got offers for TT jobs at Rustic State U., but we turned the offers down because both the jobs and the location looked crappy. It worked out well in that S.O. landed a TT job elsewhere, and I played trailing spouse for a few years before landing a TT job of my own, ...BUT, had I been single, I would've taken the crappy job. It still would have been far preferable to working in adjunct hell.

  10. I'm coming from a somewhat more secure place, since I'm in the odd but relatively fortunate limbo of the full-time contingent (multi-year contract; health; retirement; salary still, after 10 years, below entry-level TT salaries at my institution and inadequate to the local cost of living, but much, much better than what our adjuncts get). Though I'm also single, I have strong ties to my community, and like it that way. If I go back on the market, I will definitely apply pretty selectively. All of which is to say that my instincts may not be entirely relevant to your situation.

    That said, I think I'd sit down and try to break down what you want out of a career, and the life surrounding/enabled by it, into its constituent parts. People have named some of those parts above: teaching, the opportunity to do research, the kind of place you live, personal and institutional ties in a community. You might also factor in service (what you'd like to do and/or would be required to do in this job), and, of course, salary and benefits (and if research is important to you, don't forget library privileges and/or access to whatever other equipment/resources are necessary to your research, if not at the institution itself, then at least in the local area). Finally, since this is hardly your dream job, you should probably factor in opportunities for making the switch to non-academic employment in your present location and the proposed one (if you have a network where you are, and would have none where you're thinking of going, that's a significant factor). I'd do a modified version of the standard pro/con two-column list, noting what you pretty reliably have available to you in your present situation, and what you're quite sure you would have available to you if you took the offered position. You'll probably end up with tradeoffs, but at least it will be clearer what you'd be trading off for what, and whether those choices really match your personal priorities (not some idea inherited from an advisor or someone else of what an academic career "should" look like).

    I *wouldn't* assume that turning down this offer will in any way affect your ability to apply for jobs in the future, negatively or positively. There is a grapevine in academia, but it doesn't sound like many tendrils reach as far as this particular institution, and, from the reactions you've gotten so far, people at better institutions (read most institutions) who do hear about a refusal are going to sympathize with your reasons for turning the offer down.

    I also wouldn't assume that taking this job will serve as a leg up to other TT jobs. Moving and settling into a new place (both town and institution) take time and energy. It also sounds like the institution that is extending the offer takes a lot out of its employees, one way or another. If the key to further mobility is publishing (and it usually is), that doesn't sound too promising. If they offer a research leave in the first 3 years, or enough salary (in relation to the local cost of living -- please don't forget to check that) that you'd be able to do research and/or write during the summers (assuming you can't now), that might be helpful. But you really do need to consider the strong possibility that you'll end up like the zombies who interviewed you (who are presumably the most lively and dedicated of the faculty in the place; you haven't even met the real zombies yet -- but it's also possible, I suppose, that you also haven't met the people who are ducking all possible institutional commitments and hiding out to work on their research. If such people exist, a bit of research using the list of faculty and a database of journals in your field and related ones ought to reveal the fact. If they don't, don't assume that you'll be the exception).

  11. However, I could be wrong about the above two paragraphs. The belief that getting a shitty TT job can lead to getting a better one is certainly strong in academia; I'm just not sure that it's true. I hope people who've actually been on the hiring side will weigh in on whether they look differently at applications from adjuncts vs. those from TT faculty trying to move up from shitholes. My sense is that publications matter at least as much as present position, but I could be wrong about that.

    Good luck; it's not an easy decision.

  12. I sympathize. I'm also an older adjunct (midlife career change in my case). I can't tell you what to do as I can see both big benefits and big drawbacks. I lean towards taking the job simply because you can chose to leave if it is absolutely unbearable.

  13. Take. The. Fucking. Job. Would you be any worse off than you currently are?

  14. Remember: "Permanent position" means permanent for them, not permanent for you. Burn no bridges and keep your escape pod handy.

  15. Aging Adjunct says it all. You've got to strike now while an offer is there, unless you want more of what you've got.

    Of course it's something you and only you can weigh. Imagine the new position, city, etc. and think about what your self-worth would be there. Crappy school doesn't mean you have to do crappy work. You'll leave friends behind, but so have we all. If getting a fulltime gig is important - and it sounds like it is - then take the job and make the best of it.

  16. Dr. Nathaniel nailed it...permanent for them, not you. I say take it, and in your time there, rake in a more respectable/livable salary while you continue to look elsewhere (and I'm a strong advocate of looking outside the universities.) If you wind up sticking around, at least you'll have a decent income and you're off the damn adjunct treadmill.

  17. Dude, take it. TAKE IT.

    You're ageing. Soon you'll have a whole host of other problems. You need stability, NOW, and you need to start replenishing your savings coffers.

    There is no time for you to keep bumping around. You have no options. Take the job, work hard, keep an eye out, and start saving for your old age.

    No, I'm not assuming you're 55. But most people need to save from age 35 to 65 in order to have only half of what retirement will take. You're five ways to screwed. Take the bloody job.

  18. I also say take it. It is true that it's not the job you want, but you don't have to stay there. It is true that a TT job doesn't guarantee you an ability to get another TT job, a better one, somewhere else, but it is certainly also true that a TT job VASTLY increases your chances of getting another job somewhere else.

    Two stories of friends of mine. Both of them were offered undesirable TT jobs. One took the job, the other didn't.

    The one who took the job spent 3 years there, decided he really wasn't happy, applied elsewhere and got another job somewhere preferable. Even before that, of course, he was getting paid a decent wage, benefits, etc etc.

    The one who did not take the job is still adjuncting.

    This permanent job is not a life sentence. Give yourself 3 years. Maybe you can change the place. Maybe it will turn out you like it. If neither of those things is true you will be in a vastly better position to get a job somewhere else. You'll also be in a vastly better position to just walk away, if that's what you decide to do; because you'll be in a position to have saved some money, which isn't happening now.

    Take it. Really.

  19. One question that I don't think has been addressed sufficiently is the idea of being embarrassed by our institution.

    I was in such a situation for a year and it drove me to take a less secure job (off the tenure track) at another, better school.

    There is - I think - a healthy amount of shame many of us carry around because we didn't get the kinds of jobs that our mentors had out of college.

    I remember telling my grad advisor about my first tenure track job and he thought I was joking. All that teaching? At that shitty school? Who'd even heard of it?

    He started out at Virginia teaching a 2/2 load 20 years ago. The notion of one of his advisees teaching 4/4 out of the gate was almost too much for him. I felt - and still feel - shame for not turning out better.

    I'm quite a ways into my career, and am still not teaching the kind of job I expected would be mine, and certainly not one that I would call my old advisor about.

  20. @Reg

    Fortunately, I think many advisers are finally understanding the more realistic situation facing their students. Even R1 university grads are happy to teach a 4/4 load in the middle of nowhere for only $45,000/year. Such a plight would have been unthinkable for anyone worth their salt from these large institutions just a decade ago.

    Of course, it all boils down to the original problem: don't go to grad school, don't go to grad school.

  21. What AM said.

    Also, I actually ENJOY pointing out these inequalities to my graduate advisor. He studies LABOR and I'm all "Dude, this is a LABOR ISSUE" and he says "What are you, Madison all of a sudden?"

  22. Reg, some faculty were better students than they are advisors.

  23. "good work gets done in bad places" - nailed on the fucking head.
    Maybe you'll be surrounded by suckiness, but if you yourself do a good job, you might be happier with yourself than you are otherwise anticipating. I teach at an institution with a lowly, lowly reputation (undeserved in many cases, in my opinion), the colleagues who do really good work are happy with where they are and what they've done.

  24. One of them drank to near blackout condition at my dinner.

    That's a positive, not a negative.

  25. Aging Adjunct, as long as you aren't teaching at "Bill" Murray State* or one of those unaccredited Christian colleges, Internet Junkie University should do....unless both the student body and your collegues turn out to be raging scumfucks. Then you can cut them all down to size on CM.

    BlackDog, your advisor sounds like he says "durr" alot, so we will dub him Mr. Derp. I guess that teaching is not some form of labor to Mr. Derp; it's a hobby until the instructors can go pro in professional Badminton or Peewee race car driving.


    *Yeah, it's a dumb pun; I was going to make some disparaging remarks about Northeastern Ghetto Tech, but NGT doesn't suffer from the online clap, just teenage alcoholism and mugging.

  26. Take. The. Job. If it turns out to suck as much as you think it *might* then you can quit and go back to adjuncting. But maybe it won't suck. Maybe you'll make a friend or two. Maybe you'll be able to help a few students put their feet on a path to a better life. Even shitty colleges do that.

    I say this as someone who spent 9 years as an adjunct before landing a TT gig at an institution that may or may not be circling the drain any day now. The pay sucks and the workload is stoopid but it's a stable job in a shitty economy, and I'll do it with a fucking smile on my face until I can find another one that pays better...

  27. Take the job. I spent too many years on the postdoc/Accursed VAP treadmill. Nearly all that chronic anxiety disappeared, when I got tenure.

    I was embarrassed to be here too, at first, especially since I'd just been near Kennedy Space Center, but I really couldn't live at the university that was exploiting me as a VAP: all they could offer me was a one-year extension to prolong the agony. It was a difficult transition, but I've now made a nice little enclave here. A cynic might call it a rut, but I've now had multiple student successes, despite the signal-to-noise ratio being low. More to the point, I have friends here: I'd be missed, if I were to leave.

  28. Frod's got the right idea.

    There is no Utopia. Even Harvard has assholes and fucktards. And the students are not perfect there, that's for sure.

    So take the damn job. Maybe it's not perfect, but those amicable alcoholic colleagues will appreciate you. And you'll begin to accumulate retirement money. And when you get pneumonia six months from now, you'll go to the hospital without filing for bankruptcy. If you miss your friends, then use Skype. If you Skype your friends and still feel lonely, then quit and move back to your sucky little adjunct job.

  29. The best advice my adviser ever gave me was "take the job; it's much easier to get another job when you already have one than one when you don't".
    The best advice my old music teacher ever gave me was "take the gig; even if it's total square music (he was a hep cat) and everyone makes fun of you, you got a gig and you're doing your thing- playing music- and that makes you a better cat than the dude who plays bebop in his bedroom all day but can't pay his bills."

    When you bring yourself and your talent and hard graft to it, there's never any shame in doing the gig, no matter how crap it seems.

    Take the gig, man. (Thanks, Lee)

  30. Adding my voice to the chorus to take. The. Job. That would be my advice whether it was an academic job or any other kind of salaried position.

    What are you, forty or so? At least that is my guess. Maybe mid-forties. Are you happy to be middle-aged with no health insurance and barely paying your bills?

    Other jobs are not coming your way, dude. That ship has sailed. You have to do this one and maybe, as others have observed, you can get out eventually and go somewhere better.

    What do you care what your idiot friends think? Are they putting you on their health insurance? Paying your rent? Have they been paying attention to the meager living you've been scratching out for yourself, cobbling together just barely enough work and money to keep head above water now, with no thought to the future?

    Are you a trust fund baby? Expect a big inheritance? No? THEN TAKE THE JOB. There will be students. You will teach them. There will be an office. You will sit in it, and surf the net. There will be a pension. Your employer will contribute to it. There will be health insurance. You will go to the doctor and benefit from it.

    Take the job.

  31. I feel like I'm "me too"-ing here, but something is better than nothing if academia is truly your dream. Being at a terrible university gives you job security, benefits, and extra experience at the full-time level. You may be able to parlay that into something better. If not, you may decide that academia isn't what you really wanted, but you can take advantage of any tuition benefits to train for another career.

    My first full-time experience was as a VAP at Armpit U. I was looking for a new job within a week of being there. But if I hadn't worked at Armpit U, I would not have the job I have today, and the search committee told me that. It's no utopia, but it is a good job with good benefits and a place where I still feel I can make a difference in students' lives.

    Give it a shot. You never know what will happen, but whatever it is, it can't be worse than freeway flying indefinitely.

  32. I appreciate all the advice. I did accept the job. I have reservations, but all of the points made here were very valid. I'm going to give it my best.

    Aging Adjunct


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