Adjunct Professor vs. Tenured Professor: How Do They Differ?

Adjunct Professor vs. Tenured Professor: How Do They Differ?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
By Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on August 10, 2021

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The number of adjunct professors in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past few decades. But what's the difference between an adjunct professor and a tenured professor? And why does it matter?

In the past, tenured professors made up the vast majority of college instructors. In 1969, about 78% of faculty members worked in a tenured or tenure-track role. By 2018, that number dropped to around 20%.

Today, most professors fall into the contingent category, which can leave many of them in a precarious position. Adjunct professors do not benefit from the same job security or salary as tenured professors, with many comparing them to temp workers or gig workers. The growing number of adjunct professors can also have an impact on college students.

What Is an Adjunct Professor?

An adjunct professor works for a college or university on a contract basis. Almost all of these professionals hold a graduate degree in their field, with many holding doctorates.

Originally, adjunct professors were part-time faculty members who brought expertise from their professions to the classroom. Today, two-thirds of adjunct professors earn their living exclusively from contract college-level instruction. According to a 2018 report, around 25% of adjunct professors hold jobs outside academia, while 10% are retired tenured professors.

Half of all adjunct professors say they would prefer a tenure-track position. Adjunct professor jobs generally pay lower salaries than tenured positions. In a 2020 survey, more than half of adjunct professors reported receiving less than $3,500 per course.

Job security is another issue. Over 70% of adjunct professors work on a per-semester contract. If their institution decides not to renew the contract, adjunct professors can easily find themselves out of work at the end of the term.

What Is a Tenured Professor?

A tenured professor holds a full-time position with job security at the college level. Tenured professors typically enter the academic job market after earning the highest degree in their field, generally a Ph.D., and hold titles like assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor.

Tenured vs. Adjunct Professor Salary

While adjunct and tenured professors often bring similar educational backgrounds to a job and both teach college classes, their salaries can differ dramatically.

How much do adjunct professors make? According to the American Federation of Teachers, which surveyed more than 3,000 adjuncts in 2020, nearly 30% made under $2,500 per course. Over half earned less than $3,500 per course.

Many adjunct professors teach 6-8 classes per year. Some also take on additional classes in the summer to help make ends meet. Despite heavy workloads, more than 1 in 3 adjuncts reported earning less than $25,000 a year.

While adjunct and tenured professors often bring similar educational backgrounds to a job and both teach college classes, their salaries can differ dramatically.

In contrast, many tenured professors only teach around five courses per year. At the average adjunct salary, they would earn under $20,000 a year; however, tenure-track professors typically earn much higher wages.

The 2021 American Association of University Professors salary survey found that assistant professors earned over $83,300 per year on average. Associate professors earned nearly $96,000, whereas full professors reported an average annual salary of $140,500.

Tenure-track salaries vary widely depending on the institution and department. Assistant professors of English at public universities reported making an average annual salary of less than $58,000 for the 2018-19 school year.

Still, these tenure-track professors earn much more than most adjunct professors.

How Adjunct Professors' Plight Affects College Students

From a student's perspective, adjunct and tenured professors often look similar.

Both adjunct and tenured faculty teach college-level courses. Some departments may restrict which courses adjunct professors can teach. In general, tenured professors are more likely to teach upper-division and graduate courses.

Tenure-track and tenured professors also are likely to conduct research in their fields and attend academic conferences. Additionally, they may serve on college committees and take on other service-related responsibilities on campus and in the broader community.

Adjunct professors who earn low salaries and have little job security may not be able to devote as much time and energy to their teaching as they would like.

The growing number of adjunct professors may have a negative impact on students. For example, adjunct professors who are let go by the college at the end of the term may not be able to continue to mentor students or write letters of recommendation. Without an office, adjunct professors must use temporary spaces to meet with students and prepare course materials.

Adjunct professors who earn lower salaries and have little job security may not be able to devote as much time and energy to their teaching as they would like.

Furthermore, many adjunct professors report that they've never been trained on how to manage a campus emergency, how to support students who ask for mental health resources, or how to handle sexual harassment reports from students.

Adjunct Professors Appeal for Better Working Conditions

From a purely budgetary perspective, hiring adjunct professors can save colleges money compared with hiring tenure-track professors. These financial incentives are unlikely to change in the near future.

Adjunct professors have taken several steps to advocate for change. Across the country, adjunct faculty members have formed unions to collectively bargain with colleges. Adjunct professors in the City University of New York system, for example, negotiated three-year contracts.

Many students have voiced their support for adjuncts, joining both adjunct and tenured faculty in demanding higher per-course rates for adjunct professors. Prospective college students can research institutions that hire more tenure-track professors and see what the school offers its adjunct faculty.

If you're considering a career in academia, you may someday find yourself benefiting from these changes in your professional life.

Feature Image: Peter M. Fisher / The Image Bank / Getty Images

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