From Tenure to Gig: The Evolution of Academic Job Markets

academia adjunct faculty gig economy higher education reform tenure-track Apr 10, 2024
Young college teacher instructing a class.

By Sam Rhinehart - LinkedIn

The rise of the gig economy, fueled by technological advances and shifting workforce preferences, is transforming the landscape of employment. This movement towards more flexible but less stable job opportunities is not only evident in the digital platforms we use every day for food delivery and ridesharing but also quietly reshapes more traditional roles in sectors like healthcare and education. In healthcare, for instance, the reliance on contract nurses and telehealth services reflects this shift. Similarly, the education sector adapts through an increased reliance on part-time instructors and online tutoring services. A striking example of this shift is seen in academia. The sector's increasing reliance on adjunct or non-tenure track faculty positions, rather than stable tenure tracks, presents profound challenges and implications for those entering the academic profession.

The shift towards non-tenure-track positions in academia is reshaping the landscape for those aspiring to secure tenure and professorships. With over 70% of U.S. faculty members currently in non-tenure roles, the ramifications of this trend are profound. While the prospect of flexible scheduling might initially appear attractive, it comes with significant downsides. These include instability, lower wages, and restricted career progression opportunities.

Adrianna Kezar and colleagues, who study this issue, underscore the dire circumstances faced by non-tenure-track faculty, citing “a lack of promotion opportunities, career and economic insecurity, and deprofessionalization reflect the structural exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty as the status quo.” This concise statement encapsulates the multifaceted challenges—ranging from stagnant career paths to financial instability—rooted in the systemic exploitation of adjunct academics, rendering these positions increasingly unattractive and demoralizing.

Moreover, as highlighted in one higher education professional association’s annual report, "the median increase was less than the annual inflation rate for both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty." This observation underscores that the nominal wage adjustments for both tenure and non-tenure faculty often do not keep pace with inflation, significantly eroding the real value of salaries over time. Such erosion of purchasing power, alongside rising living costs, accentuates the precarious financial security faced by academics without tenure.

And while the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 8% growth in the need for postsecondary teachers between 2022 and 2032, this doesn’t make clear whether most of those will be adjuncts or tenure track. Overall college enrollment is stagnant, with some declining pandemic years and lackluster projections for the next several years. As more faculty become contingent the lack of tenure-track positions as a consequence of this trend overshadows this small growth. Additionally, it intensifies the competition within the field of academia, making the journey towards professorship even more daunting.


Moving to a Three-Tier System?

A forward-thinking approach to resolving the tension between the two-tier system of traditional faculty roles and adjunct positions in higher education is the implementation of a three-tier system. This model places tenured faculty at the apex, focusing them on research and the expansion of knowledge within their disciplines. The introduction of a second tier significantly transforms the academic landscape by providing either a version of tenure or strong worker protections and competitive wages for those primarily engaged in teaching. This middle tier, possibly strengthened by unions or recognized as full-time permanent teaching staff, not only addresses the current instability faced by adjuncts but also directly enhances the educational experience for students. It creates a more stable and enriching learning environment, led by experienced professionals who are wholly devoted to education and can fully commit to their teaching responsibilities. This commitment significantly improves the quality of instruction and student support. The final tier maintains the traditional adjunct role, ideally suited for professionals from various fields who wish to impart industry-specific knowledge or for burgeoning academics seeking to accumulate initial teaching experience. This innovative model promises a balanced academic workforce that upholds stability, fairness, and clear career pathways, benefiting the broader educational community by fostering more engaged and dedicated educators. 

Some colleges have something similar to this middle-tier approach. For example, the University of California system has “Lecturers with Security of Employment” (LSOE) roles. The California State University system has three-year renewable contracts, albeit only for those who have served for six years in a contingent role. But so far these are not uniformly instituted across the country, especially at community colleges, which enroll over 40% of all US undergraduates.

Or at the very least, as Davis argues, enhancing job security and increasing wages for adjuncts would not only benefit educators but also positively impact students and offer savings to taxpayers by ensuring adjunct faculty receive a livable wage. This approach promotes a more stable and committed teaching environment, leading to improved educational outcomes.


Deciding Between Tenure-Track or Adjunct

But in the meantime, for aspiring academics aiming for a tenure-track position, preparation is both rigorous and multifaceted, demanding a deep commitment to research, publishing, and the attainment of a PhD. Success in this arena is often measured by one's ability to contribute significantly to their field through peer-reviewed publications and active participation in academic communities, underscoring the importance of a strong research portfolio. This path requires not just academic prowess but also resilience and the strategic cultivation of a professional network that can support and propel one’s career forward. Conversely, for those whose passion lies primarily in teaching, pursuing a master's degree in their field of interest might be a more suitable route. This option can provide a fulfilling opportunity to engage with students and share knowledge without the pressures associated with tenure-track positions. Becoming an adjunct part-time is an excellent way to satisfy the teaching itch, allowing individuals to impart wisdom and engage with the academic community while maintaining flexibility in their professional and personal lives. This dual pathway highlights the diverse aspirations and career trajectories available within the realm of academia, catering to both the research-oriented and those driven by a passion for education.

Actionable Steps for Undergraduates

Optimize your path towards academia, whether it’s aiming for tenure or exploring the adjunct route, with these focused steps:

For Tenure-Track Aspirants:

  • Engage in Research Early: Assist in faculty projects to gain undergraduate research experience.
  • Target Prestigious Graduate Schools: Aim for reputable programs in your field for enhanced opportunities. The more prestigious the institution, the better your odds of landing a tenure-track position.
  • Secure Relevant Internships: Look for internships in respected research institutions or industry labs to supplement academic pursuits.

For Adjunct Route Enthusiasts:

  • Pursue a Master’s Degree: Select graduate programs that offer practical teaching skills and assistantships.
  • Build Teaching Experience: Seek teaching roles in community centers, online, or as a tutor to develop your portfolio.
  • Network with Current Adjuncts: Connect with adjuncts to understand the intricacies and opportunities in adjunct teaching.
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