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How Do You Make a Living, Visiting Professor?

Former adjunct Monica Brannon talks to Noah Davis about low pay, the difficulties of finishing a dissertation, and why she didn't just get a job in a restaurant.
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(Photo: Monica Brannon) 

(Photo: Monica Brannon) 

While she was getting her Ph.D. in sociology from the New School, Monica Brannon spent hundreds of hours working as an adjunct at the City University of New York and other schools in order to help pay her rent and expenses. It's a path followed by thousands of would-be professors around the country and a serious issue in the world of academia. Brannon, who now holds a temporary position at Bowdoin College, talked about low pay in the adjunct world, the difficulties of finishing a dissertation, and why she didn't just get a job in a restaurant.

What's your job now?

I'm a visiting assistant professor at Bowdoin College. It's a temporary position. I'm in my second year of doing this. There's no permanency to it. I'm just filling in for different people on sabbatical. But it's a very different position than adjuncting because of the institutional support that you get as a visiting professor versus an adjunct, as well as the status jump.

What do you mean by support?

An office. A computer. I get pens if I need them [laughs]. But also research money and teaching development. You get mentorship, which is a tremendous difference. You're actually part of a department, meaning you go to faculty meetings. You have a different relationship with students. You are expected to be present on campus outside of just your teaching.

How long were you adjuncting?

I did that through graduate school, probably about five years. I just finished graduate school last [year]. This is my first position after graduate school. I usually taught three classes a semester. As a graduate student, I was also teaching at my own institution, so that was a different position with teaching fellowships.

Were your peers also adjuncting?

They all were at my graduate institution. I think my experience was a little bit different from others, meaning that everyone who went to the New School taught a tremendous amount compared to other students. That was both because we were living in New York and also because there was less funding at the New School. Every one of my peers that I knew was adjuncting.

Did that cut into the time you could spend working toward your Ph.D.?

Absolutely. We were expected to teach at the New School, and often we were teaching more than our professors were teaching. And we're also writing dissertations at the same time. And we were also adjuncting. One big disconnect is that at the institutions where you are adjuncting—in my case, CUNY, primarily—no one has any understanding or concern with your own graduate work. It's not the same as teaching at your own institution where the faculty understands that you're writing or you're researching. There was never any relatability between those two worlds. I don't know the exact statistics, but it took all of us at the New School a lot longer to finish our dissertations than at schools where the students were fully funded and not teaching at all.

How did you find adjuncting opportunities? Was there a graduate school network?

I did two different things. There is a long line of this network at the New School. You can get advice about how to find these jobs or a peer will say something about a new opportunity. I actually sent my CV to every single chair of a sociology department in New York City and the surrounding areas. I happened to get a job because someone got my CV the moment that they realized they needed an instructor. It was the timing and nothing else. My peers got jobs more through the network.

How much did you make per class?

It's different at different places, but at CUNY it was about $3,000 a class, depending on how many you taught. It was $2,900 for one class but an average of $3,100 if you taught two classes. I had a friend who taught at Rutgers-Newark and she made $4,500. The rumor is that New York University makes $5,000 a class. When I taught in the Midwest, the lowest I made was $2,100.

Did you ever think about working at a restaurant or something where you could probably make more money?

Yes. I also nannied through the first part of graduate school. I had friends who bartended or worked at a wine store and also adjuncted. A lot of people would package these jobs together. But the idea is that adjucting is actually helpful for your future. You are getting teaching experience. It does look better on your CV if you're teaching rather than nannying. There is a benefit to it. I do have way more teaching experience than a lot of my peers. That's what keeps people doing it, at least those who are in graduate school.

Do you feel like having that experience helped when you applied for the job at Bowdoin?

I could say: "I've taught this class six times. Here's my syllabus." But in another realm, it doesn't necessarily benefit you because it looks like you had to work. I've heard different advice. Some people tell me not to say how much I've taught because it's a mark on your record. My faculty told me that I had to explain that it took me so long to finish my dissertation because I was teaching and frame that as a positive thing. At least in my own position now, which is primarily a teaching position, it definitely helped.

What's your plan from here?

I'm on the job market because I'm still in a temporary position. I still hope that I'll get a tenure-track job. It's a huge problem that even in my own position, which is a little bit more stable and a little bit more guaranteed, I will spend a lot of time next year applying for jobs rather than doing my own research. But I feel very grateful that I have this rather than adjuncting. I'm teaching less at Bowdoin than I was as an adjunct and making way more money.


How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.