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Types of Professors: Surprising Info About Adjuncts

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It’s slightly embarrassing but I’ve got to admit when I was still in high school, my definition of professor was pretty much “the word they call teachers once you’re in college.”

Then again, I was the first member of my immediate family to pursue a college degree, so it wasn’t like we sat around the dinner table discussing higher-level education. That reason alone is enough to make me feel pretty confident I’m not the only person out there who didn’t really have a grasp on the subject of professors until they got to college themselves.

When I did start college, I realized a few things. Some schools only hire professors with doctoral degrees while others allow professors with master’s degrees to teach; that factor depends on each college or university and their hiring practices. There are also several different types of professors, and the short list below provides some basic information.

Types of Professors

  • Adjunct professor. Adjuncts are part-time professors hired by colleges and universities on a contractual basis. The contracts might be renewed every single semester, but adjuncts aren’t full-time employees of the school so they can be let go at any time. The use of adjunct professors has gained popularity in recent years because adjuncts are not regular employees, meaning the college or university does not have to provide them with benefits such as health insurance. It’s not uncommon for adjunct professors to teach at several different schools in the area.
  • Visiting professor. Visiting professors are usually professors from another distinguished college that are teaching special courses for a set period of time. In some instances, though, visiting professors are distinguished scholars or experts in a particular field that do not teach elsewhere. For example, if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs took on a one-semester teaching gig, they’d most likely be given the title of visiting professor as opposed to the title of adjunct professor.
  • Assistant professor. Recent graduates of doctoral programs are usually given the rank of assistant professor when they’re hired to teach at a college or university. Assistant professors are typically considered to be “on a tenure track.” Tenure is a professor’s permanent job contract; tenured professors have typically worked at the same college or university for a probationary period of six or seven years.
  • Associate professor. Associate professors are usually professors that received tenure at another college or university before being hired at a new school. Some institutions do hire instructors and award them the rank of associate professor even though they were not yet tenured at their previous teaching engagement, and associate professor is considered to be a mid-level ranking in the field of academia.
  • Full professor. Some tenured associate professors are awarded the rank of full professor after a distinguished track record of academic achievement in their field at a particular university. In addition to an increased salary, full professorship comes with added department responsibilities. It’s the highest of the standard academic professor rankings in the United States, and statistics show that the rank is held by approximately 30% of professors.

The Life of an Adjunct

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that more than two-thirds of all new professors hired between the years of 1995 and 1997 were hired as adjuncts, and the trend has only risen in the years since. In fact, the American Association of University Professors reports that more than 50 percent of today’s college faculty holds part-time appointments. Non-tenure-track positions of all types – such as adjuncts— now account for 68 percent of all faculty appointments in American higher education.

A Washington Post piece explained that universities have been cutting back on the percentage of full-time tenure-track professors on their faculties. With each one often costing more than $1.5 million over a career, colleges began to balk. Why pay a full professor $80,000 a year with retirement and health benefits when you could hire a part-timer at a fraction of that?

Some adjunct professors spend more time in their cars than in the classroom, driving from one school to another. The only way they can earn enough to pay their bills is to take on courses at multiple schools, and they often teach double the courses that an associate or full professor teaches.

Why Do Adjuncts Get a Bad Rap?

I’ve had so many professors over the years that I don’t remember most of them, but I do remember that adjuncts were usually the hardest to get in touch with. I took a course last summer and the instructor—an adjunct professor—introduced herself on the first day of class by telling us all of the schools she was currently teaching at. She arrived no more than five minutes before class started—she was often late—and she ran out the door as soon as class ended.

As a working adult, I definitely understand the time constraints that some adjuncts have—especially those that are constantly running from one school to another. I also see things from the point of a paying student, and when it’s difficult to get questions or concerns addressed because the professor was always too busy to respond to emails or voicemails it gets frustrating.

On July 6, 2010 a Higher Education news piece reported that a new study has found freshmen who have many of their courses taught by adjuncts are less likely than other students to return as sophomores. The study, published in the journal Educational Policy, looked at six four-year colleges and universities in a state system.

This isn’t to say that adjunct professors aren’t “as good” as tenure-track professors—I definitely had my fair share of poor-quality tenured professors over the years as well as some excellent adjuncts—but adjuncts are typically harder to reach and often disappear from a school once the semester is over. Budget cuts are everywhere these days, including in the higher education system.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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Daniel R. Safreno about 6 years ago Daniel R. Safreno

I think the take on adjuncts is good but may vary by discipline. I am an adjunct at three universities, teaching over fourteen courses a year. While I realize I could easily be seen (and perhaps accurately) as an academic scab, I bring some things to the experience academics can't. Although I don't hold a doctorate (I hold two masters), I DO bring 35 years of field experience. Since I teach exclusively at the graduate level, I find that I can often have greater facility of framing theory in terms of practice and attend to practical questions in the same tone. Of course, we adjuncts will always be secondary to our more educated brethren ; but we do bring vital and useful morsels to the scholastic feast. As an aside, I am an adjunct with so many courses because I was married and had children later in life. College is so bizarrely expensive now that parents have to dive in or kids spend their lives rowing upstream against a rushing rapid of debt.