I am something you don’t read about very often… part-time, adjunct faculty… and happy. This is not the career I had in mind when I started my PhD program; the only career goal I’ve ever had was to be a scientist and professor. But as I neared the end of my program, I realized that my dream job might not be compatible with my overall dream life.
I started my PhD program single, childless and ambitious, ready to throw myself over to the process and lovestruck with the culture of ecology. I followed every piece of advice. I applied for grants, was awarded a fellowship, published, and by all accounts was poised to “make it” – post-doc then tenure-track job. But a few years can change a lot, and other priorities began to creep in. My husband, married in year one. My father, his cancer, rapid decline, and death, in year two. My daughter, born in year two. My son, born year four.
Marriage, birth, death. These events can make one think, and as I neared the end of my program, my husband and I decided that our priority was landing in a place we love near people we love. The chance of both of us landing jobs at the same time in one of the spots on our list seemed unlikely. So we would both look for jobs, and whoever could get us there first would lead the way. The other would have to figure it out. My husband, a non-academic biologist, was first. A dream job in a dream location, a small rural community within an hour of family, friends, the ocean, and our favorite city. We were thrilled, and made the move two days after my final field season. I told my advisor I would finish up while looking for post-docs and writing some grant proposals, crossing my fingers that I would ultimately find a tenure-track job within commuting distance. I spent the next year and a half writing my dissertation while far removed from academic culture.
In addition to a break from academic culture, it was also a break from having the kids in daycare full-time. Our high cost-of-living area ruled that out, so I spent the mornings working and the afternoons with my kids. This new flexibility was a breath of fresh air. We would go to the park or play in the garden, and I could stay home when they were sick rather than frantically trying to find a sitter who doesn’t mind the chicken pox or high fevers.
Slowly, during my isolation from the influence of academia, I found that my career goals had changed. I never wrote those grant proposals, and I was surprisingly relieved when I didn’t get a tenure-track job I interviewed for. But what would I do? Being a full-time stay-at-home mom has never appealed to me (and we couldn’t afford it even if it did). I could never leave science altogether – it is in my blood, part of who I am.
I applied to teach at the local junior college, thinking it would be temporary. I love teaching, but I’d had a bad experience at a JC years ago, unmotivated students and pay that barely covered my gas to get there. These are the stories we read about life as an adjunct. Teaching four to six classes at three campuses and still living on food stamps. “I could do this for a year, but no longer than that” I told my husband going into it.
So will this be another post about the plight of the exploited, underpaid, undervalued adjunct professor with no job security? Nope. I don’t argue that many, most even, are underpaid and undervalued. But it varies dramatically from place-to-place and person-to-person. And for me, right now, it is a perfect fit.
I have found my niche, teaching one to two courses a semester, including upper division courses within my specialty. I get to choose what I will teach and when it is scheduled, so I can plan around my kids’ school schedule. I work with intelligent and welcoming colleagues. Most of the full-time professors, and some other part-timers have PhDs. They’ve opted for a junior college because they are passionately devoted to teaching and helping students achieve their dreams. They are truly lovely people to work with and a refreshing change from the egos I encountered daily during my PhD. I teach diverse motivated students, and importantly, I am well-compensated for my time. My college is at the high-end of the pay scale nationally. No, I don’t make the salary of a tenure-track professor, but nor do I have the responsibilities that entails… no required faculty meetings, no advising, and no service requirements. I have the luxury of coming to campus, teaching my courses, and then going home.
But the best thing about working part-time is what I go home too… enormous hugs that nearly knock me off my feet and an afternoon of possibilities – a hike, the park with friends, a bike ride to throw rocks in the creek, driving to the coast to pick blackberries, or staying home to work in the garden or cozy up on the couch. After years of full-time daycare while in graduate school, I would not trade our afternoon adventures for anything. Don’t get me wrong, I never wanted to be a full-time stay-at-home mom and I still don’t. But this mix feels right.
I sometimes think I am supposed to complain about my job, how underpaid and undervalued I am. We are the majority of the instructional faculty, yet we are exploited, taken advantage of. That is what I read, but I don’t feel that. I wouldn’t recommend trying to piece full-time pay out of part-time adjunct work. If I wanted or needed a full-time job, I would look for one. I wouldn’t recommend working any place where you feel the pay is degrading. But at the right institution, and for those of us looking for part-time work that utilizes the knowledge and skills we worked so hard to gain, and who cannot imagine life without some connection to science and learning, this can be a good fit.
Yes, I miss research, much more than I thought I would. Yes, I feel guilty for contributing to the leaky pipeline. Yes, I worry that some people will think I wasn’t good enough. Yes, I wonder what I will do when when my kids get older. Will I regret jumping off the train that might have led to a tenure-track position? Maybe. Would I have ever attained this goal, or if so would I have enjoyed it? Who knows? But am I happy now, in a place I love, near people I love, and spending quality time with the two little people I love most? Yes, absolutely.