Slowing Down

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.


14 thoughts on “Slowing Down

  1. This is a wonderful, refreshing post! I am a mother of two little ones and a tenure-track assistant professor at a research university, and I admit that I sometimes question the life I have chosen. It is a delicate act to reconcile the choices we made as incoming graduate students when, as you say, we were single, childless and full of dreams. While I’m happy and grateful and feel blessed in my current position, its hard to know if I would have chosen this path when I was 22 if I could have imagined the woman I would be when I actually fulfilled that dream.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story of how you and your family have found balance. Glad to hear your school compensates adjuncts well. I’d be curious to hear how your experience in your current gig would be different if you didn’t have a partner with a stable/higher income? Do you have adjunct colleagues who experience that differently based on their family situations (e.g. childless, no partner, caring for parents, etc)?

    • Our experience is just adequate, in terms of being able to afford part-time work (even at a high-compensation college). Combined, we make just over the median household income in our county. We make sacrifices to afford it – we don’t travel like we used to, are very conscious of our purchases, and rarely eat out. The benefits, my time with the kids and the lack of stress for both my husband and me in dealing with childcare fiascos (we have had many) have been worth it. I also consider the money saved by not working – like extra childcare after school and during the summer months and higher monthly expenses from eating more convenience foods.

      Everyone’s situation is different, and of course it won’t work for everyone. If I didn’t have a partner I would be working full-time, without a doubt. The adjuncts in my department work part-time for reasons similar to mine – to spend time with their children and avoid childcare costs. A few have other jobs and adjunct to supplement this. I know of only one looking for full-time work – she is presently a post-doc and is working at the college to boost her teaching experience.

  3. Thank you for the refreshing post. I am a new PhD, currently part-time adjunct faculty with a young child. Though I am applying for post-doc research fellowships and tenure track positions, I find myself greatly enjoying the tempo of my current job. It allows me to spend one or two days a week with my little guy and to take time to grocery shop/exercise in addition to working on teaching/research while he is in daycare. Right now I am facilitated in working part time by my husband’s job – I recognize that not everyone has this luxury. I love spending time with my family, I love teaching, and I love doing ecological research, but I’m not sure I can balance all three right now and maintain my mental health. My H and I hope to have another child in the next three years. However, I worry that if I spend more than a year or two in this lifestyle, I will be giving up the possibility of doing meaningful ecological research. There will be tough choices to make in the next year :-/

    • I have the same concern about research. I realize that there isn’t a normal route back onto that path after working as adjunct faculty. In my area there is a good deal of applied local research being done by nonprofits who could use someone with my level of expertise, and that may be the route I take – continuing as adjunct and picking up consulting or collaborating on small projects here and there when I am ready for more. Yes, tough choices! Good luck with yours.

  4. Thank you for the wonderfully detailed descriptions of not only what you did, but how you feel. This is my story … the details of the how and why are different, but thanks for sharing the ups downs, joys and regrets. They are absolutely what I have gone through … particularly the ‘happy ‘ bit, eventually, after i learnt to eliminate the ‘guilt’ bit. Now, in retirement with all 3 kids in various professions, I tell other young people (mostly – but not always – women) to do what I say and not what i did, and follow what is right for you and say to the mirror 3 times each day ‘I will not feel guilty’.

    I also say, after discussions with those close to me who respect me and my good points, that I have had a broader career (actually several careers) rather than a narrow focussed straight ahead one.

    All the best, respect yourself in the future for the things you have done and try not to focus on what you didn’t do. If you had chosen another path, there would still be things you didn’t do, they would just have been different things.


    • p.s. I was amused by the title of this post – in my long part-time career, it never ever felt as though I had slowed down! I just filled my day with different things.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I’m heading into a PhD program soon and I hear all doom and gloom. I know your career is what you make it but it’s hard to move forward when all you hear are negatives. I’m glad this worked out in a positive (albeit unexpected) way for you and your family!

  6. Thank you for sharing this post, it was such a refreshing perspective! I’m currently finishing up my PhD and finding myself in a similar position in terms of changed career goals and personal priorities. I love teaching, I always have, but its taken a long time for me to fully embrace that career path. Too often I’ve encountered negative feedback when I tell people how much I enjoy teaching or that I want to pursue a career as an instructor/lecturer instead of a research-based path. I’ve been told that teaching is a waste of time, that I clearly wasn’t interested in science and research if I “just” wanted to teach. This was especially difficult when it came from my thesis advisor – having my ideas and dreams constantly crapped on really took a toll on me psychologically. Though because of this, I finally woke up and realized that I need to choose a career that I want, one that I find fulfilling – and not something that everyone else approves of. It’s such a shame that teaching is considered such a second-rate profession, that we’re looked down on as academic “failures” for choosing that path, especially since teachers have the opportunity to influence so many lives. I think this attitude is one of the main reasons that part-time adjuncts are paid so poorly. However, that does seem to be changing. And, like you, I’m trying to go into this with an attitude of acceptance in that I won’t ever be wealthy, but I will have flexibility and time to do the other things in my life that are important to me.

  7. This post echos many of my own thoughts about my current part-time lecturer position. Although I have only been at my current institution for two semesters, I am enjoying the mix. My 18 month old child is in daycare 3 days a week and this arrangement gives me time to prepare for teaching and work on some lingering manuscripts. I do wonder how I will do any appreciable research in the future because research funding is often limited to TT folks. I’m looking into options, and hopefully will find a way to advise a few small undergraduate projects.

  8. Pingback: Letting go and deciding what is important | Small Pond Science

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