Professional Isolation

One of the reasons I work as adjunct faculty is that it is part-time, enabling me to spend more time at home with my kids and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle than a full-time schedule would allow.  My average week involves two days of prep-work, which I do at home, and two mornings of in-class teaching.  On a good day, I have time for a run or hike, and some household errands before picking up my kids at 3:00.

There are upsides to working mostly from home:  no commute, I don’t panic if a sick child needs to stay home from school, and I can get some household chores done during breaks.  The downside about spending so little time on campus?  It can lead to severe professional isolation, a problem for many adjunct faculty, and something that is especially hard after living in the highly social world of graduate school.

As a graduate student, you constantly engage in professional discussions with others.  Even if you aren’t a social person, you interact daily in shared office spaces, classes, lab meetings, seminars, collaborative research, etc…

I was intermediate on the graduate student social scale.  I am social by nature, but my thesis was a solo project, I often worked from home, and with two babies at the time, happy hours weren’t my thing.

So when I moved several states away to finish up my PhD so my husband could start a new job, I thought that I of all people would have no problem working in relative isolation.  (my advisor agreed)

After spending nearly all of my adult life in an academic environment, I should have predicted how challenging it would be to work in near complete professional isolation.  The town I moved to is small and has no institute of higher education.  My work at home, analyzing my data and writing, was something that my new non-scientist peers couldn’t relate to.

To counteract this isolation, I began commuting an hour and a half to another university to attend the weekly meetings of a lab group whose research overlapped with mine, attended a couple of workshops and conferences, and flew back to my home institution to give a non-required seminar and reconnect with my committee.  This helped, but I looked forward to graduating, starting work locally, and having a professional community once again.

However, I found that life as an adjunct can itself be isolating.  At my first university, I taught the only course offered by my department during the summer, and the only other people in the building were the secretary and the cleaning crew.  At my second university, I taught a late-afternoon/evening class in a building separate from the one that housed the department offices and labs, and again interacted with no one other than the cleaning crew.  I was never introduced to anyone or invited to attend any departmental seminars or social events.  I think many faculty never knew I existed, and I suppose some wrote me off as an academic “loser” since I was just doing adjunct work instead of pursuing life on the tenure track.

I began to have doubts about what I was doing.  I loved the flexibility and part-time nature of the work, and I loved the teaching itself, but something was missing.  I told my husband “I can do this for another year or two but no longer.”  I wasn’t happy.

I interviewed to teach a class at the local junior college (40 minute commute, better than the hour plus that I had been doing).  I wasn’t excited about the prospect of a junior college, but since it was going to be short term, I thought I would deal with it as best I could until I found something better, whatever that was.

It turns out that the junior college was the “something better” I was looking for.  On my orientation day, I was introduced to a dozen faculty and support staff, all of whom were friendly, welcoming, and genuinely interested in learning more about my background and interests.  I was given a faculty-mentor who helped with the logistics of the intro bio classes I would be teaching.  My family was invited to the start-of-year department party.  I interact regularly with faculty in the course of my time on campus, and they make me feel like I fill an important niche in the department.  Recognizing the depth of my subject-area expertise and teaching experience, tenured faculty come to me for advice or with questions as often as I come to them.  In my department, over 50% of the faculty are part-time, and many have been there, happily, for years.  There is a culture in our department of welcoming adjuncts and recognizing the critical role they play in the success of the department.

Being professionally integrated into my department has benefitted my teaching.  I see and hear what my colleagues are doing in their classroom and am inspired to keep innovating and improving my own courses, either on my own or through collaborations with other faculty.  The spark that was missing has returned!   I approach my work with excitement again, which feels really, really good.  My psychological health has also improved.  I no longer lay awake at night questioning the path I have chosen, but instead am content with my work and feel that I have struck the right balance (for me) between home and career.  My husband no longer feels guilty that his career choice came at the expense of my own.

The number of people for whom adjunct work is their only source of employment is higher than ever, yet many adjuncts continue to feel a sense of professional isolation.  The teaching of evening or weekend courses exacerbates these feelings, but even adjuncts who are on campus during the day may feel a sense of professional isolation.  There are several things that can be done by the adjuncts themselves, their full-time colleagues, and their departments, to help integrate adjuncts into the academic community.

First, many adjuncts (myself included) may try to avoid doing things that we aren’t specifically paid for, like attending faculty meetings, departmental seminars, or volunteering to help with departmental tasks.  I have a 40 minute commute, so coming to campus on a non-teaching day to attend a meeting may not be high on my list of things to do.  However, getting involved in some aspect of departmental life helps to connect you to your professional peers.  I avoided these things initially, but have been taking on a few extra responsibilities, mostly ones that I felt truly passionate about, like collaborating on developing a citizen-science phenology monitoring project on campus, and putting together science kits for local schoolteachers to use.  My view is that I am in this field because I like LOVE science and teaching.  Why should I avoid activities that are what drew me towards this field in the first place?   Being involved in a collaboration with other faculty may not be something I get paid for, but I enjoy it and it makes me feel like part of a team.

Second, full-time faculty – remember that our CVs may not have looked that different from yours just a few years earlier.  We are likely not working as adjuncts because we couldn’t make it.  Most of us are here willingly because we may have a different professional and lifestyle priorities, or familial restrictions that inhibit moving to pursue a post-doc or TT position.  Assume that we are intelligent professionals dedicated to the teaching of science.  We may have ideas to share with you that you could use in your own classroom.

Third, departments can make us feel more integrated by offering clean and functional office space with our names listed on the door, listing our names on course registration pages rather than TBA, and listing our names on the departmental website, with the option to create a linked website.

Finally, and most importantly, though we may not wish to attend departmental events on a regular basis, inviting us still makes us feel appreciated, even if we don’t attend.  Adjunct faculty should be included in departmental announcements for seminars, meetings, and departmental social events.  In my department, the agenda for weekly meetings is emailed in advance, so I can attend if anything pertains to me, and the minutes are sent out following the meeting so I can see what was discussed.

Professional isolation can be a real drain on one’s positivity and productivity.  Many of us find ourselves working away from peers at some point, long solo field seasons, working from home to care for children or ill family members, moving during the later stages of your PhD to write, as I did, or perhaps just due to the nature of the position.  Plan to take steps to minimize the isolation or at least prepare yourself accordingly for the possible challenges that may lie ahead.

3 thoughts on “Professional Isolation

  1. Oh I empathise and agree with everything you say!!!!!! I am so glad you have found a place where you feel valued. It is nice to know that other people in the world are in the same position from choice and not because they are second-rate scientists (not my thoughts, but that is what some people assume).

    I always say my hotch-potch mostly part-time career has been broader rather than taller … but important and interesting and fulfilling nonetheless. We need all types of people and work practices to be a society (meaning in this case a scientific society)

    When I had been in a similar position of working as a ‘casual’, I had felt totally isolated sometimes. For example, when I had suggestions for changes (eg in a lab manual or instructions for students) they were never adopted and the same errors and badly-worded notes would appear again the following year. Supervisors would sometimes ‘forget’ to inform me of decisions made at meetings that I was unable to attend. When the tables were reversed, I was determined not to let my own TA’s feel like that.

    So when I was the one employing a team of ‘casuals’, I made sure that i included all of them in decisions, discussions of strategies, etc; and that I also listened to their feedback about their experiences (and shared these with the others in the group). Not everyone could make every meeting, so i would send a summary of the discussion so they were (a) up to speed and (b) could have input. This was also beneficial for the students and the program i was managing in general, because improvements were made every year to whatever we were working on (I asked them to keep notes of mistakes and suggestions and ensured I updated all the notes during the semester breaks) and also everyone was working from the same philosophy. The other benefit was that we all knew each other, so if there were problems we could share and discuss them and come to a mutually satisfying conclusion.

    It was so much more fun and satisfying to work as a team, even for me, as someone who had previously been happy to work alone.

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