Sessional/adjunct teaching: Can you make a living?

Maybe put that bling on hold?

Together with lack of status, job security and facilities, sessional academics are generally considered to be over-worked and underpaid significantly.

As someone who was a sessional academic for the first time about 12 years ago, I can certainly agree that most of this has not changed for the better – but there has been one significant change for the worst; whereas sessional and adjunct staff used to be primarily grad students who , after their apprenticeships/degrees went of to either FT faculty or industry positions, opening hours up for other grad students to teach, there is now a bottleneck of sessional staff who are unable to secure employment and therefore, holding on to their sessional work for much longer than used to be the norm.

So, is it possible to live on an adjunct salary?

It’s one thing when you are a young, single or even newly married grad student but possibly quite another when you are looking to move on up the suburban ladder and have a couple of rugrats and maybe buy a house. It’s not just the actual salary, but the fact that banks will look at you like you are a crazy person and you are forced to take in pay slips that reflect your work at a particular time in the semester/year (but that don’t actually reflect your annual income) in order to be considered – but once you explain your circumstances (they have hired me for the last 5 semesters and I am positive I will have ongoing work) they are going to shuffle you out of the door pretty damn fast.

However, if you are not in the market for a fancy car or a mortgage, there is a salary to be made. But it depends upon where you are located in the world and with which institution you are working for. I am in Australia and most of the universities have very similar pay scales and things like superannuation are legal requirements for any employer so benefits are not part of the package at all and that probably makes a difference to those of you who are in North America.

I can only speak from experience but I happened to be on a forum yesterday where adjunct salaries were under discussion and I am going to share those figures here.


“Pay is typically based on a per credit hour system (for example, pay scale = $800/credit hour means that a 3-credit hour class pays $2,400). A 3-credit hour class typically meets 150 minutes/week.”

“Excluding the large intro-type lectures (100+ students), which may or may not count as 2 ‘courses’ due to their size, most classes will probably be 20-50 students in a US university. That would count as 1 “course” in terms of faculty/adjunct workload, meeting around 3 hours (+/-) per week, for ~16 weeks per semester. So if I say I have a 2/2 load, I’m teaching 2 classes of ~40 students in the fall, and then 2 classes of ~40 students in the spring, a 2/3 load would be 2 classes in the fall, 3 classes in the spring.”


“I have taught adjunct/sessional at two universities. Both schools paid $5000/course (maybe a few hundred more, I can’t recall the exact number) for a 3 credit class meeting 3 hours per week for 13 weeks. Adjuncting with a PhD in hand pays more.”

“We still don’t get benefits or anything like that, but we get about $6000-$7000 per 13-week course. If you teach three courses in a semester, it is actually a liveable wage in many places for one person. Mind you, we still find ourselves reapplying for the same job every few months, and there’s no telling if your course will ever be offered in any given semester. Also, few of us, it seems, ever get a full course load at one university; a lot of people travel to teach nearby, as well, to get close to that living wage. And, summer teaching can be very, very hard to come by so you may go a few months a year without a paycheque.”

“Our courses are paid on a lump sum basis. If you can run your course with less prep time and less marking, then your effective hourly wage is higher than if you do more prep and marking. They have to pay higher wages because the people who adjunct have a lot of other opportunities, and they need to provide a market incentive. This is common in engineering, business, and education faculties here, possibly also pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry.”


“The German situation is that we get €750 (~$1000) per course that we teach. It is supposed to reflect the minimum hourly wage of €13.70 /$18 which is of course rubbish, as in reality one needs to work a lot longer for a course. So usually the solution is to give “block” courses, so that the entire course is finished over a long weekend. This way our time during the semesters is saved and we can continue in our real jobs stacking soup cans 

The majority of the teaching load is taken up by the Privat Dozents, which are something like an Associate Prof. and have earned a license to teach. To keep this license they actually have to teach, regardless of whether they have a paid position or not. So such PDs, may actually have a real job and teach for a pittance to keep their license (which used to be necessary to get a Professorship).

Usually a more typical situation is that somebody might have a position in a university as a researcher (€ 58,000 including health and social security, something like $3,000 per month in hand), and do the teaching in addition. So I guess it’s a fairer system for those at the bottom like me, but for those in between a habilitation (2nd PhD) and a dream Professorship suffer the worst kind of hell. For such people who might have a family, to achieve a minimum standard of living would require them to teach 12 courses per semester if they depended solely upon a teaching income.”

My Australian Experience:

Unlike Canada & the USA, Australians are paid an hourly rate. This varies a little but is usually around 150p/h for a lecture, and 75-95 p/h for a tutorial. ‘Repeat’ lectures and tutorials lose about 30% from that figure.

The Australian system is primarily set up so that all students enrolled in a course attend a lecture which can be 1-3 hours depending upon discipline. The students are then split into small groups of about 20 students which are called tutorials.

An example teaching load for a course would be to get 3 x 2hr tutorials for the same class or, 1 x lecture and 2 x tutorial groups. Obviously this varies dramatically and although repeat tutorials and lectures reduce preparation time, there is a reduction in payscale to reflect this.

So, there you have it.

It is possible to fudge together a living if you can get enough work. The trickiest aspects are not knowing from semester to semester how much work you will get, if any at all and living through the extended breaks – although with summer school, extra semesters and online universities that run all year around, this is changing.

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