Adjuncts in Academia

The Not-So-Hidden Pyramid Scheme of Academia

After years of working in higher education, I’ve noticed that one crucial aspect of academia has gone largely unnoticed by the undergraduate population and more broadly, by the general public:


Professors with advanced degrees are paid less than most people make in their first job.


For reference, an entry level position in the United States pays $8.75/hour on average. Working 40 hours for 16 weeks (the typical length of a university semester) earns the employee $5,600. Adjuncts with advanced degrees, often PhDs which takes upwards of 8-10 years to complete, can earn as low as $1000 per 16-week course. This means that a full adjunct teaching load of three courses (at a single university) can pay less than minimum wage for entry level positions.

At the time of this write up, over 75% of faculty positions are filled by part-time faculty such as adjuncts. This is true not only at large state universities, but also at local community colleges, private 4-year colleagues, and yes, even ivy league universities. This issue is rampant throughout the United States, and possibly around the world (I have not researched this topic extensively outside the US).

What is the student cost and how much do universities pay the person who is teaching these courses?

Breakdown of visiting professor, adjunct, and graduate student educators.

The average university student pays $594 per credit hour. With most college courses being at least 3 credit hours, the cost per class is typically around $1800 (rounding up for simplicity). This $1800 is just the cost per class (not including course materials, living arrangements, food, etc.).

Now let’s turn to the person who is actually teaching the course. This person could be a tenured or tenure-track professor, a visiting professor, an adjunct, or a graduate student. For the purposes of this article, though, I’m not going to expand on a tenured professor since that topic has been discussed at length elsewhere. Instead, I want to focus specifically on the type of faculty most commonly employed by universities: adjuncts.

Why focus on adjuncts and part-time educators though?

In higher education, over 75% of the faculty positions do not have and will never lead to tenure. This means that over 75% of those teaching in higher education are on fixed-term contracts like visiting professors, adjuncts that are hired for a single course, and graduate students who are teaching in exchange for their graduate training. Of those positions, 50% are adjuncts. As an undergraduate student, that means that you have likely encountered numerous professors who were teaching your course for the abysmally small rate shown in the chart.

Adjuncts are not allowed to teach more than 3 courses at a single university because that keeps them in a “part time” role. Some articles have tried to highlight the positives of being in such a tenuous position, but in reality the downsides far outweigh the positives for most adjuncts. The university does not provide adjuncts benefits afforded to their tenure-track peers such as health insurance, retirement funding, or even technology and office space to meet with studentsInstead, these “part time” educators have to make due with shared resources that are subpar and hope they can afford to cover any unexpected health problems out of pocket. In one extreme case, a university failed to pay its adjunct staff due to budget issues, and yet expected adjuncts to continue teaching.

Many have called the adjunct vs tenure-track debate a system built on slavery. However, I would disagree. Instead, I refer to academia as a tiered system, one level for those few of privilege and unending university support through tenure. The other given scraps, with little care or regard for their personal well-being. In some rather horrifying cases, such as Thea Hunter, the not-so-hidden pyramid scheme of academia becomes very clear.

This is a lot to take in. Do you have a tl;dr?

I’ve thrown a lot of numbers and information at you in a very brief write up, but let’s put them together to really see what kind of picture this paints. 

One student pays an average of $1800 per course. An introductory course can average between 150-300 students, but for the purposes of this write up I’ll restrict that number to 150. An adjunct who is hired to teach one course is paid roughly $2,700 for that course

This means that after paying the adjunct, the university generates a whopping total of $267,300 per class

The typical bachelors degree requires 120 credit hours. That’s for a single student. This number becomes exponential as you start to think about the number of people starting college every year (19.9 million students in 2019).

And the university can generate upwards of a quarter million dollars from one introductory course.

That number is … staggering.

Example cost and generated revenue of a single university class taught by an adjunct instructor.

So what now?


The not-so-hidden problem of higher education is that university courses are built on the backs of those who are highly educated but cannot find a permanent role. Why? Because the very universities they teach for eliminated job security by replacing tenured roles with highly precarious part-time positions. The tenure roles that are still available are highly competitive, often being filled by professors that already have a tenure track position at a different university. Therefore, few options outside of adjuncting exist for these professionals who want to stay in higher education.

This inappropriate (and what should be illegal) pay structure is one of the most glaring, disturbing, and leading failures of academia and higher education in general. The courses and education offered by universities are built from the materials, time, energy, and resources of adjuncts. Without them, there is no higher education. Adjuncts need as much as support as their tenure-track peers through fair compensation, financial packages to save for retirement, mentorship and personal growth, technical resources to advance teaching practices, and others. Without more concrete support, there is little incentive to stay in academia. 

Based on the estimated values above (keeping in mind that these are estimates), universities can clearly afford to pay adjuncts a much higher salary while still achieving revenue goals to offer supplemental services to education. By leaning in to support adjuncts as much as they support tenure-track professors, institutes of higher learning can finally start the massive structural changes that will put their primary focus back on education. In doing so, future educators will have the tools and systems in place that allow them to focus on what truly matters: education.

Writing a Research Statement (with example)

Writing a Research Statement (with example)

Much like writing a teaching philosophy, a research statement takes time, energy, and a lot of self reflection. This statement is a summary of your research accomplishments, what you are currently working on, and the future direction of your research program. This is also the place to really highlight your potential contributions to your field. For researchers who are further along in their career, this statement may include information about funding applications that were reviewed, approved, as well as any applications that are going to be submitted within the next year.

When I’ve looked at research statements over the years, helping people prepare for the academic interview cycle, one thing I’ve noticed more than anything is that people tend focus solely on the tangible aspects of their research, essentially rehashing their CV or resume. Although their accomplishments are often great, it can result in a rather boring set of pages full of nitty-gritty details rather than an immersive story about research experiences and potential. If there is one thing you take away from this article, your research path is magical and you want your readers to be invested in your magical story.

Now, I realize in my particular area of research (statistics and numerical reasoning), magical is not the word that most people would use as a descriptor. But therein lies the catch. When you are applying for academic positions, you aren’t selling just your research focus. Rather, you are selling the idea of you, your work, and your potential. Yes, your focus is a part of this, but only one part. You are the truly magical component, and your research is just one aspect of that.

When I did my cycle through academic application season, I wanted the review board to see who I was as a researcher, but I also wanted them to see how I approached my research content. The value my research adds to the field is the icing on the cake. I know my research is valuable. Generally speaking, scientists agree that most research in always valuable. But I needed the review board to see more than just my research value because I was competing against literally hundreds of applications. In such a competitive arena, every component of my application portfolio needed to stand out and grab attention.

As with other aspects of your portfolio, your research statement has some core components:

      • a brief summary of your research program
      • an overarching research question that ties all the individual studies together
      • what you are currently working on
      • where your research program is expected to go

Talking through these core aspects in a serial, linear way can be rather … Boring. You definitely do not want to be placed in the discard pile simply because your portfolio wasn’t engaging enough. Which brings me to storytelling. When I say storytelling, I’m not saying academics need to be master weavers of fantasy, complete with plots and characters that draw people out of reality into an imaginary world. Instead, I mean that people need to be walked through a narrative that logically carries the reader from one sentence to the next. This research statements connects the readers to you and invests them in your future research potential. Every sentence should be designed to make them want to keep reading.

Don’t feel bad if this statement takes some time to draft. Not all of us are naturally gifted with the talent for wordsmithing. It, like many other aspects of your portfolio, takes time, effort, energy, and self-reflection. Each aspect should be built with thoughtfulness and insight, and those things cannot be drawn overnight. Take your time and really develop your ideas. Over time, you’ll find that your research statement will evolve into a mature, guiding light of where you’ve been and where you’re going. And your readers will enjoy placing your files in the accept pile.

Alaina Talboy, PhD Research Statement Example

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” – Rosalind Franklin

Research Interests

     Over the last eight years, my research interests have focused on how people understand and utilize information to make judgments and decisions. Of particular interest are the mechanisms which underlie general abilities to reason through complex information when uncertainty is involved.  In these types of situations, the data needed to make a decision are often presented as complicated statistics which are notoriously difficult to understand. In my research, I employ a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods and analyses to evaluate how people process statistical data, which has strong theoretical contributions for discerning how people may perceive and utilize statistics in reasoning and decision making. This research also has valuable practical implications as statistical reasoning is one of the foundational pillars required for scientific thinking. I plan to continue this research via several avenues in both theoretical and applied contexts.

Statistics and the Reference Class Problem

     It is easy to feel overwhelmed when presented with statistics, especially when the meaning of the statistical data is not clear. For example, what does it mean when the newscaster says there is a 20% chance of showers? Does that mean it will only rain 20% of the day? Or that only 20% of the area will get rain? Or that 20% of the possible rain will actually fall? Without a knowing the appropriate reference class, or group from which the data are drawn, reasoners are often forced to make a decision based on an improper assessment of the numbers provided. (The correct answer is that out of 100 days with these weather conditions, rain occurs on 20 of them.) Although this is a rather benign version of the reference class problem, difficulties with this issue extends well into the very core of understanding statistics.

     Statistical testing involves an inherently nested structure in which values are dependent on the expression of other values. Understanding these relationships are foundational for appropriate use and application of statistics in practice. However, difficulties understanding statistics has been widely documented throughout numerous fields, contributing to the current research crisis as well as patient diagnostic errors (e.g., Gelman & Loken, 2014; Ioannidis, 2005; Ioannidis, Munafò, Fusar-Poli, Nosek, & David, 2014; Pashler & Wagenmakers, 2012). Therefore, research that can improve general statistical literacy is highly sought after. 

     As a stepping stone toward the more difficulty reference classes in statistics, a slightly less complicated version of the reference class problem can be found in Bayesian reasoning tasks (e.g., Gigerenzer, Gaissmaier, Kurz-Milcke, Schwartz, & Woloshin, 2007; Gigerenzer & Hoffrage, 1995; Hoffrage, Krauss, Martignon, & Gigerenzer, 2015; Johnson & Tubau, 2015; Reyna & Brainerd, 2008; Sirota, Kostovičová, & Vallée-Tourangeau, 2015; Talboy & Schneider, 2017, 2018, in press). In these types of reasoning tasks, there are difficulties with representing the inherently nested structure of the problem in a way that clearly elucidates the correct reference class needed to determine the solution. Additionally, computational demands compound these representation difficulties, contributing to generally low levels of accuracy.

     In my own research, we have tackled the representational difficulties of reasoning by fundamentally altering how information is presented and which reference classes are elucidated in the problem structure (Talboy & Schneider, 2017, 2018, in press).  In a related line, we break down the computational difficulties into the component processes of identification, computation, and application of values from the problem to the solution (Talboy & Schneider, in progress). In doing so, we discovered a general bias in which reasoners tend to select values that are presented in the problem text as the answer even when computations are required (Talboy & Schneider, in press, in progress, 2018). Moving forward, I plan to apply the advances made in understanding how people work through the complicated nested structure of Bayesian reasoning tasks to the more difficult nested structure of statistical testing.

Reference Dependence in Reasoning

     While completing earlier work on a brief tutorial designed to increased understanding of these Bayesian reasoning problems through both representation and computation training (Talboy & Schneider, 2017), I realized that the reasoning task could be structurally reformed to focus on the information needed to solve the problem rather than using the traditional format which focuses on conflicting information that only serves to confuse the reasoner. In doing so, we inadvertently found a mechanism for reference dependence in Bayesian reasoning that was not previously documented (Talboy & Schneider, 2018, in press). 

     Reference dependence is the tendency to start cognitive deliberations from a given or indicated point of reference, and is considered to be one of the most ubiquitous findings through judgment and decision making literature (e.g., Dinner, Johnson, Goldstein, & Liu, 2011; Hájek, 2007; Lopes & Oden, 1999; Tversky & Kahneman, 1991). Although the majority of research documenting reference dependence comes from the choice literature, the importance of context in shaping behavior has also been noted in several other domains, including logical reasoning (Johnson-Laird, 2010), problem solving (Kotovsky & Simon, 1990), extensional reasoning (Fox & Levav, 2004)—and now in Bayesian reasoning as well (Talboy & Schneider, 2018, in press).

     I parlayed my previous research on representational and computational difficulties into the foundation for my dissertation, with an eye toward how reference dependence affects uninitiated reasoners’ abilities to overcome these obstacles (Talboy, dissertation). I also evaluated the general value selection bias to determine the circumstances in which uninitiated reasoners revert to selecting values from the problem rather than completing computations (Talboy & Schneider, in progress, in press). I plan to extend this line of research to further evaluate the extent to which a value selection bias is utilized in other types of reasoning tasks involving reference classes, such as relative versus absolute risk.

Advancing Health Literacy

     Although the majority of my research focuses on the theoretical underpinnings of cognitive processes involved in reasoning about inherently nested problem structures, I also have an applied line of research that focuses on applying what we learn from research to everyday life. We recently published a paper geared toward the medical community that takes what we learned about Bayesian reasoning and applies it to understanding the outcomes of medical diagnostic testing, and how patients would use that information to make future medical decisions (Talboy & Schneider, 2018). I also led an interdisciplinary team on a collaborative project to evaluate how younger and older adults evaluate pharmaceutical pamphlet information to determine which treatment to use (Talboy, Aylward, Lende, & Guttmann, 2016; Talboy & Guttmann, in progress). I plan to continue researching how information presented in medical contexts can be more clearly elucidated to improve individual health literacy, as well as general health decision making and reasoning.

Writing a Teaching Philosophy (with example)

Writing a Teaching Philosophy (with example)

A teaching philosophy is a statement about how you address learning in and out of the classroom. This self-reflective statement requires insight into not only your goals as the instructor of a course, but also the goals you wish to instill in your students. The “self-reflective” part indicates that this statement is not one made on the fly. Instead, it takes time and energy to really think through how you approach learning objectives in the classroom and learning throughout a lifetime.

A teaching philosophy has several core components that are woven together to create a narrative of your beliefs, values, and approaches to education. These components include:

      • your North Star(s), or your definition of purpose
      • methods you apply in the classroom to meet learning objectives
      • what makes you proud to be an educator
      • the standards you set for yourself and your students

If you’ve never sat down and really thought about your approach to teaching, now is a great time to start! I recommend starting with your personal experience. Pull out a piece of paper or open a notepad and try to answer the following questions: What are the classes you took in your life that you really loved? Who are the educators that come to mind when you think of a great instructor? What did they do that really stuck with you? On balance, what things didn’t you like and want to avoid in your own career? Now think about your own path as an educator. Have you ever had someone thank you for teaching them something new or interesting? Or maybe you changed someone’s mind on a topic you know a lot about? Maybe you just really like to see students smile or watch the lightbulb go off as they start to understand a complicated topic! All of these things can be used to really hone in on what your personal teaching philosophy is.

After you have this list started, you can start to think about the two or three really key points that seem to bubble up from answering all of these questions. Take a stab at summarizing these points into one or two succinct sentences. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time; this is a process. Once you have a couple of sentences going, take the “5-paragraph” writing approach and start to flesh out supporting statements. Expand that by grouping sentences together based on topic. Create a summary sentence for each topic and start organizing your paragraphs. Keep revising and editing until you have a statement that really reflects who you are in and out of the classroom, as an educator, as an expert in your craft, as someone who wants to make a difference in someone else’s future. It will take time but you will get there!

My personal teaching philosophy evolved over time to be one of scientific openness to question and deliberate, as well as applying a considerate mindset to every aspect of life. I firmly believe that critical thinking is a core component of what makes a well-balanced adult who is capable of seeing more than one side of a story, especially during times of great adversity in public sentiment. The teaching philosophy I developed and applied over the last 10 years of educating college students is a living document, constantly being evaluated and updated based on the experiences I’ve had and the feedback I’ve received. By adapting and changing with new evidence, I apply my own teaching philosophy to my personal growth as an expert and educator.

Alaina Talboy, PhD Teaching Philosophy Example

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan

My teaching philosophy is guided by the three central tenets of scientific thinking: question everything (including authority), have a healthy dose of open skepticism (tempered by a willingness to accept evidence), and practice intellectual honesty above all else.  In order to develop the ability to think scientifically in all aspects of life, students need to have the opportunity to engage in a variety of activities that not only encourage active learning of psychological principles, but also application of reflective thought to the material being learned.

Before each lecture in my psychology courses, students are instructed to read the assigned chapter and answer a short set of questions to ensure they have a basic understanding of the material.  I then use the lecture time to help students develop a sense for how psychological phenomena are isolated for evaluation in research contexts using real research examples and applied activities.  Special attention is given toward creating a connection between what we encounter throughout our lifetime and how those experiences can generate research hypotheses, as well as the inverse of how research can inform action in daily life.  I believe that these connections are paramount for developing the ability to think critically about the relationship between scientific research and individual experience.

To add depth to the connections made between research and personal experience, I use small group (3-5 students per group) activities to discuss pre-planned questions that connect current events (e.g., new technology, advances in medicine, politics) to the material covered in the textbook and lecture.  The use of small groups creates space for an in-depth discussion among peers who bring their own insightful life experiences and unique social backgrounds to the conversation.  These types of activities also allow for peer-education, open questioning, and discussion in a setting that permits thoughtful conversation and debate that is not typically possible in large lectures or online courses.  Often, I find that these small group activities encourage students to consider opposing views to which they may otherwise remain unexposed.  This is especially important when we discuss polarizing topics (e.g., sexism, obedience to authority).  Skepticism of what is presented in the textbook and lecture can often be changed in the face of evidence presented via first-hand experience of peers.

Seeing students open their mind to the possibility that another’s experience in life may be fundamentally different from their own is a greatly rewarding aspect of teaching.  More than anything, I strive to encourage students to actively reflect on their own beliefs and experiences, considering how those beliefs and experiences may be similar to or different from their peers as well as to the findings in psychological research.  Intellectual honesty requires reflecting on parts of the self that one may not be actively aware of, nor like, often making this the hardest tenet to develop.  To provide a space for students to complete these self-evaluations honestly, without the fear of peer rejection, I evaluate this aspect of learning through individual activities such as research reports or critical film reviews.  These reports are graded anonymously (using student ID instead of names) so students feel comfortable sharing this highly personal aspect of growth and education.

My personal approach to teaching encourages application of scientific thinking across a wide variety of situations throughout not only higher education, but also throughout students’ everyday lives.  Science may colloquially be considered a body of knowledge, but the ability to think scientifically can and should transcend the walls of the lecture hall in which it was developed.

Five ways your academic research skills transfer to industry

Five ways your academic research skills transfer to industry

Graduate students are often coached to pursue a career in higher education, yet the number of available tenure-track positions falls far short of the number of candidates looking to fill them. In reality, about 14 percent of graduates with advanced science, engineering, and health degrees obtain a position in academia within three years of graduating, according to a 2018 National Science Foundation report.

A brief evaluation of the Armed Services Vocation Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).

Psychological testing has been used in several industries since the 19th century. At this time, over 100,000 tests are being produced annually with no signs of slowing down. The Armed Services Vocation Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, was produced by and promptly distributed by the Department of Defense (DOD) to promote career exploration. Currently, over one million men and women each year take this test to determine their career choice.