Help Me, I’m Poor: A Professor’s Lament

Over the last month, I’ve been experiencing what I’ve lovingly named “Career Strokes.” When I think about my job and the lack of security, benefits, and sufficient cash flow — not to mention the constant nagging fear that, at any given moment, any or all of the courses that I teach could be cancelled —  I experience wonderful bursts of anxiety attacks.

When I first realized that I wanted to teach writing at the college level, I told my undergraduate major advisor, and was met with a harsh semi-reality: Becoming a full-time college professor is not easy. I refer to this as a semi-reality because this is the exact thought that went through my mind: “It won’t be hard for me.” I thought this despite hearing my advisor’s story of how she was an adjunct professor who fought to patch-quilt a full-time schedule every year for 9 years before she was offered a full-time position at Ithaca College, my alma mater.

Still, I thought I’d be the exception. I’d get my masters degree, have my book published, and be fielding offers left and right.

Because that’s how it works, right?

When I first graduated with MFA in Creative Writing, it wasn’t long after that I got my first teaching job, teaching one of the core writing courses at a private university. I was hired over the phone. When I met the English Department head in person, he was beyond enthusiastic about my ideas for the course, and over-the-moon excited to bring writing into the 21st Century.

I was on top of the world, unstoppable; One class led to a full-time schedule the following semester. This, of course, lead to a false sense of security. And with a false sense of security came imminent disappointment and the one idea that I still can’t quite shake: I was/am a failure.

These are the cold, hard facts about being an adjunct professor:

  • There is zero job security.
  • There are no health benefits.
  • It’s a first-come, first-served job. Full-time faculty get first pick on classes. If there aren’t enough students enrolled in your courses, they will be cancelled with no guarantee of course replacement.
  • I don’t get paid during breaks. Summers and winter breaks are my mortal enemies.

And possibly the worst of all:

  • The LOVE of teaching. I love getting to work with kids and help them build their confidence as they improve their writing skills; it’s incredibly rewarding and I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t teach writing. It’s been my dream since college to have the opportunity to inspire and encourage students the way my professors did for me, to give back; to actually touch the life of one student each semester was reward enough to compensate for any hardships. If you don’t love teaching and connecting to your students, why teach?

It’s hard to argue with the above, right?

Nope. It’s not, actually. There is a constant battle raging on inside of me and it’s gotten out of control. The stress of not knowing what I will be doing the following semester eats me alive. It’s created a neurotic, anxious hermit Steven that I can’t seem to shake. “Worry” exists in everything that I do: worry that I won’t be able to make rent, worry that I won’t be able to pay my student loan bills, worry that I won’t have enough money to buy groceries.

However the biggest worry I have is that, if I decide to stop teaching, I won’t have a place in society.

I’ve spent so much time cultivating my teaching “career,” and I’ve put everything I have into building my resume into something hugely respectable and extensive for a not-quite-yet-3o something. Teaching gives me purpose, fulfillment, and if I no longer have that, I don’t really know who I am.

My family keeps telling me the same thing: “Isn’t there something else out there that you want to do?” or “Why did you choose this career if you knew how difficult it would be?” or my personal favorite: “You should really do ______________ [Fill in the Blank with Career I Have Zero Desire to Pursue]. I think you’d be perfect for that kind of job!”

That last statement is encouraging to an extent, but ultimately I chose this path because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students. I chose this career path because getting to teach writing, the thing that quite literally saved my life back in college when I was scared, closeted young boy unafraid to take his own life, and maybe, just maybe, in the process helping someone like me along the way, was the only imaginable career path I wanted to travel down.

I never wanted a 9-to-5.

I never wanted to be a slave to a desk.

I never wanted to be docile and immobile and stagnant.

Teaching gives me the freedom to follow inspiration.

Or, at least it did.

This upcoming semester will be hard. Under-enrollment at both institutions where I teach have caused my usual course schedule/load to implode. I’m losing 60% of my usual income. And for someone who lives paycheck-to-paycheck, to the last dime, a 60% loss is going to kill me.

I may actually already be dead inside.

How is it that I’ve dedicated my life and career to teaching, yet I ended up creating a massive pile of neurosis, anxiety, and insecurity?

I see my friends, many of whom have well-paying 9-to-5’s (or 8-to-6’s, which is apparently the new 9-to-5). They have money – maybe not hand-over-fist piles of money, but more than I have by a long shot. They can pay off their student loans, rent, bills, and still have enough money to go out and have fun two nights a week, take relaxing vacations, and go out for brunch a few times a month.

Subsequently, I’ve been left behind. Since I can’t participate in pretty much any activities due to monetary restrictions (i.e., I be BROKE), I’ve become a pariah in my social circle…or at least, I’ve been made to feel like a pariah. (Perfectly legitimate) excuses like, “Sorry, I can’t come to _______ [Fill in the Blank Occasion] because I can’t afford the train ticket into the city + subway fare + whatever other expenses might accrue” have turned into a punchline and created a lot of resentment, which in turn has led to my retreat, effectively hermitting in my apartment for the last year.

It might sound like I’m complaining (yes, I would LOVE a little cheese with my whine #ThankYouVeryMuch), but I’m not. I’m genuinely happy that most of my friends are living comfortable lives, as they deserve to do so. It’s not like they didn’t work just as hard as I did to get where they are.

Everyone just chose different career paths.

Mine just happened to be the one with the most resistance. And I’m (quite literally) paying the price.

I spend a lot of time ruminating on what my life would be like if I chose to work a 9-to-5er; would be any more or less neurotic and anxious? Or, at the end of the day, would I just feel unfulfilled?

After all, my soul isn’t unfulfilled … just my wallet.

231 thoughts on “Help Me, I’m Poor: A Professor’s Lament

  1. It gets even tougher when you have kids. Then there’s the hideous threat that you may never be able to earn enough as a professor to get your own children through college.

  2. You brought up many points that I have lived. I was a school teacher for thirty years. That pays me a retirement benefit. That is the good point. I also taught at the college level as an adjunct. No pension and the worse I was affected by enrollment. Keeping the students in school became a priority and although it has nothing to do with teaching affected the job and my believes that grades should be earned and not manipulated.

  3. I loved this post! I can identify with you in that I am always a college grad with the personality that does not want to be tied down to a desk. I want to be free and creative and NOT work a typical 8-6 job…that would kill me slowly starting from the inside! LOL! Here’s to things getting better, hang in there girl! =)

  4. Damn. I didn’t realize things were THIS bad for adjunct professors. I mean, I knew they were bad, but arbitrarily losing 60% of your paycheck? That’s…. well, it leads to the sort of anxiety that you’ve laid out here. As for me, I’m planning to go to grad school and possibly become a professor…yikes! I don’t have much in the way of a defense, though.

    • If you want it because you love it, then go for it. My advice: go for a PhD. It’ll help you tremendously, especially if you go to a program that will allow you to teach for them while they pay for you to get your PhD; this way, you’re gaining resume experience while obtaining your degree.

      You just have to know that you’re in it for the love, NOT the money. GOOD LUCK!!! If you ever need any advice, feel free to email!

      • Wow thank you!! That’s really incredibly nice of you!! I will probably take you up on your offer, just so you know! Thanks for the encouragement, too. I love Anthropology more than I’ve loved any other subject/way of thinking, so it would be a shame if I didn’t pursue it.

  5. Wonderful post! I love your hoard of GIFs–especially the Bridesmaids one. Don’t give up! My husband is a full-time engineer and a part-time adjunct at a local, state university. The pay is horrible in terms of the amount of work her puts in, but he loves it. Your time will come and all of the waiting will be worth it!

  6. Do what you want. I guarantee you your friends are not dancing around in glee everyday because they can afford brunch. Everybody struggles but it’s even worse when you hate what you do.
    See your end goal, aim for it and accept that some days will be good, some days will be sh*t.

    • Yeah, it’s unlikely to change that much. Unions are great forces for that change, but I don’t see wages increasing too tremendously.

      I hope something great happens for the professors in your city 🙂

  7. Haha.. what a great combinatiom of fearful honesty and sarcastic light-heartedness. Definitely made me chuckle while also being a really insightful look into the life of a professor. As a student, a very interesting read!

    • Thank you very much!

      Writing is nothing if not honest.

      I try to tell my students that the life of a professor is not a glamorous one…I think every student would appreciate their professor more if they read more about their professors out-of-school lives.

    • Thanks! Every teacher should have an element of PASSION. I would hope, anyway. I’ve been around the block, and I’ve seen the passionless and I just don’t get it. Why get into a career like teaching, which is demanding and grueling and often unappreciated, if you don’t have the passion for teaching?

  8. Love your last line! So dramatic! You make an excellent writer and I am sure a good teacher. In my case no soul not wallet fulfilled. Atleast you know where you want to be. I am still searching…

  9. Good post. You have time to go back for a PhD. Even that is a gamble. It’s business in the end; you may want to research the most marketable academic area that builds on what you have. I did not finish my PhD (64 hours earned). It was a choice. I went into journalism, and my traditional career died in the publishing meltdown. I have always taught on the side and loved it. Today demands that I change the way I write (daily bread). At least I built business skills along the way. I find it rather interesting to make the shift. Finances are tight. I look back upon teaching as the time I put my most valuable skill into the world. The payback is when students find the job, the promotion, the beauty of reading/writing, etc. I did put a real-world spin on subject matter. Some told me that my courses were “the most real world classes” they ever took. I no longer teach but commit to an ESL literacy volunteer program. The world needs teachers like you. Maybe you will find a school that emphasizes the art of teaching (rather than the demand for an unending parade of “scholarly” works). Most of all, you need a place that values your MFA and your body of creative work. Students need teachers who understand their reality and the struggle to make ends meet while carving out a meaningful career. No day is easy. However, I hope you avoid the trudge toward “retirement” rather than a challenging, creative path. I appreciate the endless pushing of a rock up a hill, but it does not always have to roll over you.

    • “Most of all, you need a place that values your MFA and your body of creative work. Students need teachers who understand their reality and the struggle to make ends meet while carving out a meaningful career.”


      Thank you so much for sharing your insight. I REALLY appreciate it.

      I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing, but I know that I won’t give up teaching. That’s a definite. Once I figure out a healthy balance, I’ll be fine. 😀

      • Stay with the teaching as you can. Continue to make it your own and make it fun. Be open to opportunities. It’s not always been easy, straddling the commercial world and teaching (lovely experience but sometimes my colleagues found my business experience somehow compromising–not sure that is the way to phrase it). Anyway, love those liberal arts as you do. Continue to develop your very fine talent. Keep the sensitivity. I love your blog. If you have a moment of leisure, see how I put it in perspective–just my way–can’t take myself too seriously:

        “Makeup Homework–Overdue by 30 Years”

        I hope to publish a relevant novel before I hit the age of “Angela’s Ashes” author (Medicare). Everything that happens feeds a writer’s story (not lost on you).

        Bonne chance!

  10. I think it’s great that you are working in a career that leaves you fulfilled. Back when my husband was a new graduate who was struggling to find work in his career, I told him “Don’t take the job that will just pay the bills. It’s okay to wait a little longer for the job that you really want to do.”

    Since he graduated in the middle of the recession, he unfortunately discovered that it was very hard to find his dream job. Mostly, people were being fired in the finance industry at that time. We did have a few years of struggling and living on my freelance work. Since freelance is not at all stable and we had no health insurance or other benefits, it certainly wasn’t the most comfortable situation. But ultimately, my husband got his dream job and now things are much easier.

    As my husband says, “The path of least resistance can seem easier, but in the long run, it is the path that seems harder at first that has the most rewards.”

    • Thanks for sharing the story about your husband — I used to say the same thing to myself, “don’t take the job that will just pay the bills.” Hell, I STILL say it to myself when I think about what I can do to supplement my income (i.e. get a job at a restaurant on the weekends; of course to that I say “I WILL NEVER GO BACK TO A RESTAURANT after working in various restaurants for the first 10 years of my working life.)

      The key is to hold out responsibly, I think. Your husband is a smart guy, and I’m glad it worked out for him…as I’m sure it will for me, too!

  11. It seems you are getting disappointed by the way people have become unconcerned about good values in life. Just keep faith in God and keep on doing good work. You will be successful with righteous actions and patience.

  12. Fellow adjunct here… I don’t think I’ve read anything that sums up what I’ve been feeling lately so perfectly and with such eloquence. Thank you for voicing what I don’t have the strength to.

    • It’s funny because I was going back and forth on whether or not to post this, but I decided that it was pretty important because it’s NOT just me and the more I talk to my colleagues, the more I understand that this is a more “universal” issue than I ever realized.

      The best thing we can do as adjuncts is to give ourselves a unified voice. Pass this post along. Write one of your own. Maybe, just maybe, things can change.

      Good luck with everything! You know I feel for ya 🙂

  13. I do the 9-5 thing (technically 8:40-4:40) and the stigma that is associated with it isn’t nearly as bad as it seems. It’s not exactly heart-fulfilling work, but it does pay the bills. I work as a technical writer for a small software company. I have my days where I’m working on a manual that makes me feel all happy inside (“I’m writing something good that people will use and love!”) and days that kill me (“I’m going through 100 guides to make sure the formatting is not broken.”)

    You should always pursue your dreams, but I’ve found that reality gets in the way more often than not. However, that is not all doom and gloom. I want to get published as a fiction author, and I spend one and a half hours every day working on my writing in addition to my job.

    We writers just have to be smart about what we do, and take our time. 🙂 If you keep pursuing your dream of teaching writers to other students, sooner or later, you’ll get the chance to. You just have to keep at it. Writers like us are a stubborn bunch. We never quit!

    • Bill-paying is extremely important, I must say.

      Reality is a bitch, I’ve noticed. But if you can find the time to write, which you seem to have done, you’ll be able to reach your dreams. It takes a lot of time and patience and willingness to edit and revise and change plot lines and “kill off” characters, but if you can commit to writing the best book possible, a book that you love, that you would want to read, that will in turn get others excited, then you’ll find a way to make it happen.

      Time is important. That and determination.

      Good luck, sir!

  14. Oh, now I can see the post. I am a sessional lecturer up in Canada, we have organized and it does help a lot. I have a blog called `The Sessional Trap` which I just started, and a facebook page as well. The facebook page shares links and articles from sessionals or adjuncts from different countries, check it out.

  15. Boy does this resonate! I’m a lawyer, with 5 degrees already(!) currently trying to finish off my PhD, whilst working full time in a badly paid (but good) job I don’t really enjoy, just to pay the bills, while applying for teaching jobs that will leave me in precisely your situation!!! Why am I doing this? What else can I do! Though I’d really like to be a writer, so in my “spare” time I’ve started blogging. When I take a step back and look at it all, I just want to cry!

    • Wow talk about a lot on your plate!

      If you want to write, WRITE. Do it when you can, find a nook-and-cranny in your schedule and just go for it!

      If you ever need advice once you’re teaching on how not to go crazy, let me know 🙂

      • Thanks Steven, I may well take you up on that!

        Signed up for NaBloPoMo this month which is forcing me to put fingers to keyboard daily, which is great, but I am pretty sure I should be doing other things instead….!

        • I thought about signing up for NaBloPoMo, but I tried doing it on my own last summer and burned out, almost thought of ending my blog all together because I resented the notion of HAVING to post every day.

          I did do NaNoWriMo in November, though, and it turned out to be the most beneficial month in terms of my writing since I was in grad school.

          GOOD LUCK with NaBloPoMo! I’ll be checking you out!

  16. Great post, and I could have written the same thing 20 years ago. I went into a field that I love and have passion for: environmental science. For the first 10 years out of college, I barely made a living, and spent much of that time living with my mom (great for the social life!) to make other ends meet. My parents begged me to go into any other field: they offered to pay for law school, med school, or for me to get a teaching degree. While I do love to teach, I didn’t want to teach grammar school, but there never seemed to be money or time to pursue a grad degree. I jumped from academic research to government agency, to non-profit, and finally ended up in consulting. I got married while still relatively poor, and shared the burden. When I got into consulting, I was suddenly making enough to support a family, so we had kids. All the while, I worked overtime, learned everything I could, and built a professional network. When I wasn’t making enough money, I looked into other career options, ranging from financial planning to truck driving, but none of them fed my passion. I stuck with environmental work, and am now at the top of my game. I am a senior level manager in a large consulting firm. I teach here and there as an invited lecturer, and do research on the side. I have several standing offers from other firms to join them any time I’d like to make the move. At 40, I finally decided to get my M.S., and it took 7 years to finish, with work, building a house, having another kid, and managing life in between. At times, I thought I was insane to try it, but now that I’ve finished, I really want to get my Ph.D. and return to academia. I haven’t figured out the logistics yet, but I’m confident it will happen. Why? Because I worked hard enough to make the rest of it happen, just because I wanted it badly enough. You sound like you have the same fire in your belly for your line of work. Stick with it, WORK HARD AT IT, and let people know (attend conferences, publish, get outside the walls of your own institution). When others start to recognize your talent and WORK HABIT, things will start to happen on their own. Minds that are busy with the work required to improve their situation seldom have time to worry about that situation. And if you can’t afford to socialize with your friends, it’s time to recruit some new friends that share your values and capabilities. You’ll have a lot more in common with them! I’m not saying to ditch your old friends, but don’t lock yourself in because your wallet won’t let you out. The hardest thing to wait for is for time to pass, but it will pass faster and faster, and suddenly you’ll look in the mirror one morning and see success and happiness. Whatever you do, don’t stop there.

    • It’s funny: the more comments I read on here, the more I’m realizing that so many people are in the same boat as me, in different yet similar ways.

      Thank you so much for advice! I do have that fire, and I’m going to work hard at it and stick with it. I have faith that all the hard work WILL pay off.

      It’s true when you said, “The hardest thing to wait for is for time to pass, but it will pass faster and faster, and suddenly you’ll look in the mirror one morning and see success and happiness. Whatever you do, don’t stop there.” My best friends father passed away last week, and it’s really hitting me that time just doesn’t wait for anybody, and that life is meant to be LIVED, especially hearing all of these wonderful stories about his life from all the people who knew the varying shades of who he was. He, I presume, had no life regrets because he lived his life to the fullest and his career, family life and social life flourished.

      We’re always on the precipice of change.

  17. Life doesn’t have to be all of one thing or all of another — you are allowed to pick and mix and experiences of other part-time jobs might enliven you — give you a new perspective. Busy people often get more done.

  18. Steven,

    I know very well the life of an adjunct. Living contract to contract, semester to semester. Despite that, there is nothing else other than teaching that I would rather do. I have lived through a short stretch where I did not have any teaching gig. With the help of fate and hard work, another teaching opportunity came along. Now a few years later, I am busier than ever. I have diversified by not just teaching in a classroom but also teaching online and designing courses in both f2f and online formats. I teach at two institutions instead of relying on just one. However, there is still an underlying uncertainty. I’m still having fun.


  19. Following your heart (over the mind) is a rare gift. Don’t change the essence of your being. You will see success in many ways (in the gratified students perhaps).
    your post is humorous and loved the gifs. Congratulations on being freshly pressed and good luck!.

  20. Have you considered going abroad to teach? I have been living and teaching in China for a couple of years now. There is a huge demand for teachers here, and for qualified teachers the pay is very high. It’s also easy to find year round work and tutoring on the side pays really well. I make and save more money here than I could back at home in the US. There of plenty of University teaching jobs as well.

  21. McDonald’s is always hiring! Sorry. Can you drive a cab or something when you don’t have enough classes to teach?

    J.D. Salinger didn’t always make a lot of money selling his stories. He had to live with his parents before he made it big. In their Park Avenue apartment.

  22. I have read recently about the plight of the Adjuncts. As one who truly loves history and almost chose the academic path, but instead took the career because I feared poverty, I can relate. But, it seems you can have one or the other these days-not both. Writing at least lets me keep that aspect I had to give up.

  23. Steven, (can I call you by your first name? I feel like I should. We’d be friends.), I am SO glad my friend Deanna forwarded your post to me because what you have described here is the EXACT dilemma my family finds itself in every single semester. My husband is an English faculty member at a community college, and I likely would also be teaching if I hadn’t elected to stay home with our child once we had her. My husband and I had such grand dreams for ourselves when we were getting our Masters in English: we’d take over the world with our teaching brilliance and the world would have no choice but to bless us financially for our selflessness. Yeah, and then we found ourselves stuck in an industry where there is almost zero chances of upward mobility. Will be be able to afford college for our daughter should she want to go? Hell, will we ever be able to save a small sum at the end of the month?

    Anyway, thank you for this. It is somehow comforting to know that there are other people in the industry who are as frustrated as we are.

    • You may absolutely use my first name 🙂 I prefer it to “Hey YOU” or the like…

      I have to believe that, in the end, I’ll be able to bridge the gap between financial stability and career selflessness. Lately, I’ve been all about the Fields of Dreams mantra, “If you build it, they will come.” I’ve just kept thinking, “If I love what I’m doing and I stick to it, the opportunities will come.” Believe it or not, it’s been working. Slowly, but I guess I can’t rush these things.

      In the meantime, I’m plugging away on my book and querying agents and hoping that my book will get sold. That should supplement some of the missing income. You just have to find those things that will keep you sane AND give you purpose.

      It’s great to hear from so many fellow adjuncts out there. It definitely is comforting, and the more people reach out, the more I realize that this isn’t just me…not by a long shot!

  24. I love your post. Thank you for sharing. I love how open and honest you are about your situation cause it makes me know that I am not the only one who thought that I would have a stable life after college because of my passion for my subject. Your situation is different, and you studied so much more , got the job that you wanted only to realize that school does not guarantee anything or landing the job… which sucks at all levels.

  25. Keep your head up! I was in the same boat as you were (adjuncting), but I was eventually hired in a full-time professional staff job at the college I taught at. I still adjuncted, but I also I had a full-time job. Many people in the professional staffing side of higher ed have also started as adjuncts. I love my current job–over three years later–and will still still adjunct if needs be. Moreover, I’m having fun learning new skills! The English degree can be applied in so many places, not just teaching.

    • Thanks so much for the encouraging words! I know that it’s possible to get that elusive full-time gig, it’s just a long, winding road. As Sheryl Crow once said, “Every day is a winding road, we get a little bit closer” … or something decidedly less corny ha.

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