Postdocs + Adjuncts as Outsiders Within Higher Ed

Higheredjobs.com recently posted an interview with Cathee Johnson Phillips of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) about the current state of post-doctoral researchers. Postdoctoral positions have been increasing since the 1970s (though Phillips predicts a dip in 2011 due to the recession) and post-docs have struggled to gain recognition as a class of workers. Post-doc positions are invaluable for professional training and have become more popular among those seeking research jobs, particularly as the number of PhD graduates exceeds the number of available faculty positions. However, post-docs positions are often vaguely defined in relation to the universities in which they work. Because they work within, but are not of, the institution, post-docs can find themselves professionally isolated and without needed administrative support. In addition, they often receive lower pay and fewer benefits than traditional faculty positions within the university.

This interview got me thinking about how post-docs and adjunct faculty share a common employment position. In turn, they represent a break down of the tenured faculty job description into discreete components (research and teaching) that can be outsourced to flexible, temporary workers workers. These permanent temporary researchers and teachers are housed within universities that are only vaguely responsible for the professional growth and financial security of these workers.

This commonality between post-docs and adjuncts raises some interesting questions for adjuncts in terms of advocacy and professional development. Recently the NIH put a five year time limit on post-docs, which were becoming permanent temporary positions that undermined, rather than enhanced, career development for researchers seeking faculty positions. Universities have stepped up to provide in-house resources for the post-docs in their midst, tracking their progress and creating post-doctoral offices and associations. The NPA has also been lobbying the federal government to increase post-doc funding (the federal government currently funds 70% of post-docs, primarily through NSF and NIH). How might adjunct faculty, primarily funded through and employed by the university, lobby for similar visibility and resources?

The NPA’s Phillips emphasizes throughout her interview that post-docs are an asset to research and to the careers of individuals. But, she explains, you need to know how to use them. Post-docs need to be proactive in seeking mentors and in negotiating their work and compensation. They also need to network actively and be cognizant of their own professional goals. These pieces of advice might also translate to adjunct faculty. Among graduate students (and too many tenured faculty), adjuncting is viewed as an professional island where one is necessarily stranded from future opportunities. Can adjuncting instead be a place from which committed teachers engage in professional development and collectively negotiate for greater professional support and compensation?