When Mesa Community College Professor Ann Ewing, PhD, began her career as an adjunct professor, it didn't pay much. But she kept the job while she raised three young children to gain teaching experience and stay in touch with psychology--and with the hopes of landing a full-time position.

Eventually her patience paid off, and she was hired on as a professor. But Ewing's positive experience can be rare in academe: Many psychologists take part-time and other positions off the tenure track because they can't find full-time work. They receive notoriously low pay, work more unpaid hours per week, sometimes pay for their own substitutes, and seldom see insurance, retirement and other benefits, says Ewing, chair of APA's Committee of Psychology Teachers at Community Colleges group.

"Despite the poor pay, a lot of them do it because they love teaching," she says.

Indeed, a share of psychology's nontraditional faculty--positions off the tenure track, such as year-to-year or semester-to-semester contract positions, visiting professorships or permanent part-time positions--are psychologists whose primary employment lies in clinical practice and other settings.

The impact of these workers on psychology departments and academe in general is an issue that's becoming more salient because their number is rising--bringing a diverse mix of backgrounds to departments but sometimes putting a greater burden on full-time faculty to complete departmental tasks. In fact, nontraditional faculty increased by 79 percent from 1981 to 1999, according to a report issued by the American Council of Education last October. The report, which drew from the U.S. Department of Education's "National Study of Postsecondary Faculty," also reported that nearly half of all faculty were part time in 1998.

Behind the rising tide

In psychology, nonstandard employment of PhD-level psychologists increased by 4.6 percent between 1993 and 1999, according to psychologist and employment researcher Kathleen Barker, PhD, a professor at Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York. Perhaps more interesting though, is that regular part-time work dropped by 16.3 percent during that same time period--meaning, says Barker, that more doctoral-level psychologists are living from semester to semester as temporary workers.

"The numbers have grown simply because most states are less and less willing to fund education," says psychologist Edward P. Sheridan, PhD, senior vice president and provost of the University of Houston.

Combine funding woes with growing university enrollments--and the push for faculty to do more research and bring in grant money, leaving less time for teaching--and many administrators are in a bind.

"The fact is that all American universities are under pressure to teach more students for less dollars," says Randall Engle, PhD, chair of the Georgia Institute of Technology's school of psychology. "You can't generally hire all of the permanent faculty you need to do that."

For instance, for $40,000, a university could have four courses taught by a full-time professor or 10 courses taught by adjuncts at $4,000 per course. Moreover, an adjunct can be let go when finances get tight, while tenured faculty must still be paid.

Finances aside, adjuncts can bring diversity to the psychology department, say administrators. For example, in certain settings, nontraditional faculty can bring real-world experience not already present on the full-time faculty.

"Students love real-world examples," explains Linda Noble, PhD, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University and president of APA's Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology). "When we bring in someone who's been practicing psychology, and they have all kinds of hands-on experience to share with students, I think the students see that as a real bonus to their education."

For example, in her own university's psychology program, the department tapped Steven Walfish, PhD, a practitioner who's trying to land a full-time teaching position, for a one-year assistant professorship. It's a win-win situation, says Walfish. While he gets an intensive teaching experience, Kennesaw's students benefit from the real-world experience he brings to the "Careers in psychology" and "Theories of personality" courses he teaches.

At the University of Houston, Sheridan says he sees part-time and temporary faculty as a way to ensure that the faculty reflect the makeup of the student body, which is among the most ethnically diverse in the country.

Engaging adjuncts

While nontraditional faculty bring a lot to the table, it can be difficult for administrators to keep adjuncts aware of the milieu of the department, says Natalie Porter, PhD, dean of the California School of Professional Psychology and vice-provost of Alliant International University.

"It's a challenge to make sure part-time faculty feel included and part of the community in a department," agrees Noble. "We ought to explore ways to help them feel connected."

For example, Alliant encourages adjuncts to emphasize the school's values, such as multiculturalism, by monitoring syllabi and orienting adjuncts to the broader mission of the university, not just the courses they teach. The university also offers occasional faculty development opportunities for part-timers.

For its part, the Mesa Community College psychology department tries to include part-time faculty at relevant faculty and department meetings, says Ewing. And the psychology department at Kennesaw provides all part-timers with a departmental handbook specifically designed for them. Many institutions also conduct student evaluations and peer evaluations to gauge the effectiveness of nontraditional faculty.

Others counter that, while such efforts are a good start, connection to the university can only be built if nontraditional faculty are compensated for it: "The real difficulty is that we are strictly contingent," says Jonathan Bates, a part-timer at Medgar Evers College who's finishing his dissertation. "There is no incentive to the adjunct to really commit himself to the institution because there's no certainty of future employment."

Bates speaks from past experience: A few years ago, a psychology department he once worked for elected a new chair who replaced part-time faculty with different adjuncts. "All of the time and effort that I put into developing a relationship at that college and becoming a resource for students and for other faculty members just went up in smoke," he explains.

A burden on full-timers?

The transient nature of adjunct life not only poses challenges for the part-timer, but also for the department as a whole. For example, some in academe worry that as universities rely more and more on nonstandard faculty, the shift will leave a greater burden on the core faculty remaining.

"Having so many part-timers is a disadvantage to us because it puts more of a burden on us to do all of the other stuff," explains Ewing, who is one of 11 core faculty complemented by more than 30 part-timers.

The data back up this notion, Barker says. In 1999, regular psychology faculty did substantially more committee work per week than did their temporary counterparts: While temporary workers averaged less than an hour a week on graduate and undergraduate committees, full-time regular faculty worked an average of 3.4 hours and part-time regular faculty worked 2.67 hours.

"The cost of nonstandard labor is immediately felt by the full-timers who are left to do more of the advising, more of the mentoring and more committee work to sustain the quality of student life," says Barker. "At what point will the full-timers' long hours and the regular part-timers' low pay begin to make the profession unattractive?"

One solution to the potential work burden is to delegate certain departmental tasks to nontraditional faculty. For example, Alliant employs a stable team of part-timers to act as liaisons between field placements and students. "You have to come up with those kinds of models, and not just think of part-time faculty as here today, gone tomorrow," says Alliant's Porter.

Bates agrees, suggesting longer-term contracts for reliable adjuncts--say, a four-year contract to teach a set of classes that are always offered. "If I had any certainty thatI would be employed that long, I would be willing to put more effort and commitment into my presence at the college," he says.

This article is part of a series examining challenges for psychology departments and universities.