Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I was looking at a department website today, trying to find out someone's job title, when I noticed something weird.

This department is at a top-tier school with a lot of money, but they have more adjunct faculty than regular faculty.

(I know, that's not necessarily weird. Wait for it....)

What seemed weird to me is that this department listed senior faculty from distant top-tier universities (think: opposite sides of the country) as adjunct faculty in their department.

Not visiting lecturers. Not honorary members. Adjunct faculty.

Now, I don' t know what it's like where you are, but at my school the adjunct faculty have lab space. They don't get start-up, they pay their own salary from grants, and they can't be a primary graduate student adviser. But they are expected to do almost everything else the regular faculty do, including hiring postdocs and technicians, serving on committees, and teaching.

This got me thinking about a couple of Big Shots I know who each have two labs. I may have written some about this in the past, but it still bugs me. In both cases, these guys (I can't think of any women who do this, can you?) supposedly spend half the week at each lab. The labs are in separate cities, and in reality they aren't at either one very much at all. These guys are twice as much terrible adviser as your average #$%@ PI.

So now I'm wondering if all these "adjunct" Big Shots have double lab lives, too? Lately I'm seeing more of this not just cross-country but internationally, too. You know the types who have an appointment in the US and one in Singapore or India, and they spend the summer overseas (or not even).

It just burns me up because I have a hard time understanding why less than half of a Big Shot is so much more appealing than a full-time, super-energetic junior faculty member. I know plenty of postdocs would be thrilled to have even an adjunct (read: no startup, soft-money) faculty position in this department.

And yet, it just makes me ill since I have to assume that it could be all about appearances: by listing all these Big Shot names, they're trying to make themselves look bigger and even more top-tier than they already are?

Still, something seems fishy about this practice. I suspect that, among other things, it means a less than ideal situation for the students taking classes in that department.

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At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where I went to grad school (overseas), 'adjunct' staff can list the department as an affiliation, they have access to library and some department resources (including shared office space that is not as nice as what most grad students get). In return, they do something needed by the department, generally supervision. They don't get paid or maintain lab space (although they might be de facto primary supervisors of phd students doing lab work somewhere in the department). One might construe what a few of them are doing as leading a double (lab) life, but in no case are they taking away job opportunities from junior colleagues.

At 10:17 PM, Blogger Genomic Repairman said...

I've seen this where collaborators from other universities that also occasionally give lectures and seminars are titled adjunct faculty. They wouldn't typically be titled a visiting lecturer since they are not on our campus all the time, so the adjunct title fits them well. Adjunct faculty to me don't usually get any lab space from what I have seen in the past in academic medical centers.

At 3:22 AM, Blogger jR said...

I think it may simply be an issue that half a Big Shot still gets a vast amount more funding than a recently-promoted postdoc. In an environment where funding dictates reality and where the funding review process is more corrupt than a roomful of back-country judges, it's hard to tell a department to give up money on offer to "do the right thing", even when it's so very right and they're so very wrong.

The only solution is to mandate location-specific research grants but I haven't figured a way for this to be possible without some nasty federal legislation that nobody outside the academic world (and the majority of those inside) would understand in the slightest.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Daniel Lemire said...

Your interpretation of the term "adjunct professor" is specific to the USA.

In Canada, in most universities, what you describe as an adjunct would be called a lecturer.

The term adjunct, in most Canadian universities, is an honorary title. That is, it is *without remuneration*.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Marianne said...

We had this too, but it was generally people who had spent a sabattical or similar in the department. They had been there and gotten involved in research (in one case even taught a semester-long class), and then retained the "adjunct" status once they returned to their home institutions.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger DRo said...

Adjunct faculty can mean a lot of things. In this case I would interpret it as the cross-country big shots occasionally teach or team-teach a course on campus (occasionally meaning at some point in the last few years).

What you describe as "adjunct" at your institution would be called "research faculty" at mine. The one difference being that at my institution, research faculty can be the primary advisor for grad students. Adjunct faculty is a part-time professor/lecturer who gets paid on a course-by-course basis (peanuts, by the way).

At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It just burns me up because I have a hard time understanding why less than half of a Big Shot is so much more appealing than a full-time, super-energetic junior faculty member. I know plenty of postdocs would be thrilled to have even an adjunct (read: no startup, soft-money) faculty position in this department."

I agree. Well, IF the Big Shot is funding his second lab space entirely on his own grants and not getting anything from the second university, then i guess his "adjunct" position doesn't directly detract from any junior people's chances of getting hired. (although lab space is finite and usually in short supply so that alone IS detracting from others.)

well in the tournament model - which includes academia - where one winner takes all and the vast majority of equally qualified but less fortunate players are pushed out of the game completely or not even allowed to participate and try their hand at winning, this is what happens. Completely absurd but it's a good life for those who are fortunate to have had circumstances in their favor early on.

I'm also sure there's lots of incentive for these Big Shots to have double lives in other cities or even countries, just think of all the things they could do (not just professional activities, if you know what I mean...)

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Dr Jekyll & said...

Yes, I've always thought that the overseas dual positions were especially ridiculous. Agreed it's all abou the $$, and the trainees must get shafted (except that BigShot's rec letter is valuable, if you ever get one....)

At 9:38 PM, Blogger daisy mae said...

my PI is an adjunct at another school in another state. he never goes there, doesn't teach, doesn't have lab space, doesn't advise - but as mentioned by a previous poster, has access to the universities library system. several other PI's at our school have the same situation with the same school.

my understanding is that it is because our public university system is relatively poor and rural, and associating with a larger university in an urban area affords us access to resources such as the library, and in some cases, the ability as students to go to the higher tier university to take classes or spend time learning a skill in related labs.

i'm not sure if our particular situation is unique - but it has functioned as a way to provide equal opportunities to students.

At 5:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every place I have been (in the U.S.), an adjunct appointment does NOT entitle one to take on graduate students or be assigned lab space, so it may be that you are misinterpreting the rights of adjunct appointments at your institution

At 8:25 AM, Anonymous apple said...

if they have positions in two different countries, it might be b/c then they can access government $$ in both...
I can think of a prof here in Canada who maintains a lab in the US after taking a position here in order to keep access to US $$ (NSF/NIH or something, I'm not exactly sure)

At 9:45 PM, Blogger GrrlScientist said...

every adjunct position i've ever held did not entitle me anything at all: no lab space, nor grad students, nor office space, telephone, health insurance, retirement, sick leave nor even classroom keys! and the pay was below the poverty level. really quite fucked up, especially when these unis start whining about how they can't find good adjunct -- hey, st00pids, we all starved to death or became really angry lawyers!



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