Researchers in the Gig Economy: A Talk with Virginia Yonkers

Adjunct faculty facts

The gig economy is characterized by contract, freelance, or short-term work engagements with employers who do not provide benefits beyond the immediate payment. This type of transactional employment is becoming more common in academia. The American Association of University Professors indicates that in 2016, the most recent data available, 73 percent of instructional positions were off the tenure track and more than half of all faculty appointments were part-time. It is clear that this approach to meeting teaching needs at colleges and universities is not limited to the United States. One of the many implications of this trend is that support for research is limited, and many would-be scholars are unable to conduct much-needed inquiries.

What does gig academia mean for research?

To explore this dimension of research and practice, I interviewed Dr. Virginia Yonkers. She is the representative for part-time faculty for the University at Albany Senate and active in an international network of adjuncts/contingents/casuals. Yonkers is currently a term instructor in the Communication Department. at the University at Albany and does research in International and Group Communication, Collaborative Writing, Diversity and Inclusion Training, and Educational Technology.  

This post originally appeared on MethodSpace, a Social Science space sister site that deals with social and behavioral science research methodology. Research and practice are the focus for December on MethodSpace and you can find the unfolding series of posts through this link.

Janet Salmons: First, give SAGE MethodSpace readers a brief overview of the situation for adjunct/contingent faculty members?

Virginia Yonkers: Adjunct/contingent/casual faculty members are usually hired to teach anywhere from one to five courses a semester. They are usually hired because they either have a specialty the Department’s regular faculty don’t have, or they specialize in teaching in a certain area.

Salmons: What are some specific issues related to research? 

Yonkers: To maintain their credentials, they often do research in that field. In order to maintain their job, they need to have documentation that shows they are still qualified to teach in a certain area. But they are only paid for their teaching; they do not get paid for time and expenses associated with their research. 

They might not present ​their work because they don’t have any access to conference funding. At my institution, there is a fund through a union. We compete for those funds with full-time tenure track faculty. Adjunct/contingent/casual faculty members’ total income for a semester may be the price of the conference, but if they want a job in the field, they might attend. However, many who publish are never recognized ​because not expected of them.

Salmons: Do adjunct/contingent/casual faculty members have access to external funding?

Yonkers: Most foundations and funding sources require that an applicant for grants and funding (the principal investigator of PI) is a full-time time or at least permanent employee at a university or research center. This is usually because they want to insure there is financial oversight from an institution. If a PI has no affiliation, then the funder risks the possibility that grant funds may just go into a personal bank account and the funds may be lost (or at least difficult to recoup).  Universities won’t support adjunct/contingent/casuals in grant applications because they fear that the PI may easily move to another institution and take the funding with them.

Salmons: Do adjunct/contingent/casual faculty members have access to ethics reviews for research with human participants?

Yonkers: Another problem is finding someone to insure that research was ethically conducted. Typically, adjuncts or casual faculty do not have access to institutional review boards for ethics review. If there are multiple institutions that an adjunct/casual belongs to, who takes credit for oversight? Which institution will be represented for a published article, for example? 

Salmons: I understand that institutional support, such as research grants, or research assistants, are typically lacking for adjunct/contingent faculty members. What kinds of research and academic publishing are possible for adjunct/contingent faculty members?

Virginia Yonkers
Virginia Yonkers

Yonkers: The most obvious type of research would not require a lot of resources or interaction with human subjects due to the funding and limitations on ethical review noted above.  As a result, research using secondary resources (e.g. published or public data sets, literature reviews, concept, methodology, or theoretical analysis, or meta-analysis) are the most likely options for adjunct/contingent/casual faculty members.

Salmons: What is unique about adjunct/contingent faculty members’ needs and interests when it comes to research design and methods?

Yonkers: Many adjunct and casual faculty have “day jobs” which means they are used to applying their research.  They also are able to identify problems that need to be studied as they see it in the workplace or their classes. Some fields of study, such as education, ITS, human resources, sustainability, engineering, public policy, and marketing do a good job of combining those working in the field and those creating theory and models to create useful research that can be tested in the field.   In the field of Market Research, for example, marketers are always looking for ways to measure and predict consumer behavior.  Analytics have been used (data collected from a website) since the late 90’s. The same can be said for science laboratories.  Many tenure track or permanent faculty might be surprised to learn new techniques from research conducted outside of academia.

Salmons: How can academic blogs such as MethodSpace help adjunct/contingent faculty members develop research skills and build their networks?

Yonkers: A monthly list of publications that don’t require an affiliation with an university for publication would be helpful.  So would some posts on successful collaborations between adjuncts/casuals and tenure track/permanent staff.

There are some academic conferences that provide travel grants and special pricing to adjuncts/casuals/contingents. It would be helpful to know which ones and what their application timelines are.

It would be nice for adjuncts/casuals/contingents to be recognized for their work. Many cannot go the traditional route and present at a conference, so a blog post that profiles their work would give them credit.

Resources are always a premium for adjuncts/contingents/casuals, so lists of open access publications would be useful for those who have lost their library access.

Because the most likely resources available to non-tenured/permanent faculty are secondary sources/data sets, instruction on how to access public data sets and research methodology for mega-analysis/public data sets (e.g. decreasing error, uneven sample sizes, repurposing data sets) would be helpful. 

Finally, a blog post that would address adjunct/contingent/casual research questions such as how to find a collaborator, who to identify as affiliation when there are multiple locations, how to find resources within higher education, would be unique and helpful.  

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Janet Salmons

Janet Salmons is an independent researcher, writer and consultant through her company,Vision2Lead and is the resident methods guru at the website MethodSpace. In addition to her latest book and numerous articles and book chapters, she has written Doing Qualitative Research Online, Qualitative Online Interviews, Online Interviews in Real Time (2010), and edited the Cases in Online Interview Research (2012) for SAGE Publishing.

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