Road Warrior without an Expense Account — Part I: Adjunct University Teaching 41

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This is the first in the series of detailed articles covering the hidden costs associated with freelance work. In this installment I discuss the realities of adjunct university teaching. This series is based upon my career as a freelance double bassist and part-time educator and upon the experiences my colleagues have shared with me. I welcome comments, discussion, and any experiences other musicians have had regarding this topic.

Why go into music anyway?

One would have to be crazy to go into music for the money.Dozens of career paths spring to mind (medicine, law, web development, programming, engineering, etc.) that have great salaries and benefits and ample opportunities for employment.Music careers by and large lack these great benefits.Cream-of-the-crop jobs in the world of music (outside of international soloists) pay what would be considered a fairly pedestrian wage in many other fields.

This basic assumption underlies everything else I discuss here. I know that we musicians did not go into this profession for the money, and the purpose of this series is not to carp about how little we all make. My concern is that we musicians are compensated fairly for our work and allowed to earn a living doing what we do. My experience, unfortunately, has been that the hidden costs of the freelance life quickly erode any seeming profit from far too many gigs. Since teaching is a component of nearly every freelance musician’s employment palette, I will analyze a university teaching position I held for the first installment in this series.

Adjunct compensation

In my previous adjunct university position I was compensated at a rate of $35 an hour for each student I taught.This rate is comparable to many other public universities inIllinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana and is somewhat lower than schools in other regions according to my research.Since this figure is a common hourly rate for universities in the Midwest it will serve as an illustrative example for this article.

In addition to the $35/hour, I was paid a $635 retainer fee each semester for recruiting and other activities. This list of activities included doing seminar classes (requiring an extra trip), recruiting in local schools, attending juries, audition days, open houses, and the like. For the purposes of this trip I will assume that two additional days per month were needed to be devoted to these activities, although in reality the number of days was probably higher than that.

The resulting compensation varied from term to term depending on my student load.My student load vacillated between four and ten students during my employment in this position.The resulting compensation (including retainer fee) ranged from $625 to $1050 per month.

Before I go on I would like to note that both the hourly rate and retainer fee never increased during my five years of employment. Tenure track faculty members and lecturers at universities receive yearly cost of living salary increases. Adjunct faculty members do not typically receive any compensation increase. The lack of cost of living increases means that adjunct faculty members actually get paid less each year regardless of their job performance. The only way to increase compensation is to hustle for more students. For more on this ethically dicey subject, please check out my pay-per-student post.

Analyzing the income

I will use a figure of $900 a month in compensation for hourly lessons plus the retainer fee.This is on the upper end of what I was paid monthly for this university position.If I were to make one trip per week to teach this would break down to $225 per day of teaching—not bad.This boils down to about 6.5 hours of teaching if I could line up the students back to back.In reality, however, it was impossible to get all of those students lined up one after another, so my time spent on the job was closer to 8.5 hours, lowering my average hourly compensation to $26.50.

Now comes the kicker—mileage. I lived 93 miles from this particular institution, making my round trip daily commute 186 miles. Much of this was on two lane highway, putting my commute time at a minimum of two hours on each leg of the trip (four hours total per day).

Adding those four additional commute hours put my weekly commitment at 12.5 hours, thus lowering my hourly compensation to $18 per hour.Considerably lower than the original $35/hour figure (which is a fairly low compensation figure to begin with).

Figuring in my mileage….oh wait, I got no mileage! 44.5 cents per mile must therefore be taken off of that $900 monthly compensation figure. Years of brake jobs, oil changes, blown tires, cracked windshields and the like has taught me that the federal mileage rate really is what it costs you in the long run to drive to gigs.

186 miles/trip x .445 = $82.77 mileage/trip

$82.77 mileage/trip x 4 trips/month = $331.08 mileage/month

$900 – $331.08 mileage/month = $568.92 monthly compensation after mileage

Ouch! Mileage takes quite a bite out of your earnings, doesn’t it? Driving is what really destroys the earnings of freelancers. I have driven 40,000-50,000 miles per year for the past seven years working sometimes in six states each year to earn a living. My pre-expenses income has been pretty handsome some years, but when actual costs are figured the earnings always plummet to coffee shop employee levels (if not worse).

Let’s break it down a little further:

If I were to travel only once a week (four trips per month):

$568.92 divided by 4 = $142.23 per day

$142.23 divided by 12.5 hours = $11.38 per hour

Note that this does not include those extra trips to fulfill the requirements of the adjunct retainer fee. If I did only one extra trip per month:

$568.92 divided by 5 = $113.78 per day

$113.78 divided by 12.5 hours = $9.10 per hour

If I made two extra trips per month (a more realistic assessment of the requirements of teaching, seminars, juries, audition days, and recruiting activities):

$568.92 divided by 6 = $94.82 per day

$94.82 divided by 12.5 hours = $7.59 per hour

These figures do not count any preparation hours and are also a low estimate of what it took to technically fulfill the adjunct retainer fee. Making $8-10 an hour (with no benefits, no raises….ever) is a lowly income for anybody in any field. I made more than this doing paperwork in a law office in 1994.


Remember, this is pre-tax and has no pension contribution or any other benefit. Also, this figure assumes that I earned $900 monthly from this job. I frequently earned less, but my commuting costs remained the same. This is another unfair drawback to pay-per-student teaching—when a student quits (or fails), your hourly wage drops a dollar or two, putting pressure on the pay-per-student adjunct teacher to lower their standards and pass unqualified students to keep the wage from dropping from coffee shop worker scale to dishwasher scale.

This low figure is more disturbing given the required advanced degrees an applicant is expected to have just to get an interview for an adjunct teaching position.When I applied for this position I had two music performance degrees from NorthwesternUniversity and had taken nearly $40,000 in loans (not counting what my parents had to pay) which I was just staring to pay back.

The sad reality of the state of this profession is even more telling when looking at the highly qualified pool of applicants interesting in filling my previous position. I was told by my colleagues at the university that this particular adjunct teaching position had received the most number of applicants for any adjunct position in this institution’s history. People with doctoral degrees and people with significant ISCOM orchestra experience were among the applicants.

Why would one take this work?

One may criticize my decision for accepting employment at an institution that was so far from my home. It is true that the compensation increases if I lived closer to this institution. It is, however, the only significant double bass university teaching position to open over the past seven years in this area, and I consider myself lucky to have gotten the job. Also, my mileage was actually less than some other faculty members from this institution, and my student load (and thus my compensation) was higher than most adjunct faculty members. Driving 50-80 miles one way for a job like this is very common here in the metropolitan Chicago area, and my cost/benefit breakdown thus serves as a representative model of the true cost of this kind of employment.

The next installment in this series will focus on the cost/benefit analysis of some freelance orchestral positions I have held in the Chicago metropolitan area. A topic I will also discuss in future installments to this series is the skill set a freelancer must develop to determine the cost/benefit of any freelance job.

Read the complete series:

Addendum I: The Real Cost of Driving to Gigs for the Freelance Musician
Addendum II: Tainting the Academic Waters with Pay-Per-Student Teaching

This article was also published in the March/April 2007 edition of the Adjunct Advocate.

About Jason

An active double bass performer and teacher, Jason teaches double bass at DePaul University and served on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists for many years. Jason is the current President of the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association. Jason has been a member of the Elgin Symphony since 2000 and has played with the Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County for the past decade. He is a past member of the Milwaukee Ballet and IRIS Orchestra, and has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, and numerous other professional ensembles.

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41 thoughts on “Road Warrior without an Expense Account — Part I: Adjunct University Teaching

  • matthew

    I’m fortunate enough to adjunct less than 10 minutes from my home, but a 40 mile daily commute for graduate school is putting that same cramp in my income.

    I think I’ve decided to pursue a tenure-track position post-school for the very reasons you’ve listed here.

    I also wanted to thank you for referencing several of my recent posts. I appreciate it.

  • Jason Heath

    Thanks for the comments on this recent post. It is illuminating to see what a freelance job really pays when one figures in time, mileage, and other expenses. The long drives are what really kill people, and these kind of commutes seem to be the rule rather than the exception according to most musicians these days. One has to live SOMEWHERE, after all, and the typical classical freelancer has a set of jobs that radiate out 40, 50, 60, 70, or more miles from their home. Here in Chicago, if one lives closer to Wisconsin then driving into the city becomes a nightmare. If one lives in the city then driving to the North Shore gigs becomes tough. If one does not play in the Chicago Symphony or Lyric Opera and wants to be a full-time performing musician, life is usually spent in the car commuting long miles in all directions.

  • Jason Heath

    Getting a tenure-track position is definitely the way to go if you can find a position. I think that for some players (such as members of major symphony orchestras) adjunct jobs are great. They provide the professional performer with a venue to do some teaching without having to go to Monday morning meetings, do advising, etc. Nearly all of the bass teachers that I recommend to people fall into this category.

    Putting together the pieces for a full-time freelance career, accepting multiple adjunct positions to forge a Frankenstein university job (it’s alive!) are a different story.

    I really like your recent bass mod post, and it looks like you’ve got a pretty sweet Solano bass!

  • Terminaldegree

    You’ve thought this out well. Sorry adjuncting turned out to be so frustrating. It was hell for me, too.

    I linked to you here.

  • brian roessler

    Jason, this is insane, but defintely reflects my experience of freelancing generally. It’s an ongoing struggle to figure out how to get paid fairly for the work we do.

  • Jason Heath

    It’s good to hear that you’ve had similar experiences. It is a tough business for sure, and often people aren’t aware of this sort of thing when they accept certain kinds of work.

  • Loumina

    Hi, this blog is intersting, thnx for sharing. im new here. I need some help (opinions or advices). I live in costa rica, 15 years old. Im in high school (two years more for my graduation). Since young ive been going to piano classes till last year i gave up. The reasons why i gave could be: not enough free time (silly), wanting to focus on studies, or no more passion for music. But unfortunately, my grades didnt do well. After quitting ikve being thinking desperately: “What am i gonna do if im not 100 percent good in anything”? “Should i choose music for my future”? This 2 years im planning on keep practicing piano (cuz i havent since i was mad with myself), and focusing on school till i graduate. After that i dont know what to do. I dont have interest in medicine, nor math. So i guess my only choice is music?? or languages since i speak spanish, english and chinese. I really need help ><! My dream is to become a popular composer or something similar, since im very into asian popular music. But this dream seems to be a lil bit far, since im young and lost as you may notice. Help plz.

  • Sour Apples

    I have adjuncted and tutored through and after finishing grad school. I have disliked my job since I started because of poor management, capriciously changing rules, and poor working conditions. I had dealt with severe depression and thankfully been able to cut my hours so I have time to recover from the toxicity and define my future steps and goals.