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When I was recently looking for academic positions in the US, I noticed that the actual titles of many assistant and associate professors in the University of California system are "adjunct assistant/associate professor." Upon further investigation, I noticed that the professorial ranks under the adjunct category are usually not eligible for tenure and are not supported by state funding (only supported by external funding). This raised several questions related to the adjunct appointment series in the UC system:

  1. If the position is not funded by state funding, who will pay the salary for professors under an adjunct appointment? Is it paid solely by research grants? Does it mean that if a professor fails to secure a grant, they won't receive any salary?

  2. It appears that professors in the UC system who hold adjunct appointments primarily focus on research. Is an adjunct appointment in the UC system almost equivalent to a Scientist position in other institutions (e.g., UW-Madison)? If they are different, what are the distinctions?

  3. Is it advisable to pursue postdoctoral training under assistant professors who hold adjunct appointments? Considering they can't even guarantee the stability of their own positions, let alone that of postdocs."

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  • You may have noticed many such professors with long careers in UC schools.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 20, 2023 at 13:39

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I can answer the latter two questions, will defer to others on the former.

It appears that professors in the UC system who hold adjunct appointments primarily focus on research. Is an adjunct appointment in the UC system almost equivalent to a Scientist position in other institutions (e.g., UW-Madison)? If they are different, what are the distinctions?

The key point is that adjunct professors must do both teaching and research. Teaching-only positions such as "lecturer" are distinct, as are research-only positions. The role is therefore substantially similar to regular faculty, with the major exception of tenure. It is also commonly used for part-time appointments, whereas most regular faculty are full time. Note this is not a universal definition: at many other institutions, an "adjunct professor" is anyone who teaches a single course (often for just a few thousand dollars).

Is it advisable to pursue postdoctoral training under assistant professors who hold adjunct appointments?

Things vary by campus and department, but in general, PhD students who wish to use an adjunct as their thesis advisor need to secure a waiver and/or have a regular faculty member as their co-advisor, for exactly the reasons you mention. Post-docs would do well to follow a similar rule: have a clear discussion about funding sources, and consider having a contingency plan for if your advisor leaves before you do. (Actually, all post-docs would do well to follow this rule.)

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