About a year ago, I began searching for remote work. Desperate for some earnings after a period of traveling and unemployment—and living in Mexico without a work permit—I looked for remote online jobs in the field in which I have the most professional experience: higher education. It was the start of a long, still-ongoing exploration for a viable remote work opportunity. During this time, I’ve discovered that this niche is not super easy to navigate and, like the tenure-track job market, requires a substantial amount of time, thought, and patience.
I am not alone in my quest. Over the last several months, I’ve fielded social media requests from friends and colleagues seeking information about online teaching that can be done remotely (meaning you don’t live in the place where you teach, unlike professors who may teach an online course or two at their university in addition to their on-campus courses). It seems that the ever-declining wages in the university (and elsewhere) make remote work not just desirable, but necessary. With the shift to a completely remote format, an instructor can choose to live in a location with a more accessible cost of living, decrease costs like transportation and childcare, and benefit from more flexible scheduling in a world where flexibility is a necessity, both culturally and economically.
When I began my search I found a few helpful blogs and articles that offered general information. But it is mostly on my own that I have learned the nitty gritty details: types of jobs and companies, application and training processes, actual wages, and working conditions. What I offer here is an in-depth overview of these details. It is my hope that if you know things like which job boards are useful, the kind of work that is available, and the range of wages offered, you’ll be equipped to consider options beyond on-campus university teaching.
While I’ve found some work, I’m still not earning a solid living wage with remote online teaching. But considering that the pay is about the same as most adjunct gigs, these jobs offer a decent alternative, especially since they offer the benefits of remote work. Overall, while teaching remotely doesn’t resolve all the issues facing educators in higher education, it does open some options in an economy and industry that are in decline.
It’s all in the past?
When I first started teaching online courses over ten years ago, things were relatively simple. At that point I was adjuncting and sought options for expanding my job possibilities, so at the suggestion of a friend I investigated online teaching. My very first online class was a 100 percent remote position at a for-profit school. I was less a professor than a facilitator for a course in which I taught writing, reading, critical thinking, and study skills to first-year college students. At the time I was a PhD candidate and had a master’s degree, so I met the minimum requirements for teaching in several subject areas. But I wasn’t offered a course in sociology, history, or women’s studies—my areas of expertise. So I took what was available: even if the job wasn’t prestigious or fulfilling, at least I could eat.
Things didn’t get much better from there. The next year, a former professor hired me as an online instructor for his department at a university hundreds of miles away. This one was a bona fide instructor position, not just a facilitator of a pre-existing curriculum. I had to design multiple courses from scratch and then integrate them into their clunky learning management system in a short period of time. A week before classes began, I received the official offer letter—with the contracted salary coming in at only two-thirds of what I was originally promised.
I recount these examples because as bad as they were ten years ago, my experiences over the last year have suggested they might be worse now. For nearly six months in 2018, I scoured job boards and submitted my CV to any posting for which I seemed even remotely qualified. Both HigherEdJobs.com and Inside Higher Ed have a filter option on their job boards to view only online and remote job postings. I also searched the general job boards like Indeed and ZipRecruiter, although I’ve rarely found a straightforward university instructor position on those. My search on the Chronicle of Higher Education was also quite difficult—perhaps online teaching is still too closely associated with for-profit universities to be featured there.
My first rejection was for a teaching assistant (!) position at Strayer University, over six years after I earned my PhD. A few other rejections rolled in, and I didn’t hear back from most employers. What started to sink in is that as more and more people with PhDs are unable to secure full-time professorial jobs (much less tenure-track ones), there’s been an increase in the number of overqualified adjuncts working for less and less money in both on-campus and online/remote teaching. In short, it’s not just the coveted on-campus tenure-track jobs that are going away; it seems that even the less prestigious positions are becoming super competitive. Once that settled in, I realized that I would have to widen my options. Below is what I’ve found after that widening.
On-demand tutoring (the Uber model)
I’m going to talk about this one first because I’m surprisingly most satisfied with this model. Like many people who start driving for Uber, I figure that if I’m not going to make a super great wage, I might as well have the flexibility of being able to schedule my own hours. Also, things like scheduling, planning, or technology are mostly the responsibility of the companies: they generally have straightforward scheduling and payment systems and easy-to-use learning platforms. In short, while the wage is not great, at least I’m only working when I’m getting paid. (The same thing cannot be said for some other tutoring models, but more on that below.)
Tutor.com: A full-service virtual tutoring company with institutional contracts, which translates to: they actually have work! For those of us in the social sciences and humanities, our bread and butter in on-demand tutoring is in paper feedback and essay writing support. Tutor.com has both live tutoring and asynchronous sessions, and students use both approaches to get help. I like that the company has a real interview and a hiring and training process. On the surface it also seems a bit more competitive than some of the others—although they still pay only USD $12.50* an hour to start.
Pearson and Brainfuse: These are your basic asynchronous writing centers (they also have services for other subject areas, but these seem less widely available) and they pay about $12.00 an hour. I haven’t worked for either company, but I did do a one-hour tryout for Pearson (only to be told that they weren’t hiring at this time) and saw that their platform is fairly easy to use and efficient, making the feedback process pretty painless. Supposedly they offer a paid training course if you’re hired, which is unusual and obviously a plus.
Chegg: Chegg is a little different than the others; it’s more like a homework help platform. But similarly, you sign in and then wait for “opportunities” to arise. These are quick notes from students that say things like, “I need help with my discussion forum response” or “I want you to explain the assignment.” I love doing this when I’m in the mood because you can do chat or voice sessions (depending on the student’s preference) and often they are just quick little office hour sessions that get the student moving on their work. The platform pays $20.00 an hour, although I have yet to work an entire hour-long session.
Tutorme.com; Skooli; Revolution Prep: I don’t have much information on these companies because even though they come up in searches, it seems that their higher pay ($20.00–$30.00 an hour) makes them more competitive. After several months of a pending application with TutorMe.com, I assume that they don’t have many available jobs (but your experience might differ).
Most of the above platforms offer students the option to schedule sessions with a specific tutor. I have yet to experience a request like this, so I can’t speak to how common it is to get students this way.
Tutoring liaison with an online component
Companies like Varsity Tutors, Club Z, Wyzant, and Superprof are liaisons between tutors and students. They do the marketing for your own personal tutoring business and help you get clients so you don’t have to find them on your own. Although they all have an online component, you also get the option to connect with students in person if you’d like.
There are two earnings options. Platforms like Varsity Tutors and Club Z charge a flat rate to clients, with them receiving two-thirds and you receiving one-third. This amounts to roughly $15.00–$20.00 an hour, depending on the subject and on the time spent outside of the classroom (for example, communicating with students or scheduling tutoring time).
Companies like SuperProf and Wyzant allow you to charge your own rate to clients, but also take two-thirds of that money. (Wyzant incentivizes commitment by taking a smaller percentage once you’ve logged a certain number of hours).
My view is that these companies might be fine eventually, but for now their youth and place in an emerging market shows. They require a huge amount of pitching and communication on the tutor’s part for a significant cut of your money. There are also time-based technological things to consider: one of these platforms requires that you manually input things like scheduled sessions and invoices; another is a bit better, with automatic invoicing. Another one has “incentives” that supposedly boost your profile’s status to clients, including exploitative things like lowering your prices and answering questions for free.
The paper grading route is straightforward: you grade seminar papers or standardized tests and then get paid based on your output. The one I’ve registered with is IBIS, a European-based company that hires end-of-term exam graders in November/December and April/May. According to the company the pay is about $1,600 for roughly 200 papers, which is the maximum one would get assigned in a session. If one grades at a rate of one paper every 30 minutes, that amounts to around $10.00 an hour.
Teaching ESL: China
I would totally do this if I could handle the schedule because this is definitely a better-paid online teaching option, ranging from $18.00–$24.00 an hour. The more competitive rate probably has a lot to do with the explosion of remote ESL businesses in China, with dozens of companies popping up over the last few years. The information is a lot to sort through, but some companies that seem popular and appear to get good reviews are VIP Kids, PalFish (another Uber model), and QKids. Most of the time, they provide you with a curriculum and organize your classes. You just sign in and teach in short, usually 30-minute increments.
For me, the issue is that peak class times in China correspond with very early morning hours in the U.S. (about 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekdays, depending on US time zone; the entirety of China uses a single time zone). Also, many of these companies require that applicants provide their TOEFL score due. For those of us who spent 5–10 years getting a PhD and writing a dissertation about a specific niche (for instance, technologies of everyday life in 1760s France), earning another certification sounds like a bit much, and teaching English grammar and vocabulary might seem a bit too far from our expertise. But anyone trained in the humanities or social sciences is likely just as well-equipped to help students with their English mechanics as someone with a TOEFL certificate. So if you find a company that doesn’t require a TOEFL, and you don’t mind working in the early morning hours, it’s a good option.
Other ESL models: Beyond China
I’ve learned that in remote ESL teaching, refusing to sacrifice sleep means that you do end up sacrificing money. ESL companies like Open English cater to students in Latin America, but they pay less than half of what a company like VIP Kids pays to teach in China.
Additionally, the tutoring companies I mentioned above, including SuperProf and Wyzant, have ESL subject options for tutoring. But generally, these seem to yield about $10.00 an hour for any non-China-related ESL.
Running the numbers
When I was adjuncting with a PhD, my earnings were along the lines of $10,000 post-tax for a 20-week term (a roughly 16-week semester augmented by prep, administrative tasks, and grading). And while according to some sources, an instructor is supposed to spend about 6–10 hours per week on each 3-unit class, that rarely happened for me. I averaged 40 hours per week with my full-time 3-course load—and that was after a few years of teaching the same courses multiple times so there was less prep. (I also got smarter and started designing assignments that allowed for reasonable grading tasks, rather than complex projects that would take me hours to grade, especially when my class was overfilled with 40+ students.)
So earning around $2,000 per month, working 40 hours per week (and 160 hours per month), I earned about $12.50 an hour, which is what I make now as a starting tutor at Tutor.com. But now I don’t have to deal with course prep, managing bullying students, or anything else other than signing into the classroom when I feel like earning money by doing something that’s both fun and easy for me. And the best part is that after living for years with the curse of the concerned teacher, I have no contact with the students once we’ve signed off. I don’t spend my time worrying about their grades or anything else. It’s super liberating.
Remote online instruction has offered a reasonable alternative to my former life as an adjunct instructor at my local state university. While the wages are still low, and institutions continue to exploit an overcrowded and overeducated workforce, I have greater flexibility and generally more satisfying working conditions. The options I have overviewed are for those who desire this flexibility and the other benefits of working remotely. I don’t recommend them as an alternative to a decent-paying instructor gig, and you’ll be hard-pressed to support a family on this work alone, especially if you live in a place with a high cost of living. But in an industry where most workers are contingent and wages have stagnated, many of us do not have better options.
The other thing we could really do is collectively decide to leave higher education and hope that the process of administrators and board members swimming around in their own mess will spur actual change. But until that happens, we can at least earn some money in a manner that is more flexible and opens up our options for how we want to organize our lives around work.
* All rates in this piece are in US dollars
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About the author:
For over ten years, Elise Chatelain taught sociology, women’s studies, and cultural studies in a university setting. She loved so many things about this work, but that didn’t stop her from realizing that if she didn’t leave academia, she might actually die. Almost three years and some huge life changes later, she’s a happy, well-adjusted person who has stopped smoking, sleeps through the night, and eats three well-balanced meals a day. Elise is also the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine and earned a PhD in cultural studies with an emphasis in feminist theory and research from the University of California, Davis.