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More university staff positions are being filled by PhDs

This is a legitimate career option.

by Donna Kotsopoulos


A tenure-track position for many PhD students may not be a real option. There are several contributing factors including a proliferation of graduate programs and graduates, a decline in resources for faculty expansion, and more faculty members choosing not to retire. Universities are increasingly focusing on “professionalization” (PDF) initiatives partially aimed at preparing graduates for careers outside of the university setting in either the private sector or industry.

Some graduates, though, are finding employment in staff positions at universities. This is a legitimate third option that is worth considering seriously. Such options have been recently described as “alt-ac” or administrator-scholar positions. The institutional expertise acquired by PhD students during their studies can be a valuable asset to a university. In some cases, the PhD may even be required for the staff position.

According to Pamela Cant, assistant vice-president of human resources at Wilfrid Laurier University, both the number of staff positions requiring PhDs and the number of PhD applicants for staff positions have grown in the last few years. At Laurier, for example, research facilitators and writing consultants are now required to have PhDs.

After two years of grueling sessional teaching after completing her PhD in English, Élan Paulson says she was thrilled to become the director of professional programs at the faculty of education at Western University. Dr. Paulson says, “I was eager to serve the academic community that I cared so much about.” At the same time, says Dr. Paulson, “I’ve had to shift my own identity and the ownership of my work.”

Those who can secure staff positions find themselves in a unique in-between space – working in a university but not as a faculty member, a scholar but not working as a scholar. While some may opt to move away from the idea of teaching and research, others may continue to try to do some teaching and to maintain some level of research, perhaps in hope that a faculty position may materialize.

Some of the privileges of faculty members are not the privileges of staff members with PhDs. Academic freedom, intellectual property, and engagement in some level of academic endeavors for non-faculty staff – including attending conferences and publishing and especially if the staff position required a PhD -- are all issues that universities must now consider. Universities, as employers, must be clear on the extent to which PhDs hired into staff positions are expected and permitted to use their skills.

For example, staff members with PhDs may be interested in applying for research funding that may not be directly related to their primary staff responsibilities. And what about the intellectual property of staff members with PhDs? Any publishable materials could be viewed as “work for pay” artifacts whereby the rights to the intellectual property may be assigned to the employer who has legitimately paid for the work. How are such tensions navigated? As more and more PhDs are employed in these staff positions, these issues will need to be addressed.

The challenges and opportunities that PhD students face when entering university staff roles are different from issues that apply to careers in private industry – and different from those of postdoctoral roles. Graduate faculties and career centres must also take this shift into account when preparing graduate students. Internship experiences in staff roles during graduate education within the university setting may be very helpful in providing useful experience and in educating the wider university community.

Donna Kotsopoulos is an associate professor in the faculties of education and science at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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Comments on this Article

This is not a new development in the U.S. I am in the final stage of completing a Ph.D. in Higher Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) at Michigan State University. While HALE does prepare future faculty to serve in similar programs elsewhere, many HALE students plan for careers in postsecondary administration. For me, securing such a position is plan A.

Posted by Robert Coffey, Jun 11, 2014 1:25 PM

Where’s the evidence for the claim made here?

I get the sense that PhDs are in fact not at all welcome in faculties of medicine, especially social science ones that a) push a more interpretive and qualitative research paradigm, b) critique statistical analysis and c) demand better working conditions and remuneration.

On one hand, we’ve got hospital administrators who are stuck in 19th Century models of doing research and are paid vast sums of money to create research facades to impress the Royal College and other evaluators and, on the other hand we have medical faculty who don’t care to concern themselves about advancing medical knowledge in their fields. MDs don’t go into doctoring to do research, they do it mainly for the money. And what MD wants to spend the vast amount of time doing research when they don't have to?

What is needed is a major attitudinal shift in medical administrators, medical doctors and CIHR orientation to research. Unfortunately, there are few spaces for the downtrodden PhD to flourish in this lean technocratic social context.

One needs to start and build from the bottom up. There needs to be an agenda of change by transforming medical education and attracting the right people into the profession -- those with the passion for research. There's an important role for the PhD here, but it's not happening as far as I can see. While there are exceptions, most social scientists hired in medical faculties appear to be hired usually as contingent "research assistants" where their social standing and status is low where they can easily be discarded and replaced.

I'm afraid the author of the article is engaging in wishful thinking -- I wish this were true too. Some evidence would have been helpful.

Posted by Bob, Mar 21, 2014 2:59 PM

The reality is, very few admin positions - if we're talking anything much higher than the secretary level - would ever go to an academic who was not already a tenured or TT professor. Otherwise, the person would have notable experience in the private sector or have held public office. I've never met a univ administrator who did not fall into one of these categories.

As for lower-level university admin jobs, these are often only open to internal candidates. The few that are open to external ones are hotly contested and get a lot of applicants. There are a surprisingly large number of people with advanced degrees out there who will take any university job, no matter how low paying, over sessionaling, simply for the benefits and job security. Or as a next-best or waiting option to getting the elusive TT position.

Add to this, the fact that there are a lot of people already in the university system who you'll be competing with for any decent-paying jobs. I'm talking about people who started out as secretaries or library clerks, who worked their way up in the system, who got degrees along the way (often with financial assistance from the university), and have the connections and experience to be considered for more senior positions. These people want to move up and are more likely to get hired over the freshly-minted PhD grad, who has little or no work experience.

Bottom line is, any decent paying admin jobs are not easy to obtain, and are not a feasible career option for most grads.

Posted by Dr. Doinglittle, Mar 19, 2014 1:31 PM

Here's a reality check - not everyone does a PhD to go into teaching!!! The expectations and work load placed on new faculty often outweigh the rewards, and as grad students watch their professors burn out they may decide to use their degree somewhere else. Thus the desire to use their degree in a creative or interdisciplinary way. Why not in admin - within the university/college sector, or anywhere else for that matter?

Posted by Cate, Mar 19, 2014 12:51 PM

You guys don't get it and are examples of the narrowmindedness of people in academia. Alt-ac positions in higher education administration often pays more than assistant professorships (especially if you are a humanities PhD).

These professions aren't merely clerical, but often require advanced research or teaching skills.

You could read up on it in the Chronicle of Higher Education or numerous other places, but ignorance is unfortunately the easiest choice for the lazy.

Posted by harvest, Mar 18, 2014 11:02 AM

sounds like a waste to me.

Posted by Wei, Mar 13, 2014 4:35 PM

lol, no kidding. As if anyone signs up to do a PhD with admin work as the goal. To suggest that this is "professionalism" indicates just how out of touch depts. are nowadays with the current graduate crisis.

Posted by dr.doinglittle, Mar 12, 2014 11:37 AM

great news - first cabbies now secretaries - this is progress

Posted by Lokis, Mar 6, 2014 11:38 AM

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