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Career Advice

More university staff positions are being filled by PhDs

This is a legitimate career option.


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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  1. Lokis / March 6, 2014 at 11:38

    great news – first cabbies now secretaries – this is progress

  2. dr.doinglittle / March 12, 2014 at 11:37

    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.

  3. Wei / March 13, 2014 at 16:35

    sounds like a waste to me.

  4. harvest / March 18, 2014 at 11:02

    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.

  5. Cate / March 19, 2014 at 12:51

    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?

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