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Universities should be employing surplus PhDs–as administrative staff.

Of the many criticisms I hear levelled at the current state of higher education, I would say that the following four are among the most frequent:

  1. The current reliance on contingent faculty rather than full-time professors is both undermining educational quality and creating a permanent academic underclass of PhDs working in precarious, poverty-level conditions.
  2. Over the last several decades, the number of university administrative positions and administrative pay have ballooned out of control.
  3. It used to be that the professors were the ones to do the administrative work of the university, rather than the professional administrators we have today whose focus is not always on the institution’s educational and research missions.
  4. PhDs face a tough job market even outside the traditional professorship track, and universities are not doing enough to help.

Taken together, these four criticisms show a pattern: over the last several decades, universities have gone about expanding the ranks of professional administrators mainly by replacing permanent faculty with low-wage contingent faculty, a consequence of which is that a significant number of PhDs can no longer find employment at a living wage.

I know I am not alone in noticing that full-time clerical workers at universities are getting job security, benefits, and wages that approach or surpass those of junior faculty, all the while working 40-hour weeks with (often generous) vacation time. Most of these positions require only a Bachelor’s degree.

So here’s an idea: what if universities were to fill these positions with under-employed PhDs instead? Not only would this significantly increase the chances of stable full-time employment for those who earn doctoral degrees–and let’s remember, universities are constantly extolling the virtues and employability of PhDs in non-traditional roles–but it would also result in an administrative class with a much better grasp on the educational and research missions of the university. Furthermore, these same employees would be perfectly qualified to teach courses when the need arises without departments having to resort to temporary contract hires.

This could even result in an entirely new class of employee: the “service” professor, whose time follows an 80/20 service/teaching formula rather than the established teaching/research/service proportions of traditional faculty. Such employees might not be eligible for tenure, but would at least enjoy the protections and benefits that come along with standard employment contracts and would not be vulnerable to changes in course offerings: if they are not needed for teaching, they can continue on with their other responsibilities until such time as they are needed.

Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like an eminently reasonable solution to a growing problem. What do you think?

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!


  1. April 10, 2016 at 6:34 am —

    This looks suspiciously like the tail wagging the dog. Employ more PhDs just to show that they’re more employable? Give academics less teaching time and bury them deeper in bureaucracy.

    If this is a parody of some sort, the joke isn’t clear.

    • April 10, 2016 at 6:40 am —

      Closer to putting money where their mouth is and replacing precarious poverty-level contract work with a kind of stable employment. To me a service-heavy appointment that pays like a real job (because it is one) seems preferable to what many academics end up with. The idea is more administrative worker who teaches rather than faculty who are buried in more bureaucracy. There would still be standard permanent faculty.

      • April 10, 2016 at 6:48 am —

        Why not simply argue for paying lecturers properly?

        If the money exists, then there’s no excuse.

        If the money for it can’t be found, then there’s no hope either way.

        Taking jobs from non-PhDs doesn’t solve unemployment or underemployment. It just privileges those with higher academic qualifications, without contributing to teaching in any useful way.

        If these qualifications were needed for basic admin, you might have a point. But if a bachelor can do the job, then naturally they’ll apply for it. Job reservation in admin has not a single thing at all to do with fixing job security in teaching.

        I believe the metaphor is robbing Peter to pay Dr Paul.

        • April 10, 2016 at 6:55 am —

          One of the reasons I wrote this was because people often lament the fact that the running of the university–which used to belong solely to the professors–has been turned over to an entirely separate administrative class who do not necessarily share the same values. Employing more PhDs in such positions would counteract this and possibly have a salutary effect on institutional culture.

          This isn’t only about lecturer pay, but about the institution as an organism.

          • April 10, 2016 at 7:00 am

            Then I’d suggest your relative emphasis could be the problem. Focus more explicitly on control of admin, not pay, if that’s what interests you.

          • April 10, 2016 at 7:09 am

            To be fair it was included among the criticisms to be addressed and explicitly returned to later in the ~400 word post. I’d say that’s something.

  2. April 10, 2016 at 6:57 am —

    but it would also result in an administrative class with a much better grasp on the educational and research missions of the university.

    You use this same construction–“educational and research missions”–twice in the post, but don’t really elaborate about what that might entail. In any case, that’s not what administrators are trained to do and it’s not what they ought to be doing (ditto the bulk of PhDs, who did not pursue post-graduate work in order to perform “non-traditional” tasks). That’s what a robust faculty and strong departmental chairs and committees are equipped for, what they exist for, and, pace your #1, what they have always done and continue to do: serving on committees, advising and mentoring students, applying for grants, screening program applicants, developing departmental programming, performing examinations, interviewing and hiring incoming faculty, determining eligibility for promotions, etc. Underemploying them while relying on underpaid, undertrained adjunct instructors is what’s costing university their “research missions.” You admit as much by suggesting that there be “service professors” to take up teaching responsibilities but not pursue research, the cornerstone of public and private university funding and the method with which departments readily replace departing faculty with young, qualified, ambitious PhDs. Full- and part-time members of faculty who offer instruction only already exist (visiting or hosted scholars). Likewise, advanced graduate students perform a similar function as instructors and teaching assistants (and as research assistants) and are even better suited than your “service professors” because they’re familiar with the department, and their education and training is fresh, and unlike adjuncts, their instruction is closely monitored and audited by faculty advisors for quality.

    I know I am not alone in noticing that full-time clerical workers at universities are getting job security, benefits, and wages that approach or surpass those of junior faculty, all the while working 40-hour weeks with (often generous) vacation time.

    Those are working conditions and benefits everyone should enjoy. And while you characterize staff salaries and employment both as “ballooning,” there’s not much evidence for that, and for the most part the expansion of student services (which, like it or not, is what attracts undergraduates) and increasing undergraduate enrollment explains the need for additional staff. If anything, reduced access to public funding and the financial investment in student athletics (disproportionate to what funds they generate) are responsible for unsustainable budgets and higher tuition, resulting in greater debt, reduced departmental support (barring endowments, which, again, are brought in through research), and stagnant faculty salaries. Even given all that, private schools expend nearly double the amount public universities do on institutional and academic support per student.

    I suspect departments are accepting and graduating far too many doctoral students (even as it takes them longer and longer to do so and at greater debt) and are failing to prepare them for work outside academia and in the private sector (there has never been and will never be enough faculty vacancies to employ all PhDs). The saturation of PhDs is reducing the competitive advantages they used to enjoy, driving down salaries everywhere. Even in fields where post-graduate work provides an economic advantage, in the US it is the possession of an MA / MS that makes this so.

    and let’s remember, universities are constantly extolling the virtues and employability of PhDs in non-traditional roles

    Depends, of course, on what you mean by “non-traditional,” but as I say, not all PhDs are suited to, expected to, or interested in remaining in academia. You seem to imply that that notion when expressed by universities is fatuous or deceptive, but it’s just fact. That’s the way it is. And advocating that they take pay cuts and set aside ambitions towards research and practice in order to perform functions to which they are not suited seems absurd, a solution in search of a different problem altogether. The problem is not that there is too many administrative and support staff or that they are being paid too much, and therefore ought to be replaced with underpaid and unqualified academics; the problem is that existing PhDs can’t put to good use their degrees as they intended because opportunities are scarce everywhere, not just in universities.


    • April 10, 2016 at 7:26 am —

      I mean “education and research missions” to contrast with the corporatist bureaucratic bottom-line ethos that is becoming common. As I’ve said, I think including more people with a different conception of what universities are for would probably be a good thing for institutions.

      I don’t have time to be exhaustive here, but:

      Those are working conditions and benefits everyone should enjoy

      Of course. But they currently don’t, so it might be worth thinking about other ways things might be done.

      I suspect departments are accepting and graduating far too many doctoral students

      This is something I’ve discussed previously on this site. Short answer here is yes, but the long answer is that departments depend (too much) on graduate students in a way similar their dependence on adjuncts–something you even mention. You can’t suggest cutting grad students and say departments should use them instead of teaching administrators.

      not all PhDs are suited to, expected to, or interested in remaining in academia

      Well then this solution isn’t really for them. By the same token, not every PhD is interested in a research-focused professional career. I see no reason there couldn’t be different types of positions for different kinds of career interests. We already release professors from the “burden” of teaching to do research, so why not release them from the “burden” of research in order to serve other roles in the community?

      underpaid and unqualified academics

      What makes someone with a PhD inherently less qualified to do administrative work than someone coming in with a BA? I’m not advocating hiring English PhDs to be the university’s tax lawyers. Obviously we’re talking about the vast majority of these kinds of positions that require no specialised skills beyond usual office work.

      Lastly, it might be worth mentioning (since you sound like your impression of academia is based on the sciences) that not all departments’ research activities have the same kind of impact on institutional funding through grants as big scientific research projects with labs and employees.

      • April 11, 2016 at 1:45 pm —

        Some questions:

        1. Aren’t PhDs already free to apply for these administrative positions already? I can think of few cases where the possession of a PhD would harm your chances of getting one,  and many cases where it would help, particularly when the position is related in some way to the scholarly work of the institution. For example, in libraries, academic support, etc. So it’s not as if higher ed is somehow barring PhDs from the positions currently.

        2. Do you truly believe that most administrative positions only involve basic clerical tasks these days? Looking around at my institution I see few positions that truly “require no specialized skills beyond usual office work.” Most job postings have a fairly long list of requirements, including a mix of education and experience. I doubt the experience of obtaining an unrelated PhD should count more for these positions than directly relevant job experience — and I would be a lot more confident in my HR/IT/Communications/Student Services people if they had a background in the relevant field.

        • April 11, 2016 at 3:43 pm —

          1. Of course, but it is not currently a cultural norm. Furthermore I know of a case where a university wouldn’t even hire a PhD as an office temp, so clearly universities are not always putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to their faith in the job skills of doctoral graduates.

          2. Yes but they had to start somewhere, too, didn’t they? I mean no specialised skills in the sense that they don’t have any particular certifications that a PhD would lack. Obviously both would have to start out in entry positions until a certain amount of experience was acquired.

          • April 11, 2016 at 3:52 pm

            I’m guessing part of the problem is that people who put 4-8 years of their life into a specialized degree aren’t too excited about working in an entry-level job alongside 22-year-olds who just got their BA — and likely not earning much more either. But unless you want to argue that universities should hire lesser-qualified PhDs over more-qualified non-PhDs, this is what would need to happen.

          • April 11, 2016 at 3:54 pm

            Well, I know enough who do, or would rather do this than being on welfare.

            But if there were a cultural shift that welcomed more PhDs into administration while still allowing for their scholarly pursuits/identities to be acknowledged, that would be different.

          • April 11, 2016 at 3:55 pm

            Or who need immediate post-graduation employment for immigration reasons.

  3. April 11, 2016 at 5:30 pm —

    I’m with you Dan. But how can we achieve that?

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