PhD graduates ‘look overqualified’ for university administration

Study finds that staff welcome better work-life balance but still face barriers

March 26, 2022
Administrator checking files

PhD graduates are filling administrative roles within higher education because they offer flexibility and a better work-life balance, but they still face barriers including being thought of as overqualified, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Arizona looked into the experiences of those taking alternative career paths within US universities after completing their doctoral studies amid a climate of increased competition for tenure-track academic posts.

Authors Allison Ewing-Cooper and Kathryn Gallien, who both have PhDs and work in administrative positions themselves, found that although all 12 of their interviewees were positive about their decision and valued the job security it offered, many still faced barriers, with employers assuming they wouldn’t be satisfied in their role and so wouldn’t stay long.

Their study, published in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Educationrecommends universities take steps to address these prejudices faced by these PhD graduates and consider revamping careers advice so that it is no longer assumed that all doctoral candidates wish to become academics. They have also called for the introduction of hybrid positions that combine administration with teaching and research.

Dr Gallien, who works as an academic adviser at Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, told Times Higher Education that she and Dr Ewing-Cooper had “wondered about the career trajectories of people like ourselves”.

Dr Gallien said she had overheard a conversation between two non-PhD staff members in which they expressed surprise that “so many” applicants with PhDs had applied for a job as a new graduate programme coordinator. One staff member was heard to say it was “so sad” as anyone with a PhD would not stay in a staff position long before moving on to take a faculty position.

“In that brief interaction, I felt I had overheard what I feared many staff members thought about people with PhDs working in administration,” she added.

“Allison and I have always been happy in our career choices, and so the assumption that PhD graduates should not be in lower administrative positions or that there was something sad about it was another aspect we both wanted to explore.”

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Reader's comments (2)

I think this applies to society more broadly. I am not convinced there is wide acceptance of the fact that some people value work-life balance more highly than salary and/or career progression. There is a default assumption that a competent, qualified employee should naturally want to "progress" to senior management roles. If not, they are deemed to have "unfulfilled potential" or to have "underachieved".
So let me tell you about myself. I had an accomplished academic career. I was an International Fulbright Scholar - a foreign student awarded Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States universities for a doctoral degree. Those who have an understanding of fellowships, they know what it means to be a Fulbright Scholar. Due to some inevitable medical reasons, I had to request a waiver and work authorization to stay in the United States and find a job. Because I was on a J-1 visa, I was not allowed any graduate assistantship position. Once I graduated and started looking for a job, I stumbled. I was always looking for an administrative job, though an academic position was a priority. I got a community college academic position and started teaching. Interestingly, I found that community colleges pay far more than universities. Four years after teaching at the community college level, I was able to get an R-1 university lecturership position. For the last five years, May is a month of depression because the yearly contract ends and we are put in danger of losing a livelihood. It has been happening every year. My student reviews and passing rates have improved significantly. Nevertheless, employers ditch at the last moment and they do not feel any remorse about it. There is an inherently biased behavior in higher education institutions, particularly in the administration, considering a foreign-born graduate unfit to serve that side of higher education. So far, I have applied for more than 600 administrative jobs. Unfortunately, I have never received a single call for an interview. Those who come with an undergraduate degree rise to higher levels, are paid better, and enjoy job security. On the other, people like me, who work and prefer higher education are ruined. In this sense, acquiring higher education beyond an undergraduate degree is a curse. If someone is interested in looking at the record of 600 applications, I have saved every single thing.


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