Something we could learn from the U.S.?
Your career advice article about university staff positions
as a career option for PhDs reveals a marked difference
between Canada and the United States (“PhDs in university
staff positions face unique challenges,” June-July 2014).
I am in the final stage of completing a PhD 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. Nearly half of my doctoral cohort of
22 are planning for careers in administration, and many
are administrators completing the program as part-time
learners. This career trajectory is quite common and
thus unremarkable here, which is what made the article
Mr. Coffey has a bachelor’s degree in Canadian studies and will soon defend his PhD dissertation in higher, adult,
and lifelong education at Michigan State University.
If you think long division is hard …
as a grade six student in the early 1950s, I was
expected to be able to multiply a three-digit number by a two-digit number in my head (“How to
teach math?” June-July issue). We were taught
simplifying methods to accomplish this task. I
used them on the problem of multiplying 322 by
47, and got the right answer before looking at
Here’s how I did it: 47 is 50 minus 3. So multiply 322 by 50, then subtract 322 times 3 (which
I immediately recognized as 966, there being
no need to carry). 322 by 50 is the same as half
that amount by 100. Half of 322 is 161. Add two
zeroes to get 16,100. To subtract 966, subtract
1,000, getting 15,100, then add the difference
between 1,000 and 966, which is 34. Presto: 15,134.
We were given a lot of practice in these
techniques and were expected to apply them in
tests, getting the right answer without putting
anything down on paper. It was called mental
I can often beat the cash register when there
are two or three prices being added, and then 13
percent HST added. (It was easier to add the tax
when the rate was 15 percent.) Good mental gymnastics, in my view.
Dr. Hitchcock is a professor of philosophy at McMaster University.
Understanding math, and doing it
the biggest problem with the current discov-
ery-based movement is the false belief that there
are no best ways of doing math. Much of the
techniques (especially the use of manipulatives)
we’d like to show students (or have them “dis-
cover”) are very good for helping develop an
understanding, but they are not effective for doing
math. An end goal of better and best ways of
doing things is crucial.
The so-called standard algorithm for multiplication can be used to teach the understanding
behind the multiplication. It should not be frowned
upon by applying a misguided belief that it is
barren of understanding. Can someone use it
without understanding? Certainly. Does it inherently create a lack of understanding? No.
A student who does not have a solid grasp of
fundamentals has serious limitations put on their
working memory while trying to deal with more
complex problems. This is not solved with the
“use a calculator for that stuff” approach.
Mr. Milner lives in Ancaster, Ontario, and has taught for 15 years,
mostly middle-school math.
60 / www.universityaffairs.ca / June-July 2014
Des conseils de carrière
A legitimate option
PhDs in university
staff positions face unique
by Donna Kotsopoulos
any phd students experience a range
of emotions as they start their job
search – optimism, pessimism, even
shame. For some, a tenure-track posi-
tion may not be a real option. Keturah
Leonforde, a career consultant at Wilfrid Laurier
University, says that “candidates who come to
the conclusion that an academic career is not an
option struggle to ans wer the question, ‘Now
who am I?’”
There are several factors that determine why
a faculty position is not an option for everyone,
among them: a proliferation of graduate pro-
grams and graduates, a decline in resources
for faculty expansion, more faculty members
choosing not to retire. Universities are increas-
ingly focused on “professionalization” initiatives,
partially aimed at preparing graduates for
careers outside the university setting in the pri-
vate sector or industry.
Some graduates, though, are finding employment in staff positions at universities.This is a
legitimate third option that is worth considering
Such options have been recently dubbed
administrator-scholar or “alt-ac” positions. The
institutional expertise acquired by doctoral 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 appli-
cants for staff positions have grown in the last
few years. At Laurier, for example, research facil-
itators and writing consultants are now required
to have PhDs.
One example is Élan Paulson. After two years
of grueling sessional teaching once she had completed her PhD in English, she was thrilled to
become the director of professional programs at
the faculty of education at Western University.
“I was eager to serve the academic community
that I cared so much about,” says Dr. Paulson. At
the same time, “I’ve had to shift my own identity
and the ownership of my work.”
Those who are hired for staff positions find
themselves in a unique in-between space – a
scholar working at a university but not working
as a scholar.While some move away from the
idea of teaching and research, others may try to
dosome teaching and some research, out of
interest or in the hope that a faculty position
Some privileges of faculty members are not
the privileges of staff members with PhDs. Academic freedom, intellectual property ownership
and engagement in academic endeavors for non-faculty staff – including attending conferences
and publishing,especially for staff positions
requiring a PhD – are 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 the scholarly skills they gained in earning
a doctoratl degree.
For example, staff members with PhDs may
Donna Kotsopoulos is an
associate professor in
the faculties of education
and science at Wilfrid
wish to apply for research funding that isn’t
directly related to their primary staff responsibilities. Alternatively, staff members whose
PhD is directly related to their employment
may want to continue to do research; and the
research may be relevant to their employment,
or even required.
Funding agencies also need to revisit applicant eligibility rules given the changing landscape of employment for PhDs. Isabeau Iqbal,
an educational developer in the University of
British Columbia’s faculty of pharmaceutical
sciences, focused on the role of summative
feedback on faculty teaching for her doctorate.
In her current role, she appreciates being
encouraged to engage in scholarship related to
postsecondary education. However, “without
faculty status,” says Dr. Iqbal, “I cannot apply
for funding [from federal granting councils]
and do not have grants to cover expenses such
In sum, the challenges and opportunities
faced by PhD graduates entering university
staff roles are different from the challenges that
accompany careers in private industry.They
differ as well from the challenges of postdoctoral fellows and tenure-track professors.
Graduate faculties and career centres need to
take this shift into account when preparing
graduate students. Internship experiences in
staff roles within the university setting during
graduate education may provide students with
useful experience and may help educate the
wider university community.
“ The number of PhD applicants for university staff
positions is growing.”