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Voices of the Global Community


Allison Ewing-Cooper, University of Arizona 
Kathryn N. Gallien, University of Arizona 

The landscape of higher education has changed recently affecting the types of jobs universities offer and who performs them. For doctoral graduates, alternatives to tenure-track professorships exist inside academia, including academic advising (Ewing-Cooper & Gallien, 2022). To learn more about the professional competencies of advisors with doctorates, we, the authors, created a survey. Based on the responses, it is evident that advisors with doctoral degrees surpass the standards detailed in NACADA’s core competencies. Yet misperceptions about hiring them are still prevalent.

An email, sent to 10,247 recipients on the NACADA listserv, invited participants to complete an IRB-approved survey. Four hundred thirty participants confirmed that their primary job duty was academic advising or administration, that they had earned a master's degree or higher, and completed the survey (Ewing-Cooper & Gallien, 2023). Of the 430 participants, 73 (17%) had doctoral degrees. 

Although the survey did not ask the title of their doctorate (e.g., PhD, EdD), participants reported in which subject they earned their doctoral degree. The most common subject (53.4%) was higher education (including higher education administration and leadership). However, advisors reported a variety of other degrees including four doctorates in English, two in law, and one in civil engineering, history, molecular biology, and dance. Most participants earned their doctoral degrees while working as advisors (perhaps taking advantage of university tuition assistance programs), but 34% earned their doctorates before working as advisors. The majority (88%) of participants who completed their doctorates before advising held degrees in fields other than higher education (e.g., genetics, biology, art, and English), making it unlikely that they trained to enter advising.

Advising Core Competencies and Doctoral Degrees

NACADA (Smith & Cunningham, 2022) details three core components (conceptual, informational, and relational) that set a framework for effective advising. Survey responses illustrate the value of doctorates to all three components. This statement is not meant to imply that advisors with bachelor’s degrees are inferior, but rather to emphasize how doctorates can be viewed as an asset instead of a liability in academic advising. 

The conceptual component entails understanding the theoretical foundations, purpose, and goals of academic advising. Many respondents suggested that their doctorates strengthened their understanding of advising core values and elevated the advising profession as a whole. An advisor with a PhD in anthropology wrote, “Anthropology is also all about understanding human differences, so I like to think that I bring that curiosity and understanding to my role as an advisor.” Another respondent wrote, “I believe that my conference presentations, research participation, grant work, etc. has helped solidify the role of advising as a profession.”

Research, theory, and data analysis are paramount to most doctoral programs, and advisors with doctorates bring that knowledge and practice to advising. One advisor wrote that their doctoral degree helps them “[use] theories in advising/developing students.” Multiple participants commented on how their doctoral degrees helped them with “more formal use of data and research” and “[use of] data to better understand student success.” Another advisor wrote, “Because of my research background, I think that I am better able to conceptualize ways to solve problems and systemic barriers that students experience.” 

Doctoral degrees can help advisors understand the complexity of each student and situation. One advising director wrote that, because of their doctorate, they trained their advising team to “understand the academic, psychosocial, and emotional parts of students and how to best serve them in a way that is proactive, inclusive, and that respects the value of their diversity.” One advisor wrote that their doctoral program connected them to literature on diversity, equality, and belonging and helped them “to understand and critique the structures that might influence success or challenges in higher education.”

The informational component relates to specific institutional and curricular knowledge. Participants expressed that they had gained greater “insight into the workings of higher education,” and that that knowledge benefitted their students. Doctoral degrees also help advisors gain “respectability when working with faculty” and assist in interactions with faculty “who often respect those with advanced degrees and engage with them differently.” One advisor noted the benefit of this increased respect, writing that their doctoral degree “helps me to better advocate for my students and helps faculty see me as a peer, which makes them more willing to hear my ideas.” Advanced degrees also lend greater knowledge of university policies and procedures and a “solid understanding of social and cultural structures, such as a college curriculum.” Other advisors commented on how their years of advanced study and knowledge of higher education granted them a “greater awareness of the relationship between campus partners and how to provide more holistic support to students.”

Advisors with doctoral degrees are better able to “advise students on graduate school application processes.” Other advisors wrote about their “first-hand knowledge of the challenges of [being] a grad student” and an understanding of the stresses of applying and transitioning to graduate school. Even if they work only with undergraduate students, an advisor with a doctorate can speak to students about all levels of graduate school, share firsthand advice, and utilize their graduate school networks to assist advisees.         

The relational component encompasses what academic advisors do with their understanding of the advising profession and the interpersonal skills they bring to their advising interactions. Multiple advisors commented that their doctoral degrees helped them develop problem solving and critical thinking skills. Advisors who are well trained themselves are better able to guide students through the reflective, complex decision-making processes required to navigate academia successfully. One advisor wrote, “I think [my doctoral degree] allows me to think outside the box and support students in a very different way than if I just had a bachelor's degree.” Another summarized this connection well by writing, “I think the degrees themselves promoted higher-level thinking and critical reasoning that helps me teach students to do the same.”

Other advisors wrote about how their doctorates helped them develop “relationship skills with students.” An advisor with a PhD in pharmacology noted that they were “better able to connect to science students” due to their advanced degree. A participant with a PhD in educational policy studies and evaluation noted, “I am more aware of and seek personal narrative details to inform advising approaches,” and a participant with a PhD in music wrote, “I think having the advanced degree assists in my communication, time management, and ability to relate to students.” While some of the relational skills participants highlighted were directly related to their fields of study (e.g., science) others connected only tangentially to their academic fields but nonetheless enhanced their advising interactions.

Hiring Academic Advisors with Doctorates

One of the biggest misconceptions about doctorates working in non-tenure track positions is that they plan to move on quickly (Ewing-Cooper & Gallien, 2022). However, longevity was high for advisors with doctorates who responded to this survey; 65.3% of participants with doctorates reported being advisors for ten or more years, and 87.5% of respondents had worked in advising for six or more years. These figures are well above the average of three years in advising (Solon et al., 2022).

To explore perceptions and attitudes around hiring advisors with advanced degrees, all participants were asked how likely they were to recommend hiring an advisor with a master’s degree. Their answers were overwhelmingly positive with 85.1% responding definitely or probably yes. Only 1.8% answered probably or definitely not. When asked to explain their answers, participants noted advantages, including “Having an advanced degree means your employee is determined, professional, and can finish projects they start. It takes initiative and resilience to complete. Most [masters’] students have advanced knowledge of research and writing, which is a benefit to any profession.” While comments were generally positive, some participants remarked that master’s degrees were unnecessary; one advisor commented, “Master's degree doesn't matter for advising. More concerned with empathy and communication skills.”

When asked, would they recommend hiring an advisor with a doctorate, the answers were quite different. Only 39.3% reported that they would definitely or probably hire an advisor with a doctorate, and 17.6% said they probably or definitely would not (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1

In General, Would You Recommend Hiring an Advisor with an Advanced Degree?

To explore how education levels might affect participants’ views regarding hiring, the responses of advisors with masters’ degrees were separated from those with doctorates. Although both groups showed some hesitancy toward hiring candidates with doctorates, respondents with doctorates were more likely to recommend hiring an advisor with a doctorate; 63% of advisors with doctorates versus 34.7% of advisors with masters’ degrees stated they would definitely or probably recommend hiring an advisor with a doctorate. Similarly, a smaller percentage of participants with doctorates ruled out hiring an advisor with a doctorate; only 6.8% of advisors with doctorates stated they probably or definitely would not recommend hiring an advisor with a doctorate while 19.6% of advisors with masters expressed a negative response (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

In General, Would You Recommend Hiring an Advisor with a Doctorate?

When asked to explain their answers, several themes emerged. Even when participants responded positively to hiring advisors with doctorates, they still questioned motivation and expressed concerns about pay. One respondent wrote, “If this person truly wants to be on the front line of helping others, yes” and another commented, “It would all depend on their reasoning for wanting an advising job.” Although motivation is an important consideration, similar concerns were not expressed about candidates with masters’ degrees. Nonetheless, hiring committees do not know the individual financial circumstances of applicants and therefore should not withhold job offers based on how much they can pay.

Respondents also expressed concerns that candidates with advanced degrees would be overqualified for advising. The common perception that applicants with doctorates are overqualified applies to any type of administrative position in higher education for which a doctorate is not required (Ewing-Cooper & Gallien, 2022). One participant wrote, “I feel they may be a little overqualified or looking for more money than what advising pays—I could see a doctorate more for advising administration.” Perhaps the most misguided perception is that candidates with doctorates are using advising to move into tenure-track or higher leadership positions. One respondent commented, “Most [PhDs] use advising to get a foot in the door and [then] move onto other university jobs. Advising is just university access to them.”


Academic advisors with doctorates, like many other higher education professionals, occupy what Celia Whitchurch (2008) calls the “third space.” Employees who work in third spaces have “unbounded” positions that do not fit neatly into academic or administrative spheres. McIntosh and Campbell (2023) argue that the third space applies to academic advising administrators specifically, because they use “multiple understandings of the institution,” “enter and understand academic discourse and debate,” “undertake research into institutional activity,” and “achieve credibility in academic spaces” (p. 35). All of these qualities apply to advisors with doctorates as well.

Survey results highlighted that advisors with doctorates are committed to and invested in higher education. They have a deep knowledge of institutions of higher education and an ability to describe the complete graduate school process. They bring enhanced knowledge of theory and research to their advising practices. In short, their unboundedness should be viewed as an asset in that it allows them to surpass the standards established by the NACADA core competencies.


Ewing-Cooper, A., & Gallien, K. G. (2022). Off the tenure track: Experiences of PhD graduates in academic administrative positions. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 26(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/13603108.2021.2012720. 

Ewing-Cooper, A., & Gallien, K. G. (2023). Academic advisors with advanced degrees: Exploring connections between educational backgrounds and professional experiences. Academic Advising Today, 46(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Academic-Advisors-with-Advanced-Degrees-Exploring-Connections-Between-Educational-Backgrounds-and-Professional-Experiences.aspx 

McIntosh, E., & Campbell, S.M. (2024). The academic advising administrator as integrated practitioner. In S. M. Campbell, C. S. Taylor, & M. Dial (Eds.), Academic Advising Administration: Essential Knowledge and Skills for the 21st Style (2nd ed., pp. 27–41). Routledge. 

Smith, B., & Cunningham, L. (Eds.). (2022). NACADA academic advising core competencies guide. NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising.

Solon, K., McGill, C. M., & Jensen, D. (2022). Understanding the career management of female primary-role advisors. NACADA Journal, 42(2), 19–31. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-22-16 

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting identities and blurring boundaries: The emergence of third space professionals in UK higher education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 377–396. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2273.2008.00387.x

Posted in: 2024 March 47:1


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.