It is well known that obtaining a tenure-track position in Canadian universities these days is a challenge. The proportion of contingent faculty replacing full-time, tenure-track faculty in universities has been rising. Contingent faculty provide labour market “flexibility” in the current situation of uncertain funding for post-secondary educational institutions. Arguably, there is no shortage of contingent teaching positions in most large urban universities. As Michael Skolnik (2009) argues, where enrolments have risen constantly (such as in Ontario) there is a need to provide teaching relief for research faculty—perhaps two or three contingent teachers for each research faculty member supported by core university funding. Thus, there are jobs—just not good jobs—in the university precariat. It’s a difficult life, perhaps “freeway-flying” from teaching one course to another, or living from contract to contract. So master’s and doctoral degree graduates should be forgiven for looking beyond the university to obtain a full-time academic position. They might already have been cobbling together sessional teaching at a university with teaching a course or two at the local community college, even though from the perspective of elite universities and the logic of the academy, college teaching is lower in the pecking order. But what do full-time employment opportunities in the colleges look like?

A research note in the most recent issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology hints that many students already consider the colleges when looking for a full-time faculty position. After examining 135 websites to determine where the degrees of Canadian assistant professors of sociology had been obtained, the authors concluded that those with Canadian doctorates were not disadvantaged overall. Of 156 assistant professors for whom they could locate data, two-thirds were Canadian trained. There was a hitch, however: a lower percentage was hired at what Maclean’s calls medical/doctoral universities. A much higher percentage was hired at comprehensive and primarily undergraduate universities. Finally, almost all of those hired by colleges were trained in Canada. The authors looked at only seven mostly private colleges, and left the 152 public community colleges in Canada largely unexamined. But sampling issues aside, the data does indicate a kind of hierarchy in the hiring of Canadian PhD-holders in sociology.

What are the chances of getting hired in other disciplines by a college on a full-time basis? The answer to this question is that it matters very much who you are, in what field(s) you have credentials, where you are willing to work, and whether research or teaching is most important to you. For example, since colleges are considerably more dispersed geographically than universities, it matters whether you are willing to work in the north or in smaller centres in the south.

In a recent study of college faculty on 50 Canadian campuses, my co-author and I discovered that colleges have been picking up the slack of excess doctorates for many years.1 For example, a top administrator at a feeder college for a nearby medical/doctoral university told us that he just missed getting a faculty position in the hiring frenzy that took place at new Canadian universities during the 1960s. But after a short time as a contingent college teacher, he happily taught in his field and did union work for decades as a full-time college employee. Since the 1960s, there has been such a huge growth in the number of campuses and enrolments that community colleges now claim almost half the post-secondary pie.2 The general perception that colleges typically hire faculty with a master’s degree dates back to the historical practices of central Canadian colleges, where only a master’s degree in one’s teaching area was required, much as it was in vocational programs in universities such as pharmacy or dentistry as mentioned on But things have changed. In the rest of Canada, a teaching credential such as a master’s degree in education is now also required for most full-time college faculty, and doctorates are sought in specific fields.

This is because the college sector has been undergoing a remarkable transformation over the past decade. The sector has differentiated into its own pecking order of colleges feeding prestigious universities; polytechnics; university colleges; and special purpose universities, in addition to the more traditional community colleges that still only grant certificates and diplomas. Select programs in BC, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario now lead to what are called applied baccalaureates (as opposed to academic baccalaureates offered by universities), and all of these have recruited master’s and doctoral graduates to teach. So the timing of the new postgraduate credential holder is propitious for locating such an opportunity.

Further, it helps to have a postgraduate degree, particularly in the so-called “professionalizing” fields in both universities and colleges. A good example is nursing, where after cuts to the health care system during the Klein-Harris era, many provinces are faced with shortages of nurses and by extension, nursing teachers (Muzzin & Limoges, 2008). This is true for baccalaureate-level nursing where teachers with less than a master’s degree are being phased out, and nurses with doctorates who can do research are in demand. In collaborative nursing programs—those in which the first years are taught in colleges and the last one or two years are taught in universities, master’s degrees are necessary (notionally to be one degree ahead of the students), and doctorates may be preferred. This is not an insignificant academic workforce, since nurses are the largest profession in the healthcare system, and health is usually the largest item in provincial budgets. Nurses are only one cadre of a growing number of feminized fields that are professionalizing, such as midwifery, dietetics, dental hygiene, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and so on—each looking to hire professionals in colleges and universities with advanced degrees.

Urban colleges are more likely to hire contingent faculty than other colleges, so this is a consideration for graduate students in search of employment. In contrast, some colleges in the north may be willing to pay for part of your advanced degree (which you might obtain by distance education). Further, while all colleges recruit administrators, colleges building their infrastructure may be particularly keen to recruit full-time administrators who have advanced degrees and administrative experience.

But what options exist for a postgraduate degree holder outside of a recognized profession? Another place where there are opportunities appears in the arts and science faculties of colleges that offer university transfer programs. There are not many of these institutions outside Quebec. Those that exist seem to remake themselves in the image of the universities they feed, since the quality of courses taken in the first years of a baccalaureate must be acceptable for transfer credit to the targeted university programs. This is a good deal for students, since college fees are usually much lower than university fees, and those from lower socioeconomic strata get a break on the cost of their post-secondary degree for the first year or two. The teachers we talked to in these elite colleges (outside Quebec) were generally happy with their full-time work and benefits, as well as with the substance of their work. As it turns out, this kind of position can be quite rewarding if your passion is teaching.

College students enrolled in certificate (one year) or diploma (two year) college programs in technology need inspired teachers to prepare them for the work they will be doing. For their part, college instructors in chemistry, physics, and environmental science spoke to us about how much they enjoyed being in a post-secondary environment where good teaching mattered. They also spoke about the “rat race” to get a tenure stream position at universities and the challenging lifestyle accompanying the constant push to get large grants, keep on top of one’s field, obtain equipment, and commercialize their findings—not only to get tenure, but also to keep up with the demands of teaching and research. A few expressed their pleasure at being able to sidestep such a university career by taking a college position.

Another place where science master’s and doctorate holders might find a full-time teaching position is in the new polytechnics sector. This includes both brand new and longstanding institutes of technology or applied technology, some of which have formed an organization called Polytechnics Canada (with members including BCIT, NAIT, SAIT, SIAST, Red River, Humber, Algonquin, Conestoga, Sheridan and George Brown colleges). According to their spokesperson, they offer the full range of college programs, including the skilled trades such as mentioned in, with programs “laddered” (transferring credit upwards) so that students can pursue MuzzinArticletheir training in modular fashion.3 A parallel laddering also happens in big urban colleges with a variety of health professional programs, as well as in university colleges. Polytechnics Canada members now offer 91 of the 165 applied baccalaureate degrees that are approved to be delivered by colleges in Canada. Like feeder colleges, polytechnics hire full-time science and technology instructors. We found that often these faculty, like their colleagues in feeder colleges, were those who could not find a full-time position in a university and who were relieved to be able to sidestep the university science research treadmill. Several issues at these institutions around intellectual property and professional development need to be ironed out—in general, the colleges rather than faculty own intellectual property, and colleges are funded for teaching not research, limiting scholarly opportunities. Still, a lucky few were provided laboratories and engaged in research both independently and as part of their instructional duties. In this case, student/faculty discoveries could potentially be adopted by industries involved with the colleges. And we heard from some potential inventors that they were happy to donate their discoveries to their college communities (university faculty would ordinarily question this practice).

Master’s and PhD holders in the Arts also told us how relieved they were to find a full-time position (with benefits) in a college after failing to find anything beyond part-time work in the university sector. These included individuals with postgraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences, as well as professional fields such as journalism. The best stories were told by humanities and social science majors with postgraduate credentials who were hired in the recent conversion of former colleges into university colleges, and later, in most cases, to universities. These institutions include Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina College), Thompson Rivers University (formerly Cariboo College), Kwantlen University, Capilano University, and Fraser Valley University (all in BC); Grant MacEwan University and Mount Royal University (in Alberta); and Cape Breton University (in Nova Scotia). In the north of Canada, newly formed institutions include University College of the North (in Manitoba), and Nipissing University and Algoma University (in Ontario).

For those with a passion for teaching indigenous culture and politics, especially those who are themselves Aboriginal with postgraduate credentials, northern colleges such as University College of the North and Arctic College (in Nunavut) have recruited in recent years.4 Nova Scotia Community College has been proactive in hiring black faculty. And if you live in Toronto, and are a person of colour with an advanced degree, local colleges are proactive hirers too (though we suspect that they have been more successful in hiring staff and contingent faculty of colour.) One Toronto college reports 35 percent of staff as self-identified members of a racial minority, but full time faculty are not separately identified in their data.

In Canada, only a relatively few colleges are feeders, polytechnics, university colleges or special purpose universities. These institutions, along with centrally-administered eastern college systems such as those found in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, are trying hard to shake their image as trades or vocational schools. While it is true that for many colleges in Canada, the largest enrolments are in the trades and literacy development programs, it should be noted that there may also be an opportunity for interdisciplinary academic positions here. Trades programs require instructors, and we found science majors who also had journeyman’s papers teaching in colleges. Degree holders without trade certifications often teach courses ancillary to trades. In fact, the more interdisciplinary your credentials, the greater your chances of cobbling together a full-time position or contract in trades programs in more remote areas where enrolments are low.

All of this merits a few caveats. In Quebec, there is enrolment growth in the anglophone feeder colleges (which includes private colleges) in Montreal, but the work supported by this increase in students may be primarily contingent. Further, the elite colleges and fields we have been discussing should be distinguished from the use of general arts and science programs as a way to provide general education diplomas to students who either cannot enter or who fail in the vocational or academic fields of their choice. This can include students at colleges where the local university has refused to enter into transfer credit agreements with specific college programs because of concerns over lack of equivalence. This is unfortunate, as university-college program differences—particularly in vocational fields—often disappear when similar professional programs are examined in detail. A related issue is that there is a tendency in some colleges to place human service vocational programs such as early childhood education (ECE) and child and youth worker programs (both feminized) in the continuing education part of the college, which means in practice that their faculty are treated as contingent faculty. As a result, job seekers in these areas need to be cautious and check out the local status of the field. In one city we found the ECE program plunked into a continuing education unit in one large college, while in another it was laddered into an applied degree. The former program attracted students who could not afford day tuition fees.

In addition, the difference between university and college vocational programs, when it appears, has to do not with their vocational (or hands-on components) but with their so-called liberal arts content. In our research, in each case of a college in Canada seeking university status, the importation of PhD level faculty, liberal arts content, and policies protecting academic freedom were all focal points in the transformation to a degree-granting institution. Thus, the relatively sharp distinction between universities as the bastion of the liberal arts and colleges as sites for vocational training (high tech or otherwise) continues. Further, even though I have argued here that there are full-time positions in colleges, no one has done a tally of how many contingent faculty there are and the precarity of their work situations.For example, one instructor in a northern college held a doctorate in medieval English, and obtained two appointments in disparate fields, with final confirmation coming just before the course began. The last-minute nature of many appointments is another characteristic of contingency experienced in both colleges and universities. Literacy teaching positions tended to be mostly contingent everywhere, although instructors took great pride in their work. The reason for the contingency in the north, of course, is not to support a research enterprise, but to remain flexible in the case of low enrolments in rural or remote areas. A final situation to be cautious about is the service teaching position in large colleges, where the teacher teaches 15 versions of a communications, math or computer software course across all programs. But even in these situations, we found arts doctorate holders who, like their science counterparts, enjoyed the college atmosphere of collegiality and the challenge of teaching students with needs and backgrounds different from many students in the university sector.

Overall, in a tight academic job market, colleges are emerging as a teaching-focused employment option that many graduate students have not considered. With some cautions, there are indeed jobs—and good jobs—in the college sector. AM

Linda Muzzin is an Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for the Study of Education at the University of Toronto.


1. This research was supported by SSHRC grant 410-2006-1180.

2. That is, if trades enrolments are added to the data on college and university enrolments reported in CAUT’s Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada,Tables 3.1/3.2, p. 39, 2012-3, which shows that college enrolments are 63 percent of university enrolments, full time and part time.

3. Robinson, N. Presentation on polytechnics at the annual meetings of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education, Victoria BC, 2013.

4. See Patricia Gavira, “Inuit self-determination and postsecondary education: the case of Nunavut and Greenland,” PhD Thesis, OISE/UT, September 2013.


Skolnik, M. (2009). Financial pressures and the transformation of the professoriate. In Clark, I., G. Moran, M. Skolnik & D. Trick (Eds.), Academic Transformation: The Forces Shaping Higher Education in Ontario. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Wilkinson, L., J. Bramadat, R. Dolynchuk & Z. St. Aubin. (2013). Are Canadian-trained PhDs disadvantaged in the academic labour market? Canadian Review of Sociology, 50(3), 357-370.

Muzzin, L. & J.Limoges (2008). “A pretty incredible structural injustice:” Contingent faculty in Canadian university nursing. In A. Wagner, S. Acker, and K. Mayuzumi (eds.). Whose University is it Anyways? Power and Privilege on Gendered Terrain. Toronto: Sumach Press. 157-172.