If you’ve followed my blog, you know that I experienced a very severe bout of depression a little over 10 years ago (if you haven’t read it, you should… ). This illness occurred, likely coincidentally, during a transitional time in my life, as I was making the transition from a graduate student to a tenure-track assistant professor. After 1 year in that position, I wanted to kill myself. Literally. There is no clear cause of depression; certainly there are chemical imbalances that play a role, but it is unknown what triggers instigate bouts of depression. I really don’t know what my trigger was at that time, but I had always feared that the major transition in my life played a role. This fear haunted me as I went through the process of interviewing for my current position, moving and getting settled in. In fact, all the academic aspects of being a Department Chair didn’t frighten me as much as the fear that my depression would return.
And now, here I am 1 year into my new job – Happy Anniversary to Me! And it couldn’t have gone better! Rather than hiding under my desk crying, I am welcoming 3 new faculty to my Department! Rather than barely making it through the day, I’m excited to get out of bed in the morning to learn what awaits me at work. That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges and that it is all flowers and rainbows. But overall, it has been an exciting year, during which I have learned an incredible amount.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned are very specific to my institution, like the process for approving grant proposals, how to approve time-off requests, how to approve expense reports (Department Chairs do a lot of approving!). But others are more about academic life in general – things I wish someone had told me about being a Department Chair, and things I wish someone had told me about being a good faculty member. Not to say that I wasn’t a good faculty member before, but there are things I could have done to be better.
Once upon a time, I loved email – when I first met my now husband back in the early 90s, email was new to us and was a fun way to communicate. I loved going to the computer lab to see if I had any new email and was always disappointed if I didn’t. I’ve always thought I was good about returning emails, and I realize now how important it is to reply to emails. However, I’ve grown to HATE email! I hate, hate, hate it! (I know, as my husband likes to reminds me, it isn’t nice to hate.) But email has become the primary means for communicating these days (for us old people, at least) which means that I receive a lot more email every day that I need to deal with, but also that I send a lot more email every day that I expect others to deal with. In both instances, the process of actual work can stop if one party does not respond. Luckily, I had been adequately prepared for the increased volume of emails that I would be receiving, so I wasn’t so surprised by that. However, I always thought that everyone else was as good about returning emails as I am, and wasn’t prepared for how I needed to compensate for those who aren’t.
Something else I was not prepared for was how lonely I would feel in this position. I was at my former institution for 11 years and had built a huge community there. Last fall, I went back for a research meeting, and could not walk down the street without running into someone I know. A benefit of that was that if I needed a statistical consult, or if I felt overwhelmed and needed to get some reassurance that everything would be okay, or even if I just wanted someone to go to lunch with, I knew who I could ask – different people for each of these, possibly, but all those roles were filled. Even as my role in the Department changed, my relationships with my colleagues were solid and I was able to easily balance my leadership responsibilities with my professional support system.
However, I’ve come into my new position new to my institution. I really like the faculty in my Department, but I haven’t had the benefit of “growing up” with them academically. While I realize it takes time to build the types of relationships I had previously, I also am cognizant of the fact that my relationship with the faculty in my Department is a little different. If I want to complain about something that happens in a Department meeting, I can’t always do so with them. If I need to get advice about a personnel issue, I have to be careful what I say and to whom I say it. One solution I’ve found for this is to build a different type of network – I have a monthly breakfast with the other department chairs in my school (there are 4 of us total), and have just started having lunch with a few other department heads outside of my school. And I need to practice patience – my relationships with the faculty in my Department are starting to grow, and I know that in time my loneliness will dissipate. Plus, my department has a great staff who I share my office suite with, and they are always wiling to help cure my loneliness (even if they don’t know that they’re doing it!).
This last year hasn’t been easy – there has been a tremendous amount of new things I’ve had to learn, both because I’m at a new institution and also because I’m in a new role. I’ve actually enjoyed this very much – I often say that I’m in academics because I love to learn new things, and this was the only way I could stay a student forever. While some of the things I’ve had to learn have been monotonous, others have been hard lessons about dealing with very personal issues. I’ve had the great fortune to hire 3 new faculty, but this also meant I had the extremely difficult job of telling very well-qualified candidates, who I really got to know and came to like very much, that I wasn’t going to be able to hire them. I had a long-standing adjunct stop teaching for our department, in part because I was unwilling to provide a substantive salary increase (I think), and had to scramble to find someone to teach a class this fall. I’ve made choices that I know haven’t always pleased everyone, but I feel confident that I’ve made those choices with the best intentions and the belief that they are the best for our Department. And I know that I’ve made mistakes – all leaders do, we ALL do– and I hope that I’ve learned from those mistakes and moved on.
As I face my second year as Chair, I know there will be many more challenges, and also much more learning. I’m looking forward to new things, such as teaching my first undergraduate class in my professional career; in collaboration with my department, developing a PhD program in Biostatistics; and advising my first doctoral student since I arrived. I also get to begin my fall with the annual reviews with the faculty and staff, a process that isn’t always easy, but I enjoy because it provides an opportunity to connect with each person individually and discuss their accomplishments and goals. It is also a time for me to reflect on what I’ve accomplished, and to set some goals for myself and my department. I look forward to reflecting back on those goals in a year, hopefully with the same enthusiasm for moving forward that I have now.