A recent episode of “The Effort Report” – this really great podcast that you should listen to if you’re not already (and I’m not just saying that because they mentioned my blog) – focused on academic affluenza. Essentially, the discussion was about what happens after you get tenured and promoted… what options do you have for career growth and development? One path is the administrative path, and on the podcast, Roger Peng wondered why people seek out Department Chair positions, which he referred to as “highly coveted.” Since I was one of those people who sought out a Department Chair position, I thought why would make a good blog post.
Before I start to talk about why I wanted to be Department chair, it may be helpful for me to give some background about the role of a Department Chair. In some fields, especially in liberal arts, being the Department chair is a service that rotates among the more senior faculty. It is not a position of prestige, nor does it come with additional resources or administrative supplements; in fact, some faculty grudgingly take the role on. However, in medical fields and public health, Department chair positions are typically advertised nationally, and usually candidates are brought in from outside of the University to interview. A new chair can often negotiate for fairly substantive resources for a variety of purposes, such as: to support their own research, to build research/infrastructure in the department, to support departmental educational programs or for recruiting and retaining faculty. This infusion of resources can be a lifeline for a struggling department, and a boon for already healthy departments. I’m in the latter situation – I was recruited externally and was able to successfully negotiate for resources to help both my own research and the Department (in several ways).
Now, why would anyone want to do this job? It is often a thankless job, and a lot of what a chair does is solving problems (mostly other people’s problems). It is very much middle management – you have responsibility for managing the departmental faculty, staff and students, but are subject to the contstraints that the Dean places on you, as well as everyone else above her. It can take its toll on other aspects of your career, and can wear down even those with the best of intentions.
So, why would anyone want to do this job? First of all, we all have different strengths – and the best path to career success is to make choices that play to our strengths. Some of my strengths also happen to be skills that contribute to being a good chair: I am highly organized, I am an effective problem solver and I am good at helping others find their best career path.
Another way to have a successful career is to do what you enjoy. When I mentor junior faculty, I always tell them to “do what they love and the rest will follow.” If we spend the majority of our time trying to do something we don’t enjoy, in the end, will it matter if we’re successful? Do more of what you enjoy so that you enjoy more of what you do. So, I am fortunate that the things I do as an administrator are also things I enjoy. I enjoy networking and “academic matchmaking” – helping others build their networks. I enjoy mentoring and teaching, and really enjoy helping others celebrate their successes. And I love to tell other people what to do. This is a skill I’ve honed as a wife and mother. I’m still trying to figure out how to get other people to listen to me, though… No really… Did you hear what I just said?!
So, when I put together the things I am good at with the things I enjoy doing, there was never much doubt that I would move into an administrative role. Except that I really enjoy research and love teaching, and moving into an administrative role would mean giving up some of each. In fact, during my interview for my current position, I was asked (in so many words) whether I felt that I was too young to be a chair (actual question: “Do you feel it is too early in your career to move into a chair role?”). Because a chair often has to sacrifice the other aspects of their career, this is a somewhat fair question. I say somewhat because I felt at the time, and still do, that it was the job of the interviewers to evaluate whether I was qualified to do the job I was interviewing for, and the job of the interviewee (me) to decide whether it would be premature for me to sacrifice my research and teaching efforts for a chair position. Anyway, my response was: “If you would have asked me 20 years ago, when I was still a graduate student, what I’d be doing in 20 years, I’d have said that I’d be a Department Chair. It is what I’ve always known I’d someday do – it uses my strengths and allows me to do what I enjoy doing.” This was not a lie, or an answer made up to sound impressive, or so that I’d get offered the job (although I did get offered the job!). This is the truth. I’ve spent my career preparing myself for this job.
Rewind 20 years. When I was getting my Master’s degree, I organized the Biostatistics Student Organization in my department. It still exists and thrives today. When I was getting my PhD, I served on university-wide committees, I again helped to organize the students, and I helped to develop and teach a new course for our incoming students. As a student, I was already doing university service and curriculum development. I was preparing to be a Chair someday.
Fast forward to my first tenure track position. Within a year of joining the faculty, I became involved with the Graduate Program Committee – more curriculum development, as well as learning about admissions, qualifying exams, and other aspects of running a graduate program. Four years later, I was directing the graduate program. This was
intentional on my part. I sought out the position, when the person in that role left for a different University. Some thought it was too soon, that I shouldn’t do it – one person who was in a leadership role in my department came and told me that it was too soon and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it along with my other responsibilities (I was pre-tenure at the time). I was lucky to have a chair who supported me and put his faith in me. I did it, and I did it well – the naysayer actually came back a year later, after I was making positive changes in the graduate program (and now promoted and tenured) and told me he was wrong. I knew I would be good at it. Not because of my ego, but because I know my strengths, and I knew that I had the skills necessary to do that job well.
A few years later, the Section Head position came open in my Department. I was asked to do it, and was hesitant – not because I didn’t think I could do it well, but because of the state of my department at the time. I was hesitant to get involved with some political “stuff” that was going on; however, in the end, I was convinced and again feel that I did a good job, making positive changes for the faculty in the section.
Which brings us to last year, when I made a very conscious decision to accept a position as a chair. I worked hard to get here – this is what I wanted to do. And I think I’m good at it, but only time will tell, in the long run. I don’t think this was a case of “academic affluenza” – that I reached a plateau in my career and was looking for what was next. I do think this was a very intentional path that I chose to follow, mainly because it pairs my strengths nicely with the things I enjoy doing. Like a nice wine with a good stinky cheese. And I’ll let you decide who’s the wine and who’s the stinky cheese in this scenario.
As for where I go from here, I’ve already been asked if I want to be a Dean someday. The truth is, I really like being a Department Chair so far, and I haven’t planned anything further except for the goals I’d like to accomplish with my Department in the next few years. I have work to do. Hard work. And I plan to have fun doing it.