• October 22, 2014

On Being a Rookie Chair

Careers Illustration for Midcareer Mentoring

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration for Midcareer Mentoring

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

It has been less than a year since I started traipsing down an administrative path, and it is therefore much too early for me to share useful advice and perceptive thoughts about what I have learned so far.

Still, I have accumulated some impressions and opinions from serving in recent months in academic administration. Those impressions have not yet been molded by the wisdom of experience, but I'll offer them here anyway, in no particular order. And I'll throw in a few questions of my own for readers with administrative expertise.

Conventional wisdom is wrong about (at least) one thing. I have read and heard many times, in many different ways, that the hardest aspect of switching roles from professor to administrator is making the change from caring mostly about yourself and your own faculty career to having to care about others and their careers.

I can see where that notion comes from, sort of, but I find the emphasis on it puzzling because many faculty members who advise students, postdocs, and others already care about others, and, in particular, their career advancement. Similarly, many professors also already care about colleagues, including those of the junior variety.

I know the (occasionally true) stereotypes of "vampire professors" who suck the intellectual blood and sweat from their advisees and junior scholars to further their own insatiable desire for obscure fame and a high citation count. But most of the professors I know work reasonably well with others and like to help their graduate students learn how to do research and communicate the results. We share with our advisees and colleagues the excitement of discovery and the thrill of accomplishments.

Being an administrator is not so different from that in any fundamental way, except now I am helping to support a larger group of people, including colleagues at all career stages.

I would also argue that the amount of time many professors already spend on service activities for their profession is not so different in motivation from work in administration. Professional service—reviewing manuscripts, serving on panels, organizing conferences or conference sessions, holding positions in professional societies—is not just about increasing our own visibility. Many professors do those things out of a sense of community.

Certainly the professor-to-administrator transformation does involve some change in one's role with respect to others—you do focus on their work much more than your own—but it's not necessarily a difficult change. I think there should be more emphasis on how satisfying it can be to help colleagues succeed and to have some ability (i.e., money and other resources) to assist them.

Everyone assumes my life is now extraordinarily difficult and stressful. Should I let them? If my administrative life is extraordinarily difficult and stressful, should I reveal that fact or hide it? And if my administrative life is not all that difficult or stressful, is it better if people think it is and, therefore, will be less inclined to ask me to deal with minor issues that could easily be resolved without me?

I think the answer to such questions is not to worry about it and just get things done. Perhaps the gray hairs will become more apparent with time, and that will be answer enough.

Why do I have to sign so many forms? Some of the things that apparently require my signature seem to have jumped from the pages of a novel parodying academic life. There is one particular form that could only have been invented by an evil robot. The only thing that keeps me from signing my name as "Mickey Mouse" or "the Tooth Fairy" is the thought that the form might be returned to me for signing again and that would create more work for everyone. And no, some of these forms can't be signed electronically.

"How's it going?" When I encounter other department heads, that seemingly innocent question is commonly interpreted to mean, "What are all of your most pressing and insoluble problems?"

I have decided I don't want to be like that, no matter who is asking the question. It is useful to share examples with peers, and I have discussed complex issues with other administrators; I just don't want the first impression to be one of complaint and gloom.

The best advice I've received. I have been to numerous orientation sessions, workshops, panels, round-table discussions, lunches, and dinners organized to provide information and advice for new chairs and others. I have read books, articles, case studies, and personal reflections.

I mostly do not enjoy those things. I do not want to share with others my thoughts on my management style. When asked, I feel like saying, "I don't have one" or "my management style must not be named." I realize that is not constructive.

Some simple advice that was very useful, though, came from a conversation with a friend who is a long-serving chair at another university. He encouraged me to walk around and talk to people in their offices and labs as much as possible, rather than shooting off e-mails. I still send a lot of e-mails, but I try to roam the Corridors of Science and have real conversations as well, and that has been (I think) a good thing.

I hate this question the most. "So, are you doing this job because they couldn't find anyone else to do it?"

No.

Biggest surprise so far. I assumed that people interviewing on the campus for faculty positions in science would be extremely well prepared to discuss the things that one discusses with administrators (for example: their start-up needs). Not everyone is extremely well prepared, or even prepared.

I am not saying that candidates need to have an itemized list with every price, quantity, and vendor listed, but something between that and "I'd have to think about it" would be good.

Moderate surprise. As a relatively reserved person, I didn't think I would like the socializing that is required of administrative work. I expected to dislike any task that involved meeting with lots of people, including donors, and attempting to summon a few social skills from my meager supply. But that part of the job has been enjoyable. I have met a lot of interesting people.

Small surprise. Some people make it difficult for you as administrator to help them. They seem to have an "obstacle reflex," even when putting up those barriers works against their own best interests, and even when they are the ones asking me for help. That's all I'm going to say about that.

And yet, most people are very nice. It is too soon to say whether I will do well in this new position (and I am not the one to ask about that anyway), but so far I have found it to be worthwhile, challenging in a good way, and more interesting than I expected it to be.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for The Chronicle. Her blog is http://science-professor.blogspot.com.

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