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In the past few years, I've become very interested in staying in academia for as long as possible. I really wanted to be a professor, and I still do. Using the internet and meeting with a few professors, I've researched various aspects of life as a professor, including daily schedules, salaries, etc. While trying to get an idea of what a typical professor's salary might look like, I always stumbled upon "Head of Department" salaries, which were considerably greater than other professor salaries. I liked the idea of being paid more, but I always dismissed the idea of becoming a "Head of Department" because I thought that their work was more related to administration than teaching or talking about the field of their department. (One of the main reasons I want to be a professor is the opportunity to be directly involved in the fields I'm passionate about every single day.) However, I recently traveled to a university in my state with the company I am interning at, and I met the head of the department of mechanical engineering. Though that is not my field of interest, I was very glad to have the chance to meet with her. I learned all about her day-to-day life as head of department: I learned that she is quite actively involved in many PhD students' projects, and oversees many research projects. There is also an administrative aspect in her job, but it isn't nearly as overwhelming or burdensome as I thought. Since the visit, I've become very interested in a job like hers.

Is my perception of "Head of Department" skewed? What can I do to be involved in my field like she is in hers?

I would love to learn about and teach my passions for a living.

Side question: How involved are deans of __ in their respective fields?

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Your perception is skewed, most heads of departments do not get paid considerably more. –  StrongBad Aug 2 at 8:32
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In my university the HODs are just normal profs who are holding the post for a period of 3-5 years. It's a sort of bridge between the academics and the administration from my POV. –  Manishearth Aug 2 at 14:21
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I found this question on StackExchange's "Hot Network Questions" list, immediately followed by one titled "Toilet Flush Buttons". That might be a hint. –  Andreas Blass Aug 2 at 16:44
    
I thought you were talking about the Senior Reader in _______ in Fallen London :O –  Lohoris Aug 2 at 19:05
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My university distinguishes between two different department executive structures. A department chair is (by default) a 3-year rotating position, almost always appointed from the existing faculty. A department head is a 5-year position, renewable up to 10, more often hired through an external search (which may include internal candidates). Heads generally have more power than chairs; departments with more faculty and/or more external funding generally have heads rather than chairs. –  JeffE Aug 2 at 19:40

6 Answers 6

I had the great (mis)fortune of being a department chair for four years. This was at a small, not prestigious, liberal arts college. We use the "weak" chair model as mentioned by Bill Barth (which I think compromises such things as chair evaluations of faculty: pan someone, even fairly, and they will get the chance to return the favor). I was an associate professor when I took the position, it was my turn. I did get a course reduction, from four to three courses per semester, along with a minor stipend (I could have made more, with less time commitment, teaching five courses). There were the expected administrative duties: making schedules each semester, purchase orders, budget, etc. Since the position had no real power, I was a glorified secretary to the department. All but one of my facult were former chairs, but they all came to me with every little problem as if they had no idea of what to do. Finally, I reminded them they were former chairs and if they had some request that needed my approval. then they should get the necessary forms, fill them out, and bring them to me for signature. This solved that problem.

However, it always seemes there was something to take care of. As an example of how frustrating things can be, I arrived at my office one day at 8:00AM with three things I wanted to do. I left for home at 6:00PM having done none of them.

I was just beginning to solidify a research program when I took the job. When I was done, I seriously considered leaving academia. After a few years of decompression, I revived my enthusiasm for research and am getting back to speed, but those several years off, complicated by some family issues, really hurt me from a professional standpoint.

Now that I've related my horror story, I should point out that there are some people at my school who honestly enjoy being chair. Nonetheless, I would caution anyone to think long and hard before taking the plunge.

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I would consider you fortunate if the anecdote in your second paragraph was a one-time occurrence. Alas, many, if not most, of my days could be described that way. :-) (+1) –  cardinal Aug 3 at 17:18
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@cadinal There's only so much space available for answers. I had two colleagues with a running feud. I had to listen to one rant that the other had snuck into his office at night, in the winter, and cracked open the window to intentionally kill his flowers. You can't make this stuff up, to borrow a phrase. I'm sure we could both write books about our experiences. –  Chris Leary Aug 3 at 17:37
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"I arrived at my office one day at 8:00AM with three things I wanted to do. I left for home at 6:00PM having done none of them.", sounds like a normal job then! –  Ben Aug 3 at 19:29

I think this varies a lot depending on the field, the department and it's size. In my experience department chairs/head of departments (US/UK terminology respectively, on the whole) spend the majority of their working time on administration, but will remain involved in research and teaching, though at a reduced level. I think the degree to which they do this depends on their preferences. Those who are ready to stop or take a break from teaching and research can and people generally don't blame them; those who are still excited about it will find a way to continue them. It all just depends.

However, I feel like there's a fallacy underlying your question. You seem to think (forgive me if I'm wrong; I am reading a bit between the lines) that "Head of Department" is a separate career track or something. In fact, I've never heard of a department head who wasn't a "normal" professor for 15 to 20 years before becoming head of department. It's not something I have a special interest in doing, but I have every reason to think I'll probably do a stint or two as department chair 20 or so years from now. So, at this stage in your life (your profile says you are 17), there's no reason to worry about whether you want to do it. Assuming you going into academia, become a professor, and stick with for a couple of decades, then you can think about whether it's something that makes sense for you, in the context of your department or one doing an external search at that time.

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Another factor to consider is that at least at US universities there seem to be two extremes for how departments are run. At one end, the Department Head or Department Chair is strong and has considerable influence over the direction of the department as a whole. In such places, the Chair can direct the research direction of the department, make faculty hiring decisions, and steer the department as though it were their larger research group. At the other extreme, the departmental committees really have the power. There, the Chair is more of a rubber stamp for the committee decisions and represents their wishes to outside entities. In these models, the Dean or Head of School or whoever the Chair reports to also has a lot of power over the department.

In the weak Chair model, department insiders usually take turns being Chair and then return to being regular faculty after their turn is up. In the strong Chair model, a national or international search will be done to find a top candidate to come in and lead the department to glory. Such a Chair might run the department for much of the rest of their career.

All of the above are caricatures of the way departments work, but they give you an idea of much of the range of what is possible. In either model, the Chair may be involved to a greater or lesser degree in teaching and research depending on their preference and local culture.

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There's another extreme where departments have no power and Deans are the powerful ones. –  RoboKaren Aug 2 at 15:09
    
@RoboKaren, sure, I can see how such departments might exist, though I thought it out of scope here. I don't know what happens at universities where the departments have zero power. Do they even bother to have Chairs or committees? More subtly, are there strong-department model departments that cannot be overruled by Deans, Provosts, or Presidents in any case ever? That would seem to defeat the purpose of having the upper officials, but I'm not in an academic department, so my experience is pretty limited to outside observation. –  Bill Barth Aug 2 at 15:51
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Even weak departments need scapegoats^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H chairs. –  JeffE Aug 2 at 19:33
    
@BillBarth - I agree, that's why I made it as a comment and not a reply. :-) –  RoboKaren Aug 2 at 22:07

The simple answer to your question "What is life as “Head of Department ____” like?" in one word is: difficult. Other words I can think of include thankless and masochistic. Perhaps I am being too cynical (after having had the role for four years). It all depends on which country you are in, what type of institution, the stage at which you are in your career and your overall aspirations. You talk about money, but the reality is that the remuneration is unlikely to equate to the workload and pressure, so I would never do it for the money alone. If that is what you want, go into industry or commerce.

Head of Dept. is the description used in the UK. In the UK system, it is a powerful role and you will have a lot of influence on the direction and strategy of the department. This can make it very rewarding, but it is also a potential minefield. Don't expect to be friends with everybody; getting a group of academics to agree is rather like herding cats. There is also the stress associated with all manner of problems, such as difficult student issues, difficult staff issues, dealing with higher and lower levels of admin, not to mention the time required for all of this and the countless meetings you have to attend. This is a job only for those with a thick skin, lots of stamina, a sense of humour, good management and diplomatic skills. Also bear in mind that unless you have a reasonably sized research team, you will find it hard to produce any research in reasonable volume.

Having said all that, there are people who relish academic management, and if you are in the right place at the right time, it can be the first step on a career path in the university management system. Someone who is Head of Dept. in their late 40's, for example, might well spend the rest of their career in senior university management as long as they don't screw up. At the end of the day, someone has to manage the system and if you are OK with it, go for it. But as someone else said, think long and hard about it.

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I don't have exact knowledge about what the life of a Head of Department Professor is, but looking at the Professors who act as heads of departments in my university, I can tell that they are equally involved in teaching as the other Professors.

Simply if you want to deduce if a particular head of department is involved in teaching and research, look at the number of his publications after he became head of department (I know, this information can be misleading), also look at the courses they teach. I have not noticed any change in those numbers (in my University) after a given Professor became head of a department.

It is true that they are more involved in administrative/managerial tasks. But, I think that is something that comes with experience. I assume you are a young scholar and eager to do teaching, but do you think you will have the same amount of desire after 20+ years on the field? Some managerial experience might look interesting then, right?

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Every department I am aware of the head gets some sort of teaching reduction. –  StrongBad Aug 2 at 11:35
    
that is why I have explicitly stated: "I have not noticed any change in those numbers (in my University)..." –  Wolfgang Kuehne Aug 2 at 12:01

"Department heads" come in different types. Some are like the kind that you say, basically faculty members with some administrative duties. Others are more "political" types, who are better noted for their administrative, than academic abilities. These two archtypes will fulfill the role at different times and situations.

I'm writing about the experience of my father, a retired civil engineering professor, who spent a year and a half as the Acting Department Head. It was an "interim" position, held after a "political" type left, in which the priority was to restore the confidence of the faculty. My father participated heavily in PhD thesis supervision (a favorite activity of his), and worked closely with the Faculty Senate (which would be his next destination). All this was made possible by the "temporary" nature of the position.

All this changed when there was a new dean, who wanted a Department Head to "kick the asses of the full professors." My father's successor was a tough minded man (a Holocaust survivor, for starters), who did just that. But the pressures of that role were too much, even for him, and he had to step down after several years. While he was there, he relied on my father, who had been a department head, while being a good link to the Faculty Senate.

It sounds like you could do well as one type of Department Head but maybe not the other. So you need to keep your eyes out on the institution to determine which is more likely to be the case. Bear in mind that is analysis could be complicated by the fact that the institution's needs may change from time to time as well.

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