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What is the point of being the head of the department ?

I'm an undergraduate Physics & Mathematics student and I want to stay in academia, do research and also teach. I'm assuming professors also want this. Hence,

  • Why do they become the head of the department and deal with lots of administrative stuff?

  • Isn't that boring for a person who presumably wants to work on his/her field rather than deal with lots of nonsense?

Note: I want to restrict this question to departments in STEM fields only.

  • 109
    Someone has to do it. – Thomas Jul 20 '17 at 5:53
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    I know of a big university whereby the head of school gets two PhD scholarships to help out with his/her research. – Prof. Santa Claus Jul 20 '17 at 7:39
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    What is the point of being the head of anything? Money, prestige, power, respect, self-fulfillment... take your pick. – Nuclear Wang Jul 20 '17 at 12:45
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    @Thomas ... and if you don't do it then someone who is incompetent will. – StrongBad Jul 20 '17 at 15:57
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    @OnurcanB. How you deal with nonsense can grant someone great respect. And the head of the department is more than just a title - they have to set the direction for that department. They have to lobby on behalf of the department. They have to solve internal and external conflicts so they don't distract or disrupt the department. These things are all a lot easier when the person is well respected and wise. There are stellar researchers in the world who would make terrible department chairs. – corsiKa Jul 20 '17 at 17:42

10 Answers 10

76

I can't speak for the work environments at other schools, but where I teach, the department chair gets an nicer office, a reduced teaching assignment, and extra pay, in addition to some political and financial power associated with the fancier job title.

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    My wife was a department chair for a while and that was the appeal to her. They reduced her teaching load by 3 hours a semester and also gave her a 15% pay bump. – Ukko Jul 20 '17 at 13:43
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    @Ukko: 3 hours a semester? Did you mean 3 hours a week or something, or was it really just 3 hours a semester? That seems like almost nothing. – user2357112 Jul 21 '17 at 6:55
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    @user2357112: in this context, "hours" usually means "hours per week". – Tikhon Jelvis Jul 21 '17 at 7:02
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    @TikhonJelvis Then what does "3 hours [per week] a semester" mean? – JiK Jul 21 '17 at 12:39
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    @JiK normally she has a 12 hour teaching load, which means that she is teaching 4 undergraduate courses that each have 3 hours a week of lecture. A three hour reduction means that she only has to teach 3 instead of 4 classes. In these cases "hours" means "lecture hours" per week. – Ukko Jul 21 '17 at 13:52
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While there can be benefits for being the head of a department, at many US R1 STEM departments, I think the most frequent reason for becoming head is because some one has to do it. Further, turning down an offer to become head likely means that someone less capable, or at least that you view as less capable, will take it.

In my experience, academics do not really like administrators (e.g., Deans and Provosts). Further, departments that are run by individuals that wish to move up the administrative ranks tend to be over managed. I know a number of department heads who have taken the position to simply prevent someone else from becoming head.

  • 4
    The head of our math department just retired, with a rather abrupt transition for the new head. I've been assuming the new head accepted the position for exactly this reason, that somebody has to protect the department from the administration. Maybe I was just imagining it, but the poor guy looked so frazzled, in the first couple of weeks... – pjs36 Jul 23 '17 at 16:26
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Though the question is asking "why" someone would want to do it, I will answer it in a different way.

Consider there are 20 faculty members (senior professors, professors, associate professors, senior lecturers, lecturers, non-teaching staffs) in a department. Someone must control and coordinate in/regarding the department with the university higher ups.

Usually, many universities follow a nomination procedure where usually Senior Professors or Professors would be voted to become the Head of the Department (this system is followed in my university). Please note that there is no compulsion to become the head. If a person has been nominated by the majority and (s)he is not willing to become the HoD, then the next nominated person in the order would be chosen.

Otherwise, the university admin such as director, vice-chancellor, or deans would designate one professor to be the head of the department.

Usually, the assignment is not for life time, rather it is assigned for 2-3 years (depends on the university rules and regulation). And, there is no harm in doing something different from usual teaching and research stuff. It is not completely true that the HoD can't do research along with administrative loads, actually, he can. But, might not be that productive.

However, the quantity of teaching load for the head completely depends on the university norms.

14

I've just now finished my Ph.D. so I am in no way speaking from experience. However, I have had several discussions on these topics with several of my older professors, and I've heard people rant about department heads or praise them for their achievements. So this is what I gathered so far.

  1. Someone has to do it, and most people don't really like to do it, but they understand that it needs to be done. Like cleaning your cat's litter box. It's a stinky job, but it has to be done.

  2. The department head has a lot of power in deciding who are going to be the new faculty members. Sure, they don't control all the power, but using some skill they can influence these decisions a lot. I have seen a friend of mine apply to two universities, one of which the department head was completely incompetent, and by the time he "remembered" to tell him that they want him to come and gave him an offer, the other university already snatched him.

  3. Some people have some sense of responsibility. They might feel that they could run the department better, or the faculty, or the university itself. And they decide to invest some of their time into these academic politics rather than into research because of one reason or another. Starting out as a department head is where you start if you want to eventually be the president.

    And while it's rare, some people manage to devote time for research even when sitting in the chair of the president. It's hard, it's rare, but it happens all the same.

(While the extra-pay is certainly a perk, I don't know how reduced teaching load for administrative work is computed, and that might depend on the individual and their local teaching environment: I can imagine being in a department where this is a perk, and others where this is not so much of a perk.)

9
  1. The position comes with perks, PhD scholarships, increase in salary, no teaching, etc.
  2. It's a stepping stone to becoming the dean, then vice-chancellor and after that, chancellor.
  3. In some universities, it is easier, as compared to going down the research track, to become a full professor if you hold a significant admin position.
  4. You want to protect your 'turf'.

Here 'turf' can mean the school or a discipline. In the former, you may not want your school to be merged with another school, which could result in retrenchment, and as for the latter you want to ensure your favorite disciplines continue to thrive.

  • What you mean by "turf" ? – onurcanbektas Jul 20 '17 at 11:12
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    I assume 'turf' means the department. If you've been in that department for 20 years, you want to ensure that it doesn't get changed radically by some outsider - whether it's processes or culture. Of course, not to say that new ideas aren't welcome. – Michael Jul 20 '17 at 14:15
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    Or you want to improve your "turf" – Emilie Jul 20 '17 at 15:41
  • Or you want to see your "turf" to stand its on feet :) – onurcanbektas Jul 20 '17 at 17:31
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You specifically mention people want to do research and teaching and that is true. The head of department where I study has used the position to promote research into his field of study and still finds plenty of time to both teach and research.

Heads may not do the research themselves but are often in the position to greatly influence the shape of a department to do even more than they themselves could do alone.

6

Be it academia, politics, or a business environment a large incentive for going into a administrative role is the power to improve the way the department is run. These improvements can come from by fixing broken policies or implementing new ones. For some people this incentive is worth taking their focus away from their true passion for a few years. For even fewer running the department becomes a part of their true passion.

By facilitating their fellow professors doing meaningful research with minimal administrative distraction they are doing positive work in their field.

4

In addition to the other answers, people can become department head because the previous head did not wish to continue serving. In this case, if there are no volunteers someone who has not served as head before will be asked or ordered by a dean to take the position.

  • Can dean force someone to become the head of the department ? – onurcanbektas Jul 21 '17 at 5:31
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    @OnurcanB. not at every university. I think at some universities appointment of department heads is at the dean's discretion. Of course being head and performing the head's duties are different things. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 21 '17 at 11:57
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I'm assuming professors also want this.

I think this is your mistake.

In the Universities I am slightly familiar with (University of Cambridge, and ETH Zürich) competition for Head of Division and Head of Department is fierce. It is a brutal fight for political power, and people fight for it for much the same reasons as they have always fought for political power.

Note: Those Universities happen to both be in the top 10 or 20 universities in the world. Things may well be different in smaller, less prestigious, institutions.

  • @Coder : Yes. I understand that. My point was that the OP assumed that other professors also want to just do research and teach, in fact some of them want the political power that comes with being department head. The heart of my answer was the line "people fight for it for much the same reasons as they have always fought for political power" – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jul 21 '17 at 12:34
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    "people fight for it for much the same reasons as they have always fought for political power"-- people may fight for political power for entirely different reasons. But, a professor might want to improve the department, might want to introduce something new, might want to open new elective courses. Anyway, nice analogy. – Coder Jul 21 '17 at 12:37
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Most departments, in my experience, have someone in them who wants to be department head so that they have the increased power, prestige, and income associated with that position.

This changes the dynamic of trying to be department head, because even if a professor doesn't really want the position, they may accept or seek out such a position if they are aware that an unqualified competitor may otherwise seize it. Alternatively, if the person (or persons) seeking the position are qualified, then those disinterested have no reason to take part in the department chair work at all.

That said, it is not always the case that someone wants to be department chair. The first community college I attended had a robust math program, but all of the math professors despised dealing with administrative tasks, and found the idea that they should tell their departmental colleagues what to do (as some of them put it) distasteful. While the position included a modest pay increase, it wasn't enough to justify the extra work, so the department would cast lots every year and the person who drew the short straw would take on the role until the next year. In actuality, department policy/funding was consistently decided on by democracy, and the department head just took responsibility for effecting those policy decisions. I think it helped that it was a small department and everyone in the department had a long-standing positive relationship with one another.

The point is that sometimes nobody wants to be department head, and if that actually is the case then people can work out ways around the need to have one.

protected by Massimo Ortolano Sep 20 '17 at 8:14

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