A fine balance - but not all can manage it

Study says department heads are a mix of jugglers, strugglers and copers. Melanie Newman reports

December 31, 2009

Academic heads of department often experience conflicts between their professional and personal identities that can cause them to leave their jobs, a study suggests.

Alan Floyd, senior lecturer in education at Oxford Brookes University, interviewed 17 heads of department from a range of disciplines at a post-1992 university.

He categorised the respondents into three groups based on their attitudes to the conflicts between their professional and personal identities as both academics and managers.

The first group of seven "jugglers" felt comfortable balancing their multiple identities and the associated conflicts.

A second group of seven, the "copers", said they could just about manage.

The final three "strugglers" reported having "real difficulty in accepting, balancing and managing their identities" and were on the verge of leaving their jobs.

Dr Floyd's paper, "Jugglers, Copers and Strugglers: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting the Career Trajectories of Academics Who Become HoDs in a UK University", was presented at a conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education this month.

It says jugglers tend to enjoy being department leaders, with some thinking about possible future promotion.

The copers "were mostly determined and able to remain in the role, although some of them did not appear to particularly enjoy being in the position", while the strugglers felt that being head of department was too challenging, unfulfilling or negative.

Dr Floyd told Times Higher Education that the strugglers "didn't seem to have a clear picture of what the job would entail before they took it on" and were upset that their research was suffering.

In another paper based on the same research, Dr Floyd says that five of the heads had made a deliberate career move into higher education to avoid management roles. All but two said they had no ambitions to become an academic leader before they took on the role of head.

"This suggests that academics may have very different perceptions of such roles in relation to their own career trajectory compared to the institutions' perceptions of the benefits of taking on such a role for the individual," says the paper, "Turning Points: The Personal and Professional Circumstances that Lead Academics to Become Heads of Department".

Asked why they had applied for management roles, eight said they had been persuaded to by their deans, seven thought the role would allow them more control over their working environment, and nine hoped the role would "allow them to make a difference in a way that related to their core values and individual identity".

Four said they had taken the job to boost their career prospects, and these were all in research-active schools, where the head of department role was more heavily linked to research development than departmental management.


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