Careers intelligence: why be a head of department?

Negative perceptions surround the head’s role, but those who have taken up the challenge speak of a range of benefits, write Navé Wald and Clinton Golding

October 31, 2019
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If Captain Kirk can do it leading is a chance to improve the team, and yourself

Becoming a head of department is often seen by academics as more of a curse with benefits, rather than a blessing.

The academic department is the key administrative unit in many universities, and heading, or chairing, a department is therefore an important role that involves a great number of responsibilities. So academics are often reluctant to put themselves forward for the job. One former head of department told us that upon their appointment, a colleague asked, “Should I congratulate you or should I commiserate?” 

Many universities have responded to the negative perceptions around head of department roles by introducing leadership development programmes or similar ways to provide support, which is certainly the case in our university in New Zealand.

In an ongoing discussion with the person tasked with leadership development in our institution, we learned that prospective heads – basically all academics – do not really know how they might benefit from the role.

So we decided to take a closer look at the advantages of being a head of department, speaking to former heads for an article published in Studies in Higher Education titled “Why be a head of department? Exploring the positive aspects and benefits”.

From examining the literature it became evident that research into this role has been rather limited and currently North American experiences dominate. That was somewhat surprising given the global importance of this academic-managerial leadership position.

It was, however, of little surprise that nearly all research is concerned with overcoming the challenges of being a head and being an effective leader – so unlikely to address those negative perceptions. This focus stems from the fact that most academics who become heads are first subject experts and trained researchers, but have little or no experience in being administrators, managers or indeed leaders.

Academics who have recently stepped down from being heads of department are quite naturally in a good position to shed light on what was positive about their experiences. Our enquiries showed that while some were quite reluctant to assume the role, others were keen: “I’m a Star Trek fan; I wanted to try being the captain.”

One advantage that former heads identified was to “improve and develop the department”. One told us: “I think I’ve changed the…mindset in the department…It’s thinking about a slightly longer timescale, so it’s thinking about planning research, teaching, everything on a kind of three, five [years] and longer timescale, rather than next week.”

Hiring good people was another notable positive aspect for them: “I was involved in the recruitment and it’s those new people who are being most effective in driving that particular change [of mindset].”

A second category was “benefits to the departmental staff”, which is more about impact on the individual. One former head told us that given “publications and outputs are produced by people”, the role is about “development of people. That’s the major thing that I’ve done here, is develop people.” This included mentoring, developing and furthering staff members’ careers, and improving their morale and well-being.

A third positive category was “personal benefits” to the head, which included learning new skills and knowledge. “It probably made me more efficient as a researcher and writer, just of necessity,” one said.

Some also considered learning how the university functions as a personal benefit: “It’s quite rewarding from a perspective of seeing how the university works…It’s actually quite beneficial and you only see that if you’re head of department.”

A fourth category of benefit was “new opportunities post-headship”. One former head told us: “Since I’ve stepped down from being [head], I’ve taken on other roles within the wider university, on a number of committees. So I think in some ways, the [head of department] was a stepping stone to taking on these wider roles.”

This service was not confined to the institution, as the experience gained from being head “prepares you very well for public sector, multi-agency work”, one said.

We do not deny the challenges and pressures associated with the role; these are real. But we suggest the advantages or positives should be better known. A healthier balance in terms of understanding the pros and cons of the head’s role is needed and would hopefully improve the appeal of this pivotal role.

Navé Wald is a research fellow and Clinton Golding is an associate professor at the Higher Education Development Centre, University of Otago.


Print headline: Why being a department head can be so rewarding

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