I’ve been invited by the Praxis editors to write some thoughts (that first appeared in a series of tweets) directed at mid-career academics contemplating, or taking on, the role of department chair/head. I am coming to the end of my own chairship after six years. Most chairs wisely approach the job with some trepidation, and I certainly did. But, and perhaps more than most people, I enjoyed my time as chair. I made mistakes and certainly won’t claim to have done a perfect job, but I hopefully accomplished some good. It’s time for me to move on, but I still like the role, and others can as well. And so here are ten items of advice for incoming department chairs/ heads, in political science or any other discipline:
1) Academic units may look basically similar, but every chair faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Some get the chance to build new and great things. Others find all their energy consumed just holding things together. It may take time to discern the exact context that you face and how you can make the most of it, but either of the above can be a highly fulfilling mission.
2) As a faculty member you probably never felt you had a boss. Now you will. He/she’s called The Dean.
3) Your formal powers are heavily mediated by unit culture and personalities. Whatever the rules say, your real powers are information and influence. Again, every chair faces a unique context and it may take time to discern that context.
4) Respond. Don’t react. Learn the distinction between “urgent” and “important.”
5) Close your door at times to avoid interruptions by “quick questions.” But keep it open at other times so people can stop in and tell you what’s on their mind. If they can only email or make an appointment, they won’t bother and small things will fester into bigger ones.
6) The most at-risk population when you become chair is your own students. Ensure they are not caught up in your constant triaging of administrative messages and problems.
7) Instead of trying to fit your existing research around being chair – in which one of the two roles always suffers – take advantage of this stage in your career to reinvent your work in a way that utilizes the opportunities and networks you have as chair. (Contact me if you’d like to know more about how I did this myself.)
8) Hang out with other chairs, both at your institution and in your discipline – especially the annual gathering of CPSA department chairs held every January. This can be valuable group therapy.
9) Do not forget your contingent labour instructors. You cannot necessarily change structural realities – though you do have power, so look for opportunities to use it – but you can always give them your time, attention and (if they are interested) advice and guidance.
10) Do your best. Leave the rest. (A saying of my late uncle Pat Malloy. Applicable anywhere, anytime.)
Jonathan Malloy is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. His latest book is Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD coauthored with Loleen Berdahl and published by University of Toronto Press.