Is it really possible?
Academia is one of the few careers where you train to be a scholar, and you may wind up an administrator. That is not necessarily unusual because scholars are generally well organized, have good analytical skills, and are great problem solvers. So, if you are good at your 'job' as an academic, it is inevitable that you will be asked to take on leadership and administration duties. These roles may appear small at first – perhaps the Chair of a Departmental committee – but as you continue to be a successful academic, these leadership and administrative functions and requests will evolve in size and scale over time. You may not get many leadership/administrative requests as an Assistant Professor. But when you get tenure/promotion, you will get more requests to take on leadership roles. However, before you go down the administration road, you need to ask yourself if Administration is right for you.
As noted earlier, academics get asked to take on leadership/administration roles. Often, these roles are classified as service roles and contribute to the functioning of the department/college/university. These leadership/administrative roles are necessary given the self-governing nature of academia; after all, if no one serves on committees, progress within your unit will halt. But it is a different story when you are asked to take on leadership/administration roles that constitute a part of your traditional workload. I was asked to be Department Chair shortly after gaining promotion/tenure in a small department (six faculty total). I didn't think much about what that meant before I said 'yes' – other than I would be paid 12 months of the year! I had been interested in Administration for many years because I was always interested in the 'mechanics' of how things got done in academia. I was also cocky enough then that I thought I could make a difference, especially given some things the previous department chair had done.
But in retrospect, if I could go back in time and talk to my (much) younger self, there are some points that I would raise with him to help him understand and determine if he was ready and suitable for Administration.
If Administration is something you're thinking about, here are five questions you need to ask yourself.
1) Are you willing to diminish your scholarly and teaching ambitions to become an administrator?
While it is flattering that people think you would be an excellent choice to lead a unit, understand that taking on an administrative role radically shifts your responsibilities and concerns. You go from being concerned about your research, teaching, and service to having your priorities as the Department's research, education, and service. Whether you have six or 105 faculty in your Department (like my current Department), being in a leadership/administrative role suddenly changes what you are concerned about.
I was a department chair for 11 years at two different universities. Over time, I realized that when I walked into the office in the morning, my priority was to focus on what I could do to improve the Department; when it came to my scholarship, that was usually last – as my CV from those years demonstrates. So, if you're the type to focus on and fret about the number of publications you have and think Administration will diminish your research production – which it will – then Administration is not for you.
If you believe you can do it all – be an administrator and keep your scholarly production up to pre-administration levels, unless you want to work 18-hour days, seven days a week, there is not enough time in the day to juggle the many administrative tasks in a department with maintaining your scholarly production. In fact, on a Dean's search committee I was on, I watched one applicant trash her chance at the job when she boasted that she could do both when her CV and references demonstrated clearly that she couldn't.
2) Can you see a bigger vision for a department unit that can move it forward?
While your vision and knowledge of the possibilities will undoubtedly expand as you continue in Administration, you need to believe you can move the unit forward and have concrete ideas of how to make it happen. What is your vision? Whether aspirational or based on concrete steps, you need to be able to articulate your vision and steps. You must know what you think the unit needs to do to move forward. As I noted earlier, one of my strengths was that I paid attention to what was going on in the Department, and as a young administrator, I had a clear vision of what the Department could do to move forward. Explaining that vision to the faculty and the Administration is what I believe gave them the confidence to hire me as Chair (that and my striking good looks!).
3) Can you handle the changed perception of you by the other faculty?
As an administrator, I was suddenly on the 'other side.' Before, we had been a small, close-knit faculty, but now, the other five looked at me not necessarily with distrust but almost with the suspicion that I had nefarious plans. But, of course, when you take on an administrative role, your relationship with other faculty will change; you are now in a supervisory role.
In many cases, you'll do annual evaluations, pay raise recommendations, set course schedules, and perform other duties that will reinforce that you are 'the boss.' If you are a person that is a people-pleaser, Administration will be complex because there will be situations where you will have to make decisions that some faculty do not agree with. So, ask yourself if you can handle not always being liked by your colleagues.
Ultimately, your role is to help the unit flourish, regardless of the other faculty's perception of you. Of course, a good administrator has to be respected by their colleagues, but that doesn't mean you will have the same relationship with your colleagues as you did before becoming an administrator.
4) Can you handle the issues around budgetary matters?
More often than not, the primary issue arising around the budget is whether you can figure out ways to move the unit forward when there is insufficient money. Of course, academic units can always do with more faculty, staff, operational capital, and travel money. But, unfortunately, there are few places in academia these days where there is 'plenty of money.' So, your task will be increasing the money coming in or getting by with what you have.
For example, a year after I accounted for all the salaries, we had an average of $24 in the budget for monthly operational costs. That was it - $24. Yet, we figured out how to do it. I knew that one of my strengths was budgetary details, so I could always handle budgetary issues at whatever level I was at – and I admit it was a fun and challenging part of the job. But do you feel that way as well? Academic budgeting can be mysterious and complex, so unless you like getting into the weeds, you might think twice about Administration.
5) Do you have a sense of humor?
It helps tremendously if you have a sense of humor because laughing at a situation may be the best way to handle the perception that you are the big 'boss.' Most academics look at administration service with a wry sense of humor (don't believe me?) Check out this funny perspective about Administratium, the heaviest element known to Science! Click here.
In the end, while I'm proud of my scholarly record, I'm most proud of my years of academic and administrative service (24 years and counting!). On my own, I would have accomplished very little. Still, by being an administrator, I have been a part of many significant accomplishments driven by faculty, students, and even – yes, I'll admit it – other administrators. Moreover, my journey as an academic administrator has taken me places and given me career opportunities that being a scholar-oriented faculty member would have never taken me.
Maybe you are an academic content to be in your research and teaching world, and if so, that's great! But if you want the chance to impact more people and students than you will as a sole academic, think about Administration. There is always a huge need for great administrators – maybe you are a great administrator and don't know it yet.
If you believe that Administration is where you want to be check out How Do I Move Into Administration?
Keep Moving Forward