Grab a Chair

Apparently, I am at that career stage where I get solicited (with increasing frequency) to apply for the position of department chair or department head at various institutions. I am wholly unsuited for such positions, not because I can’t figure out what people need or solve interpersonal and logistical problems, but because:

  • I cannot do it without it perturbing my inner equilibrium for longer than is healthy or prudent. I am probably worse than most when it comes to leaving other people’s bullshit at the office and not allowing it to affect my personal life, even when I know the bullshit isn’t about me at all.
  • I cannot stomach the requirement to kiss the a$$es of alumni and folks with deep pockets in other to milk them for donations. There are some people who excel at this and don’t seem to find it prohibitively distasteful; more power to them. A few such individuals are academics in STEM fields and make excellent upper-level administrators. Yours truly, alas, is not among these specimens.
  • I like many facets of the job I have now. I am really good at teaching and draw a great deal of satisfaction from it. I enjoy working with graduate students and thinking about cool new science. I like being an editor of technical journals (usually). I like talking science with colleagues. Based on what I see among my peers, it is hard to go back to being a regular faculty member after serving in a demanding administrative capacity.
  • Moving. The other day, Middle Boy said winter was his favorite season, which surprised and puzzled me for about five seconds, until I remembered that he was Midwest-born, and long, snowy winters feel natural because this place is his home. So, yeah. We’re staying put.

Blogosphere, anyone among you considering switching to administration? Why and why not?


  1. I spent last year in the upper echelons of the university after I was pulled in to help coordinate our covid response planning. It was interesting (especially helping to set up our own PCR test lab) but it confirmed my suspicion that I am not cut out for admin. They are in endless meetings, mainly with each other, and I run out of patience with that very fast. The amount of work that goes in also appears poorly correlated with how many results come out the other side. Watching on of the nation’s largest universities try to pivot rapidly in the face of a pandemic was impressive: kind of like Ever Given in the canal, but we avoided the sides.

  2. I used to think I wanted to ascend the academic administrative hierarchy, but I figured out as director of a small PhD program & associated NIH training grant that I absolutely DESPISE the bureaucratic side of it. Thank fucken God I figured this out BEFORE I became a department chair or God knows what other hellforsaken administrative position.

  3. I used to want to do more administration, but seven years of lower-end admin cured me. Upside: I got to help people & see that such perks as we have were administered fairly. Downside: working within seemingly stable but constantly shifting structures, which was really stressful. If I could simply believe that everything would work out and not worry about it, it would have been okay. Responsibility without sufficient power to carry out required work is a nightmare.

  4. I tested the waters a few years ago as interim department head. I didn’t do it long enough to see the goal posts move around too much. The hardest part with taking over from within was seeing people for who they really are–wouldn’t be as obvious if taking a chair position at another university, but it would take a long time to figure out culture, in groups and out groups, etc.

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