Careers: Don't become departmental chair pre-tenure

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One of the biggest mistakes a junior faculty member can make is to become chair of their department pre-tenure. While not common at larger institutions, you may be asked if you're at a smaller school such as at a private liberal arts college. If at any point, you are offered the position as an untenured faculty member, become very very worried. Becoming chair is an enormous burden, not an honor. It is a tremendous responsibility with very little real power (especially over the senior faculty). The fact that the provost is offering you the position means that the senior faculty in your department are either too structurally weak, too disorganized, or too factious to take on the responsibility themselves. You may want to think about other job opportunities. The likelihood that your department will later be able to get it together enough to properly support your application for tenure is questionable if they can't even handle the position of chair amongst themselves now.

Chair of a department is an enormous amount of very thankless administrative work that is not at all compensated by the single course release that most colleges offer. While you are chair, your research and publications will grind to a halt. While this is acceptable for tenured faculty, it is the kiss of death for junior faculty.

Chairs have to sign all of the official paperwork*, handle all of the unhappy students, calm the nervous parents, deflect the faculty complaints, and march to the provost's office for more resources. it is a very rare person who can do this without straining their relationships with the other faculty, the provost, or the students -- and you need all three to be supportive when you have to come up for tenure.

* A humorous story here: One of my mentors related a former chair at her large state university who got fed up with having to sign each and every piece of paper that went through his office. He went and bought a rubber signature stamp that he then gave to the department secretary. For a few weeks, his life was utter bliss until he got a phone call from the administration. One of the staff whose responsibility was checking signatures noted that his signature was stamped. In the end, the chair had to go back to the drudgery of signing endless forms again. One of the morals of the story was that the university was such a bureaucracy that they had a staffer whose job it was to check signatures. Accept your fate.

Becoming chair is not a promotion! At best, it is a temporary step into the liminal area between faculty and administration, and one that makes everyone unhappy. When it comes time for tenure review, your stint as chair will rarely be remembered positively. The provost will remember what a pain in the neck you were and the faculty will remember how spineless you were in standing up to the provost (or the other way around). Your lack of research and publications while you were chair will be used against you. And a department so weak to have a junior faculty member become chair will not be able to put up an effective fight to retain you.

In terms of portability, becoming pre-tenure chair will not help your candidacy at other colleges. Search committees will (correctly) see it more as a sign of your department's weakness than it is of your strength and leadership. And (again) they will not look kindly on your lack of publications during your stint as chair.

Like many things as a junior faculty member: Just say no. If there is no senior faculty in the department who can take the position (due to a sabbatical release, for example), ask the provost if an external interim chair can be appointed. It would be far better for the tenured chair of sociology to also temporarily serve as interim chair of anthropology than it would be for a junior anthropologist to become chair.

[Read other articles on Careers in Anthropology on]

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on October 17, 2005 9:18 AM.

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