Most people don’t pursue a career as a college professor just to become a department chair. In fact, few faculty members express much interest in being head of their department. Some departments struggle to find anyone to step up and fill the job.
The department chair has a valuable role representing the interests of faculty and students in each academic department.
If you hadn’t considered becoming a department chair when you first started on the path to becoming a tenured professor, it may just be something you are drawn to once you are there. On top of being drawn to an important position that makes a real difference in educational quality and the future of your field, you may just find you have a knack for it. Leaders emerge from unlikely paths sometimes.
Of course, that means that many department chairs come to the job with little actual training on how to lead in academic environments. But that’s exactly where educational leadership studies come into play.
What Does a Department Chair Do at a University?
In some senses, understanding the work a department chair does at a university is perfectly clear. The job involves:
They handle the general administrative overhead of coordinating leaves of absence, supervising adjuncts, and recruiting and overseeing tenure grants.
In other ways, department chairs don’t fit neatly into any leadership mold within school structures. They are active professors in their field, potentially spending most of their hours in a lecture hall, not in the office. They aren’t hired into the role, but instead are appointed or elected after being hired as faculty. And they have no direct supervisory authority over their departments.
Instead, they work through persuasion and as advisors and experts. The styles they adopt to fill the job may be unique, but that’s the strength of faculty leadership—a department chair works directly with their team and engages in exactly the same kind of day-to-day duties. They are intimately familiar with the most pressing issues and have a unique perspective to take to senior leadership.
Looking at the Unique Ways Department Chairs Are Selected
Department chairs typically report to the dean in charge of the school their department is within; for example, an accounting department chair might fall under the dean of the business school.
Depending on the university, a department chair may be called by other titles, such as program director or academic area head.
Viewing deans and department chairs as a hierarchy doesn’t necessarily reflect the same kind of working relationship that would exist between, say, a dean and a vice-dean, however. That’s because department chairs are faculty members, frequently with tenure, who are splitting their time between teaching and academic administration work. They aren’t always hired or appointed by the dean, and don’t necessarily serve at the dean’s pleasure.
The rules for their selection are often covered by college by-laws. Traditionally, they win the position by being chosen by the very people they will represent, with the entire tenured faculty of the department casting a vote. But that’s far from the only way the position is filled. In some departments, the department chair role is rotated on a schedule between faculty members; in other cases, it falls to the most senior member of the discipline by default.
In some cases, department chairs may have budgeting or scheduling authority within their departments. They also serve as supervisors to staff members employed directly by the department.
Larger departments, or at schools with heavier administrative duties allocated to the department chair, often have one or more assistant chairs. These positions both assist the head of department with the tasks they face, as well as step up to fill in when the chair is absent for one reason or another.
Looking at the Leadership Skills Successful College Department Chairs Need
Because there are no built-in mechanisms for supervising and managing tenured faculty within a department, leadership and persuasion skills are paramount for department chairs. Building consensus is the most powerful avenue to accomplishing anything of importance.
While it can be useful in these cases to have the mandate of election or the respect that comes with seniority, in practice there is no substitute for the old-fashioned tools expected of all leaders:
Department chairs frequently have a need to manage up. The most critical role they have is representing their department’s needs and concerns when meeting with deans and other senior leaders. This makes rapport-building, lobbying, and effective persuasive writing and speaking skills critical.
Getting the Appropriate Education to Serve as an Effective Department Chair
Due to their position within a given academic department, chairs certainly have an advanced degree within their field of expertise. Since it’s effectively a part-time job, it’s not the sort of thing that many people specifically go out of their way to prepare for.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to pursue a course of study to improve your educational leadership skills as a department chair. Although part-time, it’s still an important position. And it’s one that can be tough to perform.
You can’t work as a college professor without believing that a formal course of study can help you improve your performance and effectiveness on the job.
Why Educational Leadership Certificate Programs Offer a Great Balance for College Department Chairs
While it’s certainly possible for you to pursue a full Master of Education in Educational Leadership, or even a more advanced degree, like a Doctor of Education in Education Administration, a more common path would be looking into certificate programs in educational leadership.
Lasting less than a year, and focused on a particular aspect of educational administration, certificates are tailor made for the kind of education a department chair might need. After all, you’ve already gone up the ladder in your field, earning a master’s and probably a doctorate, with all the deep research and academic expertise those have to offer.
What you really need to be an effective department head isn’t a full degree program, but instead a tailored course of study to fill in the gaps you may have in your leadership skills.
In this field, all certificates are post-graduate programs, built on top of your existing graduate degrees. A good fit for department chairs may be options like a Post-Master’s Certificate in Education Leadership and Administration, a Post-Master’s Certification in Instructional Leadership, or a Post-Master’s Certificate in Higher Education Leadership.
Any of these can boost your knowledge in important areas where most faculty members fear to tread:
And, of course, they put a polish on your communications, negotiations, and strategic planning skills.
All of that comes in a neat package that frequently takes less than a year to complete, and at a far lower cost than a full degree. With many certificates also available online, you can also pursue them without much disruption to your current teaching and personal commitments.
Department Chair Salary – Will You Get Paid More Serving as Department Chair?
According to a 2017 survey by the College and University Professional Association-Human Resources, only slightly more than half of faculty members chairing their department receive any kind of additional compensation for doing the job. A quarter have their base pay extended by summer salary, reflecting the full-time nature of the position. And 52 percent receive some level of course relief to compensate them for time spent in their administrative duties.
So the base salary that you receive as a college professor is not going to be substantially different when taking on the role of department head. But it’s also not a bad salary in the first place.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for postsecondary teachers in 2021 was $79,640 per year.
That’s a number that is pushed down by the ranks of adjunct and assistant professors that have proliferated among all college instructors in recent decades, however. As a department chair, you’re likely not only to be tenured, but also to be among the more senior instructors in your department.
Those jobs are far more likely to lean toward the top end of the salary scale. In 2021, the top ten percent of postsecondary teachers made more than $172,130 per year. And they enjoy all the typical benefits and perks that come with working in higher education, from strong pensions to solid health care benefits.
Although that might be what you were making before you took on the role of department chair, you’ll certainly find that your job satisfaction and level of respect will go up. It’s a prestigious position even without extra compensation, and an important one too. The benefits of doing it well will be coming to you for decades in your career and for your department.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Postsecondary Teachers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed May 2023.