Transitioning from Faculty to Chair
This article first appeared in Academic Leader on November 15, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Many of us either are asked to serve as chair of our department as a cyclical rotating chair or have made the decision to pursue the chair position on our own. Regardless of the path taken, it’s important to consider the professional and personal timing; reflecting desired goals, opportunities, and challenges.
Once the decision is made, it is time to make the transition between being a faculty member and being chair. There are many excellent resources on learning to be a chair. There is less, if any, information available for how to responsibly make the transition to chair and move from the inward view of one’s own research and teaching agenda to a more outward view of an entire department or college. Whether one remains as chair in the same department, college, or university in which one is already a faculty member, or if one moves institutions, many of the steps of the transition are similar.
Here, as I reflect on my first full year as chair, I share my personal experience in how I made the transition from being a laboratory research scientist to becoming the chair of a department in a different college, but at the same institution. For me, this change required that I close my research laboratory and transition from primarily research and teaching to an administrative role with minor teaching responsibilities. In hindsight, the steps I made on the practical side of closing my research laboratory, cleaning my office, and strengthening my faculty relationships assisted with the transition. These steps were fairly straightforward. However, my active work toward emotional closure were not as obvious until now. The practical actions coupled with the less tangible and personal actions are what allowed me to assume the position of chair. These actions are what led me to know unequivocally that I had made the right decision.
As background, I had had the opportunity to serve as part-time (60 percent FTW) interim chair of a department for 20 months prior to applying for the full-time chair position of a newly merged. larger department. The merged department was comprised of three smaller units, including one of which I had been the interim chair. During that first year as interim chair, I began the process of transitioning to a different role than being predominantly a basic science researcher. This process included things I did for others as well as for myself. For instance, I supported my long-time research assistant in gaining a master’s degree to better position him for future career opportunities. I relinquished nearly all of my teaching responsibilities to new faculty hires and completed long-term service commitments. I did not accept new students or begin new research projects with collaborators. I knew that my last students would be finished within the time frame I had given myself to make the change away from being a research faculty member, regardless of what the career change might become. I planned my research projects and grant funding to logically complete during the same time frame. I also finished my MBA.
One of the primary reasons I had even considered leaving my faculty position prior to this point in my career was due to the outcomes of my research. One of my projects involved a collaborator who was well established in my research field. His previous patents had led to another patent with me. His previous patents had gone through the patent law process, licensing, and human trials, and they were slated to move into human applications within a year. The new patent we worked on together was on the same trajectory, and I was being asked to assist with that transition in the private sector of licensing and production. I knew the questions that grew from the human applications of the work would be well beyond my scope of knowledge, let alone my institutional infrastructure to support such future needs of research. I also knew that for me to continue with the research, I would need to ultimately enter the private sector. It was this knowledge that initially led me to pursue an MBA.
My first step in the transition to chair was to meet with my own departmental chair to review my laboratory and office space, ongoing projects, current funding, and teaching/service roles. Together we developed a plan for the laboratory and the equipment. In the six weeks from the time I accepted the position as the chair to the time I assumed the position, I worked with my laboratory assistant to clean and prepare the laboratory for a new researcher to assume the space. I had already transitioned my teaching commitments and directorship of courses during the interim chair position. My goal was to responsibly transition my role as a faculty member with research space back to the department.
During the same time, I was in a period of emotional change. No longer would my work and days focus around my research and teaching agenda or my own students and laboratory personnel. As primarily an administrative chair, I would now support my faculty with an outward view for a large department. I would be responsible for faculty development, advocating for their academic programs and research agendas, and for long-term departmental strategic planning. I was leaving my research projects that I had intellectually designed, grown, and nurtured to their completion within the scope of my abilities.
Furthermore, I was making this transition earlier in my career than many of my more experienced colleagues. I didn’t want to lose those colleagues as my friends and mentors. Each day during this time of transition, I would seek out one of my colleagues and thank them for their role in my professional development. I would ask for their advice on a particular faculty development topic. I wanted my colleagues to know that I appreciated them, and that I wanted to continue our collegial relationships.
I also spent that transitional time in reflection for how I had arrived at those decision points over the last three years. I considered who had played pivotal roles at each junction in the decision-making process. The key individuals did not know that they had had anything to do with the choices I had made. I felt that for my own emotional closure, I needed to share this information with them. I needed to tell them about my research and how it had moved beyond my scope of abilities. I needed to share my rationale for moving into a chair position and, most importantly, to inform them of what their role had been in my decision process. To this end, I met with each of the individuals to share how they had been instrumental in my professional decisions. I thanked them for their professional work as it permitted me to be privy to their professional knowledge. For instance, one individual was my instructor for an MBA course on failure. He taught me how to look at what could easily have been taken as failures and how to review those instances of failure in my life, how to learn from them, and how to turn them into successes.
These conversations with colleagues and the key players at pivotal points in my professional decisions formed the basis of my own personal closure on my previous academic life as a laboratory scientist. Together, these conversations along with the physical and practical aspects of transitioning my faculty life built the stable scaffold to step onto during the next stage of my professional career. For me, it was this transition process that reinforced my knowledge that I made the right decision and allows me to face each and every day with no regrets.
Amy Harkins received her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and postdoctoral training at the University of Chicago. She took a faculty position at Saint Louis University in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology in the School of Medicine with a secondary appointment in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Her research focused on nerve regeneration using biomaterials to engineer physical scaffolds and microenvironments for improved nerve regrowth. In 2017, she assumed the role as chair of Clinical Health Sciences in the Doisy College of Health Sciences.