Monday, September 19, 2011

To Administrate or Not To Administrate?

A reader is contemplating taking on a temporary but time-consuming, challenging, and stressful administrative position. What are the pros and cons of doing so?

Below I provide selected details of this particular person's situation, to help with this evaluation by others who can share insights or advice.

Profile of the individual: mid-career science professor, promoted to full professor a year ago, successful in research, respected as a colleague and mentor, no administrative experience other than as head of medium-sized research group, no administrative desires (although has had vague thoughts that maybe this would be of interest much later in career), loves research (including doing research, not just supervising others who are doing research) and has struggled (successfully) to achieve a good balance in career/life.

Profile of the administrative position: interim head of a university unit in crisis (the individual in question is not part of this unit, but has some ties with it), it would be a full-time job (no teaching, probably also no research) for an unspecified amount of time, until a search can be conducted to hire someone into this position.

The internal struggle of the individual:

- Likes being a professor, values research, has done well -- why give that up?

- But thinks: Maybe I could do this?

- And: Maybe I should do this? (for sake of institution, colleagues).

- There don't seem to be any other good candidates.

- Maybe the challenge would be exciting and the job enjoyable?

- But...

Some of the details are different, but a lot of that sounded familiar to me because I have gone through some of the same internal struggles when deciding about whether to agree to take on some administrative duties. I wrote about some of my (in)decision in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The specific situation described above sounds unappealing some ways (a unit in crisis requiring full-time attention as an interim head with uncertain authority). Before seriously considering taking on such a responsibility, I think I would want to:

- meet with the relevant powers-that-be and find out if I would have the trust and authority to be effective, not just a warm body sitting in an office doing paperwork that will keep the flaming ship from sinking; I would want to have extensive and detailed information about the unit's recent operation, crisis, and likely future;

- know the time-table for the search for a 'permanent' head of the unit; these things can be unpredictable, but what is the proposed time frame?

- discuss compensation for taking on this position; not just salary, but also flexible research funds to hire a postdoc, visiting professor, or whatever would be most useful to the research group;

Armed with information about the time and effort required to do the job well, I would consider the effect on my research group. Some professors who are considering moving into administration will ramp down their research program, including number of advisees. Jumping suddenly into an all-consuming administrative position could, however, have major negative consequences for an active, medium-sized research group. Is it possible to devise a (good) plan for dealing with the necessary decrease in the PI's ability to manage the research group and advise students?

And then, ultimately, you decide. If you feel that you have the information you need to make a good decision, you have a good plan for taking care of your responsibilities to your research group, and you are still intrigued by the challenge of taking on this new job for a while, maybe you should do it. If, however, you feel like you would be giving up a lot for not much in return other than stress and a warm but faint feeling of having noble intentions, maybe someone else can do the job. You will surely have other administrative opportunities at another time.

Readers, what would/did you do in similar circumstances?


Anonymous said...

I'd say don't do it. a unit in crisis needs someone with experience, not someone who's a newbie at these matters. Maybe the reader is a capable individual who can learn on the fly, but is that really in the crisis unit's best interest?? I'd say your reader would do better to take on a less critical administrative duty as his/her first foray into administration.

aProfessor said...

I really don't see any upside to this. Some other department in turmoil, even if you know and are associated with those guys somehow, is just not your problem. If it were your department that were in dire need I could almost consider it, but here there's just no upside at all, and a huge downside of no research. Don't do it. Why would you?

Anonymous said...

Unless you actively want to do it, or there are major benefits (lots of extra funding for own group, reduction in teaching load in future years) don't even think about it. Life is too short to do things that you don't enjoy in return. Full stop.

studyzone said...

I also don't see any advantage. At the public university I taught at recently, a program that the state highly values was in crisis, and our dept. chair was transferred to that program, even though he had planned to retire. He was told it was a temporary assignment, but two years later, the university still had not initiated a search. The dept. chair ended up re-filing his retirement papers, and leaving at the end of the year (I don't blame him one bit, given what he had to put up with). Only then did the university even begin to search for a permanent program head.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't do it either, even if possibly interested in some administrative position later in my career. For a short-term position like this, they should find someone whose active research and teaching career won't be obliterated. If they need a care-taker, they should find someone with administrative experience and nothing to lose.

Anonymous said...

We have had a similar situation where someone from different department took as an interim-head in our department (he had a collaboration here but didn't belonged here), but slowly he started liking his new department, and when finally search was conducted, he was hired as a head. so you never know. Follow your instinct...

Anonymous said...

This is the reader in question. Thanks FSP for the great post, and commenters for the thoughts. Just a few additional bits of info:

1. About them needing someone with experience... sure, but there really may not be any such person available in the short term. Rest assured neither I nor those considering me for this would be doing so if there were obvious better options.

2. About whether I "actively want to do it" - I don't know. Not at first, but now I will admit to some curiosity, at least. And it would depend partly on some details that I don't know yet, including the benefits, support from powers that be etc.

3. As to it not being my problem... that's not entirely true. I can't really explain the details for obvious reasons, but what happens there will have some impact on me and my immediate associates no matter what (though of course not as much impact as it will have on those who really work there).

4. There is a decent chance (and it would certainly be the intent) that the appointment would last < 1 year. While I can imagine it going a little longer than that, a situation like studyzone described will NOT happen - I certainly won't let it and the powers that be have other real incentives not to let it either.

So while I guess I continue to lean towards the "no" that seems to be the near-unanimous opinion of FSP readers (and that was my immediate reaction when the idea was first broached to me, very recently), I am trying to give the idea a fair chance for at least a little while, as a hypothetical exercise in career choice-making if nothing else.

Anonymous said...

A just-curious question to the person considering taking on this daunting job: How many students and/or postdocs are you advising right now and what would be your plan for them? I hope this doesn't sound like an aggressive question or that I doubt that you care about your advisees. I am just wondering what your options are about this. Maybe you would still have time to be an involved advisor?

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think the fact that the position is definitely short term, and maybe really short term, makes it more UNappealing in some ways. You really would just be a warm body in a chair. You wouldn't have time to show what you can do in terms of leadership, you'd have little authority (I am guessing), and so you need to balance that against the negative impact on your research and the rest of your job/life. Doesn't seem worth it unless there are some perks we don't know about.

Anonymous said...

oooo, lots of negative don't-do-it comments. I wonder if that means that instead of being seen as heroic for taking on this horrible job, this person would be seen as a bit crazy, as in, who would take on this job under these circumstances? I would think: He must want to be a Dean or something.

Anonymous said...

Don't do it. Later in your career, perhaps, but if you exit research now, even "temporarily", it will be very difficult to return.

Mark P

Anonymous said...


Ha ha, just kidding. I just wanted to say that because everyone else is being so negative. Actually, I don't think your reader should do this either.

EliRabett said...

This sounds like a set up, bring in the temporary person to do the unpleasant stuff, then the new head comes as a hero. Unless the department in question can't get at you or your associates, don't do it.

AnEngineeringProf said...

I'm a mid-career prof. I haven't served as a full-time administrator, but I've served in a 50%-time administration-type position. After serving my two-year stint in that position, I went back to research and teaching. I found teaching and research more satisfying and fulfilling than administration, so it wasn't a win for me. The research activity is probably more useful to me in advancing my career than the administrative position, too.

I'd also look at what personality type you are. Are you a detail person (who loves the details and minutae of research)? Do you like providing the vision? Do you like having your day carved up into a dozen half-hour meetings, or do you like having a free schedule? Are you an extrovert? Do you like being the public face of an organization? If you like focusing more on the vision, are an introvert, and prefer a less-structured schedule, I'd be somewhat more reluctant about taking on an administrative position, because my impression of many administrative positions is that they are much more about detail and execution on the details than on vision, and a significant component of the job is to be the public-facing representative of the organization to many, many others.

If it were me, I wouldn't take this position. I'd wait until later in your career, for a better option (e.g., department chair) where you won't be going in starting from such a negative position.

Anonymous said...

If the position is less than a year then you are definitely a placeholder and not really in a position to affect much positive change. I think that most faculty in the unit will resist change knowing that someone permanent will be there soon.

I like service and get how you may feel flattered to be thought of and this would be an interesting way to dip your toe into administration but DON'T DO IT. I think you will just be frustrated and may damage some long term relationships.

MZ said...

I took on a 50% admin position for a few years (stepped down before going on sabbatical) and really liked it, though the circumstances were different. One of the key things that made it worth while was that I negotiated for a postdoc to run my lab while I was in the position; the person I hired was FANTASTIC and so my students and I got a lot out of it, even though I was absent more from the lab. Can you do the same?

And I liked the admin part, too -- an unforeseen benefit was getting to meet some great people I wouldn't have encountered in my regular professor gig.

Anonymous said...

At my university, taking an interim position like this would earn the professor an additional, sometimes substantial, stipend. This is not just nice as is, but also bumps up the later retirement pay, as retirement is calculated from the average of the three highest paid years.

Ann said...

Actually I have had quite a few female colleagues who were highly successful scientists and have become, at least temporarily, scientists+administrators, and all have expressed to me that this has been a positive development. Pluses: a challenge, and a change to change things that frustrated them. All have also maintained their previous research programs at a reasonable rate--one department chair i know spends every morning in her lab, and I know 2 deans who spend 2 days a week in their labs while being highly effective administrators.

If this individual is an energetic, positive, effective person and provided her colleagues and higher administrators are supportive, then she might be able to make this challenge a rewarding experience and not have it kill her research program.

I dont know anyone actually who says they wish they had never taken such an assignment, although in one case it did literally nearly kill him (the stress gave him serious heart problems).

Anonymous said...

I guess the question is, what would be the reasons TO do this?

lots of reasons not to. what about reasons for it? just because you think you are capable of doing it, is not a logical reason to actually do it.

Anonymous said...

I see red flags. Since the reader doesn't have previous admin experience, and this department is in crisis, isn't it likely that the reader will do a poor job objectively speaking (due to the lack of experience) and then get blamed for it (due to the high stakes of the crisis and for the fact of being in the position of responsibility)?

I think you should ask yourself, in deciding whether to do this: what are the consequences of your failing? I don't mean to be a pessimist, I'm just being realistic. There's a real likelihood that you will fail to meet expectations or produce the needed result, given the perfect storm of this situation. so if failure in this job would carry significant consequences for you (in addition to the consequences of cutting back on research and teaching, which would happen even if you did succeed in this admin position), then I think that's a strong reason not to do it no matter how much of a "can-do" attitude you may naturally have.

Klaas said...

As you get more senior you really cannot avoid these sort of administrative jobs. Furthermore, as a full prof, you really should not be spending lots of time in the lab: it is your job to get in the grants and set up collaborations, not fanny about in the lab. Still, you should try and avoid gettign sucked into some sort of administrative black hole. Search out the middle ground somehow.