Where is my career going? Am I building the academic career path I really want? And would I ever really want to be … department chair? Dean? Am I tempted to Join the Dark Side?
Academics face a series of important decisions throughout their careers. Where do I apply for jobs, and what kind am I looking for? Do I accept this position or wait for a better one? Do I put more effort into research or teaching? Where should I publish my stuff? Should I write books or articles? Will serving on this committee help my career? Should I volunteer as a section program chair for the big conference next year? Each of these decisions, and a thousand more like them, collectively make up the trajectory of our careers through academia.
In graduate school we are trained first and foremost as researchers, and there is no doubt that decisions about our research productivity and publication are among the most impactful on our future career prospects. My colleague Laura Sjoberg has done an excellent job shedding light on a number of those decisions with regard to publishing journal articles, the bread-and-butter of our field. It is no surprise that her series “The Hard Way” has gotten far more hits than anything else yet posted here at RI.
In addition to research, many of us also get some help in learning how to teach along the way. Some institutions care more about teaching than others (though few know how to measure it nearly so well as we measure research productivity), but there are some excellent resources out there. You can go to entire conferences on teaching political science, and both the APSA and ISA have panels at every annual meeting devoted to teaching ideas.
The third category, “service”, gets almost no attention at all. When’s the last time you saw a conference panel on how to chair a committee? I’ve seen a few conference sessions on how to build new programs, but those are at conferences attended almost exclusively by administrators, with very few “real faculty” in the room.
And herein lies the Great Divide: the tribal gulf we have created between Faculty and Administration. To cross from one to the other is most frequently referred to as “joining the Dark Side”. I have a colleague who was given a Darth Vader mask as a “gift” by her faculty colleagues when she took up her new administrative job. Faculty complaints about administration are matched in frequency only by administrators’ complaints about faculty, and at many institutions the two tribes see each other as adversaries.
In one sense this is odd, because most academic administrators started their careers as faculty members. At some point along the way, they made a decision – or, in many cases, a series of them – to take advantage of an opportunity that led them down the path towards a more administrative role. These decisions to redirect an academic career towards administration are some of most important ones we make – yet we spend almost no time talking about them.
The drama of Darth Vader masks aside, transitioning from faculty to administration is often not one decision, but a series of them. Nor is there anything inevitable or irreversible about the process. I have known faculty who are content to stay at department chair, while others see being chair as a step towards greater administrative responsibility. Some folks are happy being center directors but would never want to be dean; others want to be dean as a stepping stone to provost or even president. And of course there are plenty of faculty who will eschew formal administrative positions altogether but get drawn in to helping create, and then run, academic programs.