Shedding light on the dark side: how to become an administrator

DEAR LABBY: I’m a midcareer cell biologist at a large research university. Recently, I’ve found myself on some university committees, through which I’ve gotten to meet some of the upper-level administrators at our university—deans and senior people in the central administration. This has made me wonder whether I could have a future in this kind of position. I think this would help me to advance some of the issues I care about that affect my science and my students. I’m wondering if this is something I’d enjoy and whether I have any aptitude for this kind of career path. Some of my colleagues would see this as going over to the “dark side,” but I’m intrigued. Can you offer any advice on how to explore this new direction?

—Darth Cellius

DEAR DARTH: You’re right that some administrative positions will allow you more influence over issues you care about, and it can be very rewarding to be able to make positive changes that can benefit your colleagues and students more broadly. You’ve already taken a good first step toward learning more by finding your way onto some committees that seem to have interested you. If you have the opportunity, consider also serving on search committees for deanships or other senior executive positions. These committees are time-consuming and can be contentious, but they can be a great way to learn more about what these positions involve, as well as developing a network of colleagues who can help you if you aspire to this kind of role.

Having a good mentor can make all the difference. If there is a senior administrator whom you admire, who seems to embody your values, find ways to get to know them better. Tell them of your interest, and ask if you can meet for coffee to talk about what they do and about the career path that took them there. You’ll probably find they’re passionate about what they do, and happy to talk through the pros and cons of their positions. On a practical level, you’ll need to consider whether this is the right time for you to do something like this; it may not be if it will interfere with getting tenured or promoted or maintaining funding for your students and postdocs.

Leadership training is often available through universities. Some have formal leadership training programs that cover such things as strategic planning, financial systems, and soft skills such as negotiation, giving feedback, and managing conflict without the aid of a lightsaber. Others create opportunities to work closely with a campus leader on a part-time basis in a kind of internship. These temporary positions are called by a variety of names, such as “faculty fellow,” and usually involve working on a special project for a semester or two. They allow you to experience, first-hand, what the position entails and to test the limits of what you can and can’t achieve in these positions. There are also national programs that seek to develop a pool of future leaders. Well-known examples include the HERS Institute, offering leadership development programs for women, and the American Council on Education Fellows Program. Labby has also observed that serving in leadership roles for ASCB, such as serving on ASCB committees, is an excellent way to gain experience working on national issues that you’ll need to understand in a university leadership role.

Finally, for some positions, there is a typical career “ladder.” For example, most deans previously served as department chairs; others may have served as associate deans. It’s likely to be hard to move into a deanship without the right background. For other types of positions, serving as a director of a research center or institute may be a good stepping stone. Although a stellar faculty career is not a prerequisite for every position, it is very important for some.

Finally, consider how moving into administration might affect your research career. Some administrators stay active in research or teaching, and finding a good balance helps them be better in their administrative role. Others prefer to focus on their new role. Since you’re not yet sure that administration is right for you, try to keep your options open as you test the waters. Good luck, and remember that our universities need thoughtful leaders who care about basic science.


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