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Facilitating Faculty Career Path Changes: What Chairs Can Do

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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"Some reasons that would prompt a productive faculty member to consider another career path within the academy are boredom, seeking new learning experiences or challenges, disillusionment, external circumstances, opportunities afforded by emerging scholarly areas, and ambition."


The posting below gives some nice examples of how chairs can help experienced faculty who wish to consider a change in career path. It is by  N. Douglas Lees, associate dean for planning and finance at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of Chairing Academic Departments (Jossey-Bass 2006). Email: It is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, winter, 2015, Vol. 25, No. 3. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 (, or see:


Rick Reis
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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Facilitating Faculty Career Path Changes: What Chairs Can Do

Faculty in higher education typically enter the profession with a deep commitment to what they think is the ideal work focus and apply for positions accordingly. Some come as dedicated teachers who provide exemplary service to their institution and its students until retirement. Likewise, others enter with a fascination of discovery and work beyond normal retirement on their research. There is another group of equally successful faculty who, for a variety of reasons, desire to change the focus of their professional work well before retirement. It is difficult to say how many fall into this category but, based on the pressures that institutions place on faculty to deliver in the same way, many of them feel that they cannot change or do not know how to go about making the switch.

Some reasons that would prompt a productive faculty member to consider another career path within the academy are boredom, seeking new learning experiences or challenges, disillusionment, external circumstances, opportunities afforded by emerging scholarly areas, and ambition. The consummate teacher who has won every award available or the star researcher who has been funded for four consecutive rounds and has published regularly in top-tier journals might ask what is left to conquer or whether they want to keep doing this for twenty more years. The researcher who has toiled for twenty years making important contributions finds that the research area is no long eligible for funding, or the teacher who has crafted, over many years, an excellent core course learns that changes in the discipline mean that it will move from a requirement to an elective, may both stop to reconsider their present work foci. It is clear that such individuals are hardworking and successful, the types of faculty members every chair wishes to keep. However, they and those who may consider moving to something else for one of the other listed reasons will likely require some type of intervention (direct help and/or assurance) to make the change.

The chair is often the first person of consequence to learn of a faculty member's desire to change the direction of her or his work. The chair may notice a change in performance and open a conversation in this regard or faculty may declare their interests outright. The challenge for the chair is to develop with the faculty member a plan for the transition to new work that allows the individual to remain competitive (promotion, merit pay) and gain universal acceptance for the new role he or she will assume. Several examples from both direct and indirect personal experience follow, and from them one can extract the many chair characteristics that were necessary for success. Among them were chair as mentor, matchmaker, risk taker, advisor, negotiator/educator, and, for lack of a better term, resource wizard.

Case 1 was a full-rank faculty member who was highly successful in research and was an all-around contributor to all elements of faculty work. She was exceptionally capable, always looking for new learning experiences, and ambitious. She approached the chair with a request to become associate chair with the goal of exploring opportunities in administration. She and the chair then planned activities with two overall objectives in mind. One was to provide real experiences that are relevant to most chair positions (class scheduling, hiring adjuncts, etc.). The second was to identify new work that would benefit the department and provide the opportunity for the would-be chair to claim ownership of the outcomes. In addition, the chair was active in appointing the associate chair to committees populated by other administrators and specifically sought her opinion on several department decisions to enrich her appreciation for the day-to-day work of a chair. The new contributions could have been used to offset any diminished productivity that may have resulted from the additional responsibilities; in reality, the traditional productivity was not affected. The associate chair gained much from her experience and, three years later, landed her own chair position.

Case 2 was an energetic associate professor who was conducting disciplinary laboratory research and had been using technology to produce educational animations that could be used as substitutes for real student experiments. This took place at a time shortly after desktop computers were found in faculty offices. The chair recognized very early that the faculty member was unlikely to be competitive in the laboratory project but had great potential in his use of technology and that pursuing both projects would mean neither would gain traction. The faculty member was unwilling to abandon the laboratory project for fear that without it he would lose the respect of his colleagues. Further, he was committed to seeking promotion to full rank and did not see how the technology project could be used to accomplish this. This is a classic example of how institutional and disciplinary pressures prevent faculty from pursuing different types of work throughout their careers.

After several conversations, the chair convinced the faculty member that giving up laboratory research would not diminish his stature (he was already well respected for his technology expertise and creativity) and moved him to space more conducive to his work in educational technology. There remained the question of the "promotability" of this work. This was the real risk in the transition. Behind the scenes the chair contacted the senior faculty who would constitute the promotion committee to alert them to the new flavor of scholarship that may come their way. Again, this took place two decades ago and before alternative forms of scholarship were widely recognized. When the case was ready to be made for promotion, other rules had to be abrogated and the chair was once again front and center with this. There simply were insufficient numbers of full rank, disciplinary faculty available who could serve as external reviewers for this case. Thus, the chair solicited individuals who could really evaluate the work, including some of less than full rank and some from other disciplines. All of these exceptions had to be carefully documented in order for the case to be successful at all levels. It was.

Case 3 involved an associate professor who became disillusioned with trying to get her research funded after an initial round of success a few years earlier. She was also adept at using technology and had the idea of producing ebooks long before this was a common concept. She had submitted a proposal to a federal agency to support this endeavor and, although it was not funded, the reviews were positive and encouraging. Both parties realized that her primary work was not likely to earn funding because it was expensive and there was no mechanism for her to gather additional data to make the proposal more compelling. The chair suggested that she move to a teaching track where she could increase her productivity in teaching (become competitive for merit) and move her scholarly focus to the area of creating digital texts.

To make this change, some resources for the new venture were needed. Work-stations and part-time students with computer savvy were identified as elements required for her to accumulate sufficient preliminary results to reapply for external funding. To assure the faculty member that the resources would be available, the chair offered to purchase her existing research instrumentation to use for a new academic program and to supplement the department's teaching equipment. She would then be free to use the proceeds to launch her new work.

Unlike Case 2, where the faculty member had already accumulated, through external funding, a good deal of the equipment for the new area, this case raises the question of how institutions might deal with the issue of resources when a faculty member wants to change areas. It seems that if the faculty member has a strong track record of success that he or she would earn another investment (start-up package) with the promise of continued productivity. To be unwilling to do this may result in lowered morale and even burnout. Unfortunately, in Case 3 the faculty member abruptly resigned before the planned transition took place.

Case 4 would ordinarily be regarded as a difficult transition because it involved someone in basic science moving from administration to research after a long hiatus. The relatively young full professor was hired at a newly emerging public institution with the charge to build a department from a faculty of fewer than five and a skeletal degree program. This individual did just that over a period of more than a decade and was considered a rising star in administration. However, as the unit matured, workloads changed, and aspirations grew (graduate program additions and increased research), it was felt that he had taken them as far as he could and that it was time for new leadership. A new, research-active chair was brought in and the former chair returned to the faculty.

Both individuals shared research interests and expertise, although the former chair had been inactive for many years. The new chair, recognizing that his research time would be negatively affected by his administrative duties, established a collaboration with his predecessor that allowed him to continue his research, reinvigorated the former chair, and resulted in coauthored publications and proposals that earned external funding. Years later, when the new chair left, the former chair was able to sustain the research program until his retirement. This case is marked by the serendipity that the new and former chairs would be matched to become collaborators. More commonly, the new chair would have to help the former chair establish a good collaboration by matching expertise, interests, and personalities.

Each of these career path changes required individualized chair interventions. In the first case, the chair's role was as mentor while in the second case the chair was the assurer and negotiator or educator regarding the promotion aspect of the case. The chair in the third case generated confidence in the faculty member by creatively financing the career transition. The final case utilized the chair's skill as matchmaker to establish the appropriate collaboration. Overall, one can conclude that all cases will be different and that chairs will draw on many skills to make them successful.