Office with speaking tubes (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Office with speaking tubes (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

While skimming a long comment thread elsewhere, I noted Austin Elliott pointing readers to an article, The HoD Delusion (warning: large PDF file) in Physiology News, written by an anonymous (recovering) head of department.

It opens with an anecdote about being a Head of Department (HoD), then examines what the writer considers are the issues facing a incumbent HoD. The opening passage reads,

“It is frequently said, though I forget who started it, that managing academics is like herding cats. My experience, as both cat owner and Head of Department (HoD), suggests that this is grossly unfair to cats; our feline friends tend not to discuss their destination at length, let alone all the ins and outs of if, why, and how they want to go there; nor do they resist change with nearly as much enthusiasm as academics.

Over several years I have realized that becoming a HoD, rather than cat-herding, is more like becoming a parent — for the following three reasons in particular. First, you take it on in addition to your other jobs; second, nothing really prepares you for the reality; and third, you undertake its major responsibilities and possible consequences with little — if any — appropriate training.”

Think of this blog post as a call to both walk in their shoes for a little bit, and to discuss what you think HoDs should do – and not do. Comments from current or previous HoDs are particularly welcome.

One thought* that follows from the quote above is for training, and with that professional managerial support (that is, permanent managerial staff who work alongside the department head proper). I can’t speak from experience on this, but invite others to share their thoughts.

For those unlikely to ever become an HoD, understanding their role may help you work better with them.


* I may add more thoughts in the comments as I find time.

I’ve listed the highlighted points from the article below, but I encourage people to read the actual article as the content is more fulsome, and entertaining, than these headers might lead you to believe.

  1. Know your objective(s) and act accordingly
  2. Lead from the front
  3. Manage your time carefully
  4. Be accessible
  5. Don’t judge or act until you have heard both sides of the story
  6. Say ‘yes’ when you can, but learn to say ‘no’ when necessary
  7. Do what you believe to be right and fair
  8. ‘Care but don’t care’
  9. Say what you think, especially in meetings
  10. Minimise work that doesn’t contribute to the primary goals of your department

This is apparently part of a larger series, which interested readers might track down. (See footnotes immediately after the end of the article.)

HT: Austin Elliott.

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