4 Things You Need to Know Before Applying to That Department Head Role

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
May 28, 2024 at 7:6AM UTC
For those in academia who see themselves in eventual departmental leadership positions, the role of department head is often a desirable next step in their academic careers. However, it isn't always clear what exactly a department head's responsibilities are and how one can get to this position.

What is a department head?

A department head is the person in an academic department at a college who leads, manages and develops the department to ensure it maintains a high standard of excellence in all its activities. With the faculty's support, a chair's primary directive is to ensure that their department remains (or becomes) well-regarded in its field to attract students. Department heads exercise leadership, demonstrate vision and empower others to execute an agreed-upon departmental strategy. 

What are the responsibilities of a department chair?

A department head's responsibilities fall into a few major categories: 

Leadership and management.

  • Responsible for setting and advancing the department's academic strategy
  • Responsible for ensuring the department's strategy is aligned with that of the broader educational institution
  • Engage with other department heads and their own department's faculty, as needed, to ensure that the department is well-run, connected to other relevant departments and supportive of its instructors
  • Develop management, decision making and communication structures for communication with faculty, staff and students
  • Promote and represent the university and department, both internally and externally
  • Prepare annual departmental reports describing the department's accomplishments in research and scholarship, the fulfillment of the university's educational mission, fundraising, alumni engagement and other topics

Teaching and student support.

  • Ensure the best possible students experience through the hiring of appropriate faculty
  • Support faculty in their teaching
  • Teach his or her own courses in the department
  • Develop and refresh programs to attract new students


  • Support faculty and students' research
  • Find and disseminate funds for research in the department
  • Conduct their own research

Knowledge transfer.

  • Find, create and/or exploit knowledge transfer activities (e.g., foreign exchange programs) to create additional income for the department
  • Contribute to college- or university-level initiatives in this area

People management.

  • Support faculty's professional development
  • Ensure that the broader college's or university's HR policies and procedures are followed
  • Manage faculty and staff performance evaluations
  • Coordinate the tenure process for faculty
  • Ensure students are included in departmental decision making, as appropriate

Financial management.

  • Determine the department's necessary budget on an annual basis and request it from the overall university or college
  • Manage the department's income and expenditures to promote financial sustainability

University or college development support.

  • Participate in advancement and alumni initiatives
  • Recruit faculty and students, as appropriate, to support university fundraising initiatives as features of various campaigns
  • Work with university leadership (e.g., the dean, the provost and other relevant members of leadership) to take additional responsibilities and assignments, such as committee assignments

How much does a university department head make?

PayScale reports that the average salary for a department chair at a college or university is $84,898. The average bonus is $4,967, and the average value of profit sharing is $1,200.

What are the qualifications for a department head?

Generally, department heads need to be knowledgeable in the subject matter of the department they head up, certified to teach, have strong leadership ability and feel comfortable working with people. Most often, department chairs are faculty members who've worked their ways up in their departments.
Dr. Don Chu, dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Services at California State University, San Marcos, says the ability to "see over the horizon" and be a "selfless servant" are essential qualities for department heads. 
Unlike in many other professions, many department chairs don't receive formal training before taking their positions. Chu notes that "most chairs receive ZERO training before they become chief managers and leaders for their multi-million dollar organizations." Thus, they often don't know what they don't know and need about a year to get their feet under them and understand their roles. With this in mind, there's no additional managerial experience required for department chair positions.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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