Juggling work-life balance as a department chair: a community discussion

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Friday, March 8, 2024 1:00 PM EST
Series: AGU/AGI Heads and Chairs

Managing the demands of the day-to-day work, balancing the need for making progress on one's research, and seeking work-life balance often causes tension in the life of a department chair. Whether you have been a chair for a long time or are a fairly new chair, you have probably experienced this tension. Please join this community discussion to share and learn from each other as we discuss strategies to mitigate these competing demands on your time.

Summary and Recommendations / Examples from the Webinar Discussion

Strategies for Managing Work-Life Balance

The speakers and participants shared some tips and examples of how they cope with the demands of their roles, such as compartmentalization, delegation, communication, praise, and self-care. They also emphasized the importance of setting boundaries, prioritizing tasks, being flexible, and seeking support from peers and mentors. Some of the speakers also mentioned how they have adapted their research and teaching activities during the pandemic.

Challenges and Opportunities for Department Chairs

The speakers and participants also discussed some of the difficulties and benefits of being a department chair, such as dealing with difficult faculty, fostering a positive culture, supporting faculty and students, and redefining success. They also talked about the need for clear expectations, shared governance, and administrative backing. Some of the speakers also shared their experiences of transitioning to the chair role and how they balance their research and service commitments.

Specific Recommendations and Examples from the Discussion

  • Scheduling dedicated uninterrupted time for research.
  • Be very thoughtful about what your priorities are, and very intentional about what parts of your job you were doing before you were chair that you will continue
  • Delegation is key if you can do so, such as empowering committees to do most of the important work in the department.
  • It's important to model work-life balance to the rest of the department, including to students within the department.
  • It's important to communicate to those in the department the importance of self-care and work-life balance.
  • Talking about your hobbies and what you like to do outside of work helps illustrate to others that you implement work-life balance for yourself.
  • Identify what your faculty need to be excellent and try to clear the runway for them to have those opportunities. Example, someone is motivated to do curriculum design, so you make it a valuable part of their portfolio. Find ways for people to take the ball and run with it in ways they want to run with it.
  • Emphasize with junior faculty to have reasonable expectations for their progress towards tenure.
  • Don't send messages outside of business hours. Schedule those messages to show up during office hours.
  • Be understanding that life happens and set a positive work environment.
  • Give yourself grace in research productivity if your meeting requirements are high.
  • Take the time to have lighter weeks when you can to recharge.
  • Use more carrots than sticks.
  • Send out a weekly email during the term to highlight and give kudos to the activities going on in the department – publishing of papers, those who were awarded grants, research covered in the media, etc. Thank and congratulate people when they do not just research but also service.
  • Keep an up-to-date webpage of all the happenings in the department – with pictures of people participating in events and activities, etc.
  • Make it known if you have discretionary funds to help faculty get additional equipment, etc.
  • Let it be known that those who step up to help the department can expect help from the department.
  • Talk up your department and reward your faculty in whatever ways you can when they do step up.
  • Provide appropriate teaching release in exchange for service work.
  • Encourage your students to encourage your faculty to be good citizens to get their projects moving along.
  • If you have a service expectation as part of the faculty job descriptions you can make it clear that it's a serious assessment every year to provide incentive for faculty to engage in service activities.
  • Be intentional about spending a fair amount of time with one-on-one meetings with faculty and among faculty – like coffee dates and lunch dates.
  • Find a way to communicate with your immediate administration (i.e., Dean) to open channels so you have their support and backing.
  • Department meetings every other week opposite faculty meetings to bring speakers in to talk about best practices of teaching and spend time together.
  • Make department groups to address departmental issues that you collectively want to prioritize.
  • Rethink your seminars so that you can spend time building the social fabric of the department. Example, ask department to show up 30 min prior to the lecture, and spend that time eating and interacting together and with the speaker. Then hear the talk afterwards, and then afterwards all the grad students get to interact with the speaker.
  • Gift faculty a set of lunches at the school cafeteria so they can go out to lunch with each other or take their group to lunch. This helps build camaraderie within the department.
  • Keep collaboration going by sending students to different research groups within the department, and delegate the meeting planning and agenda setting to postdocs.
  • As department chair, figure out what you can take off your plate.
  • The leaders I have always admired, what I admired most about them was that they defined their success not as their personal success, but as the success of everybody around them. And so you redefine your success as a department head as your department's success.
  • Have students also be involved in departmental decisions and on committees.
  • In meetings ask everyone for input regardless of rank. Example, start with the students, then non-tenure track, then assistant professors, associate professors, and then full professors to flip the power and influence dynamic and remove the barriers to communication.
  • If you are going to ask junior faculty to do service, give them meaningful service opportunities so they can have that kind of experience, but also let them know it's okay to say no.

Additional context and information

Issues related to work-life balance that were discussed in this webinar corroborate some of the findings from surveys conducted by AGI, one related to the COVID Impacts study, and a more recent one that AGI did for UNESCO of geoscience researchers in Africa. Questions about work-life balance on these surveys were very similar and the results were nearly identical. The results from both studies show that work life balance issues such as childcare, eldercare, health, and other matters have affected the productivity and career aspirations of many geoscientists, regardless of geographic location or career path.