Feature

When Joan Piroch, PhD, took on the job of interim department chair, she thought she'd lead for a year or so, then pass the mantle to someone else and resume her research on stress, biofeedback and physiological response systems.

But more than a decade later, Piroch is still chairing the psychology department at Coastal Carolina University--running from meeting to meeting, managing the budget and tending to students and faculty. As a result, she says, her research "has suffered." "I've got lots of data that I wish I had time to analyze and write up," says Piroch. "Instead, it's just sitting on my shelves. I miss having an active research program."

Piroch enjoys being a leader, but she worries that she's lost her identity as a scholar. Her plight is a common one among psychology department chairs. As many as 90 percent of them are forced to reduce their scholarship, finds a nationwide survey of 1,000 chairs, conducted recently by Walter Gmelch, PhD, dean of Iowa State University's College of Education.

But prospective chairs don't have to shelve their research. By following some advice from seasoned chairs--such as negotiating with the dean for research time and support staff and carving out their own space to draft manuscripts--chairs can maintain, and even grow, their research programs.

'From manuscripts to memoranda'

While it might seem that chairs at research institutions get squeezed the most, Piroch and other chairs at smaller, liberal arts schools may have it worse because small schools often lack the same resources for keeping up one's research program. In truth, the effort to maintain research is hard for any chair, says Joseph Steinmetz, PhD, psychology chair at Indiana University.

"Basically, you're adding a whole second job onto your first one," he says.

The chair position loads managerial and clerical responsibilities on top of demands for teaching, research and service. In fact, U.S. chairs spend up to three-quarters of their time in meetings and have considerably less clerical help than chairs in other countries, such as Australia, says Gmelch.

The result can be an identity crisis for chairs when their administrative role clashes with their years-long socialization as scholars, says Gmelch. He discusses the dilemma in the book "Chairing an Academic Department" (Sage Publications, 1995). Chairs go, he says, "from solitary to social, from focused to fragmented, from manuscripts to memoranda."

Particularly unprepared for the position's hazards are those pulled into it by faculty and administrators. A case in point is Steve Hobbs, PhD, whose colleagues persuaded him to take over as Augusta State University's psychology chair in 1989. Like Piroch, Hobbs thought his research on taste aversion and circadian rhythms "would truck along just fine, thank you." Instead, it has dropped off considerably.

But, he says, with careful planning and willingness to scale back service and teaching, chairs can keep up their research. In fact, by becoming well organized, Joseph Steinmetz has even been able to grow his research program on the neurobiology of learning and memory.

"You don't have to stagnate," he says.

Getting research back on track

Steinmetz attributes much of his success to better time management. He arrives at his research lab before 7 a.m. and schedules every minute of his day. He and other scholars also suggest that chairs:

  • Carefully consider the position.

Before taking it on, talk to the dean, the previous chair and others. Emphasize that you won't take on the position unless they support your research. That's what James McCubbin, PhD, did before agreeing to chair Clemson University's psychology department, and the deal has borne fruit--he recently landed a $843,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund his investigations of stress, opioids and blood pressure control.

  • Negotiate with your dean.

Petition the dean for extra support staff, research stipends, cutbacks in your teaching and allotted time to conduct your research. For example, Elaine Blakemore, PhD, chair at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, has forged an agreement whereby her dean excuses her from teaching in the summer. Now she can write research manuscripts uninterrupted.

  • Communicate with faculty.

Tell them that you'll tend to their needs if they'll let you have time for research, says Steinmetz. His faculty have agreed not to disturb him during his daily lab time, which he sets aside by putting his administrative tasks on hold.

  • Build and direct a strong and integrated research team.

You need others' help with your research, says Steinmetz, who, with his dean's financial support, employs a full-time research scientist in his lab along with other postdoctoral scholars and several undergraduates and graduates. He advises moving from a hands-on, micromanagement style in the lab to a more global focus on getting grants, leading research teams and seeking new research directions.

  • Find a place to write.

Regularly ensconce yourself in a "high payoff hideout"--somewhere you can get away to write up research manuscripts, suggests Roddy Roediger, PhD, department chair at Washington University in St. Louis. Roediger works in his home office every Tuesday. "You've got to take some time out of the chair's office," he says. "The e-mail can wait."