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Life histories of academics who become Heads of Department: socialisation, identity and career trajectory

By Alan Floyd


Although the role of the academic head of department (HoD) has always been important to university management and performance, an increasing significance given to bureaucracy, academic performance and productivity, and government accountability has greatly elevated the importance of this position. Previous research and anecdotal evidence suggests that as academics move into HoD roles, usually with little or no training, they experience a problem of struggling to adequately manage key aspects of their role. It is this problem – and its manifestations – that forms the research focus of this study. Based on the research question, “What are the career trajectories of academics who become HoDs in a selected post-1992 university?” the study aimed to achieve greater understanding of why academics become HoDs, what it is like being a HoD, and how the experience influences their future career plans. The study adopts an interpretive approach, in line with social constructivism.\ud Edited topical life history interviews were undertaken with 17 male and female HoDs, from a range of disciplines, in a post-1992 UK university. These data were analysed using coding, categorisation and theme formation techniques and developing profiles of each of the respondents.\ud The findings from this study suggest that academics who become HoDs not only need the capacity to assume a range of personal and professional identities, but need to regularly adopt and switch between them. Whether individuals can successfully balance and manage these multiple identities, or whether they experience major conflicts and difficulties within or between them, greatly affects their experiences of being a HoD and may influence their subsequent career decisions. It is claimed that the focus, approach and analytical framework - based on the interrelationships between the concepts of socialisation, identity and career trajectory - provide a distinct and original contribution to knowledge in this area. Although the results of this study cannot be generalised, the findings may help other individuals and institutions move towards a firmer understanding of the academic who becomes HoD - in relation to theory, practice and future research

Publisher: University of Leicester
Year: 2009
OAI identifier:

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