Why would anyone spend time on administration?
In a post from last week, I mentioned, how the position of "assistant department head" was invented at my institution in order to recruit women into administrative positions*, and how, I felt, that move sent a conflicting signal about women needing special training in order to move up in the hierarchy, in a way men did not. At the same time this "lower level administrative position" also became an attractive stepping stone for young people like me towards the decision-making level of the institution, and it was actively encouraged by the institution as a career-enhacing step.
Administrative work in academic institutions is often described as a thankless job and something that should be avoided as long as possible. To some extent I suppose this is true, and being swamped by administrative work can surely derail an academic career quickly, especially as long as one is at the entry level.
So it is not surprising that Wilhelm asks in the comments to the above post:
"Why on earth would you want to take on an assistant department head position, though? From what I have observed, something like that would put a serious dent in your scientific output and give you all kinds of mind-numbing administrative tasks."
Rather than just giving a brief answer in the comments I wanted to expand this a little. Administration is not for everyone, and institutions obviously differ with respect to how much real influence it is possible to obtain as a junior person, but I wanted to share why I think it has been worth the time and effort and what I have learned.
There are definitely days when I ask myself the above question repeatedly. But although taking on administrative tasks has taken quite a lot of time away from scientic production, and the fact that some of the tasks are indeed mind-numbing, I also think it has a lot of (somewhat overlooked) positive aspects.
Now, an administrative position will probably contain different tasks depending on the kind of institution, and I can only speak to why I chose it in this particular setting.
When I was offered this position initially, I didn't know much about what it would entail, but I saw it as a tactic career move if I wanted to stay here beyond my postdoc (and I'm quite sure it would have been). The honest answer is also that I was flattered to be suggested for such a position after being here for less than a year, and that also played into my decision.
However, when I got started and as I developed with the role, it got more and more interesting. Sure, there is a lot of boring paperwork and dysfunctional administrative software crap, but it also turned out to be a real opportunity to make a difference and influence the development of both the department and the institution.
Now, this is not a university, so we are not talking about little ol' me having an influence of tens of thousands of students, but on having a say in matters that affects a mid-size public research institution. A department (not the literal translation of our subdivision) does also not consist of faculty members with wildly differing research interest, but is better described as a collaborative group of researchers working in the same subject area.
I think it has been a great learning experience to get "behind the scenes" and see how such an institution works. How we argue for our state funding, how we distribute the funds internally and to have a say on which direction the institution is moving in.
At the department level this involves taking active part in shaping the future strategy for our group, arguing for hirings/other investments and delivering our input to the institutional strategy.
For me this position has been about so much more than just the paperwork and I honestly think it has been worth the time and commitment. I think it has been personally rewarding to see some of the results, and I also think this experience will be helpful in the future because very few, if any, scientists can escape administration and leadership in one incarnation or another.
*In all fairness it should be said that these positions are not exclusively for women. Currently I think there is one male assistant department head, but the typical configuration is the senior male department head matched with the junior-ish female assistant department head.