How to Be an Effective Chair

Version 2021.1

This section provides comprehensive guidance on roles and actions for department chairs, heads, and other leaders in their work of guiding or facilitating departmental activities and plans. The section includes recommendations for how to provide leadership in building and maintaining relationships, overseeing large departmental projects, managing tasks and personnel, taking care of resources and people, building an equitable and inclusive culture and climate, and supporting student, faculty, and staff success. This section focuses on the chair’s role in supporting the undergraduate program. While the EP3 Guide does not explicitly address a department’s graduate or research programs, much of the advice given here can be generalized to those areas. This section covers a lot of ground, and no chair will deal with all of these issues at the same time. Focus on the parts that are most relevant to your local circumstances, and seek support from colleagues, mentors, and members of your administration.

"The department may be all about physics, but leading it is all about people."

- Kay Kinoshita, former physics department chair, University of Cincinnati

To help you navigate this section if you are new to the job, here is some advice from experienced chairs on the first things to attend to. Each recommendation is linked to the appropriate effective practice below.

Principles for a new chair to immediately embody:

  • Respect and kindness matter. Treat colleagues with respect and kindness, and say please and thank you (4.B).
  • You don’t know what you don’t know. Ask a lot of questions, consult broadly, and listen actively to what others have to say (3.D).
  • Know the team: Find out what each department member can contribute (3.E).
  • Learn how things work. Know the departmental budget and procedures, and the offices that can help with scheduling and room assignments, hiring, personnel, etc. (1.D, 3.H).

What to do in your first year as chair:

  • Lead by example. Set a positive and inclusive tone and culture for your department (4.A).
  • Ask questions, because what you don’t know can hurt. Talk directly with students and

    Marginalized Groups

    People of color and others with marginalized ethnicities, women and others who experience misogyny, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and others who have traditionally been marginalized in society and in physics. According to the TEAM-UP Report, marginalized groups are “groups of people defined by a common social identity who lack adequate social power or resources to design, build, or perpetuate social structures or institutions that reflect the centrality … of their identities, proclivities, and points of view. … They need not be underrepresented or numerical minorities, but often are.” We use the term marginalized groups, rather than minorities, underrepresented groups, or other commonly used terms, because people in these groups are not always minorities or underrepresented, and in order to convey that underrepresentation is the result of marginalization rather than a statistical accident. Another common term is minoritized groups. While we use this general term for brevity and readability, it is important to recognize that the many different groups encompassed by this term face different challenges and have different needs that should be addressed individually whenever possible, to learn the terms that people ask to be called, and to recognize that these terms may change over time.

    to learn about their experiences and inform decisions (4.C).
  • Dive deep into your budget. Learn in detail what you have, how it is spent, and why, so you can ask for resources to meet key needs and know what can be cut (8.A).
  • Understand history, because it repeats itself. Read strategic documents and recent reviews before you plan for the future (6.A)
  • Know the data. Collect and understand data on student and faculty success to improve your department or address concerns raised by the administration (3.A, 4.B, 8.C).
  • Engage with the dean. Develop a good working relationship with the dean and an understanding of institutional priorities and mission; their knowledge, standing, and access to resources can help you (3.C).
  • Build consensus. Bring people to a common understanding, recognizing that you get only one vote (2.E, 3.E).
  • Expect disagreement: Recognize that as a leader, you may receive the brunt of disagreements; find ways to hear negative reactions and move forward (1.D).
  • Focus on the important stuff. Prioritize demands and set aside time to advance your personal and professional activities (1.E, 2.B).
  • Build a team. Delegate whenever possible, ask for help with complex tasks, and empower others to act (1.B, 1.C).


Building a thriving physics program requires broadly respected leadership. An effective chair guides and focuses departmental activities and leads a department in advocating for and achieving commonly held goals. Such leadership is critical for building programs that are resilient and forward thinking, and for ensuring satisfaction among students, faculty, staff, institutional leaders, and other stakeholders. Effective leaders can help position a department to achieve gains in and become recognized for student learning, post-graduate success, research impact, and community engagement.

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

Effective Practices

  1. Manage the job of being chair

  2. Communicate effectively

  3. Develop relationships within and beyond your department

  4. Foster an equitable and inclusive culture and climate

  5. Address challenging situations

  6. Establish and sustain a culture of cyclic internal review

  7. Hire strong and diverse faculty and staff

  8. Support faculty and staff in achieving excellence

  9. Manage and advocate for resources

​​General Resources for Department Chairs

  • E. Bertschinger, “What I Learned as a Department Head,” MIT Faculty Newsletter, 28(5), 4–7 (2016).
  • National Association of Geoscience Teachers, Building Strong Departments: A broad set of resources for improving your department.
  • J. B. Conway, On Being a Department Head, a Personal View, American Mathematical Society, (1996): Personal reflections by a mathematics department head, featuring sound, basic advice and funny bits of wisdom.
  • C. K. Gunsalus, The College Administrator’s Survival Guide, Harvard University Press (2006): A more institutional view with a focus on policies and personnel challenges.
  • E. Fine and J. Sheridan, "Enhancing Department Climate: A Guide for Department Chairs," Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) (2015).
  • APS/AAPT Physics Department Chairs Conference:


    American Physical Society. Website



    American Association of Physics Teachers. Website

    regularly offer physics department chairs conferences that are driven by contemporary issues within physics and informed by experience of members of the community. Examples and agendas from past conferences are available on the website. New chairs should consider attending the session for new department chairs, which typically precedes each conference and includes discussions by new and experienced chairs on critical issues often faced by physics department chairs.
  • Physics and Astronomy Faculty Teaching Institute (FTI): A professional development program for physics and astronomy faculty focused on effective and inclusive teaching practice. The signature event is an intensive four-day professional development workshop offered twice annually by


    American Association of Physics Teachers. Website



    American Physical Society. Website

    , and


    American Astronomical Society. Website

    . The FTI also includes an array of FTI long-term engagement activities. Previously known as the Workshop for New Faculty in Physics and Astronomy, or New Faculty Workshop (NFW).
  • National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD): An organization that provides online faculty development and mentoring resources on topics related to time and conflict management, writing and publishing, grants, mentoring, creating

    Work-Life Balance

    An equilibrium in which work and other life roles are not in opposition. This term can be problematic because it implies that work is not part of life and/or that work and life are in opposition to each other. For some people, the metaphor of balance gives the impression that this requires constant struggle and puts the onus on the individual to achieve balance. We use this term because it is commonly recognized and understood. However, it is important to recognize the role that departmental policies and practices play in creating an environment that supports making work-life balance an easily achievable goal.

    , and more.
  • Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP): Three-day regional workshops offered by


    American Physical Society. Website

    that support the professional development of undergraduate women majoring in physics.
  • National Society of Black Physicists and National Society of Hispanic Physicists: Professional organizations that host annual meetings and support the professional development of Black and Hispanic physicists, respectively.

Resources on Hiring and Supporting Faculty

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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