Academic Roles Within a Department

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By Dr. Catherine Armstrong

This article describes some of the administration roles that academics are expected to take on alongside their teaching or research work. This usually applies only to members of staff on permanent and full time contracts, although in smaller departments staff on temporary contracts may be required to take on these roles. (Oxford, Cambridge and other collegiate universities operate slightly differently as some of these roles are devolved to college level).

This white paper will cover:

- departmental level roles

- managerial roles

- external administration roles

- advantages

- disadvantages

Departmental Level roles

Every department and university will differ slightly in the administration roles (and the names given to each of these) that staff are required to take on. These sorts of departmental level roles are not usually rewarded with extra pay, although you will be required to do less teaching in lieu of the work. For the more onerous jobs, you may be allowed to give up between one third to a half of your teaching responsibilities.

Examples of the sorts of roles are:

Admissions/Recruitment secretary

Examinations secretary

Subject leader

Tutor responsible for undergraduates, years one to three

Postgraduate tutor

Part-time student tutor

Personal tutor

Many of these titles are self-explanatory. The admissions secretary is responsible for choosing which potential students to interview and then accept. He or she will often be in charge of scheduling and conducting the interviews, along with other colleagues. Depending on whether a degree programme is over- or under-subscribed, their role will be completely different. Some departments are looking for more undergraduate applicants and so part of the job would be coming up with strategies for improving applicant numbers. Decisions also have to be taken on whether to accept students through clearing or not. (Clearing is the process by which students who have not achieved their desired results can apply for remaining places once all the others have been allocated to students who did achieve their offered A level results).

An examinations secretary does much of his or her work in the final part of the academic year, but is also in charge of arranging invigilation and supervision of candidates with special needs which has to be started earlier in the year. He or she may control the submission of exam papers and will arrange moderating boards to ensure that one tutor's exam is not much harder than another's. However, the real challenge comes when the exam results start arriving, the exams secretary will be responsible for collating the results for each student and ensuring that their colleagues complete their marking on time. They may also decide which lecturers mark and second mark each exam.

Subject leaders are responsible for the smooth running of a particular degree course throughout the year. They make sure that both students and lecturers are happy with the provision and have to ensure that standards are maintained across the degree programme. Various quality assurance methods are used, these vary from department to department.

All three of these require a large amount of liaison not only with staff, students and potential students, but also with the administration staff at departmental level. The secretaries and administrators will provide support and often expert knowledge to help academics in their admin duties and often work very closely with the academic. This relationship must be built on trust and mutual respect, there is nothing worse than having to work with someone who believes that your role is unimportant.

The other four examples listed are primarily pastoral roles, dealing with the needs and interests of various students. Many departments assign a tutor for each year cohort, and for postgraduate and part-time students if there are any. Academics who take on these roles must be comfortable with a good deal of contact with students, and be good at communicating with others on a personal level. They should also know the institution well enough to know how to help a student with a particular problem, and also how to deal with students with issues of a personal and private nature. This is especially true of personal tutors who are the first port of call for students with a range of problems from mild homesickness or worries over low grades to relationship break-up, depression or drugs. Personal tutors are usually required to meet with their students on a regular basis, and not only when the student has a problem. Not everyone is naturally good at counselling students and many universities offer advice or courses for those staff members who have to do it as part of their job. This is important as guidelines have to be strictly followed in order to prevent accusations of malpractice by a student or their parents.

Managerial Roles

Still within individual departments but focussing on running the department and representing it at university level, these roles are often taken by very senior academics who have been in their jobs for at least ten years. In some departments, the head of department will have to be of professorial status. However, in smaller departments, or in those where several staff are on sick or research leave, younger scholars may be encouraged to take on management-type roles such as the head or deputy head of department. Academics are usually elected to these roles for a period of years (often no more than five) during which time they will be relieved of all or almost all their teaching duties. These jobs, especially head of department, are the equivalent of full time jobs, involving running the department on a day to day level (such as looking after the welfare of their staff and hiring new staff members), and also strategic planning for the future and taking part in university-wide committees and initiatives to maintain the position of the department within the university structure and sector as a whole.

Many senior academics take on these roles reluctantly, seeing them as a necessary evil, and believing it their duty to take their turn. A few find that they have a flair for the managerial side of the job and they often go on to become deans of faculty, pro-vice chancellors, and even vice chancellors. These sorts of managerial roles require the administrative support not only of academic colleagues, but also secretaries and administrators. In fact, heads of department can become isolated from their academic community as they are unable to keep in such close contact with current research. However, many heads of department have their own secretaries and so can spend time on decision-making as opposed to record keeping. These various commitments mean that heads of department rarely have time to conduct their own research during their terms of office, and also often have to be in the department at least 35 hours a week (as opposed to their academic colleagues some of whom work from home for much of the time). However, the heads of department will receive a higher salary commensurate with these commitments.

University-level administration roles

This white paper is not the place to explore university-level administration roles, as there are several routes into these, not merely through being an academic. But some scholars find that their university acknowledges expertise or skills in a certain field and that they are co-opted on to various committees and strategic bodies. An example would be if a university wanted to attract students from a particular overseas region to which an individual had strong connections. Sometimes teaching relief is provided for these sorts of roles or even an increase in salary, certainly expenses should be offered for any meetings and travelling.


Many academics dislike taking on administration roles such as admissions or exams secretary, and higher roles such as head of department, because it means they cannot focus on their research and teaching: the two main reasons for becoming a lecturer in the first place. The administration jobs are often time consuming and fiddly, requiring complex record keeping, and sometimes with no extra remuneration.

In some departments the allocation of these roles can cause tensions between staff members who feel they are either being unfairly singled out for extra work, or overlooked for the opportunity to develop. Junior scholars are often given a lot of admin work to do and they can feel trapped into this because they know they must seem eager to impress their employers.

Sometimes scholars dislike this sort of work for practical reasons. They are often used to working at very high intellectual levels on personal research projects with little input and contact from others. It can be difficult to have to work as part of a team in admin roles and to liaise with colleagues from all parts of the university.

However, for most people it is simply the amount of time needed to complete these tasks that is the problem. They do not mind taking a turn at doing the job, but simply resent the infringement on their own research time. On a more positive note, most academics, especially the newer scholars rising through the ranks now, realise that administration is now a part of their job and do not begrudge doing it.


Apart from being head of department, these roles are usually short-term and part-time, they can be undertaken alongside teaching and research work and bring variety to the life of the scholar, enabling him or her to take a more active part in the shaping and the life of the department. Rarely are people given these roles for years at a time, meaning that everyone has the chance to try each role on a regular basis. Although more onerous in terms of time committed, being head of department (or another senior managerial role) is very prestigious and is well rewarded financially.

Having a break from teaching a particular module can allow a lecturer to refresh his or her interest in the subject and a substitute lecturer can often enthuse the students and bring new emphasis to the module. Departments work hard to ensure that lecturers' academic work does not suffer. They realise the importance of maintaining a high research profile and having the time to get to libraries or into the laboratory. Therefore members of staff who willing take on these administrative roles are more likely to be recognised by the university hierarchy as ‘team players' and are perhaps applications for research leave or grants will be viewed more favourably.

These roles also offer a chance to develop your CV and learn new skills. It will encourage other institutions to employ you should you want to move to another university, and equally if you decided to move into an entirely different sector these skills would reflect positively on you.

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