Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

The Chain of Command

WomenPilotsAcademia is weird. Each research group is a little autonomous fiefdom where the professor is the lord and master. Yet, we are tied to and answer to a departmental structure. The department holds the key to our jobs at tenure and promotion time. We need the department to help us with administration. As I have said before, I think of my lab as a small business. I think of the department is the administrative unit that helps me run. It’s like being a small craft shop with an e-store on Etsy. I need the department to find students and manage my business, but the department doesn’t have much say about what goes on in my lab. So that is why it is sometimes weird when you have to go through the department structure to do things that you need for your research.

Yet, we do have a department and there is a chair, or a head, who is the leader of that department. The chair/head is responsible for many things – depending on your department. They are likely in charge of assigning committee work and teaching assignments. They might be in charge of space allocation and can give support for cost share on grants. Many times your chair/head is supposed to be your advocate and voice to help you get difficult of large things done. But, sometimes things don’t work that way. You have to go Around The Chain of Command.

I have a friend/mentor who was appalled by this idea. He is a department chair himself, and he advised me to never, ever go around my chair. But, I still think their are times when you have to risk it and go over the chairman’s head. If you have to go above your chair because they are not advocating for you like you need, you should be aware of the risks. If you succeed, you might not even need to say you are sorry for having bucked the chain of command. Here is an example from another WomanOfScience. Enjoy!

In my second year in my tenure track job, I did a small lab renovation to put in more electrical circuits. Of course, I soon purchased a piece of equipment that needed 208V instead of 110V. Classic new lab screw up. No problem, I had just had 8 110V circuits installed, and you only need to tie two 110V circuits together to make a 208V, right. Easy peasy? No. The guy from facilities or alterations or physical plant (yes, we have three, seemingly redundant groups on campus to do renovations that, of course, don’t talk to each other) came to visit and basically told me he couldn’t make the change for me. What? It was ridiculous. So I called back, hoping to get a different person. He came back. He told me I didn’t have enough circuits. See, he was confusing “outlets” with “circuits,” and he thought I was doing the same. Despite the fact that I had the circuits installed only 3 months earlier, he continued to tell me that I did not have enough “circuits” to do what I wanted.

{I would also like to point out that: (1) The facilities dude refused to look inside the circuit boxes to see how many circuits there were. (2) I got the impression that he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about because I look like I am an 18-year-old little girl. (We all know that you should judge a book by its cover, so I was probably incompetent.) (3) I continued to insist that I did have enough circuits, and told him to look up the recent renovation information that one of the other on campus groups (physical plant? alterations? facilities?) did. That was when I realized that my university did not keep records of renovations, nor did they share any plans or records with the other groups that did renovations on campus. (That’s a good bureaucracy!)}

During his third visit, he finally took out his screw driver from his tool belt and used it to open the box on the wall (gasp! what an idea!), where he proclaimed that I had 2 circuits inside each box and he could, in fact, tie them together to make a 208V circuit. (Duh! I told you that!)  This pursuit of getting the job approved took a several months, but at least they were going to move forward, right? Wrong. After that, all advances seemed to halt.

I went to my chair to get his help in pushing the renovation forward faster. I wanted him to advocate for me with the renovation people. My department chair told me he couldn’t do anything. His advice: If I wanted 208V, I should just punch a hole in the wall of my dark room lab to the lab on the other side and pull a 208V circuit from my colleague’s lab. WHAT THE F*CK?!?

Here are several reasons why this is not a good idea:

  1. The walls are cinder block and require a hammer drill to get through them.
  2. My lab needed to stay dark for my experiments.
  3. Such activities are illegal. The building is a state building and any renovations must be done by contract union workers.
  4. Such activities are dangerous because the equipment and wall are dangerous and the walls are full of asbestos. Further, I had equipment in the lab that I didn’t want accidentally damaged by reckless activities such as this.
  5. My neighbor is using the 208V circuit in his own lab that I was supposed to take.
  6. MY NEIGHBOR WAS PULLING 208V CIRCUIT FROM MY LAB IN THE FIRST PLACE. The reason why I couldn’t use the 208V circuit from my own lab was because (a) my colleague was already using it, and (b) because the circuit box was so old the plugs looked like something from a Mary Shelley novel, and I couldn’t actually use it legally because it wasn’t up to CODE.

So, what else could I do? I went over his head. I contacted the Vice Dean for Research in my College. I told him the situation and how long I had been waiting, and asked if he could find out what was taking so long. Within a week, I had the answer. They were waiting for Environmental Health and Safety to make sure their wasn’t asbestos in the electrical box. I told the ViceDean that this was ridiculous, since the box was brand new, as of  6 months ago, and it was highly unlikely that asbestos was used in the installation, and could he facilitate moving this forward and getting the redundant and silly inspection sped up? He did, and within a week after that, I was getting the circuit fixed, which literally took 1 hour. So, for a one hour job, it took about 5 months delay in the building of my lab. If I hadn’t gone over my chair’s head, I think it would have taken even longer.

So, this story illustrates that, although you should try to work through your department chair, sometimes you have to go around to get stuff done. In this case, the chair wasn’t mad at this WoS. But, there are other cases where going above your chair can get you in big trouble. Do you have any examples of when you went over your chair’s head and got in trouble? Was it worth it? Comment or post here. To follow this blog, pouch the +Follow button and type in your email.

Comments on: "The Chain of Command" (1)

  1. […] should know that person in person. I have had previous posts about jumping the chain of command (post). Your chair and senior people in your department should want you to get tenure. Simple rules […]

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