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How to Become a College Dean

The university Dean shaking hands with students dressed for a graduation ceremony

The college dean is a key player on any university campus. The role involves strategically thinking about the future of a large, diverse academic organization, while engaging with the university’s culture, athletics, and other aspects of the university community Tasked with exercising a fair amount of diplomacy, they are often the face of their university.

The dean is a critical part of collegiate administration, typically in charge of one individual college or an area such as student affairs or admissions. Becoming a college dean is just one potential career path that can be explored with an advanced education degree such as a doctorate in education (EdD), and it’s one with intriguing possibilities. Before we investigate how to become a dean, let’s explore the duties of this multifaceted role.

What Does a College Dean Do?

At its core, the role of a college dean is to fully oversee a single aspect of a college or university. College deans who manage a specific department or field of study—such as a dean of a medical school or business school—are typically responsible for faculty decisions within their schools, resource allotment, and strategic planning. While they might not make decisions regarding classroom curriculum, they meet with program directors and professors, as well as visit classes to gauge how their institution can best serve students, faculty, and staff.

College deans who manage administrative departments, such as admissions or student affairs, have an important role in maintaining operations and quality communications with stakeholders. They set strategic goals, track relevant metrics, and serve on committees, among other responsibilities.

Deans must possess excellent communication and leadership skills. Part of their responsibility is to serve as peacekeeper and mediator between various groups that are sometimes vying for limited resources. They may manage budgets, advise students, network with collaborative partners, recruit and hire faculty and staff, and nurture relationships with donors. Additionally, according to the publication Science, they must also carve out time to write letters of recommendation, delegate tasks, approve curricula or course schedules, improve systems and efficiencies, attend meetings, act as the voice of their area within the college, and more. Deans also set strategic plans, measure progress, and evaluate results.

Assistant deans often support the work of college deans; these professionals tackle more specific tasks such as promoting diversity and inclusion, academic research, overseeing faculty development, and more.

The Path to Becoming a College Dean?

In learning how to become a college dean, there are multiple paths that can be explored, but all these paths share likely and necessary stops along the way. Unlike other post-secondary administrators, who may have a background in finance or economics, most college deans come from an educational or academic background, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Following are the usual steps of becoming a college dean.

Complete the Right Education

Earning a bachelor’s degree is an absolute necessity, and increasingly a master’s is a near-universal requirement to become a dean or assistant dean at a college or university. Many candidates decide to earn a terminal degree, such as a PhD or an EdD. In fact, these degrees are typically required by many post-secondary institutions to teach there (a number of deans are former professors). Although college deans are intrinsically linked to education and administration, the degree they hold does not necessarily need to be in education or business. Instead, many deans hold advanced degrees in their particular field of study.

Gain Abundant Professional Experience

Before becoming a college dean, candidates almost always work in a post-secondary educational setting for a number of years, most commonly as a professor or instructor in their field of expertise. It is also possible for future college deans to find work in a dean’s office during their undergraduate experience; working as an assistant or intern, or as a resident assistant.

Nurture Leadership and Management Skills

Because of the nature of their role, college deans must be effective leaders. To prepare for the position, candidates should develop a number of new skills. These include: the ability to consider the big picture, communicate effectively with students and colleagues, manage complex budgets, compromise with diverse interests, assess and manage risk, and more. Some college deans thrive in faculty positions for decades before making the leap to administration. Other deans follow a different timeline and journey. In every case, becoming a dean often takes a considerable commitment of time, energy, and focus.

Discover the Position’s Salary

According to the compensation website PayScale, college deans on average make $90,077 per year. There is a great diversity in earning power based on years of experience, geographic location, and specific academic institution. The bottom 10 percent of college deans earns $56,839, with the top 10 percent earning $161,500.

Explore the Future Growth of Jobs

The BLS defines the position of college deans as being postsecondary education administrators—a category that also includes provosts, assistant deans, and other managerial roles. The BLS projects that more than 18,000 jobs will join this category through the year 2026, representing a 10 percent growth rate, surpassing the average of all careers. The majority of those jobs will be at private colleges, which are expected to add 12,800 jobs to an existing market of 83,600—an increase of nearly 13 percent.

Learn More about Becoming a College Dean

Your path to becoming a college dean can begin now. If you are seeking the opportunity to direct a significant subset of an academic institution—and to make a difference in its day-to-day operations and long-term direction—then becoming a college dean may be an excellent choice for you.

When you earn your Doctorate in Education from American University online, you take a meaningful step toward becoming a college dean. You will not only deepen your understanding of the dynamic field of education, you’ll begin to prepare yourself to take on an important leadership role that not only helps shape an academic institution, but the students who attend there.

Sources

BizEd, “A Dean’s Life”

Chronicle of Higher Education, “Do You ‘Really’ Want to Be a Dean?”

Chronicle of Higher Education, “So You Want to Be a Dean?”

Higher Ed Jobs, “The Delicate Balance of the Academic Dean”

Inside Higher Ed, “What Do Provosts and Deans Actually Do?”

Payscale, Academic Dean

Science Magazine, “What do Deans Even Do?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Postsecondary Education Administrators”

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