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How to Become a Dean: 3 Considerations to Guide Your Career

Industry Advice Education

Deans are a critical component to the overall leadership, vision, and planning of a college or university. From engaging faculty, students, and staff members to aiding in financial planning, development, and admissions, a dean must maintain a comprehensive understanding of the many functions of an educational institution, and guide their team to make the strategic initiatives effective.

Especially in the ever-evolving field of education, today’s educators and administrators are required to learn and incorporate relevant and timely practices and technologies, as well as research and trends within their school systems.

There are many potential paths for those considering a career in higher education administration and wish to pursue a deanship. Below we define the role of a dean and offer some considerations that can guide you in your journey to becoming one.

What Does a Dean Do?

Deans work with nearly every facet of an educational institution to help plan and achieve its goals, such as meeting academic requirements, maintaining high levels of student retention, and aiding with strategies to ensure financial stability and overall development within the institution. Typically, deans hold significant authority over their college or department. This requires an expansive set of skills that must be continually developed and enhanced in order to succeed in today’s world of education.

1. Oversee Advancement and Growth

Deans promote growth within their institutions in many forms. Two of the most critical ways that deans support growth is through the hiring of staff, and through the attraction and retention of students. 

Hiring new faculty and staff members is one of the most significant responsibilities for deans, as this process can impact many other functions and departments throughout the institution. While they may not directly lead the hiring process, the dean is often involved in the search for qualified candidates to fill critical roles, as well as in the development and advancement of faculty. 

Similarly, deans often work closely with admissions faculty to promote student retention. How they go about this might vary, but these processes often include setting enrollment standards, advising on curriculum development, and even advising students on selecting the best program for their educational and career goals on occasion. 

2. Manage Academic Programs

As mentioned above, deans work to establish and maintain academic standards for their institution. This includes identifying enrollment criteria for potential incoming students, as well as educational and professional criteria for faculty.

In addition to setting the standards for these groups, deans are often involved in the development of academic programs and criteria. This might include deciding which classes can count toward a study track, as well as which courses should be included in a course catalog. Deans also evaluate student performance to determine whether the student body is meeting academic goals, and to identify where changes might be beneficial.


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3. Delegate

In most cases, a dean acts as a liaison between the university’s leadership and its students, parents, and faculty. It is not uncommon for deans to handle student complaints, which can range from minor issues to serious cases like harassment or cheating. It is the responsibility of the dean to delegate in these situations and find a solution while continuing to abide by the institution’s policies and rules.

4. Budget

Another critical part of the dean’s job is the development, implementation, and oversight of a college’s or department’s budget. Though other individuals are likely to be involved in the process as well, a dean must have a firm understanding of financial planning in order to determine whether or not the budget is appropriate. Since budgeting has the potential to impact an institution’s progress toward various strategic goals—such as increased enrollment, higher academic standards, etc.—a dean must be able to evaluate the numbers with these goals in mind.

In addition to overseeing annual budgets, deans are also often heavily involved in various fundraising initiatives that are designed to bring donations to the institution. They may lead campus tours, host fundraising dinners, coordinate on-campus events and open houses, and work closely with their university’s alumni association. 

Salary and Job Outlook

The average salary for an academic dean is $90,339 per year, with those on the high-end of this scale making up to $163,000 annually. The salary for the dean of students at a university tends to be even higher, with a median income of $93,000 and a high-end salary of $174,000 annually.

As with any position, with greater experience comes a higher average salary. An experienced dean of students at a university with over a decade of experience, for instance, earns an average of nearly $10,000 more annually than an early career dean of students with only one to four years of experience.

Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a growth of seven percent for deans and education administrators in the coming decade—a growth rate faster than the average for all occupations.

How to Become a Dean

There are several potential pathways to achieving a successful career as a dean. For example, some deans have prior experience working as teaching faculty at a university, while others may have worked exclusively in an administrative setting prior to advancing. 

Regardless of the path taken, there are certain key steps that anyone who wishes to become a dean should take, including:

  • Attaining the proper level of education.
  • Gaining relevant experience.
  • Building a network that can be leveraged during any application process. 

1. Education

As with most positions in academia, attaining the proper level of education is a universal requirement for consideration to be a dean. Often, deans will hold what is called a “terminal” degree, such as a PhD or EdD in Education, which are typically designed to enable a career in educational leadership.

Not all deans will hold an EdD or PhD in education, however. Due to the significant role deans play in the development of the curriculum for their colleges, many may instead hold advanced degrees in their field of study. For example, the dean of a liberal arts college may hold a PhD in English, history, or another area of the humanities, while the dean of a college of engineering might hold a PhD in mathematics.

Those who know early in their career that they want to become a dean might consider strategically pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration or a Doctor of Education (EdD). Both of these programs can provide aspiring deans with the foundation to understand the structure, governance, and operation of higher education organizations. Additionally, these programs can offer real-world opportunities for students to research and apply their own solutions that can transform and advance institutional landscapes.

2. Experience

Many deans begin their career in higher education as a professor. This is a strategic move, as a school board and hiring committee will be much more inclined to choose a candidate with superior experience in education over one without time spent in academia. This is because a large number of a dean’s responsibilities center on managing and working with faculty members to help achieve overall success.

Participating in a program that values experiential learning can also boost an aspiring dean’s experience and job outlook. This type of hands-on learning integrates what a student learns in the classroom with opportunities to put those lessons into action in the real world.

Learn More: Northeastern University | Experiential Learning 

3. Network

A recent report revealed that 85 percent of all jobs are filled via networking—a statistic that applies to dean positions, as well. Making connections with fellow professionals allows aspiring deans to increase their overall industry knowledge and open doors to new opportunities—two skill sets that are especially relevant in such a niche field.

Deans must also be able to network for both personal career and overall organizational advancement. Whether through face-to-face interactions at an academic fair or school fundraiser, or online correspondence, honing this particular skill set is vital for those on the path toward deanship.

Chart your Path to Becoming a Dean

Becoming a dean requires a careful balance of education, professional experience, and networking. Choose a graduate program that allows you to achieve all three, like the Master of Education in Higher Education Administration from Northeastern.

This program provides students with comprehensive, in-depth education, as well as an understanding of the latest trends, strategies, challenges, and potential solutions impacting the field of education. Supplemented by unique opportunities for experiential learning that provide students with real-world experience and powerful networking opportunities, the MeD in Higher Education Administration prepares students to achieve their goals, whether that involves becoming a dean or any other position in higher education.

Explore Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration or connect with an enrollment advisor to learn more about our online, part-time, and full-time programs.


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