A cross-sectional study of neurosurgical department chairs in the United States

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The position of neurosurgery department chair undergoes constant evolution as the health care landscape changes. The authors’ aim in this paper was to characterize career attributes of neurosurgery department chairs in order to define temporal trends in qualities being sought in neurosurgical leaders. Specifically, they investigated the hypothesis that increased qualifications in the form of additional advanced degrees and research acumen are becoming more common in recently hired chairs, possibly related to the increased complexity of their role.


The authors performed a retrospective study in which they collected data on 105 neurosurgeons who were neurosurgery department chairs as of December 31, 2016, at accredited academic institutions with a neurosurgery residency program in the United States. Descriptive data on the career of neurosurgery chairs, such as the residency program attended, primary subspecialty focus, and age at which they accepted their position as chair, were collected.


The median age and number of years in practice postresidency of neurosurgery chairs on acceptance of the position were 47 years (range 36–63 years) and 14 years (range 6–33 years), respectively, and 87% (n = 91) were first-time chairs. The median duration that chairs had been holding their positions as of December 31, 2016, was 10 years (range 1–34 years). The most common subspecialties were vascular (35%) and tumor/skull base (27%), although the tendency to hire from these specialties diminished over time (p = 0.02). More recently hired chairs were more likely to be older (p = 0.02), have more publications (p = 0.007), and have higher h-indices (p < 0.001) at the time of hire. Prior to being named chair, 13% (n = 14) had a PhD, 4% (n = 4) had an MBA, and 23% (n = 24) were awarded a National Institutes of Health R01 grant, tendencies that were stable over time (p = 0.09–0.23), although when additional degrees were analyzed as a binary variable, chairs hired in 2010 or after were more likely to have an MBA and/or PhD versus those hired before 2010 (26% vs 10%, p = 0.04). The 3 most common residency programs attended by the neurosurgery chairs were Massachusetts General Hospital (n = 8, 8%), University of California, San Francisco (n = 8, 8%), and University of Michigan (n = 6, 6%). Most chairs (n = 63, 61%) attended residency at the institution and/or were staff at the institution before they were named chair, a tendency that persisted over time (p = 0.86).


Most neurosurgery department chairs matriculated into the position before the age of 50 years and, despite selection processes usually involving a national search, most chairs had a previous affiliation with the department, a phenomenon that has been relatively stable over time. In recent years, a large increase has occurred in the proportion of chairs with additional advanced degrees and more extensive research experience, underscoring how neurosurgical leadership has come to require scientific skills and the ability to procure grants, as well as the financial skills needed to navigate the ever-changing financial health care landscape.

ABBREVIATIONS IQR = interquartile range; NIH = National Institutes of Health; SNS = Society of Neurological Surgeons.

Article Information

Correspondence Manish K. Aghi: University of California, San Francisco, CA. manish.aghi@ucsf.edu.

INCLUDE WHEN CITING Published online January 5, 2018; DOI: 10.3171/2017.7.JNS17567.

Mr. Flanigan and Mr. Jahangiri contributed equally to this work.

Disclosures The authors report no conflict of interest concerning the materials or methods used in this study or the findings specified in this paper.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.



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    Years in which the chairs were hired. Of the current chairs, approximately half were hired within the past decade.

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    Ages at which the chairs were hired. Most chairs were younger than 50 years at the time they were hired.

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    Of the major neurosurgical subspecialties, over 60% of neurosurgical chairs had either a tumor or vascular subspecialty.

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    Of the current neurosurgery chairs, there was a positive linear correlation between year in which the chair was hired and increasing age.

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    Of the current neurosurgery chairs, there was a positive linear correlation between year in which the chair was hired and increasing h-index.


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