Want an Academic Promotion?

By definition, career academics have an interest in academic promotions processes. And, equally, to encourage organisational performance Human Resources professional have an interest in understanding academic performance standards and making promotions efficient and effective.

Geiger-P software automates the transactional HR to deal with the ‘efficient and effective’ bit (drastically reducing paperwork), but both early-career academics and HR Managers can still be unclear about why academics get promoted. I’ve summarised some observations from my HR life which might be useful for you aspiring professors and perplexed HR staff.

Please comment if you have helpful observations or experiences which could help others navigate promotions.

Hint one: keep a log of your achievements against the criteria below to be thoroughly prepared for your first promotions application. Hint two, less-experienced academics sometimes think it is all about having ‘great thoughts’. It ain’t. It is a job, a wonderful job where you are allowed to have great and challenging, evidenced thoughts, but a job, with performance measures which you should be aware of.

Quick definitions:

  • Applicants put themselves forward for promotion
  • Nominees are being put forward for promotion
  • Panels consist of a few more senior academics assessing applications
  • Committees consists of a lot of senior academics assessing applications.

‘Panel’ and ‘Committee’ are used interchangeably here.

The Rest of the Hints

Policies and processes vary between universities but there are general principles.  The rest of the hints;

  1. read the promotions policy before applying (or managing the process)!  Really. If you have recently moved read your new universities’ policy. Again, really!
  2. committee members for senior promotions (Reader, Associate Professor, Professor) probably don’t know the nominees and their work. That is, the Dean for the Social Sciences probably doesn’t know Reader X nominated for a professorship in pure mathematics and is not familiar with mathematics’ research, discipline norms, publishers, quality measures, pedagogy, and reasonable expectations for service to the academic community …
  3. therefore, applications for promotion should be very clear and contain context which allows the reader to gauge the standard of achievement, gauge the evidence on how the required standards have been met and how they will be maintained or, preferably, increased. Without evidence an application feels as if it comes from an ‘entitled’ character, not a competent academic.
  4. committees are dispassionate and evaluate cases based on demonstrable (not assumed) performance.  The purported rising star of Music Department won’t get promoted on the nod but on demonstrating fitness for ‘higher office’.  Remember: an application for a senior role must be good enough for a Dean to support it in a cross-disciplinary professorial committee where probing questions are asked.  Your application briefs your Dean on how to support you.
  5. applicants should be emotionally prepared for rejection, even those who applied ‘just to give it a go’, who still manage to be hurt by rejection.  Helpful feedback should be given after rejection.
  6. potential applicants should reflect honestly on their readiness and neither over-estimate nor under-estimate their current academic credentials.  Look at the criteria for your target grade.  If you meet them apply, even if you don’t feel confident. Promotions are about competent academics not confident people.
  7. ensure that supporting statements are extremely well worked up.  A shabby supporting statement doesn’t cry out ‘senior academic’ does it? Think, ‘Is this publishable quality?’
  8. If you have a Habilitation don’t forget to mention it, even if it isn’t asked for in the promotions policy. And, if you are in the Anglo-Saxon university system you might need to explain what it is!
  9. Be concise.

Elements of Academic Performance

Research

Key indicators for quality of research are:

  • Publications in appropriate venues (the journals) of high repute
  • Grant income
  • Research student PhD supervision and completions
  • Impact indicators (citations, impact factor of venues, favourable citations, uptake of work by others including industry, …)
  • Prestige indicators (fellowships, editorial boards, prizes etc).
  • Refereeing, committees, editorial work – although this could go under “Service”.

Perhaps start with a summary of:

  • Areas of research specialty
  • Standout achievements (papers in top venues, highly cited works, things that have made a demonstrable difference)
  • Current/recent/planned (there is nothing wrong with stating intentions) projects.

Publications

Indicate quality metrics – impact factor, acceptance rate. If you claim that you were a keynote speaker at the most renowned international conference in your subject area, prove it don’t just state it.  After all, how is the Dean of Engineering going to know that a conference in Cambridge on European Medieval Music is the best in the world?  It could be the one in Heidelberg or Tokyo.

Indicate impact (citations, others have used your outcomes). And convince on quality which is often weighted heavier than quantity (but don’t omit quantity).

Grants

External ‘Grant Capture’ is important. Applicants should state who awarded it, how much it was and its duration.   Also state which grant it was; some are more prestigious than others and harder to get.  If you know that there is only a 3% chance of getting a Marie-Skłowdowska-Curie Actions (MCSA) grant and you got one, then say so.

If the grant was an overseas grant state it – it is impressive to be part of an international research community. University or Faculty grants are less impressive but still relevant for Lecturer to Senior Lecturer moves, not just a foot note.

It should be clear who the Principal Investigator (PI) was for any grant and, if it was not the applicant the applicant should be clear about her or his contribution to the project.  Don’t exaggerate.

If an industry partner has allocated an applicant time on its infrastructure this is a ‘donation’ in kind and should be stated, e.g. time on supercomputer, use of a light source, other laboratory facilities or symphonic orchestral rehearsal time.  And, some thought should go into whether a donation is showing impact with an industry partner or government body who owns the facilities.

Consider putting consulting income under Service to Community.

Research Students

This isn’t just teaching because supervising PhD students might enrich the supervisor’s thinking, contribute to research outcomes and the overall impact of a research project.   Applicants should state;

  • The research questions they are supervising, what their project is and how the PhD’s fit in, when the project started/finished, publications that came out of project.
  • Quantity and quality matter, but all should be high quality research projects.

Teaching

Applicants should state their teaching portfolio and consider outlining their teaching philosophy, summarise key areas of specialty and experience and range of units taught.  If they have teaching publications, they should state them, especially if good quality, which can be impressive.

Careful though, if their research speciality is education, obviously their publication is research and not teaching.

Applicants should think about whether they have made any innovations (teaching approaches, new units, etc) and should be clear about what’s so special about their teaching.  If there is any evidence for teaching quality (perhaps student satisfaction scores and their trends) state it.   Applicants should think about what to say about weak student satisfaction scores, which the panel might already know about. 

Panels (which might include statisticians) don’t think that student satisfactions scores are solid measures, but they are indicators and account must be taken of them.

An applicant could think about getting a peer review of their teaching for learning purposes and evidencing their claims in an application, especially where teaching is weighted in a job profile.  And think about stating accreditor feedback for courses with professional qualifications attached.

Service, or Leadership or Administration (terms differ)

This is a broad area covering work in the university, faculty and department. Is the applicant involved in departmental administration? If so, state which committees, tasks completed in committee and outcomes. Sitting on a committee is not enough, we can all do that to pass time.

State service to discipline: refereeing, organising conferences, editorial boards, programme committees, running events, professional discipline body memberships etc., and evidence the quality of this work. If it is possible, the applicant should note down any prestige members of the committee. If you organised a committee on climatology with Professor Schellnhuber say so, but if it was with Andrew Tweedie, don’t.

State service to your broader subject field community, including industry, consulting work done, pro bono work, etc. and state why this is worthy work. What was its impact? 

For senior promotions, this section must be very strong. Think in terms of chairing a national government committee on x subject, or being the named chair of a key report on a subject area which will have impact.

Referees

Good references are essential.  When choosing referees applicants should:

  • choose people who are well-known in the discipline, preferably are “Professor XYZ” and work at a prestigious institution.  Let’s be honest, there is a hierarchy of institutions and that, perhaps sometimes unfairly, does matter. There are exceptions, for instance where national figures are professors at ‘minor’ universities or where a particular department stands out.  
  • choose someone able to provide in-depth comment on your work.
  • choose someone who will actually send in a referee report by the deadline.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  Many delays in academic promotions are caused by waiting for references or external assessments (no, not the HR Department!).
  • choose someone who will write a good referee report and who will follow the template (if there is one).

These ramblings are just the start so please add comments below which might help fellow travellers, either HR managers or academics jumping through the hoops, who have jumped through the hoops or have stumbled on hoops.

Academics: good luck with your promotion.

HR Managers: enjoy reading some of the applications if you can – you will discover a lot about the achievements of the front-line staff that you are supporting.

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