Don’t fixate on promotion

Opacity and double standards are infuriating, but the blessings of an academic career are present at all ranks, says Adrian Furnham

July 14, 2021
Wooden bricks with arrows pointing upwards towards a target, symbolising promotion
Source: iStock

Promotion in academia has always been a rather opaque process that elicits deep emotions – mostly negative.

Not that promotion is any great prize. Until you get into senior management, it does not necessarily entail responsibility for more people and rarely comes with a substantial pay rise. Yet academia is a reputation game, so those steps up the job ladder are much coveted – all the more so because of how few rungs there are, compared with other walks of life – and, therefore, how infrequently you take a step up.

That was especially true when I started out in UK academia 40 years ago, when just 10 per cent of academics were professors. Now, of course, everyone is a professor in those institutions that have adopted American nomenclature. But that is little consolation to those stuck at the “assistant” level for reasons they can’t fathom.

That unfathomability comes despite the easy measurability of many academic “performance variables”. You can examine the quality and quantity of every academic’s work on Google Scholar or similar platforms. Every university meticulously logs the research grant income of each staff member. And they are getting very good at scrutinising their “happy sheets”: student evaluations of teaching and supervision. Even media appearances and reactions can be counted (by column inches).

So, to a quant, this is easy-peasy. Devise an algorithm, put in the variables and you have an accurate, objective system to make promotion decisions across the whole university (although, equally, the relative weightings of the variables can be varied within and between faculties).

But everyone will be familiar with the vitriol that Google Scholar attracts for supposedly being biased and unreliable. Moreover, some research topics attract more grant money than others, while some require more than others – but the “tax” that universities levy on grant income amounts to a serious source of income, so they see the big grant getters as the good guys.

Then there is teaching. I have some wonderful (published) papers on how to increase your student feedback without changing the content much. As a friend said, teach entrepreneurship, not advanced calculus, if you want good ratings.

About 30 years ago, I asked the dean of a business school what his most intractable problem was. I expected him to cite dealing with the demands of his seriously high-paying students, but, no: it was staff promotions.

So what was his approach? There were four “criteria” and people tended to gravitate naturally to one of them, on the basis of which they were judged. Some published a great deal, some attracted large grant incomes, others excelled at teaching, and still others did serious outreach and public service. Those that were none of the above were given the most onerous and tedious admin jobs, such as admissions or even head of department.

Yet it isn’t that simple these days – as two of my young colleagues recently discovered. One has published prolifically and widely, but she was told her university is only interested in “high-quality”, programmatic publications. She teaches advanced statistics, but many students struggle with it and she was told that her teaching needs to focus on them. She also needs to get a lot more research money, although it is unclear what for.

The other colleague is more of a “rock star” than a white-coat boffin. But he was told that publications are everything and that he does not have enough good ones. Moreover, his social contribution is minimal and his online presence is “inappropriate”.

In short, at the beginning of your academic career, at least, you need to be an all-rounder because promotion committees simply focus on deficits.

In the absence of transparent promotion criteria, academics resort to social comparison – which is always insidious, as we know with salaries. My young colleagues both pointed bitterly to some peers who have been promoted despite appearing not to excel on any conceivable criterion – not to mention the senior colleagues who have never met the standards they are held to.

So what do I suggest? First, even in the absence of metrics, young academics need to have their promotion expectations calibrated with reality early on. They need concrete examples of why people are, and are not, promoted.

But they should also be encouraged not to fixate on promotion. It should be pointed out to them that even junior lecturers enjoy the benefits – autonomy, interest, the opportunity to exploit personal talents – that academics trade for extrinsic trivia such as wealth and imposing job titles.

Universities might also consider making promotion less attractive by tying it explicitly to more administration, which all academics hate and are typically ill suited to.

If none of that works, academics still desperate for promotion might be reminded that it is possible to upgrade title by downgrading institution.

Of course, my young colleagues will probably not appreciate being told by long-time professors to be more content with their lot. But if they have a better solution I’ll be happy to recommend them for promotion.

Adrian Furnham is a professor at the BI Norwegian Business School.

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Reader's comments (4)

Yeah sure. Dont worry about promotions, dont worry about pay. Just do world leading research/excel at teaching/bring in millions in grants because that is what academics do.You know just for the joy of it.This is as much a profession as a job. People need to pay their bills and provide for their families. "..will probably not appreciate being told by long-time professors to be more content with their lot." especially in cases where they would have never got anywhere near a professorship if the standards they apply to others are applied to themselves. "..I asked the dean of a business school " - ahh...probably one of the great deans who moved to management because they failed at being an academic. Having paltry academic credentials but never desist from grandstanding and get by on borrowed glory. So in terms of the approach, what was it? You didint tell us that. You just told us he said there were four criteria. "...that academics trade for extrinsic trivia such as wealth and imposing job titles." - Oh yes? show me one professor who hasnt bargained for that pay rise, bonus, market supplement etc. Sorry to say this but one is left wondering what exactly is the point of this article?
Agreed. In the UK, pay has not kept up with inflation so my younger colleagues chase promotion much earlier than was usual when I was in their position. Plodding upwards slowly as I have done (for many reasons) does not seem to fit with the modern ethos. I do not blame the early career staff since their less able classmates will doubtless be parading their greater material wealth from non-academic jobs.
"If none of that works, academics still desperate for promotion might be reminded that it is possible to upgrade title by downgrading institution." I am reminded by a comment made to me some years ago that Professor X had moved from institution A to institution B, and at one stroke raised the academic standing of both institutions... You are right that academics have in many ways an enviable life style, and if you set even a lecturer's salary against say the mean (or median) wage, we have little to complain about. But one's perception of pay is all relative. Full Professors get paid a *lot* more, and the job rarely attracts much extra admin duty now that it is so common.
Forcing people to move elsewhere by denying them progression in their careers is unethical and probably discriminatory - as there may be people who cannot move for personal reasons. No point is comparing a lecturer's salary to mean(or median) wage - the requirements to obtaining a lecturership in a university is not average by any means. This is a straw man argument. The nub of the issue is this "Opacity and double standards are infuriating, but the blessings of an academic career are present at all ranks" So we should be Ok with opacity and double standards? These make perfect breeding grounds for corruption and discrimination. Opacity and double standards should have no place in any work place let alone universities which we profess are centres of truth seeking and knowledge. If this sad state of affairs is flourishing it is because the mindless and the spineless have let it.