Playing the promotion game: how to navigate upshifting

Done well, upshifting helps you to gain experience and develop capabilities that support your career development and promotion prospects, write educators at the University of Bristol



24 Apr 2024
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Whereas in most other professions, demonstrating that you’re ready to take the next step is enough to qualify for a promotion, in academia you need to show that you have already been working a level above your current role for some time. In this resource, we look at a practice we refer to as upshifting and provide advice on how to navigate it.

What is upshifting?

We define upshifting as working at a higher grade than your official position without any formal recognition to further your career. As such, this is different from acting up: temporarily taking on a more senior role, usually to provide cover for a colleague, which might come with the added benefit of a more senior job title or higher pay to reflect the extra responsibility. And while upshifting is common at every career stage in higher education, it does not have such immediate (or guaranteed) rewards. Done well, upshifting helps you to gain experience and develop capabilities that support your career development and promotion prospects. But with a finite amount of time and the pressures of your current role to contend with, how can you decide which upshifting opportunities to pursue without causing burnout?

Be strategic about leadership roles: not all leadership and citizenship opportunities will help you add value and create impact. So choose the ones that you are personally passionate about and that play to your strengths. You might find that some opportunities don’t lead you anywhere. If this happens, acknowledge that you tried, reflect on what you learned and move on to the next project.

Become visible: many baulk at the idea of self-promotion and feel uncomfortable about bragging about their successes. But you can be visible in an authentic way by sharing successes and failures, acknowledging others and promoting collaboration. Remember you are adding value by sharing helpful insights in meetings, newsletters and on online platforms.

See the bigger picture: keep reminding yourself of your long-term goals and vision. Upshifting builds your personal brand and expertise. It might not lead to immediate career progression, but it will help you position yourself as an expert in your field. On the road towards promotion, many smaller achievements accumulate over time and bolster your chances of success.

Make peace with the downsides: working above your grade means you might not have authority over or recognition for the work you are doing. This will feel frustrating, but put things into perspective: you are developing yourself and your career and adding value to your school and university. You’re also expanding your network and demonstrating your work ethic. These things will hopefully result in progression.

Have important conversations: do you make the most of the development conversations, also called staff reviews, in your department or institution? Self-development opportunities are often easier to identify by those in more senior roles, so openly communicate your career goals and seek support from your line manager. You can also check whether there are opportunities to represent your department or academic group at various school-level committees (for example, undergraduate or postgraduate studies committees, academic integrity committees and so on).

Seek mentoring: many higher education institutions already have existing mentoring schemes to support staff development. Considering informal approaches to mentoring can also be beneficial, such as seeking a mentor who has achieved your career goals. As you progress in your career, look for mentors outside of your organisation who can support you in specific areas such as senior leadership or strategic planning.

Find the right balance: make sure that you don’t overload yourself. Work with your line manager to monitor your workload (real and not just modelled) to prevent burnout. You might be able to negotiate in some areas or investigate the possibility of hiring a temporary research or teaching assistant to help in the short term.

Given the need to show that you have successfully worked at the next level to be considered for promotion within academia, upshifting is often inevitable. Although it can offer benefits through new opportunities, experiences and skills development, we need to strike the right balance to ensure our well-being throughout the process.

Rushana Khusainova is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Bristol; Rachael Lamb is a senior lecturer in strategy and sustainability at the University of Bristol; Nicki Newman is a professor of business education at University of Birmingham

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