Promoted from doctor to professor: what changes?

Scholars share what the title means to them and offer the newly promoted advice on handling the status update

November 10, 2016
Chariot of Musicians, Detail from Earth painting, Claude Deruet
Source: Getty

Academics are privileged to be paid well for doing something that we love to do. Don’t waste time whingeing

The morning after my promotion to professor was made official, my partner asked me how I felt: my main reaction was a sense of relief at never having to fill out promotion forms again! But beyond that initial response, I wondered if anything would actually change. Over the past few years, change has been subtle, but there are some clear lessons that I have learned.

Be a leader
Although talk of leadership is ubiquitous in the university sector, and often quite vacuous, becoming a professor requires taking on new types of responsibilities. These include not just going along with the crowd or keeping your head low, but driving strategic initiatives in research and teaching both in your institution and externally.

See your new role as an opportunity
To be a professor is literally to be a “person who professes” to a certain type of expertise or knowledge. After spending numerous years trying to establish yourself as an expert, you can now use the space and time created by the promotion to explore new opportunities, such as novel, collaborative or interdisciplinary projects that will enhance your research and teaching – and likely your enjoyment of your job.

Be grateful
Constant complaining about workloads and requirements coming from within and outside your institution is almost de rigueur in our current climate. But academics are privileged to be paid well for doing something that we love to do. Don’t waste time whingeing.

Strive for balance
There are no (or few) emergencies in most fields of academia. Take your promotion as an opportunity to rethink how you plan your time in your academic role, but also in your personal life. Don’t neglect or martyr yourself.

Be a role model
Being a professor puts you in a unique position, in which many will look to you for advice and guidance. Instead of dreading this, embrace the opportunities to help shape others’ careers, particularly in light of your past mistakes.

Make the most of invitations
A professorship brings with it lots of invitations. This is particularly true if you are a woman, given the constant need to have gender balance on committees. Step up on a selective basis, and use these interactions as a way to cultivate greater knowledge about the workings of your institution, but also to form new relationships with those with whom you might not otherwise have contact, such as professional and support staff. Also be willing to say no, and avoid falling into the service trap, which can be tempting once promotion is no longer a concern.

Give back
The “social licence” of academia is under constant threat – and no wonder, given that we often barricade ourselves in our ivory towers (or are seen to be doing so). Professors are extremely well placed to find ways to give back to our stakeholders and surrounding communities. Such contributions are particularly critical for those of us who work in universities that are publicly supported. Get out there.

Rachel A. Ankeny is professor in the School of Humanities and associate dean of research and deputy dean in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Rinaldo and Armida painting, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Becoming a professor altered my self-image and how I thought about how others saw me

“You take the bus?!”

My student’s astonishment that his professor used public transport to get to work astonished me in turn. A transition that to my mind was the happy culmination of a career path started out on warily some 20 years previously seemed, in his eyes, to have transported me to another level of being.

His misapprehension was amusing, validating even, but also a little troubling. It was a potent reminder that many students carry an unhealthy excess of respect that makes them reluctant to approach their professors for help. To lend my students a little courage, I look for opportunities to puncture their sense of my worth, insisting, for example, that no question is too stupid and blithely announcing that I am lecturing them on biochemistry without the benefit of having studied biology or chemistry at A level. The respect problem is rarer among my university colleagues, who have too often glimpsed the feet of clay beneath professorial desks.

Like many in academia, I reckoned that while my elevation to the rank of professor might snare me in some additional committee work at my university, it would otherwise be business as usual: papers, grant applications, conferences, teaching and a dash of departmental administration. That was what I told my parents when they asked how my job would change when I was promoted. Like my student, they had expected more of a transformation.

In the end, I realised that I was wrong and they were right. The job does change, and it changes you. Becoming a professor altered my self-image and how I thought about how others saw me. In the first place, it’s a great relief. There is a sense of arrival – there should be: the journey was long enough – a feeling that you can relax into the role, embracing the freedoms and responsibilities that come with it.

Of course, there is no one way to be a professor. For some, the continuance of their research programme is reward enough. In my own case, although I drew renewed energy from the endorsement of my research, my professorship also gave me the cover to start writing an academic blog: a somewhat disreputable pastime for a scholar in 2008, although perhaps less so now. I guess I thought that people might take me more seriously as a professor, so I decided to take myself more seriously too.

The process of thinking out loud in public about what it means to be an academic in the UK in the 21st century has been unexpectedly liberating, freeing me from disciplinary constraints and enlarging my sense of the role of a modern scholar. I hope that my candour might also present a human face to counter professorial stereotypes. I have greatly valued being more involved in the business of science and its interactions with society, on issues such as funding, research assessment, scholarly publishing and the place of the university in the modern world.

These things matter to me more than I realised. They involve questions internal and external to the academy that have been made more urgent in the UK by the disturbing fallout of the country’s decision to leave the European Union. It is not just down to professors to tackle these questions, but I hope that we might not falter in the leadership rightly expected of us.

Stephen Curry is professor of structural biology at Imperial College London.

The Capture of the Golden Fleece painting, Jean François de Troy

My advice for new professors? Change as little as possible. Don’t fall into the ego trap

It’s an odd thing becoming a professor. For many people outside the academy, the word probably still conjures up images of elderly, bearded men with limited social skills engaged in obscure studies. But since the University of Manchester’s Brian Cox burst on to television screens, being a professor in the UK has certainly become a lot cooler, and the world is beginning to realise that professors are actually a pretty diverse bunch of people (although not nearly as diverse as they should be).

Most professors I know wear buttoned shirts and nice shoes, but that’s not really my style. I consider myself something of a cheerful insult to British sartorial decency – give me sportswear and trainers any day over shirt and slacks. When the Queen officially opened our new brain research centre, it was the first time that many of my colleagues had ever seen me in a shirt, let alone a tie.

So not a lot obviously changed for me when I got my chair in 2014. Apart from the substantial pay bump, which was admittedly quite useful as our first child was on the way, about the only thing that I clocked was that the sign on my office door changed overnight from “Dr” to “Prof”.

But it still felt like a milestone: more than a decade after getting my PhD I had finally made it to the top of the academic pyramid, and I felt like I’d worked hard to get there. The problem was that, almost immediately, I began wondering if I really belonged there. I’d look around and notice that other professors seemed more serious than me: more earnest, more studious, smarter, busier, better. These sentiments are natural and, I think, serve to remind us that however good you might think you are, you’re not that good.

In academia, the title of professor is undeniably useful – and indeed, essential – for getting important things done. Once you reach this level, you find that opportunities to have a positive influence on science start chasing you, rather than the other way around. You begin getting invited to sit on journal editorial boards and funding panels. You realise that you can wield more influence on policy and practice, and that journalists, politicians and industrialists take you more seriously. For me, these benefits are emphatically not about ego-stroking but about pursuing ambitious goals and hopefully serving the public interest more effectively.

There is also an inevitable downside to seniority. Foremost is pressure to acquire large amounts of grant funding, mostly for its own sake and for the “esteem” it confers on your institution. You also face pressure to supervise a large number of PhD students, who are then expected to achieve Great Things in science, even though the chances are necessarily slim. You are expected to be a mentor to junior staff, which is important and rewarding but also a heavy responsibility. You encounter new pay scales and obscure annual assessments that are hidden from public view. You find yourself further from the coalface of science, more focused on managing than doing, and you can easily get bogged down doing dull administration. Like it or not, you have joined the Establishment, and it can be a murky and strange business.

My advice for new professors? Change as little as possible. Don’t fall into the ego trap. Protect your time with an iron fist because it is the most precious commodity you have. Say no to almost everything that comes along, but say yes as much as possible to helping students. Most importantly, remember who your ultimate boss is: the public. That means using your newfound influence to do good things for society, not just enhancing your already successful career. You made it, and that’s great; now the real work begins.

Chris Chambers is professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff University.

The Frog Tsarevna painting, Victor Vasnetsov

For many women, the power of the title shift is very real because it’s about eclipsing patriarchal assumptions

“Is there a problem with your exhaust, madam?”

The temptation to channel Sid James – of Carry On films fame – in my reply evaporated as I got out of my car and saw an assortment of frankly intimidating weapons on the police officer’s belt.

“Yes. I’m on my way to the garage right now to have it fixed,” I fibbed.

He paused, and stared hard at me. “Hmmm. But is this your car, madam?”

“Yes. It. Is,” I answered.

And then he began to shake his head very slowly. “No,” he said, jabbing his notebook with a pudgy finger: “No. This car belongs to a Dr Rees.”

The officer and I, it seemed, were engaged in a round of socio-cultural “rock, paper, scissors”. He had a very fixed idea of what a “Dr” should look like – and I wasn’t it. But whatever identification I had on me – probably just a bank card – trumped his self-righteousness. Scissors cut paper.

Getting my professorship in 2015 echoed getting my doctorate in 1997 in this respect: I could, in a practised, slightly sententious tone, correct anyone – even The Law – who asked “Is that ‘Mrs’, or ‘Miss’?”.

There’s a good deal more to getting a professorship or doctorate than changing one’s title. Of course there is. But for many women the power of that shift is very real because it’s about eclipsing patriarchal assumptions, albeit momentarily. I relish the nanosecond of disbelief that sometimes crosses the faces of people who find out that I’m “Professor Rees”. And it’s not surprising: if you google “professor”, the images are startlingly homogeneous. A “professor” is a white, middle-aged man, with a bald head, a white beard and – of course – glasses (he’s also employed in an alarmingly retro university that demands he stand in front of a blackboard at all times).

These images, and the assumptions they produce (which, in turn, produce these images, and so on ad infinitum), matter when three-quarters of all professors in UK universities are men. A cliché becomes a cliché for a reason. Getting my professorship was, for me, a hard-fought, living riposte to the oppressiveness of that cliché. The process had by no means been easy: I had previously applied for promotion more than once and been knocked back, with all of the awful, visceral disappointment that involved.

Finally, once I was successful, I encountered one practical consideration that I hadn’t expected: what was I to be professor of? I wasn’t stepping into an established chair, so I had to come up with my own title. Canvassing friends was pretty useless: “Prof Vag”, in honour of my second book, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, was never going to be agreed to by the vice-chancellor. But the title I eventually settled on, “professor of literature and gender studies”, means a lot to me since it reflects how my academic interests have evolved far beyond my initial focus on literature.

Not unconnected to this is the fact that the older I get, the more determined I become to close the antiquated, but still very real, gap between academia and activism. Being a professor gives me a platform to do this. My academic apprenticeship, like those of so many others, was a long, impecunious and precarious one, but “professor” is the rubber stamp of recognition: an acknowledgement of the years of hard graft, exhaustion and self-doubt that it took to get here.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.

Detail from Triumph of Venus painting, Francesco del Cossa

In my experience, it takes about three years to transition from ‘I’d be delighted to serve on this important (but pointless) committee’ to ‘Don’t you know who I am?’

Every single reader of Times Higher Education should by now have read Francis Cornford’s 1908 Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician. Hence, they will be familiar with, for example, the principles of the wedge, the dangerous precedent, unripe time and the division of academics into “conservative liberal obstructers” and “liberal conservative obstructers”. But, as Lou Reed put it, those were different times. The modern professor is surrounded by what those schooled in deconstruction call aporia: “pathless paths”, when you have to choose between options without there being any clear, right way ahead. Here are only three.

The aporia of the title
Having “Professor” before your name is important to you, sure. It is also important to some other people, but you will never know who these people are until it’s too late. When you insist on its use, you sound horribly pompous; when you decline to use it, you are Professor False-Modesty, or, even more embarrassingly, Professor Down-With-The-Kids. Worse, these days, you might be seen to be trying to weasel out of your membership of the liberal, cosmopolitan elite.

The rabbit aporia
New professors are assumed to have emerged from deep burrows of research, blinking into the sunshine like bunnies emerging from their warrens at dawn. They are then expected to learn all about the wide sunlit world around them, while still digging deeper below. Some find they love the upland world, and spend all their time hopping around, showing others the best clover patches or the worst places to stand when the fox is about. Others find the sunlight too bright and head straight back down to finish digging out that lower chamber. But the right answer is to be underground and overground at the same time. The trouble is that if that sort of bilocation is hard for wombles and string theorists, it’s a killer for a simple academic leporid.

The aporia of ladders
A professor has a duty, as we jargonise these days, to “ladder”. That is, they must help others climb the slippery rungs to academic success (so nothing to do with tights). But if you offer ladders to everyone, you are kind but lack judgement, and so fail as a professor. If you refuse ladders to all, not only are you a monster but the young will judge you, acutely and astutely, to have failed in one of your basic responsibilities: the passing on of scholarship. If you choose to ladder only certain people, you are playing a grown-up version of “teacher’s pet” and are certainly discriminating – so you fail again.

You might think that only a narcissist would make such heavy weather of these dilemmas. You’d be right – but narcissism goes with the territory (see how we suffer for the academy?). Still, there’s no need to panic: you’ll find your path eventually. In my experience, it takes about three years to transition from “I’d be delighted to serve on this important (but pointless) committee” to “Don’t you know who I am?” (or, as my science fiction novelist friend once unkindly put it, from kissing arse to becoming one).

And Cornford’s sympathetic voice is there to guide you. By “keeping just enough bitterness to put a pleasant edge on your conversation, and just enough worldly wisdom to save other people’s toes, you will find yourself in the best of all company – the company of clean, humorous intellect”. Who could ask for more than that?

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Mario's Triumph painting, Francesco Saverio Altamura

Professing, in my view, also means fighting higher education’s increasing reliance on short-term contracts

I heard that I had become a professor about six weeks before I gave birth, for the first time, at the age of 44 (and 24 hours before my maternity leave started). I then embarked on an emotional roller coaster ride that rearranged all my priorities. Why would I want to go to conferences that had no childcare provision, for instance?

In the astonishing, but wonderful, mayhem that followed, I failed to register that, in joining the UK professoriate, I had moved from a nationally agreed pay scale to a free market; there were no criteria for professorial pay then at my institution. To obtain pay rises, professors needed to brandish their achievements and negotiate. By the time, seven years later, I woke up to the existence of the professorial gender pay gap, I was a long way adrift of the average male professorial salary and yet I was delivering shedloads of what I consider to be the core professorial activities: producing high-quality research publications and delivering excellent student-centred but research-led teaching.

Supported by the UK’s University and College Union, I later had my chance to offer this definition of “professing” at the Reading Employment Tribunal, where the judge agreed with me that my institution’s professorial pay system was ripe for renovation. A more transparent system was introduced, but for any professors working in an institution that still does not have explicit criteria for professorial pay, the reality is that they are, in effect, freelance. And, for many professors, the self-marketing that freelancing demands can pose a challenge: excellent researchers are, almost by definition, self-doubters. Drafting and redrafting, scrutinising documentation, interrogating the data and questioning the theoretical framework puts many academics on the road to impostor syndrome. This does not help when haggling over pay.

Professing also implies mentoring and providing research leadership. This doesn’t simply mean suggesting to an early career academic where they might place an essay, or paying them the compliment of giving them rigorous, challenging and constructive feedback on their work: it also means fighting higher education’s increasing reliance on short-term contracts. Professors should be arguing on behalf of those exhausted, aspiring academics commuting long, expensive distances (because they can’t afford to live locally) to run between low-paid and insecure teaching contracts.

But, in reality, being a professor in the week of writing this article consists of teaching four days; redramaturging a “new” play by Shakespeare (Margaret of Anjou), hoping it will have impact; attending a series of college council meetings; and quailing at the thought of how much staring at screens I will have to do as chair of exams (I am light-intolerant). This is not to mention my union work. No wonder I so often forget to have lunch.

Liz Schafer is professor of drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a case worker for the University and College Union.

Sir Galahad witnessing the beauty of the Holy Grail, Arthur C. Michael
Bridgeman Art Library

A professorship is the destination, but who are you supposed to be when you get there?

While many people are on hand to tell you that a professorship is the ultimate destination for any academic career, few suggest what to do when you get there. At first, there can seem to be few options. One is to be Professor-of-All-Things, endlessly on the conference circuit and in the media, entertaining the first-year student crowds, holding forth in the coffee room and producing reams of publications. Or you could be Professor-of-Clever-Things, locked in a study or laboratory, beavering away at the research frontier with research grants and staff pouring in and steam pouring out. Or you could be Professor-of-Important-Things, climbing the greasy pole of university administration.

If these were the only options when a professorship was the short, final stage of a long career, perhaps it would be fine. But these days you can be a professor for a substantial fraction of your working life. I became one five years ago, when I had two young children and was working part-time. My instinct was to try to take myself more seriously and persuade others to do the same, but this soon became tiring and uncomfortable – and not just because of the poor sartorial choices made in an attempt to fit into an imagined culture of “professoriness”.

The question of how to be a female professor was particularly vexed given its predominant masculinity. Women can be deemed too competitive, too intense, too decisive, too clever, too scary, too dominant, too bossy. But being too female is also a no-go. In taking on many of the unloved management roles, women can be seen as too diligent, too involved, too caring and not sufficiently strategic.

Equally troubling was my part-time status. In a culture where it is often assumed that it is impossible to stop working, one response was simply disbelief: “You can’t really work part-time”. But departmental support made it a positive experience in very many ways. Contrary to received wisdom, working flexible hours does not become harder to navigate with seniority, and I am helped by the fact that I can share care-giving with a partner who is also flexible. But this is not true for everyone, and the particular circumstances that being a professor must be made to fit (rather than the other way around) need to be taken into account if we are going to increase diversity in the role.

A turning point for me came when, in 2014, I received the honour of being appointed the 17th King Carl XVI Gustaf’s Professor in Environmental Sciences, which I held at Lund University. The impossibility of living up to such a title was initially overwhelming, but soon became immensely freeing. With the help of Cressida Cowell’s series of children’s books, How to Train Your Dragon, which chart the adventures of an unlikely Viking boy destined to be king, I came to see being a professor not so much as a badge of honour or a fixed destination but as a journey. My own approach to it tries to include being driven by curiosity, creating the conditions for others to thrive, taking responsibility for some of the more tedious and difficult aspects of being an academic and making space for as much fun as is possible. As my daughter said when told about the title of this piece: “You go to work, you work, you come back from work.” That is, at the end of the day, the size of it.

Harriet Bulkeley is a professor in the department of geography at Durham University.

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Print headline: The same, but different

Reader's comments (3)

What a self-absorbed egotistical bunch of people! Some of us have been professors for a long time and simply try to do a good job every day, doing what got us there in the first place. Perhaps being less of a diva or role-model and just getting back to one's work would be more beneficial to both the university and to society? JFS
The biggest change was the money, this made the most difference to me. We could afford a holiday with the kids for the first time since they arrived. As to work, nothing much changed same job, same targets and same duties. I felt and feel pressure to 'deserve' it each year. I remember my grandfather's summary of the Church, there were more good people outside than inside. Whatever distinction (eg Professor) you get in life, even if you think you deserve it, there are always more deserving / better candidates who have missed out through luck or bad judgement of others.
I ascended in my mid-50s, having not focussed on research and grant-getting as much as activism, engagement, administration and and teaching . This was rather late in my discipline (Professorial colleagues are mostly in their late 40s) , and leaving me about 10 years of full time work. I discovered leaving a top Australian university as Associate Professor, to a Chair in a provincial British one, gave a salary cut of about 20%, what with Brexit and all. So no great benefit there since I still have to send money home. I actually feel like an academic migrant rather than an economic migrant. Moving overseas to get rewards not available at home - "about bloody time" one student said on hearing of the job. A shame it is 16,000km away.

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