Career advice: how to get promoted in academia

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

March 16, 2017
women leapfrog. Vintage
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Develop a long-term plan

It is possible to achieve promotion from one academic grade to the next by delivering stellar performance in one specific domain, but this is not what happens for most people. Mythical tales of instant promotion for some gigantic research grant or one highly cited paper are often spurious.

The promotion process at your university will likely be designed to assess your gradual accumulation of shiny baubles, demonstrating your increased expertise.

So, demonstrate leadership and achievement in a range of domains such as teaching and learning, research, knowledge exchange and internationalisation. If you need to demonstrate leadership of teaching then volunteer to become a course or programme leader, improve things, and accept that it will probably take you a year or two to be able to substantiate the claims that you want to make.

Decide whether to gamble

Timing can be important. You’ll need to choose whether to apply at the earliest opportunity or wait until you have a rock-solid case.

When a promotion panel rejects an application, it is often a sign of impatience or delusional tendencies on the part of the applicant. 

If you are being told in the context of your annual review that your claim to be a world-leading expert is not substantiated by your self-published Kindle book, you may need to consider what evidence the promotion panel will smile on. 

If more experienced colleagues from your university are saying that they think it is a bad idea to apply, there is usually something amiss. Use the opportunity of your annual review to have a fireside chat before deciding whether to apply now, later or not at all.

Read the official criteria

Buried somewhere in the bowels of your institution’s intranet, there will be an anodyne and lengthy document setting how the process, criteria and timelines for promotion work.

Timelines are usually immutable, but what you won’t find are clear guides on how many papers, how much research income or what kinds of administrative leadership you need to demonstrate. To read between the lines, you can ask your line manager but there is no substitute for meeting some successful applicants. Find someone who has been promoted, buy them lunch and ask them about the process.

Figure out who is on the jury

Identify who is involved and establish how they would define “good”.

If you know that you have to impress the dean or a head of department, you can begin to make some assumptions about the kinds of things that people in such roles will prioritise. Some may focus on research, others on teaching and learning.

You can go one stage further and familiarise yourself with their own backgrounds. Where have they worked, when were they promoted or what does their CV look like? It is highly likely that they’ll view your promotion case through the prism of their own earlier experience. Have you got much more or much less under the key headings on your CV than they had when they were at your stage?

Secure internal support

A small subset of people will actually make the decision but before your case is heard by them, there will be a wider cross section of colleagues in your department, centre or school who you should get onside.

Gentle lobbying is fine, nagging isn’t. Promotion is, in part, politics, but even the slickest public relations campaign can no more magic up missing publications than it can obliterate terrible student feedback.

Don’t be a twit about Twitter

A C-list celebrity worries about their Twitter followers but a serious academic should pay more attention to downloads, citations and their h-index.

Recognise that your Scopus profile is more important, while your institution probably also has its own open access repository. Ensure your profile there is fully updated since this will likely be put in front of the panel members who interview you for promotion.

If there is an interview, make sure you rehearse

Practise the obvious questions in advance. There are multiple career-limiting ways in which to answer the question “what are you known for?”

If you have an academic reputation based on your contribution to the discipline, be sure to find forms of evidence that would convince a sceptical audience. 

Even armed with such evidence, things can still go badly wrong if, when challenged at interview, you confidently assert that you are known for three things and then can’t remember them all.

A mock interview with some sympathetic colleagues will help fend off such disasters.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com.

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Reader's comments (6)

I've learned to develop a thicker skin about journal rejections...is application for promotion a similar game?
Alas, yes it is! Now, of course, like a journal paper, you may never get a reject, and only ever get minor revisions, but we live in the real world and that never happens. However, like submitting a paper to a highly ranked journal you must present the best case possible, something you are proud of, and something you can stand behind. Also, like a decent journal paper, it can not be rushed and often take years to prepare! Good Luck!
Thanks. You definitely can't get something published unless you submit it...
Exactly - and you are not going to get promoted unless you put yourself forward for it... no one else will...
OK... addendum... some pedant will tell me they got promoted somewhere and they never even asked... back to the rest of us living in the real world.
As a follow up ... good practice is that your university should be considering whether you are on track for promotion even if you are too much the shrinking violet. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will put everyone forward for promotion but it does mean that they should be trying to understand whether or when you might be ready.

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Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder