Career advice: how to get promoted in academia

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

March 16, 2017
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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 (20)

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.
Thanks for this. I wonder, to what extent do you need to already be performing at the target level before you can be promoted into it? The 'year or two' of cut-price work is clearly a bargain for those at the top, but sounds like a raw deal for those further down the salary scale.
Sadly Ace North, that is the deal on offer. If an internal promotion is supposed to mimic the appointment process for an external candidate then in both cases, the successful candidate would have to demonstrate that they are operating at the level advertised/aspired to. Whether that has to be for a "year or two" is debatable because a proactive individual and/or a proactive employer should be noticing the sense in which you've outgrown your current role and are ready for the next level up. But you have to demonstrate that you have outgrown your current role.
Yes, indeed... it is not a matter of keeping anyone hanging around for a "year or two"... the criteria in most universities are clearly published on line. It is up to individuals to match themselves against them, and put themselves forward when they feel they have met them.
This is really useful info - could you give any more examples of questions to rehearse for? Thanks.
Excellent question... now this is something that needs a bit of local contextualization... as each institution will have their own quirks. However, as a general rule you want to practice for it as much as you would for an external appointment, never make the mistake of treating it as a lesser beast. As to questions, all the usual ones about teaching, research and knowledge exchange, but also expect leadership, programme development, grants, industry outreach etc. Also, have an answer to "why do you think you should be promoted" up your sleeve too...
Very useful advice thank you. From an older and slightly cynical academic, I think one key lesson for younger colleagues is to know when to move on from your current institution. Cultures in organisations change over time as do the opportunities and management styles. Reviewers need to be good at undertaking the task to help you identify the best development for you but this is not always in their interests, so be self aware and recognize the limitations of your current place of work. If you have the profile and the experience, do not be afraid to look outside and see what opportunities are available elsewhere.
Yes, I could not agree more, it is very important to seek promotion opportunities outside your current institution, you never know where it might lead you. Most academics will benefit from the stimulation that a group of new colleagues may bring.
Thanks for the advice, certainly some useful pointers. Obviously, it will depend on the individual, and perhaps the university? But for someone with no previous promotion experience, could you indicate some form of promotion timeline that might be realistic for an ECR to keep in mind?
Well, the first few years are crucial. You need to keep an eye on your probation targets as a very bare minimum you need to make sure you have fulfilled those, and fulfilled them on time. One achievable target, with a bit of work, is to get promoted from Grade 7 to 8 at the same time you complete your probation. Now, for that to happy you really need to be on top of publications and funding from day 1.
Thank you, great advice. Whilst this piece seems to be written with those who are already on the career ladder in mind, how might the advice you offer be best adopted by someone who is ambitious and at the very start of an academic career?
Good article - but what if you tick all your institutional boxes for a promotion (publications accepted, funds awarded, growing international recognition, internal administrative duties undertaken etc.) and goal posts are slightly moved to softer targets and you are not internally supported at that time but asked to submit an application for promotion the following year. How should you tackle that other than continue doing what you are doing?
surely softer targets would make it easier to get promoted not harder? Regardless, I would suggest that the points made above about securing internal support, listening hard to honest feedback (before, during and after the formal process) and patience are probably key. Most academics experience rejection for promotion at some stage.
Q1. Senior promoted posts come with the requirement to nominate external referees who are called upon to comment on your application. Any advice for choosing these? Q2. The Stern recommendations would appear to have implications for applying for promotion, do you have any observations?
If you want promotion forget about publishing; get a management role. I met this bloke in Spanish at Edinburgh whose application for a promotion to reader was turned down; he then became dean, and 3 years after, with no publications at all during that period, he was promoted to a personal chair. And that happened in a "research-led" university.

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