Brainstorm your way to the top

August 24, 2007

So you want to be a professor? Harriet Swain considers some of the planning and preparations you will need to make to have any hope of reaching the higher branches of the academic tree

Being able to call yourself doctor impressed your parents at the time but now they are nagging you for more. So how do you get to be a professor?

Having a doctorate is a solid first step. Margaret Dane, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, says it is possible to become a professor without doing a PhD but it is rare.

Next, decide where you want to be a professor. Do you want to stay at your present institution or move? If you stay, ensure your work fits with the strategic mission of the university and that you are working in a highly specialised niche area, says Leni Oglesby, senior deputy vice-chancellor at Teesside University. But you may have to accept that to develop your career you need to go elsewhere. The danger of staying too long in one institution is that you can find yourself progressively devalued, she warns.

Mike Smith, pro vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, agrees that you can find that your university, through familiarity, no longer appreciates the work you are doing, in which case you may have better luck elsewhere. But he advises being self-aware about precisely what it is you can offer any institution.

Consult your university's criteria for professorship and think about "what they say rather than what you want them to say", Smith adds. Be realistic about the quality of your achievements, preferably by getting an objective view of your chances from trusted colleagues who will not simply trot out what they believe you want to hear.

"The people who have a problem with the process are people who have the belief that they should be there but disagree with the criteria or haven't looked at the process properly," he says.

Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London, suggests finding a mentor who can help you define why you want to be a professor and work through the steps needed to get there.

Bruce Macfarlane, head of educational development and director of the Centre for Research in Tertiary Education at Thames Valley University, says it is vital to be able to prove the contribution you have made to your academic or professional field.

This means not only having a large number of publications or research grants but also being clear about how you have taken forward your discipline or profession. You need to demonstrate the impact of your work on the development of theory or practice by showing who uses it and the difference it has made to the field. You also need to give evidence of the esteem in which you are held by your peers, such as being invited to act as a journal editor or reviewer, give a keynote conference speech or receive an award.

Smith says it is not a simple matter of ticking off conference appearances or papers. "It is not a job description," he says. Those applying for a professorship should generally be comfortably carrying out the level of activity expected of a professor rather than meeting the minimum requirements.

Worton says his university looks for people who can offer leadership in their discipline, who cross disciplinary boundaries and engage with the world outside higher education.

Being very clever is not enough, says Dane. You also need political awareness, negotiating skills, a presence at the right conferences and the ability to establish a reputation outside your own institution.

And it is not just about you. It is about being part of a successful team. Young lecturers ambitious for professorship should make sure they know the important researchers working in their area of interest and try to join them, while being careful to avoid being used merely as cheap labour, says Dane. They also need to try to develop links with colleagues in other institutions, either through their region or subject area, and join a professional body.

Do not neglect teaching and administration either. Get a good mix of experience, she says, especially in financial planning because departments have to run their own budgets and being able to read a spreadsheet comes in handy. Make sure you are on top of governance issues, and that you will be useful in supporting the department and the students' entire learning experience.

Oglesby says you should not refuse opportunities even if you doubt you have the right skills, or you fear that you know nothing about the area: it is always possible to acquire the skills along the way. But recognise that there is a difference between this and simply accruing new responsibilities on top of your existing ones, she warns. "Learn to say no, but nicely." You should be prepared to work outlandish hours if necessary to complete funding bids, journal papers or conference presentations.

Macfarlane says there is something of a mismatch between applying to become a professor, which focuses on individual achievements, and actually being one, which involves leading and nurturing others.

"Thinking about what you might do as a professor and how this might alter your current role is important," he says. "You might well be asked this at interview."

He says it is important to establish who you consider to be peers and seek their support as potential referees, although the selection panel will often try to find people you might not know in order to glean a more independent view of your scholarship.

Finally, if you are turned down, do not go away and sulk. Being turned down for a professorship the first time is not uncommon, he says.

Instead, you need to put your mind to how you might address weaknesses in your contribution to scholarship, its impact, and your own reputation - as well as how you will break the news to the folks.

More information

Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, www.agcas.org.uk

The Academic Citizen: Key Issues in Higher Education by Bruce Macfarlane, Routledge, 2006

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