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Career advice: how to get promoted after joining academia late

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 5 Mar 2020

Next month, Gary Younge will begin his new life as a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester after 26 years as a writer for The Guardian. One of his colleagues will be the acclaimed television historian David Olusoga, who started as a professor of history in May.

Although a late-life leap is not the traditional route to a scholarly career, the path from media, business and other industries into academia is well trodden, with thousands making the switch from other sectors over the years.

However, most will arrive at the bottom end of the academic career ladder, and climbing it can prove tricky without the years of publications and research grants that lifelong lecturers possess.

Here, we speak to those who have made the jump into academia about how to navigate the promotions process.

Play to your strengths
Leah Tomkins had spent 25 years in management consultancy before joining the Open University in 2010, where she is now a senior lecturer in organisational studies. “Going back to the bottom of the career ladder is a bit of a wake-up call when you’ve held partner or director-level roles,” said Dr Tomkins, who had previously provided leadership and management advice to several universities, corporate firms and the Cabinet Office.

“It also takes a very long time to establish your academic credentials. While I’ve done my best to do this over the past eight years, I’m aware I’m being compared against those who have 30 years’ experience,” she explained.

When it comes to promotions, criteria can often be very rigid, but scholars from industry backgrounds should do their best to “change the terms” of appraisal to their advantage, said Dr Tomkins.

“For instance, the number of PhD students supervised is a challenge when you’ve only been an academic for a short time, so I do stress that, while I may not have supervised so many doctoral students, I have mentored staff and led teams of hundreds while in industry,” Dr Tomkins explained.

Money talks
These attempts to stress equivalent experience are not always successful, Dr Tomkins admitted. But one area where those from industry backgrounds often fare better is when it comes to winning grants or external revenue from business.

“We can occasionally bring in a contract for a quarter of a million pounds, which is a lot in academia but not so much for business,” said Dr Tomkins. “The fact that the market has put a value on your skills helps to establish your standing.”

Beware extra responsibility
With experience of running teams and budgets, those arriving from industry may often find themselves assigned tasks not entrusted to equally junior staff holding just a PhD. “If you’re coming from industry, you tend to get involved in lots of other things rather than focusing on your publications,” said Jeannie Holstein, who joined Nottingham University Business School as an assistant professor in 2015 after a career in business and consultancy.

“I love teaching on an MBA course, but because of my experience, I was given a module to run fairly quickly,” Dr Holstein said, highlighting that rapid introduction to a major responsibility. “It happens, and there are advantages and disadvantages to it,” she added.

Academics, regardless of their industry track record, will need to focus on producing a solid set of publications, Dr Holstein continued. “You are still a junior researcher even if you have a strong CV in business, and you need to build a strong publication pipeline.”

Get a PhD
Stressing professional experience might help industry outsiders get their foot in the door of academia, but they will be expected to earn their stripes once they are in, no matter how starry their professional achievements. “If you want to build an academic career, you’ll need to do a PhD,” said Robert MacIntosh, head of the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University. “It’s the same as in football – you may have won the World Cup as a player, but if you want to be a manager, you’ll need your Uefa B licence.”

Doing a doctoral thesis is usually the better route, rather than hoping to bundle together a set of journal papers for a PhD by publication, despite many favouring this route, he advised. “If you are a retired policeman or management consultant, you probably won’t have a handful of publications, so it will be just as quick to begin a PhD thesis,” he said.

“It can be hard for this type of academic to get promoted,” admitted Professor MacIntosh. “They have not had the time to develop their standing with learned societies or generate any sort of h-index, unlike someone who wrote something in the early 1990s that has been cited over the years,” he reflected.

That is, however, unfortunate, because “these people may have been running big budgets and teams, but they tend not to be promoted to professorships, which is a shame as it means the academy is homogenised”, Professor MacIntosh added.