The ‘third way’ academic: becoming an education-focused professor

Career development tips for higher education professionals who take an education-focused pathway

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25 Sep 2023
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The education-focused career pathway, so called the “third way”, is relatively new to UK higher education with staff traditionally working across research and teaching, or purely research. This means promotion criteria are often unclear, with inconsistency across the sector about what constitutes success on this track, making career progression to full professor challenging.

Despite evident challenges, careers on an education pathway are hugely rewarding and meaningful and we have seen a considerable rise in education-focused promotions. A 2023 survey conducted by the National Conference of University Professors found 20 per cent of respondents were promoted on a teaching and learning route.

Below we summarise 10 top tips for anyone considering a career on an education pathway in academia.

1) Reflect on the education triangle

A good starting point is the education triangle. Even if you mainly specialise in one major aspect of the triangle, you need to have a balanced portfolio of activities across all three elements.

The education triangle

2) Strive for excellence in teaching and inspire others

Those of us who are on a teaching pathway have a responsibility to inspire everyone to teach better. While research activity may appear to carry greater kudos and reward, let’s not get deflected from our goal of improving the education experience of students and fellow staff. Take time to look at the educators you admire from all areas. Identify what they do that is excellent. How might you emulate them?

3) Know the rules of the “game” and find a mentor

Become familiar with the promotion criteria and ensure your promotion application ticks all the boxes with evidence, especially of the impact of your work.

Try to identify a mentor. They can be internal or external and can really help you see things from a different perspective, offering focus and clarity.

Also, don’t wait for 100 per cent perfection or to be 100 per cent ready. Perfect doesn’t exist; striving for a perfect application can hold you back.

4) Be curious and open to opportunities

Taking part in relevant committees and initiatives takes time, but these can give you access to a wide range of new networks and projects. As a member of such groups, chances to join conferences and events may follow. These activities can lead you to unanticipated opportunities around the themes you are passionate about.

Sometimes things appear serendipitous. But, in reality, opportunities appear because you were in the room.

5) If something doesn’t exist, pilot it!

Most universities are cautious and risk averse. However, you can pilot things. It’s a way to make a difference with a simple and small-scale approach. You can overcome the risks in a contained situation, with limited budget and start valuable conversations. Usually the attitude of “let’s pilot this” is regarded as a positive and helpful intervention. If it goes well, then you can run with it and be the first mover.

6) Build your network

Building your network is essential. Develop your profile with one aspect of education and then seek to influence others and identify potential collaborators. If you are leading on education in your institution, being able to benchmark against other universities is necessary.

7) Take on a leadership role

It’s very difficult to know beforehand whether a role is going to be directly helpful to your career or not. However, even those roles that turn out to be a bit of a blind alley can be helpful in terms of building experience, demonstrating your proactive attitude and flexibility. Understanding how leadership works can help expose you to new people in your organisations. 

8) Constantly develop

Practise the growth mindset and constantly develop yourself. Consider joining Professors in Preparation network (#ProfsInPrep), look into gaining your Senior if not Principal Fellowship through Advance HE, and those in business schools should consider the Certified Management & Business Educator scheme.

9) Keep a plaudits file and update your CV regularly

Retaining positive personal feedback is critical, especially as it’s likely to get lost among mountains of emails. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the valuable work we undertake that may go undocumented, unformalised or otherwise unrecognised. Evidence is everything.

Use a CV format as a means of recording, in some detail, your professional activity. Update it regularly. Make links between actions and outcomes, complete with evidence. Build a narrative. It’s not about sharing this detail with the world, but about ensuring that when you come to distil your CV, build promotion applications, complete HEA applications and the like, you have everything to hand.

10) Stay positive and don’t take things too seriously

Try to not take things too seriously. Have fun with what you do. Some people might be resistant to change, be cynical about the new, and challenge your proposals, but trust your instinct and see the positive in your ideas. Be ready to laugh when things don’t quite work. People are drawn to those who stay positive when challenged. It is hard in the face of adversity, but a sense of humour can get you through the most challenging of days.

Moving forward

Being on a teaching track can be deeply frustrating, when you are wrestling with status, ambiguity or unrealistic promotion criteria, and limited development time. But it’s also deeply rewarding. You can have a positive daily impact on the students you meet. And whether by accident or design, higher education teachers can have successful careers that are enriching, have value and offer purpose. Universities are beginning to recognise the impact of education-focused academics, but we need to take ourselves seriously and make our case.

Our hope is that the next five to 10 years will see more clarity in the career development requirements on the education track, with more colleagues getting promoted to associate professor and professor levels right across the UK higher education sector.

This advice is based on top tips provided by business educators Sally Everett, Wayne Holland, David Boughey and Kathy Daniels.

Rushana Khusainova is a lecturer in marketing and programme director for the master’s in strategy, change and leadership at the University of Bristol; Wayne Holland is associate professor in management education and faculty education director for undergraduate studies in social sciences and law, also at the University of Bristol; Sally Everett is a professor of business education and vice-dean (education) at King’s College London; David Boughey is a professor in international business history and interim deputy pro vice-chancellor and deputy dean at the University of Exeter; Kathy Daniels is professor of practice and associate pro vice-chancellor (engagement) at Aston University.

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