Tips for promotion applications [4 of 4]

[Reprinted on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog, 5 October 2018]

<<< GO TO PART 3: Seven advantages of internal promotion

If you do go for promotion, whether it is internal or external, the following tips and reflections might be useful to help you navigate the process. For even more resources refer to the Related Blogposts at the bottom of this installment.

The past is another country...

Please note that promotion requirements differ by university, by country, by rank, and over time. Some countries might not even have an internal promotion route to Full Professor. Take time to get familiar with what is valued at your university and learn to distinguish which academic achievements are universal and which are country-specific. Also accept that “the past is another country: they do things differently there”. Yes I know that there are (Associate) Professors at your institution or the external institution that you are applying to that don't have the record you now need to get promoted or appointed. Some might not even have a PhD. How do I know? Because they are there at every institution, they were certainly there at every one of the six universities I have worked worked for. Performance criteria change over time, but so does access to resources: try doing a PhD without access to the internet or even email [yes I am that old!].

Please also realise that you can rarely compare yourself directly to other academics as so many of us do when our applications are rejected. “But … I am so much better than so-and-so, I have more …” What you don’t know (or what you conveniently ignore) is that you might well have much less of something else. Having seen dozens of internal promotion applications I have always been surprised and often humbled by what my colleagues had done. There is more to an academic record than can be judged by a 1-minute glance through their list of publications. Moreover, we typically only compare ourselves to those in higher ranks who we think have done less, ignoring those at the same or lower who have done much more.

Don't let university politics ruin your sanity

Of course in some cases there might well be “political” reasons for why someone wasn’t promoted or appointed at an external institution. I certainly feel I have suffered from university politics at several junctures in my career and it has kept me awake at night more than once. However, this happens to most academics at some stage in their career, it seems to be inevitable wherever human beings work together. Life can be very unfair. What I am saying is not to focus on this too much, as it only makes the effects of it worse. See also: How to prevent burn-out? About staying sane in academia

For what it is worth, my experience is that those rejected for internal promotion whilst having a good case are generally promoted in the next round. Although when you are young it might seem it is taking forever to get to then next academic level, many good academics will spend by far the largest chunk of their career at an (associate or full) professorial level. Please see a 1-2 year delay in that perspective. Don't let it "eat you up".

Apply early rather than late

Unless you think you are unable to cope with being rejected (either for internal or external promotion), apply as soon as you think you stand any chance of being accepted. Women in particular often wait far too long to apply for promotion. As promotion applications are often considered in the context of what you have done since your last promotion, consistently being promoted 1-3 years “too late” can add up over a whole career. You cannot easily catch up after one late promotion.

Moreover, by applying for promotion you ensure that you get a clear-cut signal about what your chances are. And rather than guessing, in the case of an internal promotion you are often given feedback about what you need to do to be successful next time. If your university doesn’t offer this feedback automatically, ask for it and refer back to it very specifically when you apply again!

Use your experience in journal submissions

The process of a promotion application shares many similarities with the process of submitting an article for publication, so why not use the experience you have gained in that context:

  1. Gather as much information as possible, not just information about the formal rules (journal guidelines vs. promotion guidelines), but also about the informal rules. For the latter, talking to other academics is essential. Realise though that three anecdotes don’t make data. Also understand that academics are more likely to share horror stories (whether about journals or promotions) than positive experiences. And these horror stories somehow have the tendency to get embellished every time they are retold (ever heard of Chinese whispers?)
  2. Get a friendly reader before you submit. You would do this for a journal article wouldn’t you? So why not for a promotion application. Be prepared to return a favour though. For my promotion to Associate Professor, I asked at least half a dozen colleagues and they all said yes. Was that because they were such nice people? Well they might have been, but more likely it was because I had helped them in the past or at least bought them lunch.
  3. Treat an unsuccessful application as a Revise & Resubmit, not a Rejection. Yes you can go to another journal outlet (university), but unless you take the reviewer comments into account, this is unlikely to be as easy as you think it is.
  4. Realise that there are always things that are beyond your control. When submitting to journals you are dependent on who the acting editor is and the “role of the dice” in terms of which academics accept the invitation to review. The same is true for promotion applications, promotion or selection panels. Those in positions of authority are not the same from one year to another. You can also not control what other articles/applications are submitted at the same time; competition might be stronger in particular years or for particular positions than for others.
  5. Realise that just because one article at – what you think is – a similar level as yours has been published in a specific journal this doesn’t mean that your own article should be. The same is true for promotions. First, standards tend to increase over time. Have a look at what was published in the top journals in your field 20 years ago; you might be shocked. Second, understand that these articles/individuals might simply have had a "lucky break" or a good "role of the dice"; you might not be equally lucky on your first try.

Further reading