Academic promotion tips (2) - Treat your application as a journal submission

Second of a six-part blogpost series on how to write an effective application for promotion in academia

Hopefully my first post - Academic promotion tips (1) - Understand the process has given you a better understanding of why universities (do not) promote academics. Now let's consider the actual process of preparing a promotion application.

This process has many similarities with the process of submitting an article for publication and doing research in the first place. So why not use the experience you have gained in those contexts? Here are ten tips.

Tip 1: Gather information

Gather as much information as possible, not just about the formal rules (journal guidelines or 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. They are not different from the general public in that respect. Bad news "sells". Have you noticed that these horror stories somehow have a tendency to get embellished each time they are retold?

Tip 2: Learn by example

In the writing bootcamp I run at Middlesex University (see Middlesex University 2021 virtual writing boot-camp), I ask participants to get three example papers from the journal they are targeting. I suggest you do the same with promotion applications. However, select your examples wisely.

First, select examples that are relevant to your case. If you are submitting an article with quantitative methods, you don't select a qualitative example. The same applies to promotion applications. Every institution has its own promotion requirements. So get examples from your own institution if at all possible. If your colleagues are not willing to share, find universities with a similar orientation.

Second, get recent examples, promotion guidelines may have changed. But more importantly, so have expectations (see: the past is another country...). You might think that's not fair. I agree. However, it is a reality. 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!

Tip 3: Consider your audience

The way you write up your article or promotion application depends on your audience. You already know how this works for journal submissions. Submitting to a specialist journal? You can assume a certain level of familiarity with the main authors, theories, and research methods in the field. Trying your luck in a more highly-ranked generalist journal? You might need to provide a bit more justification in all of these areas. Writing for a journal in another discipline? You might need to do a lot of explaining to get your contribution recognised.

But the same is true for promotion applications. Find out who will be deciding on your promotion application. Is it a departmental panel? A panel at the level of the School or Faculty? Or even a university-level panel? Applications for Associate and Full Professor are typically evaluated at higher organizational levels than applications for promotion to Lecturer or Senior Lecturer. In small universities even Associate Professorship applications might be decided at the University level. Bigger universities might have panels for broad disciplinary areas, such as the Social Sciences.

Anything above the departmental level requires much more contextualisation, both qualitatively and quantitatively. This is especially true for research. Step outside your narrow disciplinary area. Beyond Science and Nature there are very few journals that are recognised across disciplines! Highlighting your standing in the field through your well-known collaborators? A famous academic in Marketing might be a complete unknown even in the related discipline of Management.

Are you a Business School academic boasting about publishing three articles a year? Expect to be seen as a slacker in the Life Sciences. Proudly featuring your 50K grant? Academics in the Natural Sciences might wonder why you are even mentioning it. So, build in some field benchmarks in your application to contextualise your achievements. I show you how to do this in the next blogposts.

Tip 4: Tailor your submission

We all know we need to tailor our journal articles to the outlet we are submitting to. You wouldn't send a review article to an empirical journal, would you? You are not going to submit an experimental paper to a journal that focuses on action research. You know that trying to get an article with a student sample published in a Management journal is usually a recipe for failure. So we learn to pick our journal outlets wisely.

Unfortunately, in internal promotion applications your "outlet" (university) is fixed. So, if you work for a teaching-intensive university, don't lead with your research performance and vice versa. If your university values fundamental research, then evidence how your research presented a major advance in the field. Do they care more about societal impact? Ensure you don't just "bang on" about your publications in top journals. By all means mention them, but also explain how your research has made a difference to society.

Is the discrepancy between your academic record and priorities and the expectations of your university is too large? Then applying externally might well be the only solution if you are not able or willing to narrow this gap in the short term and you are keen to be promoted quickly. However, this does bring its own problems.

Tip 5: Realise that packaging does matter

Start early and polish, polish, polish. Yes, content is more important than packaging. But good packaging can make it much easier to appreciate the content of your article or promotion application. Academics are subject to anchoring effects too. The fastest way to annoy an editor/reviewer is to have an abstract with typos or convoluted sentences.

Likewise, I have seen applications that seemed to have been thrown together in a few days. They were full of typos, ungrammatical sentences, and hyperbolic unsupported assertions. This casts serious doubts on your academic abilities. To the promotion panel it might also convey an "I don't care and think I am good enough to not bother" attitude - which is unlikely to improve your chances of success.

Tip 6: Ask for advice

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 half a dozen colleagues and 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 I bought them lunch :-).

Tip 7: Think R&R, not reject

Treat an unsuccessful application as a revise & resubmit, not a rejection. Yes, you can go to another journal outlet (university). This might work if that journal's/institution's expectations are entirely different. However, in most cases you will find that unless you take the reviewer comments into account, this is unlikely to end happily.

In dealing with a promotion rejection, also try and keep emotions at bay. Well..., at least after a few days of cursing the panel's ignorance and soothing your emotions with wine or chocolate. Most of all, try to not to let it impact on your self-esteem. I know rejections always hurt, but do remember this isn't personal. Just address the feedback and try again.

Second, don't withdraw into anger or cynicism over supposed injustice. I certainly feel I have suffered from bias and university politics at several junctures in my career. It has kept me awake at night more than once. Life can be very unfair. But if you focus on this too much, it only makes the effects of it worse. (See also: How to prevent burn-out? About staying sane in academia).

Tip 8: Accept you can't control everything

Realise that in journal submissions and promotion applications alike there are always things that are beyond your control. When submitting to journals success may be dependent on who the acting editor is. You are also subject to the 'role of the dice' in terms of the academics that accept the invitation to review.

The same is true for promotion applications and promotion panels. Those in positions of authority are not the same from one year to another. Moreover, you cannot control what other articles/applications are submitted at the same time; competition might be stronger in specific years or for particular journals/positions than for others.

Capacity might also be larger in some journals and universities than in others. Some journals have expanded the number of articles they publish to match increasing submissions. Others have stuck resolutely to publishing only a very small selection. Some universities might promote everyone who meets the criteria. Others might only have a fixed number of places every year.

Tip 9: Recognise outliers

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, we are all biased. You can rarely compare yourself directly to other academics. But we all 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. There is more to an academic record than can be judged by a 1-minute glance through their list of publications.

Second, standards increase over time. Have a look at what was published in the top journals in your field 20-30 years ago; you might be shocked. The same is true for promotion applications. Have a look at Tip 2 and "the past is another country" for details.

Third, understand that these articles/individuals might simply have had a "lucky break" or a good "role of the dice". There is no guarantee you might be equally lucky on your first try. Refer back to Tip 8 for details.

Tip 10: Neutralise academics' critical nature

Remember that academics are "programmed" to find faults and reason to reject. That's just the nature of our profession. Every paper submission/promotion application has its weaknesses, so a panel can always find a reason to reject your application.

So, what makes an editor/reviewer or promotion panel look "beyond" the weaknesses? There are two things you can do that might help. First, rather than rely on hyperbolic assertions make a genuine and consistent attempt to evidence your claims. We will look at this in much more detail in the next three posts for the three core aspects of an academic job: Research & Engagement, Teaching & Learning, Leadership & Service.

Second, create a real sense of excitement about what is "on offer" by showing the paper or academic is not just "ticking the boxes" of the template, but providing a unique contribution. This is what the last post in this series - Craft your career narrative - is all about.

Academic promotion tips (3) - Evidence your impact in Research & Engagement >>>

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