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

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

Hopefully my first two posts - Understand the process  and Treat your application as a journal submission - have made you think a little differently about promotion applications. In the next three posts, I will demonstrate how to create a well-argued case for three core aspects of an academic job. We'll start with Research & Engagement. Teaching & Learning, and Leadership & Service will follow in the next two posts. But first why is evidencing your impact so important?

Evidence helps to discount the "what ifs"

An effective promotion application is not simply a listing of your publications, the courses you have taught, and the leadership and service roles you have - voluntarily or involuntarily - fulfilled. That's the stuff of your CV. To apply for promotion, you'll need a comprehensive CV. Absolutely! But a CV can only tell your promotion panel so much...

Yes, you may have top journal publications. But what if these articles were methodologically sound, but trivial in terms of their novelty or impact? What if nobody ever read or cited these articles? What if these top publications were achieved once or twice, early in your career with the help of your PhD supervisors, never to be repeated?

A promotion panel can't discount these "what ifs" if they only have access to your CV and a dry summary of your duties and publications. To argue your case, you need to show your positive impact providing concrete evidence. Everyone can claim that they do high-quality research, are inspirational teachers, and transformational as leaders. But how do you evidence this?

In the next three posts, I will give you some concrete examples for Research & Engagement, Teaching & Learning, and Leadership & Service. These examples illustrate what I think is "best practice" in promotion applications. Don't worry if they seem a bit intimidating. You don't have to use them all in your own promotion application. See them as a "menu of choices" to inspire you to reflect on your own contributions. Just use whatever works for your academic record and your institutional requirements.

Evidencing impact in Research & Engagement: the basics

Evidencing impact in this area might seem relatively easy. After all, "money talks" for successful funding applications. Publications in top journals are easily recognised in most disciplines, though it can't hurt to remind readers of the journals' standing in the field. To evidence academic impact, you can point to citations.

All you may need to do is to contextualise your performance for the promotion panel by providing some disciplinary background and benchmarks. Below I have copied a few sections from my own promotion application to full Professor at the University of Melbourne (Australia) that did exactly that. For further support, see: Presenting your case for tenure or promotion?, and How to measure research impact.

Funding: how much is a lot?

Funding levels can differ by an order of magnitude across fields (see also Finding a Unicorn? Research funding in Business & Management research). As I knew my promotion application would be evaluated by academics with very different expectations, contextualising my performance in this area was crucial. So, in my application I clarified that an AUD185K grant was exceptional in my field, rather than just modest to middling as it might appear from a Life Sciences perspective.

What are top journals anyway?

In many institutions you are expected to show that you have published at least some of your work in journals that are among the best in the field. So, what's the problem? Surely everyone knows what these top journals are? Yes, nearly every professor in your own field will instantly recognise top journals by their titles. However, this is not necessarily the case for outsiders, even if they are in a neighbouring field.

Hence in justifying the quality of journal outlets academics will often refer to journal rankings. For some examples of these rankings, see the Journal Quality List that I have maintained since 2000. Your university may have a list of "preferred journals". If not, use either one of the JQL rankings or a citation-based journal metric such as Clarivate's Journal Impact Factor or Elsevier's CiteScore. Make sure you contextualise these citation metrics by field. Here is how I did this in my 2007 promotion application.

Note that the JIFs in this example might appear very low by today's standards. That is because - with publications expanding at 10%/year - average citation levels have increased dramatically in the last 15 years. In 2021, the Journal Impact Factor of the very top journals in Management is >10. However, the general principle of comparisons is still valid.

Note also that judging publications by the ranking of the journal in which they were published is a practice that is discredited by the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). More and more universities have signed this declaration. Personally, I am not a fan of journal rankings either. Over the years, I have written a lot about this (see To rank or not to rank), including some very critical pieces.

However, the reality is that many universities are still using them and, when combined with other indications of the importance/impact of the specific publication - such as normalised citation rates, influential citations and /or academic impact as considered below – the quality of the journal offers additional supporting evidence. This may also help to neutralise academics’ critical natures.

Benchmarks for citation performance

Just like funding levels, citation levels can vary with an order of magnitude between disciplines; they can even show strong variance between sub-disciplines. Moreover, many senior academics such as Deans or Heads of Department may have been promoted at a time when citations weren't really "on the radar". Hence, they might have very little idea of how to evaluate your citation records. (See also: Citation analysis: Tips for Deans and other administrators). This means you may need to provide some benchmarks in your application.

In my first (unsuccessful) application to full Professor, my citation performance was characterised by my Head of Department as "developing", which didn't exactly work in my favour. Yes, that's meant to be an understatement! My promotion application didn't even get past the first hurdle, the Faculty committee. Always "educate" your HoD before they write your letter of support and ask to see it to correct any factual errors. They might well refuse, but you can always ask.

So, in my second application, I went in "with all guns blazing" to show that my citation performance was so much more than "developing". With the help of a software programme developed with Tarma Software Research - with the firmly tongue-in-cheek name Publish or Perish - I created a bibliometric comparison table. It showed my metrics outranked all professors in my field in Australia, all recently promoted professors in the Faculty, and many of the long-established professors. Ironically, the software programme itself is now my most-cited work (see above image).

Note that the h-indices and citation levels in this table might appear low by today's standards. That is because - with publications expanding at 10%/year - average citation levels have increased dramatically in the last 15 years. However, the general principle of comparison is still valid.

Depending on the level of familiarity that you expect from your promotion panel, you may also need to provide a bit more background about citation analysis, data sources and the various metrics. Here is how I introduced the above table in my application.

Beyond funding, top publications, and citation impact

For some universities, providing - contextualised - metrics of research performance is all that is expected. However, for promotion to senior positions, most universities will also expect you to argue for “leadership in the academic discipline”.

To establish this it is not enough to simply rattle off that you have published "five A* articles and ten A articles". You need to show how your research has made a real difference, ideally both academically and societally. Some academics find that surprisingly difficult to do. So below I will provide some examples of how you can evidence both academic and societal impact.

Academic impact

How has your research changed the way that other academics in the field think about particular phenomena? Has it developed or substantially revised theories? Has it contributed new knowledge about previously under-researched phenomena or settings? Has it led the field to embark on new streams of research? Has it successfully disputed earlier findings?

You can - and obviously should - claim all of this in the description of your research programme(s). Sometimes this is enough. But without evidence "from the field" it may remain a bit of an empty claim. So, if you can draw on testimonials from other academics that will certainly help your case. But where do you get these?

Using emails and journal reviews

This is where your "good stuff file" comes in. If you dump every bit of good news into it, you don't need to waste days combing through your archives. Getting a lovely email from someone complimenting you on your paper. Take a screenshot and save it in your good stuff file. A reviewer saying something nice about your paper for a change. Make sure you record it for posterity in your good stuff file.

Several of my early publications (see: Are referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility?, What if fully agree doesn't mean the same thing across cultures? and Should we distance ourselves from the cultural distance concept?) were highly critical of earlier work in the field of International Business. So it was important to show that academics in my field appreciated them. 

Fortunately, I had kept an email from Michael Bond, a very prominent researcher in Cross Cultural Psychology, who - based on the first two articles - called me “the conscience of cross-cultural psychology that keeps us all honest”. For the cultural distance article, here are two reviews excerpts that I used in my promotion application.

This is an excellent, carefully crafted, provocative and timely paper. I think you intelligently address an issue that should concern us all.
I would like to compliment you on a very well-done paper addressing a very important issue. You have provided sound, logical and well-established arguments as to why the field should abandon the use of a construct that has become very popular and is also used without question.

Awards signal ground-breaking contributions

Obviously, it is even better if some of your publications have won awards. In that case you can use the laudation as independent evidence. Most of my best-paper awards came after my promotion to full professor. However, I was fortunate enough to receive one in 2005 with a very nice laudation.

This is an OS style scientific paper at its best. [...] Harzing and Sorge findings about MNEs could be a lesson for science and for what EGOS aims at [...]; to give the floor to a diversity of expressions so that they can dialogue and cross-fertilize. To avoid normal science syndromes, let us be multinational while keeping our research fertilized by our respective "countries of origin" perspectives and traditions.

Another good way to evidence impact is to show that your articles have been reprinted in article collections. Again, I was not able to do this in my promotion application, but in the two years after my promotion to Full Professor four of my articles were reprinted in the SAGE Library series and the Routledge Critical Perspectives collections.

You can even re-use references

Finally, when you are applying for Full Professor you might be able to draw on a particularly evocative recommendation from your external referees for earlier promotion applications. Here is one from my promotion application for Associate Professor. Note how useful the last sentence is in allaying the fears discussed in the first blogpost under understand why university promote academics.

In choosing her research questions, she challenges taken-for-granted assumptions and this makes her work particularly interesting and insightful. What is also particularly commendable in her work is that she engages in difficult primary data collection, often engaging teams of collaborators, instead of following the much easier, but less insightful path of using standard published datasets and “researching under the streetlight”. Her international reputation as a scholar and her ability to continue to publish intriguing articles that challenge conventional wisdom are not in doubt.

Societal impact

Second, has your research made a difference for society? In many countries, universities are now valuing societal impact as much as academic impact. Although we can't expect every piece of research to have direct societal impact, being able to evidence this will certainly benefit your promotion application.

Societal impact wasn't really "on the agenda" when I applied for promotion for Associate and Full Professor 15-20 years ago. So here is an example from a recent - successful - application to Associate Professor by my colleague Andrea Werner in which she outlines the external impact of her work on the Living Wage in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). See how she neatly combines a past achievement with an evidenced claim for future potential.

The LW in SMEs project forms the basis of a high-quality impact case study for the Business School’s REF2021 submission, evidencing the impact of my research on campaign organisations, businesses and policy makers (CV, p.6). Firm plans are in place to continue with LW research, in particular with a cross-disciplinary project focusing on the LW in Adult Social Care developed under my leadership.

The video above - Academics as Change Makers, a session run by the Business Ethics, CSR and Governance Research Cluster - shows additional evidence of how my Middlesex University Business School colleagues have done this. It features areas as diverse as the Living Wage, labour rights reporting and accountability and social justice in global value chains, sustainability in procurement professionals, and sexual and reproductive health of women migrant workers.

Your research standing

Beyond reporting contextualised funding, publication and citation data, and evidencing both academic and societal impact, there are lots of other ways you can showcase your standing as a researcher, especially when applying for Associate or Full Professor. Think about editorial board memberships or editorships, evaluation of funding proposals for research councils, invitations for keynote speeches or visiting professorships.

If you play a major role in research supervision or research mentoring more generally, you are in luck! There is often some flexibility in where you can report these contributions. Research supervision and your ability to attract research students could be seen as evidence of your research prowess, but it could equally 'beef up' a section on teaching & learning if needed. Depending on its specific focus, research mentoring could credibly be mentioned in any of these three areas: research, teaching, and service/leadership.

At Middlesex University, long after my promotion to full professor, I embarked on a formal role in the area of research mentoring and staff development. However, research mentoring has been a core part of my academic identity even when I was fairly junior. So, I have drawn upon this quite heavily in my various promotion applications. It is an area in which testimonials work particularly well. Here is a lovely one from Thomas Hippler, written in the acknowledgments of his PhD. Rest in peace Thomas (A tribute to Thomas Hippler (1972-2018)).

Finally, I want to thank Dr. Anne-Wil Harzing for her encouragement and leading by example. One cannot hope for better guidance in terms of good scholarship, professional assertiveness, and personal humbleness.

Any "extras" with that?

In justifying your impact in research & engagement, you can also bring up unique aspects of your academic record that you are particularly proud of. In my own applications for instance, I drew attention to the fact that my early publications in top-ranked journals were nearly all single-authored.

Another aspect of my research profile that I wanted to bring under the promotion panel's attention was my leadership of large-scale research projects. It was a very useful complement to my single-authored publications.

While these examples might not be applicable for you, the list of things you can use as evidence of research impact is endless. Be creative and highlight those aspects of your research career that make your application come to life. We all have diamonds in the rough in our CVs, make sure you polish them and let them shine. Next, let's turn to the two other core areas of an academic job: Teaching & Learning and Leadership & Service.

PART 4: Academic promotion tips (4) - Evidence your impact in Teaching & Learning >>>

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