Internal versus external promotion [1/4]

Part 1 of a 4-part post which explains why internal promotion in academia might be harder to achieve than external promotion and gives tips for successful applications

[Reprinted on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog, 28 September 2018; listed in 2018 in review: round-up of our top posts for PhDs, postdocs and early-career researchers. Thanks are due to my colleagues Charles Dennis and Praveen Kujal for their helpful comments and my long-time co-author and friend Markus Pudelko for his very insightful 4-page friendly review!]

Why is promotion so important for academics?

In academia, promotion through the ranks can be a very slow, frustrating, and opaque process. There are also very few things in academic life that generate such strong emotions as promotion applications. This is not entirely surprising. Academic salaries are relatively low when compared to other professions that require the same length of training and working hours. Moreover, rejection is a constant feature of academic lives.

Hence, promotion is one of the few big positive reinforcements we get in our careers. So if promotion applications are unsuccessful, academics often feel very deeply about this. For some, it can be like geting a dozen rejections for journal submissions and grant applications in one go. Moreover, as our work is typically such an important part of our personal identity, rejection of an internal promotion application can feel like a rejection from someone close to you, hurting both your feelings and your pride.

And that’s what I want to focus on in the remainder of this post, the difference between internal and external promotion. Let me readily declare my own experience (and thus possible bias) here. In the early part of my career I felt I had to move institutions to get my external promotion to Senior Lecturer; my (internal) promotion applications to Associate Professor and Full Professor were both rejected the first time around. I have been part of dozens of recruitment and internal promotion panels and have seen opinions clashing, games being played, and emotions running high. So it should be no surprise that this is one of the longest blogposts I have ever published. I have therefore split it in four parts. Make sure you get to part 4 as there are some useful tips there:

Is external promotion easier than internal promotion?

Most academics will tell you that external promotion – getting promoted by applying for a higher-level job at another institution – is “easier” than internal promotion – getting promoted by putting in a promotion application at your own institution. For one thing, it is generally much less work. My own – internal – promotion applications at the University of Melbourne generally took me about six weeks of work to prepare. They were substantive 20-page documents in which you needed to make an “argued case” that you were already operating at the level that you wanted to be promoted to.

In terms of research, this means much more than simply listing grants, publications and citations. You are expected to show your “leadership in the academic discipline”, which involves having a coherent research program (or preferably several programs; I had five active research programs when I applied as Associate Professor) that has made a real difference in the field, both academically and societally. So rather than just rattling off the mantra “I have 15 A*/4* and 10 A/3* – or whatever the ranking system is – publications”, you need to talk about why the actual content of your research has made a difference and is of major international significance. This is something many academics find surprisingly hard to do!

In contrast – depending on the country/university – applying for promotion externally can be as simple as sending in your CV and a short application letter, or even just being headhunted for a particular position. At worst, it might involve struggling with online application systems and addressing specific selection criteria, but in my – admittedly limited – experience, this rarely takes more than a day or two. However, in addition to being more time-consuming, internal promotion is also typically harder to achieve. The same academic record that might see you rejected for promotion internally might well lead to an offer for external promotion.

It is not surprising that many academics take the external route and come back to their home institution with a job offer, expecting it to be matched. In some countries, universities even actively encourage this and are unwilling to consider promotion or a salary raise unless academics secure an outside offer. Some academics have even informed me that actually handing in your notice (i.e. resigning) might grant you "instant promotion". Although these strategies might well work, they are by no means guaranteed to do so, so be prepared to walk away or eat humble pie!

 GO TO PART 2: Seven reasons why external promotion is easier >>>

Academic promotion series

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