CYGNA: climbing up the academic career ladder

Reports on our 39th CYGNA meeting with a focus on career progression

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we have had 30 physical meetings. When COVID-19 hit, we moved the meetings online and increased their frequency, offering a full year of monthly meetings. We alternate topics related to gender in academia with academic skills development. This month we dealt with perhaps the ultimate academic career topic: how to climb up the career ladder?

It was clearly a topic of great interest to CYGNA members. A bumper number of 56 were able to attend, of which 53 were present for the above group picture. As has become common in our online meetings, half were from outside the UK, including from Australia, Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Portugal, the Netherlands, Serbia, Switzerland, Taiwan and Turkey.

A special welcome to Amanda Zhang, my new Middlesex colleague Atefeh Maghzi, Christina Galalae, Inés Escobar Borruel, Martyna Janowicz-Panjaitan, Sarah Dodd, Sehrish Shahid and Tania Biswas, and of course our distinguished speaker Sharon Bell, who all attended for the first time.


It is challenging to lead an online meeting with two presentations about a topic that everyone feels so strongly about. However, the meeting was in the very capable hands of Huong Nguyen (Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia).

Sharon Bell: the secret lives of us

The first presentation was by Sharon Bell, Dean, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Honorary Professor, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Professor Sharon Bell is an academic leader with over twenty-five years of leadership experience in the Australian higher education sector. Her significant contribution to tertiary education and advocacy for gender equity was formally recognised when she was admitted as a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia in January 2019.

Professor Sharon Bell shared her insights about career advancement for female academics / researchers, based on her ARC Linkage research and personal career experience. Her presentation - Academic career strategies: the secret lives of us  - was absolutely amazing. It exuded passion, empathy, modesty, and a sense of realism that was refreshing. I envy the academics who have worked in institutions led by her. You can learn more about her passions in this interview in Campus Review.

Sharon also wrote a great paper on how universities can help addressing those great challenges of our time  and tie the higher education sector to an urgent national and global endeavour. You can read it here with a brief summary of one of its key messages in the above YouTub video.

Huong Nguyen: Climbing up the academic career ladder

In the second half of the session, Huong presented findings from her own research about facilitators of and barriers to academic promotion at Australian universities: Climbing up the academic career ladder: findings from a research project. Huong (and her colleagues) found that academics applied various strategies over two stages: (1) becoming ‘promotable’ and (2) getting promoted. They also developed different social abilities such as willingness to reach out and listen to others, amend priorities, and talk up achievements. All in all, eleven strategies were identified which can be grouped into four key strategies groups:

  • (1) developing a growth mindset (considering academic promotion as a learning process, identifying performance gaps and planning);
  • (2) growing performance strategically (aligning performance with university expectations and engaging with mentors);
  • (3) demonstrating work quality (demonstrating improvement in work quality and keeping a record of work impact evidence ready to demonstrate in the written application); and
  • (4) addressing barriers to promotion (overcoming gender issues and institutional barriers such as heavy teaching loads that impact the number of research papers published).

In summary, Huong’s presentation demonstrates that, regardless of discipline, faculty, gender or career stage, academics made concerted efforts and created deliberate strategies aligned to organisational goals to advance their career. She suggested that in advancing their careers, female academics should exercise agency and overcome institutional barriers to succeed.

Q&A and discussion

There was a very lively Q&A for both presentations; we could have easily filled another hour. The chat was also overflowing, running to ten pages overall. Key points coming through from the chat:

How to get your first job?

Members commented on the struggles of acquiring an entry level position, with failure to even get an interview likened to a "desk-reject". Please do realise that even if you meet the job criteria and make it to the interview stage, there might still be others who are a better fit with the university's specific requirements. This doesn't mean you weren't good enough, it just means others were a better fit. This could be because of their specialisation, their type or level of teaching experience, or their research fit with current colleagues.

Keep trying, but do make sure that you do a bit of research on the university before you apply. Many institutions do not hire their own PhD students, which means that you will likely be unfamiliar with the university you apply for. You might not even know much about the country! Check whether there are any CYGNA members working in the same country or even in the same university and ask them for advice.

Also remember that different universities have very different expectations. Private universities might have a lot more flexibility to offer you different kind of careers, sometimes even with much higher salaries. However, work pressure might be much higher and in some cases you might be teaching much more than in other universities.

Are different career paths possible in academia?

Most universities will mainly have research & teaching positions, some have research-only positions (usually fixed-term), others might have teaching-only positions or teaching & practice positions. In all of these roles, however, you will also be expected to fulfil some administrative/leadership functions, with the expectations for this increasing by level.

It is not common to have research & administration career paths (without teaching) for junior academics. This is possible in later career stages if you become for instance Head of Department or (Associate) Dean, although you might find that your time for research is almost non-existent. We will be organising a session on different career paths in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Any further tips on promotions?

First of all, understand the differences between internal and external promotions. Here is a 4-part blogpost series I have written on this: Internal versus external promotion [1/4]. If you go for internal promotion, please do take a good look at this series as it might help you understand the different dynamics in operation. Many of the recommendations in these posts mirror the results Huong found in her studies.

Most of all: research, research, research, both the formal process and regulations and the informal practice. In terms of informal practices, be careful to not just rely on one observation, especially if this observation is from someone who was unsuccessful. We all create our own narratives for why we were unsuccessful and these narratives don't always reflect someone else's reality.


Sharon shared lots of useful resources with us. Here is a selection that are publicly available.

Cygna member Emily Yarrow's article on Knowledge hustlers: Gendered micro‐politics and networking in UK universities is also a great read. Finally you may also enjoy this podcast by Luke Deveraux, one of my lovely Middlesex colleagues about his journey to becoming a lecturer going through hourly teaching and an associate lectureship and Martyna's presentation on how to build a sustainalbe academic career.

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