Academic promotion tips (1) - Understand the process

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

[Sincere thanks are due to my colleagues Tim Freeman and Nico Pizzolato for their helpful comments.]

In 2018, I wrote a 4-part blogpost series on the difference between internal and external promotion in academia. It turned out to be one of the most popular series on my blog. I also gave a presentation on this in our CYGNA women's network (you can download the slides here: It is sooo unfair! Internal vs. external promotion).

Since then, I have been working with many colleagues to help them with their internal promotion applications to Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, and full Professor. In that process, I came up with some additional tips and guidelines that may be helpful. Don't forget there are lots of tips in the original series too.

Finally, I have noticed that academics often find it difficult to "calibrate" what is expected of them at different career stages. I have found this British Academy of Management Framework to be very helpful in this respect and I highly recommend it.

A few caveats before we start

  • My experience is based mainly on the Australian and British university systems. Other university systems might have different expectations. Even in those countries, however, these tips might still be useful for other purposes such as Fellowship or Award nominations.
  • My write-up focuses on the most common academic career path: teaching & research. Reflections on teaching/research impact will also be relevant for teaching-only and research-only academics. I lack knowledge to cover the less common teaching & practice career path.
  • My tips focus mainly on internal promotions. As I argued in Internal versus external promotion they tend to require more justification. However, many of my tips are relevant to external promotions too. If not for the job application, then certainly for the presentation and interview.
  • My reflections are descriptive, aiming to help you understand why internal promotion is often more difficult to achieve, and what you can do to improve your chances. This doesn't mean I consider these reasons morally just. But my moral outrage isn't going to get you promoted.
  • My write-up doesn't dwell on bias in organizations, including universities, or the effect of bias (e.g. ethnicity, gender) on promotion decisions. Unfortunately, I cannot wave a magic wand. What I can do, however, is help you to make the best possible case.

Understand why universities promote academics

As in any situation in life, making an effort to understand your counterpart will lead to a more positive outcome. You don't need to agree with the rationales of those on your promotion panel, but you do need to understand them. I explore this further in the section on different incentive structures for internal and external promotion.

It is not uncommon for academics to feel that the university "owes" them promotion after a certain number of years of employment. But remember: you are not promoted to "reward you for being a loyal servant". Promotions generally reflect the potential of what you can do in the future, they are not a reward for what you have done in the past.

So yes, you should use your past achievements to evidence why you should be promoted. But few universities will promote you unless they feel that these past achievements are indicators of even bigger future achievements. What you really want to convey to your employer is that promotion would benefit both you and the institution, because it would allow you to spread your wings and fly even higher still.

Professorial promotions

This is true for promotion to any level, but there is an additional "complication" for promotion to full professor. After you reach the top of the academic hierarchy, the university has less "leverage" over you, i.e. they can't ask you to do jobs that "will look good on your CV". Hence, promotion panels might have two concerns. Unless there are clear signals to the contrary, they may fear that you will:

  1. Become research-inactive. Many professors become more, not less, research-active after promotion; they are intrinsically interested in research and keen to use their new position to do more. But there are also professors who gradually become less and less research-active. Their research motivation might well have been a bit more extrinsic, i.e. driven at least partly by career goals. As the university doesn't know which category you will be in, they will be looking for signals of likely future research performance.
  2. Start focusing purely on your own (niche) research interests. As a result, you might be less likely to actively engage in teaching or leadership. Many universities rely on professors to do the bulk of academic leadership. Hence, they are looking for signals that you will be likely to take on these roles, whether they are formal (e.g. as Head of Department or [Associate] Dean) or informal (e.g. through research mentoring or service to the profession).

Start early and create a "good stuff" file

The first step towards a successful promotion application is to start early. Don't wait until the call for promotion applications comes around. That may only give you a few weeks to "throw an application together", almost certainly leading to an underdeveloped attempt.

Start thinking about your (next) promotion soon after being appointed (promoted). This not only provides you with a clearer focus about the type of activities you need to engage in. It also gives you time to assemble a good case. Then start drafting an actual application 6-12 months before you submit it.

Second, start a "good stuff" file, a file with your professional achievements. Ideally, you should do this at the start of your academic career. However, you should absolutely create one once you start thinking about your promotion application, even if that is years before you actually apply.

I suggest you create a Word document or a folder for your promotion application today and put it on your desktop. Then simply drop every tiny bit of good news and achievement in it. Getting a nice email from a student or colleague? Take a screenshot and drop it in there. Got nominated for an award? Put it in there, even if you were not selected. Saw your work cited by a famous academic in the field? Again, take a screenshot and drop it in there.

Don't worry about nice formatting or systematic reporting. Your first aim is simply to gather material in the quickest way possible. If you have half an hour to spare occasionally, you can go through your file and clean it up a bit. Some achievements might go straight to your CV, others might be collated under a specific heading, e.g. evidence of research or teaching impact, or evidence of academic reputation.

Your "good stuff" file will serve at least three purposes. It will:

  1. Give you something to start with for your first application draft. There is nothing worse than a blank sheet of paper and a daunting list of promotion criteria.
  2. Ensure you don't forget the many small things that in themselves are not consequential but combined might make a strong case. We all think we will remember things when the time comes. We rarely do...
  3. Make you feel good about yourself for two reasons. First, you work on your promotion a bit every day/week/month. Second, you document your achievements and can look back on them on "dark days".

Diversity of academic career paths

Not every university is the same and you might need to tailor your submission, academic career paths can vary dramatically between academics (see also: CYGNA: One size doesn't fit all - Diversity of academic career paths). I was therefore particularly pleased to see Middlesex University's new 2022 promotion guidelines acknowledge this explicitly. Rather than presenting applicants with a list of tick-boxes and hurdles, it provides them with the opportunity to make a case based on their unique circumstances.

We recognise that in a complex organisation, people have different career trajectories, and these guidelines provide an indicative framework within which robust qualitative judgements of overall performance can be made.
A new application form has been designed to allow you to reflect on your journey so far. This may include reflection on your achievements prior to joining the University. If this is the case, it is important that in doing so you make clear how you have built upon these achievements in your subsequent work at Middlesex, to benefit the experience of our learners, our research and KE outputs and impact, and the reputation of the University.
The application asks you to articulate what you see to be your areas of strength and also areas you feel you need to develop. If there is a specific area you feel you have not been able to achieve to the expected level, for example you have not seen a doctoral student through to completion, or you have not been awarded a substantive competitive research grant, and there are specific reasons for this, please present these in the application.

Quick preview: what makes a successful application?

Successful promotion applications make a case for promotion. This means evidencing that your research, teaching, and leadership has made a difference, and embedding this evidence in a general career narrative. Many promotion applications that I have seen over the last two decades are dry and disjointed summaries of the "I have done this, this, and this" without evidence of impact. They lack both a coherent narrative and substantive evidence.

First, rather than relying on dry descriptions or hyperbolic assertions, make a genuine and consistent attempt to evidence your claims. We will look at this in much more detail in the 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 you are 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.

However, before diving into this, have a look at the second post in this series. It explains how you can use all that you have learned from submitting your work to journals to get a head-start for your promotion application.

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

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