Academic promotion tips (5) - Evidence your impact in Leadership & Service

Fifth 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 posts (3)-(5) I demonstrate how to create a well-argued case for the three core aspects of an academic job. In previous posts we discussed Research & Engagement and Teaching & Learning. Here we will discuss Leadership & Service. 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 been Department Head. But what if half of the staff left during your tenure? Yes, you may have been the department's seminar coordinator. But what if most seminars started late, were chaotic, and attendance dropped during your tenure. Yes, you may have been a member of many committees. But what if all you did was sit through the meetings in silence?

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 output. 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? Below I will give you some concrete examples for 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 Leadership:
On job titles and beyond...

Research and teaching have generally accepted "objective" performance indicators such as publications, funding, citations, and teaching evaluations. These indicators may well be flawed, but they are commonly used. Making a case for the positive impact of your leadership and service to the university (or wider academic profession) might be a bit harder as there are no clear-cut indicators. So, you need to a bit more creative.

Most important is to keep in mind that leadership and service is not only about job roles and titles. Yes, having taken on these positions is better than not having done any of them. But it is entirely possible for bad or just mediocre performance in leadership and service to go unnoticed. Unlike research and teaching, there are few established accountability mechanisms.

So, your promotion panel will want to know what lies behind that job title. They want to know whether your involvement has made a difference. Especially when applying for promotion to Associate Professor or Professor, it is not enough to "sit on a committee" or "take your turn" as programme leader or seminar organizer. It is all about how your presence has changed the university or the academic community for the better. So how would this work in practice?

Point to specific initiatives and qualitative change

First of all, make sure that you provide a synopsis of what the leadership or service role involves. Remember, this might not be common knowledge to everyone. Moreover, these roles might include very different responsibilities across universities, or even Faculties, Schools, and Departments.

Second, point to specific initiatives that you have developed during your tenure. This shows that you didn't just take on a "caretaker" role, but actively tried to improve outcomes. Here is mine for my role as Director of the PhD program at the University of Melbourne. Note that I didn't only list the initiatives, but also tried to evidence their positive impact in general qualitative terms. You may be able to write up something similar for other programme director roles.

If necessary, you can also provide a bit more detail about individual activities and evidence positive impact through testimonials.

Show positive changes in "hard metrics"

Although providing evidence of specific initiatives is a big improvement over job titles, this doesn't always tell the panel whether these initiatives were successful. Above I tried to argue for positive impact, but I was unable to provide any "hard metrics". The university's systems at the time were simply not set up for this.

If your university does have good monitoring systems, you may be able to point to positive changes in quantitative terms. For teaching-related roles this could be metrics such as growing student numbers for a programme, improvements in the National Student Surveys, an increase in the proportion of students receiving scholarships, or an increase in timely completion.

Although I did not have access to hard metrics like this for my PhD directorship, I was able to point to some key changes that were indisputable:

I led a major review of the Department’s PhD programme in 2006 and have already implemented many of its recommendations. For the first time since inception of the programme, PhD students now receive substantial resources for conference attendance and fieldwork. I also ensured that PhD students were provided with the facility to create their own home pages.

For research-related leadership roles you could refer to increases in international research rankings or to national research evaluations, such as the REF (Research Excellence Framework) in the UK. However, remember that the more distant these metrics are to the outcome, the less convincing they will be. This is how I tried to argue this for the impact of my role in research mentoring and staff development at Middlesex University in my performance appraisal (See: Middlesex University rising in the research rankings).

Obviously it not possible to establish conclusively a direct link between MUBS investing in a supportive and collaborative research culture and improved research outcomes. That said, it is probably no coincidence that, since 2016, Middlesex University in general – and the Business School in particular – have substantially improved their position in the four major international research rankings: the Times Higher Education ranking, the Times Higher Education Young Universities ranking, the ARWU Shanghai ranking, and the US NEWS Best Global Universities ranking.

Testimonials from students and colleagues

Testimonials from other people are a great way to evidence your impact in the leadership and service area. Over the years I have received many lovely emails from colleagues relating to my roles in research leadership at the University of Melbourne, my service to the wider academic community through the Publish or Perish software in the past fifteen years, my new role in research mentoring at Middlesex University, and my work in the CYGNA women's network.

Although I was elected as one of the Leading lights for this work in 2019, I have never had a chance to use these as my promotion to full Professor preceded these roles. So I have linked some examples in a pdf to inspire you to think about the kind of messages you may be able to use. Remember that I would never have been able to collate these examples if I didn't maintain a "nice emails" folder in my mailbox. This can be a major source of your "good stuff file".

I write plenty of testimonials and thank-you emails myself (see also: Changing academic culture: one email at a time...). Above is one I wrote for our wonderful HoD Mariana Dodourova. Consider posting testimonials on your LinkedIn profile as it makes it easier for people to refer to them. Under the banner 2022 The Year of Positive Academia I have started to write testimonials for colleagues, mentees, co-authors, and others I admire (see also: Using LinkedIn recommendations to support others). To date I have written nearly 50 and I have no intention to stop :-).

Although my testimonials (given and received) were unsolicited, don't hesitate to ask people to write these for you if you think they are justified. If you do a good job, most colleagues are happy to do so, they just need a little prompting.

Service to the academic community

For academic service work, you can often refer to publicly available material. For instance, to evidence your involvement in reviewing you might consider setting up a Publons profile. This allows you to "claim" reviews you have done. The image above is one by my colleague Dox Kyriacou, who is an avid reviewer.

If you run an academic website or blog like me, page visits and ranking in global internet traffic (see above) can be a good metric to evidence impact. For some of these metrics you might need to provide some context. Here's how I would do this for my website: "In evaluating website rankings it helps to know that there are currently about 1.2 billion websites, with 200 million of those active. So, my website ranks in the top 0.1% of active websites in terms web traffic."

For academic service work that relates to a specific position, you can use the same strategy as I outlined above for leadership positions in your own institution. Here is an example of one of my early leadership roles, one that I took on just before I was appointed as Senior Lecturer.

Make invisible work visible

The problem with service work is that so much of it is "invisible". This is true for formal administrative positions as well as "organizational citizenship behaviour". It is the type of work that has been identified as "wives of the organization work". For more detail on this see Anne Huff's wonderful article: Wives of the organization. It is more than 30 years old, but has lost none of its potency. Here are some excerpts.

Almost all the female professionals I know are overly committed to time consuming but often unnoticed and unrewarded aspects of organizational life. [...] First of all, the organization wife recognizes personal differences, is usually aware of other people's needs, and tries to fill those needs. [...] Because we recognize these things more often, because we think about them more often, we are more likely to do something about them.
"... being an administrator is the worst of being the traditional wife. What those around you want are hot meals on time. They do not want to know how it is done. They rarely say thank you. Nonetheless it all has to be done over again the next day."

So, whether you are female, male, or non-binary: if you are a wife of the organization, feel free to make your invisible, but invaluable work, visible by drawing attention to it in your promotion application. This is especially true for organizational citizenship behaviour that isn't often recognised in promotion guidelines. One note of caution here - don't go overboard, especially if you are a woman.

While warmth is seen as positive for all professionals, women are caught in an unfortunate paradox. Women considered not warm enough are likely to be described as too competitive, or even considered as "a bitch" - and yet if considered too warm this may detract from their perceived competence (for an excellent analysis see: What if warmth / competence for women is not a matrix but a spectrum?). Here is my modest addition in a 20-page application.

My amazing Middlesex colleague Satkeen Azizzadeh would be able to write pages on this. In her successful application for promotion to Senior Lecturer she also sensibly kept it to a modest few sentences. Fortunately, she asked me to be one of her referees and I was able to elaborate on this to do full justice to this time-consuming role. Rest assured, I only did so after writing in equally effusive terms about her ability as a researcher.


Although collegiality is essential for the smooth functioning of any organisation and the well-being of its employees, promotion guidelines in most universities emphasise individual achievements and reinforce competition. In 2022 Middlesex University completely revamped its promotion criteria. The new criteria make collegiality an explicit element of any application.

Collegiality is seen as a key factor in ensuring the successful implementation of the Strategy and so it is a core criterion for promotion. All candidates must explicitly demonstrate how they have upheld the principles of the University and provide evidence of how they contribute to the delivery of the University Strategy.

The guidelines suggest that evidencing good academic citizenship can take many forms and includes:

  • Contributing to an inclusive community through promoting equality and diversity.
  • Supporting the career development of colleagues, including mentoring, support, peer review and relevant collaborations, particularly in relation to early career colleagues.
  • Voluntary or civic engagement activities in line with the University’s strategic goals.
  • Taking on Departmental, Faculty or University roles which may be over and above what may be expected.

Committee membership: how (not) to evidence this?

Most of the examples above deal with major leadership roles that might be quite rare at early career stages. However, nearly all of us have some experience with committee membership. So how do you make the most of this in your application (and obviously in your actual performance in the role!)? The below example shows four ways in which you can write this up. It is based on my own experience as an early career member of the research committee in the late 1990s.

      1. Role-based: "I was the ECR (early career researcher) member of the research committee." This is not very effective as it could mean anything from skipping three quarters of the meetings and sitting silent in the others to transforming the life of ECRs in your institution.
      2. Activity-based: "As an ECR member of the research committee, I actively solicited feedback from other junior staff so that I could represent their perspective. I also volunteered to investigate our institution's journal ranking list. This involved collating journal rankings from other institutions in the UK and abroad." This is more effective as it demonstrates an active role and concrete initiatives.
      3. Impact-based: "I was an advocate for ECRs on the research committee and ensured improved conditions for junior staff". Whilst this might sound nice, without specifics and evidence this is a rather empty claim. So, whilst better than #1, it is not very effective.
      4. Evidence-based impact: "As a result of my research into journal rankings, the School changed the journal rankings it used for tenure and promotion decisions. This led to more equality between different sub-disciplines in the School."

A combination of 2 & 4 transforms a boring committee membership into a strong contribution. It also documented that I was willing to go the extra mile to help the university change its systems for the better. The resulting collated list of journal rankings was also one of the first resources to be posted on my academic website which I created soon after.

Career narrative

The above example of my role as ECR member of the research committee could have been used in later promotion applications to document my early interest in research evaluation. This interest ultimately led to the Journal Quality List (2000), now in its 68th edition, and the Publish or Perish software (2007). It was also the beginning of what is now among the 0.1% most visited websites in the world (see above).

Finally, it led to a new research programme on the Quality and Impact of Academic Research with dozens of publications on the role of editors and editorial boards in the publishing process, the development of new citation-based metrics, the role of bibliometrics in the Social Sciences, and national research evaluations. The latest publication is a 2020 book chapter Everything you always wanted to know about impact....

If I had to apply for promotion today, it would have given me a very nice career narrative. And this brings us to the topic of the last blogpost in this series: Academic promotion tips (6) - Craft your career narrative.

Academic promotion tips (6) - Craft your career narrative >>>

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