Academic promotion tips (6) - Craft your career narrative

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

Evidencing your positive impact for the core aspects of an academic job: Research & Engagement, Teaching & Learning, Leadership & Service is crucial. Additionally, and especially when applying for promotion to (Assoc) Professor, however, universities might also want to know what you "profess". In other words, a coherent statement of what you see as the core of your academic identity.

Drawing on your academic identity can turn your application from a fairly sterile list of achievements to a compelling career narrative. It demonstrates you are an individual who cares about their profession, rather than a cardboard cut-out rattling off a list of tick-boxes.

Finding your career narrative is not always easy. Some academics are able to craft this narrative prospectively, others construct it retrospectively - perhaps even drawing inspiration from how others see them. Below I provide examples for each of these three options.

Craft your career narrative prospectively

For some academics a career narrative comes naturally and dates from the very start of their careers. These are usually academics who have a very focused research interest and/or a burning passion for a particular field of research.

One of my colleagues, Andrea Werner, recently applied successfully for promotion to Associate Professor. Her application had a very clear narrative around her interest in Business Ethics and CSR. This was reflected in both her contribution to research and to teaching.

My research interest in Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility derives from my belief that business should be a force for good in society. I thus have a passion for applied research that, in line with the University’s aim, “has a positive impact in society”.

I am passionate about teaching Business Ethics; today’s business world requires a thorough understanding of ethical and social responsibility issues. Through my teaching, students develop crucial employability skills such as analytical and critical thinking, developing solutions to ethical issues, and the ability to speak up about misconduct.

However, it was also evident in her leadership, which - in addition to being PhD coordinator and seminar coordinator for the department - involved appointments as a reviewer for the Departmental Research Ethics Committee (REC), editorial board member of Journal of Business Ethics, a premier journal in the field, and co-lead of a cross-departmental research cluster in Business Ethics and Corporate Governance.

Hence, her passions and strengths were abundantly clear from her application. They also provided an excellent match with the need of the university and the school. As Andrea also effectively evidenced her performance in research, teaching, and leadership, the decision to promote her is likely to have been an easy one.

Many of my Middlesex Business School colleagues have an equally burning research passion that guides their career. Here is a selection that might inspire you to write your own:

  • Anastasia Christou: My interdisciplinary research on the inequalities of gender, class, race / ethnicity, sexualities in migrant/minority, youth/ageing groups advances decolonial contributions and transnational ethical awareness toward social justice, inclusivity, and equity.
  • Parisa Dashtipour: My research explores the organizational and psychosocial dynamics that shape and limit mental health at work.
  • Athina DilmperiMy research examines how consumption can improve well-being, focusing on how lives can be enriched by the creative/cultural and recreation domains. I collaborate with industry and policy makers to provide solutions that increase societal well-being.
  • Tim Freeman: My research explores issues of public service delivery, policy and governance, and my current and recent funded projects and publications have an economic development emphasis in relation to migrant communities within the UK and global south.
  • Yan Jiang: My research explores how to manage and achieve sustainability in the supply chain. This research is closely related to the industry, involving relationship management, mutual influence, and key performance outcomes for supply chain members.
  • Nico Pizzolato: My research looks at the transformation of capitalism over the past century and the changing role and subjectivities of workers in it; within this horizon, I focus on labour migration; coercion and labour; workplace democracy.
  • Ericka Rascon Ramirez: My research focuses on the causes of low investments in human capital. I use economic and social psychology theories to inform the design of interventions that aim to improve learning, sexual health, and civic education in Africa and Middle East.
  • Salma Soliman: My passion for multi-disciplinary research leads me to explore different topics and industries (e.g. global value chains, refugee entrepreneurship, agro-industry, hotel industry) under the general umbrella of institutional voids in emerging markets (EMs).
  • Clarice Santos: My research interests reflect my commitment to, and passion for, diversity, equality, inclusion, and ultimately, social justice. I use community building and engagement to co-create better futures, focusing particularly on women and ethnic minorities.

Create your career narrative retrospectively

Not all of us have such a strong narrative running through our career. Personally, I very much "stumbled into" a PhD and an academic career. I chose my research topics based on whatever fascinated me at the time or the practical challenges that I encountered, rather than having a burning research passion. So, I certainly didn't have a coherent narrative ready when I started writing my promotion application.

But sometimes you can craft this narrative retrospectively. You might be able to deduce it from a pattern of actions, much like an emergent strategy. This might not be possible for your entire career profile, but you may be able to do this for one or more elements of your application.

When I crafted my promotion application for Associate Professor, I really struggled to tie together five different research programmes. However, after some reflection I was able to capture the principles underlying them (see below) and was able to write up the rest of application evidencing these principles.

My approach to research has been guided by three principles: conducting innovative research in new areas; designing rigorous, systematic, and large-scale empirical tests of core models and theories in international management; and challenging commonly held beliefs through a critical evaluation of established work. As a result, my research has consistently pushed the frontiers in the area of International Management and has become highly cited by academics in the field.

My teaching statement was fairly generic. To make my case, I relied mostly on the breadth of the courses I taught, my good teaching evaluations, and my textbook in International HRM. At the time there wasn't yet the need to establish you had consistently taught according to the 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 or even 20 “principles of effective teaching”, and/or embodied the “values of the university” through your teaching.

However, I think I did manage to find a fairly coherent - retrospective - rationale for my approach to leadership. What do you think?

There are so many opportunities for leadership in University management that it is difficult to know where to channel one's efforts. I found that one of the best places for me to show leadership was in a place that would capitalise on my research skills and my passion for mentoring, so I’ve taken on a large-scale Departmental role – the directorship of the PhD program. [...] I was also able to express this through the development and maintenance of my academic website, www.harzing.com, into a major resource centre in international and cross-cultural management.

For those that are cynical about exercises in "story-telling", I am not suggesting you disingenuously invent a story. What I am suggesting is that you use your promotion application as a reflection on what is important to you. Your evaluators will find it much easier to appreciate your contributions if they display some coherence.

Be inspired by colleagues' view of your work

You know how readers sometimes find meanings in a poem that the writer was oblivious about? How art critics create narratives that would perplex the artist? Similary, someone else might find a narrative in your academic work that you had not even consciously realised. Given some distance, your colleagues can often see the wood, when all that you can see are the individual trees.

This doesn't always happen in time for your promotion application unfortunately. In my case it didn't. But I do have two good examples that occurred in the years after my promotion to Full Professor. In 2015, the volume "Grands Auteurs en Management International" devoted an entire chapter to my contributions to the field of International Business. The authors of the chapter saw a logic in my research programmes that I had not consciously realised, and documented explicitly how it influenced the field.

Harzing's work offers a strong contribution by virtue of its integration into the core field of international management [...]. First of all, she adopted a logic of testing and extending previous research (Harzing, 2000; Harzing and Noorderhaven, 2006a), especially at the start of her career. In addition, her typology of modes of control (Harzing, 1999) was taken up by many researchers and has profoundly influenced the literature on coordination and control mechanisms.
Her reflections on expatriation, and in particular the question of the failure rate for expatriation (Harzing, 1995, 2002), have strongly influenced international HR researchers. Her work on the influence of the country-of-origin and the questioning of the European MNC model (Harzing and Sorge, 2003; Harzing, Sorge and Paauwe, 2002; Harzing and Noorderhaven, 2008) was likewise pioneering. It is interesting to note contributions with long-term co-authors, on the same themes, which contributed to a powerful cumulative narrative logic.

Earlier, in 2011, Stephen Bensman's review of my Publish or Perish book and his assessment of me as a "woman with an agenda" was entirely unexpected. But yes, he was absolutely right! My involvement in the area of bibliometrics and the creation of the Publish or Perish software (see screenshot above) was driven by a strong drive to democratise access to research evaluation and to change the playing field for Social scientists.

I must say I loved the bit at the end of the review where he compared the Publish or Perish software to a "torpedo blasting paths through the evaluative defenses surrounding the entrenched positions of academia". It is the closest I ever got to being a revolutionary!

The winning combination

The winning combination for a promotion application is a great narrative which exudes passion, combined with concrete evidence of impact (in Research & Engagement, Teaching & Learning, and Leadership & Service). One without the other is difficult to sell, having neither is a sure fire way to fail.

Many promotion applications that I have seen over the last two decades have neither. They are often dry and disjointed summaries of the "I have done this, this, and this" without evidence of impact. Sometimes they are supplemented by an implicit or explicit "by the way my promotion is long overdue and you'd better promote me or else...". They lack both a coherent narrative and substantive evidence.

Your promotion panel should get a feel for your academic identity and passion. They don't want a cardboard cut-out academic, slotting into a standard template. Although it might not always feel like it, they are not looking for a person that just "ticks the boxes". Who are you? What makes you tick? What do you stand for? Their hearts should swell with pride for having such a great colleague. They shouldn't be falling asleep wrestling through a tedious record of roles, or getting annoyed by baseless bragging without evidence.

In its new 2022 promotion guidelines, Middlesex University explicitly asks applicants to reflect on their academic identity before setting out their case for promotion: "Briefly reflect on the motivation for the activities in which you have been involved and your overarching goals, principles and values."

Pro tip: link your narrative to your university's mission

This shows you engage with the university outside your own department, which is crucial for career progression to senior levels. Yes, I know strategy documents can often appear contrived and vacuous. But they do tell you something about the university's values and priorities. Is it mainly focused on teaching and learning, or does it seem to prioritise research? Is its focus on fundamental research or more applied research? How does it engage with external stakeholders?

For instance, Middlesex University's purpose is to "create knowledge and put it into action to develop fairer, healthier, more prosperous and sustainable societies". Referring to its Latin motto "rerum cognoscere causas", LSE's purpose and vision is to be "a community of people and ideas, founded to know the causes of things, for the betterment of society". Their ultimate focus is not worlds apart, but the emphases are quite different. 

In 2022 Middlesex University completely revamped its promotion criteria. In addition to explicitly including collegiality as one of its criteria, it also made the link to its mission more explicit: "Strategy 2031 presents our vision and aims for the future, our values and what we value. It is important that promotion and progression align with our shared values and the process reflects the focus on collegiality and a continued commitment to equality, diversity and inclusivity."

Finally: See it as time for reflection

Does even just reading this make you feel tired? I am not surprised. But don't forget that this series is meant to be a distillation of "best practice". Don't feel you have to all that is listed above to be successful in your promotion application. You don't have to be a an superhero (see also: We need a different kind of superhero: improving gender diversity in academia).

However, writing up a good case for promotion does take time. It took me more than a month full-time to put my first one together, though partly that's because in most Australian universities the case runs to twenty pages. I won't lie, I have cursed all the time I have had to spend on promotion applications. I was promoted internally to Associate Professor and full Professor and was rejected the first time, so I have had to spend several months of my research time on this.

However, ultimately, I am grateful that I was "forced" to put in the work. It really made me think about my academic career and where I wanted to go. It led directly to a major change in how I represented my research programs and argued my contribution to my discipline. It also made me more aware of the metrics that are used to evaluate academic performance, which came in handy in my later role as Associate Dean Research at the University of Melbourne and my role as Research Mentor and Staff Development Lead at Middlesex University.

So try to see work on your promotion application not as a "chore" to comply with silly rules or as a battle with organizational politics. Instead, see it as an investment in yourself to help you really articulate what you are proud of and how you would like to spend the next 5, 10, or 15 years of your academic career.

Finally, don't forget that you can reuse your carefully crafted promotion statements in lots of other settings: funding applications, applications for academic awards or fellowships, yearly performance appraisals, applying for external promotion. Heck, you can even use them nearly twenty years after the fact to write up blogposts about promotion applications :-).

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