Writing promotion applications (5): Write for the reader
Fifth of six posts on writing effective promotion applications
In 2022 Middlesex University revamped its promotion guidelines, moving to a narrative CV approach which centres around five key contributions: generation of knowledge, societal impact, success of learners, life of the university, and development of individuals. That year I worked with more than a dozen academics on their applications, many of whom were successful.
In June 2023, I organised an information session for academics planning to apply in the 2023 round. Three successful applicants presented their reflections, with another three providing their recorded presentations on our Professional Development Gateway (for MDX academics only). I had a packed house, evidencing the strong interest in the topic.
At this session I provided an introductory presentation that captured several key lessons drawn from my own experiences in applying for promotion, my recently published book Writing effective promotion applications and my support of Middlesex academics in the process. This series of blogposts draws on this presentation.
My presentation was quite generic and might therefore be useful for academics at other universities preparing for promotion too. Remember though: always consult your own university’s guidelines. The process, criteria and expectations for promotion differ not just by country, but also by university.
All posts in this series
- Writing promotion applications (1): Why is promotion so important for academics?
- Writing promotion applications (2): Start early
- Writing promotion applications (3): Focus on the why & how, not the what
- Writing promotion applications (4): Focus on impact
- Writing promotion applications (5): Write for the reader
- Writing promotion applications (6): What if you are rejected?
The Winter tip is to write for the reader, to make things explicit. Remember the promotion panel are not mind readers. As academics, we already know perfectly well how "writing for the reader" works for journal submissions.
- Submitting to a specialist journal in your own narrowly defined field? You can assume a certain level of familiarity with the field's main authors the theories and the dominant research methods.
- Trying your luck in a more generalist journal that is more highly ranked? You will need to do a lot more explaining and justification in all of these areas. There simply is not this level of shared understanding that there is in your narrowly defined sub-discipline.
- Are you writing for a journal in in another discipline altogether? Well then you might do a lot of explaining to get your contribution recognized.
The same is absolutely true for promotion applications, so...
In order to write for the reader you first need to know who the reader is. So find out who will be deciding on your promotion application. Is it a departmental panel, is it at the level of the School or Faculty or is it even a University level panel? Applications for Associate and full Professor are typically evaluated at a higher organizational level than applications for promotion to Lecturer or Senior lecturer.
In smaller universities Associate Professorship applications and definitely Professorship applications might be decided at the University level and all disciplines might be considered at the same time. Bigger universities might have separate panels, but only for broad disciplinary areas such as the Social Sciences, not narrow disciplinary areas such as Business or even narrower sub-disciplines such as Management, Marketing or Finance.
So, anything above the departmental level requires much more contextualization, both qualitatively and quantitatively. This is especially true for research which varies dramatically between disciplines. So step outside your narrow disciplinary area.
Beyond Science and Nature there are very few journals that are recognized across disciplines. So, highlighting your standing in the field through proudly referring to prestigious journals can only be done if you explain why these journals are the most prestigious journals in your field.
Trying to highlight your standing in your field through referring to well-known collaborators? Well, that will only work if your panel knows these people. A famous academic in Marketing might be a complete unknown even in the related discipline of Management. So, you may need to do quite a bit of explaining.
That's true for quantity as well. Are you a Business School academic who is boasting about consistently publishing two articles a year? You might be seen as as a bit of a slacker in the Life Sciences, where articles are much shorter, the number of co-authors much larger, and the review process much quicker. Some academics in the Life Sciences might publish multiple articles a month.
Are you proudly featuring your 50k grants in an application in Business & Management? Well academics in the Natural Sciences may wonder why you are even mentioning such trivial sums of money. They're counting in millions rather than in thousands.
So, build in some field benchmarks into your application and contextualize your achievements in the introduction of your promotion application. I show you plenty of examples of how to do this in my book on Writing effective promotion applications.
Maybe you’ll remember the puzzle pieces from the Summer recommendation. Don't just present a collection of puzzle pieces, don't just present a collection of evidence. Help the promotion panel to draw a conclusion. Don’t just give the promotion panel the evidence, tell them what this is evidence OF. If you rely on the reader to draw the conclusion, they might very well draw a very different conclusion from the one you intended.
Let's take a very simple example that hopefully will resonate with all of you. In your application you might include a very long list of modules that you have taught in a very wide range of disciplinary areas. You might see this as evidence of how much you have taught and how versatile you are. But your promotion panel might see this quite differently. They might see this as an indication that you do not have clear research expertise in a particular area and that you are just a bit of a “jack of all trades and a master of none”.
This may feel really unfair if you never even had the chance to teach in your research area. This did in fact happen to me. Much of my own research is in the area of International Human Resource Management and I have a successful textbook in IHRM, which is in its sixth edition. But I've never taught IHRM in my career. Instead, I was asked to teach very generic International Business courses or Strategy courses. Neither are areas that are particularly passionate about.
So, if this happens to you, you can turn this around and present the large number of different modules that you have taught on as an advantage. You can say that it positions you well to provide students with a holistic picture, and that it positions you well to do interdisciplinary research. You can also claim you made a substantial contribution to course development, because you've taught on so many different courses. You can even present this as evidence of collegiality in as much as you've been willing to carry the burden of frequently taking on new teaching assignments.
However, remember that regardless of whether it is evidence for research, teaching, leadership, collegiality or impact you need to bring that evidence to life and explain to the panel what this is evidence OF.
Make your promotion application a positive story about how much impact you have on your stakeholders. As one of my colleagues who applied successfully for promotion said in his presentation: "nobody likes a moaner, nobody likes someone who is passive aggressive". Your promotion application is not the place to complain about how badly you think you've been treated in the past.
Also remember that the promotion panel is not reading these applications for fun. Just like with funding applications these panels have to read many many applications over a very short period and they're typically doing this on top of their normal jobs. So make sure your key contributions are abundantly clear and they "leap off the page".
Finally, get a friendly reader to read your application before you submit. Hopefully you've had a mentor who's helped you during the the entire process. But before you submit, get someone else to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
You would do this if you submitted an article to a journal, wouldn’t you? We we often get a friendly reviewer before we submit an article to a journal. So why not do this for a promotion application? This may well be one of the most important documents you write in your career. So get all the help you can to make it the best application you can.
If you do this be prepared to run return a favour. When I first applied for a promotion to Associate Professor I asked half a dozen colleagues to to look at my application and they all said yes. Was that because they were such nice people? Maybe they were, but more likely it was because I had helped them in the past. So be prepared to return the favour.
Other academic promotion series
- Part 1: Internal vs. external promotion
- Part 2: Seven reasons why external promotion is easier
- Part 3: Seven advantages of internal promotion
- Part 4: Tips for promotion applications
- Academic promotion tips (1) - Understand the process
- Academic promotion tips (2) - Treat your application as a journal submission
- Academic promotion tips (3) - Evidence your impact in Research & Engagement
- Academic promotion tips (4) - Evidence your impact in Teaching & Learning
- Academic promotion tips (5) - Evidence your impact in Leadership & Service
- Academic promotion tips (6) - Craft your career narrative
- Research Impact 101
- Improve your Research Profile (1): Why is it so important?
- How to get promoted in academia?
- Open Syllabus Explorer: evidencing research-based teaching?
- Presenting your case for tenure or promotion?
- Be proactive, resilient & realistic!
- Finding a Unicorn? Research funding in Business & Management research
- CYGNA: climbing up the academic career ladder
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Copyright © 2023 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved. Page last modified on Wed 30 Aug 2023 11:24
Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University, London and visiting professor of International Management at Tilburg University. She is a Fellow of the Academy of International Business, a select group of distinguished AIB members who are recognized for their outstanding contributions to the scholarly development of the field of international business. In addition to her academic duties, she also maintains the Journal Quality List and is the driving force behind the popular Publish or Perish software program.