Academic promotions (or not)

I don’t normally write much about things that are personal, but I thought I might pen some thoughts about my recent (unsuccessful) promotion attempt. Hierarchies in academic departments (or at least those that I am aware of) can be quite different to what one might encounter in other industries. The normal academic job titles are Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor and one might expect one’s position to be determined by the job one is required to do, but that isn’t normally the case. It’s quite common for people in more junior positions to have the same kind of role in a department as those who are more senior (in fact, it’s not uncommon for more junior people to have more prominent roles than those who are more senior). To get promoted requires that you build up some kind of portfolio and have some kind of status that satisfies the requirements of each position. By and large, I’m reasonably comfortable with this as people’s roles in a department can change quite a lot over a career and so basing it on what your current role is would be unmanageable.

So, I’ve held a management post in our department for a number of years, have a reasonably heavy teaching load, hold research grants, manage students and postdocs, publish regularly, and am quite well cited. To be fair, nothing particularly spectacular but I do have a good number of highly cited papers and I am first or second author on a majority of my papers. I decided (and was encouraged) to apply for promotion. I wrote all my promotion documents (which I do find a little odd) got some comments from our head of group and sent them off. I was then told that my department was not going to support my application. I was disappointed (as one might imagine) but also a little surprised. I hadn’t expected the department to do this. I knew that the head would have to write some kind of support letter, but I assumed that it would go to whatever central committee decides these things and that the department could indicate the strength of its support in the accompanying letter. To be fair, I knew I was probably marginal and I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be successful, but I expected the decision to come from some nameless university committee, rather than from a group of people who I actually know quite well.

On the other hand, I can completely understand that it doesn’t make sense for the department to submit applications that they’re not really supporting. If the decision was based on some objective, unbiased analysis of my case then, although disappointing, I would be comfortable with this. Honesty being the best policy. The feedback I got, however, suggests that the process can be somewhat tribal. There are a limited number of cases that the department can realistically support. There are a number of groups within the department and so you probably need to be the strongest applicant in your group. Even this may not be strictly true as there is a sense that there is an order (i.e., who gets to go first). It seems as though someone who’s applied before will get supported ahead of someone who is applying for the first time. To be fair, I don’t really know how it works and, given that I felt myself that my case was possibly marginal, I can’t really be too dissatisfied about not being supported this time. I also have a good job at a good university that pays me a decent salary to do something I enjoy, so can’t really complain too much.

What’s probably most disappointing though is that even though I’ve had a reasonably substantial management role in the department and had one of the higher teaching loads, I’ve maintained a healthy research programme. I think that I had hoped that anyone looking at my overall performance would be supportive. The main criticisms, however, seemed to be that I didn’t have any real indications of leadership outside my university. Part of this is just how I do research. I don’t really belong to any major collaborations so can’t be leader of some part of a major research project. What they were looking for was, supposedly, something like me being on some national committee that was deciding some kind of policy. I haven’t really done much of this, partly because it’s not clear how doing these things would make me a better teacher and researcher and partly because I’ve never been asked. Not being asked may well indicate how I’m thought of in the community, but it does seem that it’s quite common to put yourself forward for these type of things and I’m not that comfortable doing that. If it’s thought that I could contribute to something and if I thought it worth doing, I would be happy to be involved. What I don’t want to do is push to be on various high profile committees just to tick some box on a future promotion application. This is probably my main issue with the process: the sense that you need to do some things that may not benefit your research or teaching, but make people – who don’t know or understand your research well – think that you have some kind of leadership role in your scientific community. I’m not suggesting that it’s terrible to do these kinds of things, just not clear why they are seen as so important (especially if it can be a little self-selecting and if noone actually checks whether you’re any good at these things).

Anyway, that’s all I was going to write. If anyone does reads this, I hope it doesn’t come across as whiny. Writing this has felt a little cathartic, so maybe it has helped. I do worry sometimes that someone involved will read a post and take some kind of offense, but given my typical readership I probably don’t have to worry about this too much. Overall, I’m reasonably comfortable with my lack of promotion support, but I do think that there are some aspects of academic promotions that leave a lot to be desired. Let’s hope I’m still as philosophical about this when the email comes around next year congratulating all those who’ve been successful.


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