The academic promotion process

For the last few months, I’ve been squirrelled away book writing. This has been a wonderful, exciting, stressful and nerve-racking experience. As I’ve been lost in the word of em-dashes, tables of contents and footnotes, I haven’t had much time or space to blog.

Unfortunately, when I have been prompted to post a blog, it has been because something vexed me. While discussions about sexual harassment in academia and unattainable personal expectations are really important, book writing demands have sadly made my blog a bit negative.

As something good happened to me recently, I wanted to balance out my ranting with a positive experience, which better reflects life in my not-so-new department. I was recently promoted to Senior Lecturer!

The academic promotion process is rather opaque and remains enigmatic if you haven’t been through it yourself. Several of my peers or early career colleagues have been surprised that you can be promoted on an externally funded fellowship, or that I would see being promoted as a good career move.

In addition to promotion confusion, there is also a fair bit of application apprehension at universities. Several more senior colleagues remain a little traumatised from their long since passed experiences of being grilled during promotion interviews.

I found the academic promotion application a very affirming experience that was left me feeling like a valued member of the university, so thought I’d discuss my experiences.

Early in the year, I began to realise that I was doing a lot more in terms of responsibilities than in previous years and that I had several achievements to my name, but was still employed at the same level. When an email was sent around with details of the forthcoming university promotion round, my interest was piqued.

I sheepishly attended a women-only academic promotion information session. This was fantastic! I heard a lot of firsthand advice from those that had successful and unsuccessful attempted the process. I also benefited from hearing from two of my university’s senior executive team, who sit on the university-wide promotions committee.

I began to think more seriously about applying in the upcoming round, rather than waiting for a few more years. I got advice from mentors and sponsors who I could trust to be honest about the process and my chances of success. Looking at my CV the advice narrowed in along the lines of “worth a shot if you have the time” and “just think in advance how you will feel if you don’t get it – motivated or deflated?”

I thought through the pros and cons of various strategies for career planning. Some early career academics prefer to remain on a lower level in the hope of seeming more cost appealing to hire, or for enhancing their competitiveness for future fellowship applications in later years. I concluded that different strategies suit different people, but for me, a promotion would open more doors and be a valued recognition of my work.

I sourced sample applications material from good friends at my university and in my discipline area elsewhere. I also researched the university guidelines for expectations of achievement at different academic levels and tried to target my activities and achievements towards these criteria.

The written application is substantial, including many pages of CV and supporting materials, testimonials, and evidence of achievement and impact. I used an overseas trip to trudge my way through the grunt work of googling impact factors and citations in airport lounges and waiting for bus pickups in the hotel lobby. I then contacted potential referees, providing them with information about the process and my CV for context. I contacted people I had worked with in community outreach events or guest lectures and requested testimonials.

A month or so later, I submitted an enormous portfolio that was designed to demonstrate that I am already achieving at the level I was requesting to be promoted to. I attempted to present my research, teaching and service activities as a coherent story about myself, how I see myself as an academic and where I am heading.

A few more months passed and I was invited to an interview with the promotion panel. The process is very different from a job application, so I returned to my trusted mentors for advice on what to expect. While some had unpleasant experiences of being interrogated by an adversarial mob of scrutineers, most had experienced a friendly but challenging interview that allowed them to emphasise their achievements and plans.

I collected this advice together and worked through some practice questions.  I made the effort of ironing a shirt and putting on my good jeans.

It turns out there was no need to swot in advance. The panel is necessarily large as it requires a diversity of people and disciplinary backgrounds to evaluate applicants fairly from across a meandering faculty. The Chair (the Dean) did a marvellous job of creating a welcoming and relaxed environment in a large boardroom that could otherwise have been daunting.

I was asked some straightforward questions and before I knew it, the interview was over. I debriefed with my mentors and waited while an administrative Rube-Goldberg machine was set in motion. Then a month or so later, I receive the good news.

I’m chuffed! Overall, it feels like a significant milestone in my career. When I put together my application, I was pleased to see that I had made tangible achievements in recent years and came to feel like I was a strong candidate for promotion. I was delighted by the testimonials colleagues provided and the kind comments of my referees. I now feel that my hard work has been recognised and that my faculty and university can see my potential as a future academic.

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3 thoughts on “The academic promotion process

  1. Congratulations!

    Because there’s no such thing as “the” academic promotion process, it would probably help folks to know more about your institution – where you are, big or small, etc. I was very interested to read about the “promotion panel” – first time I’ve ever heard of a live interview with a panel at promotion time! I don’t think that happens in North America; but then, there’s diversity even among North American universities. For example, some use external reference letters for tenure but not full professor; others for full professor but not tenure; others for both. (I was surprised to learn this.)

    Kudos for demystifying the process where you are.

    • These are all very good points! Experiences even differ across faculties at my university. The interview panel is a big thing here and is usually 10-12 faculty members who have read the application and reference letters.

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