Thinking about promotion?

As we head towards the end of the year, it’s the time many Universities start to open their academic promotions processes. I love it when clients ask me to support them with their promotion applications because it is an exercise in helping someone to reflect on all the tremendous progress and achievements they have made through their career.

Most people (naturally) find it somewhat daunting when they start to examine the promotions criteria, with all of the high-powered buzzwords  ‘Excellent’, ‘Inspirational’, ‘Innovative’, ‘Impactful’, ‘Distinctive’, ‘World-leading’, ‘Strategic’…..etc, and it’s an inevitable trigger for the old imposter syndrome to rear it’s ugly head – ‘Who are you to say you have made a sustained and distinctive contribution to your field?’ I hear your imposter gremlin cry!

However, by the time the application is ready to submit, most clients describe a genuine sense of pride in how far they have come and have usually re-discovered some successes they’d forgotten about in the general busyness of navigating day to day academic life. Regardless of the eventual outcome, the process of taking stock of your career to date and seeing it all described on a page is re-affirming. It is also a great opportunity to consider your goals for the future. As you reflect on what you’ve done for your application, you’ll naturally start to have ideas for things you’d still like to do. So, not only can a promotion application help you to recognise (and hopefully get recognition for) your current set of achievements, it can also help to boost your momentum and motivation towards the next phase of your career as you consider what comes next.

So, how do you overcome the self-doubt, push through the daunting buzz-words and put your best case forward for promotion? I definitely don’t claim to have a magic formula, but here’s a few thoughts to help you to get started:

Get familiar with the promotions criteria

This might sound obvious, but it’s important to start engaging with the criteria as soon as possible, even if you think it will be a year or more before you apply for promotion. Usually you’ll be able to find these on your University’s intranet, often HR pages are the best places to look first, but you might also find them on your School/department pages too. Getting familiar with the criteria early will help you to understand where you can already make a good case and where you might need to focus your efforts in the lead up to promotion to build up more evidence. Systematically work your way through the criteria and consider, if you were to apply right away, what story you’d be able to tell about each criterion and what evidence you would present? This way, you’ll raise your awareness of any gaps and be able to plan how you can address them before you make your application.

Get to know the promotions process

Each institution runs their academic promotions process slightly differently and the process often gets reviewed and updated. So even if you’ve been through promotion at your institution before, be careful to get the most up to date guidance about how the process is run. Many institutions run workshops for people considering promotion and if you can attend one of these sessions it is a great way to hear directly from those involved in the process about how it works. Alternatively, try to talk to people that are involved in the process (e.g. those on promotions committees), or even better if you’re planning ahead to apply in a year or two, see if you can get involved as a promotions panel member so you can see the whole process from the other side before you submit an application.

Look through the guidance and understand how the assessment process works. Gather as much information as you can so that you are well prepared, here’s a (non-exhaustive) set of questions you will need to get answers to:

  • What documentation will you need to supply?
  • Do you need a letter of support from your head of department/school? If so, are you expected to meet with them first?
  • Do you need to make decisions about which aspects of your role you will be assessed on?
  • What are the deadlines and key dates to be aware of?
  • Who will be looking at your application at which stage?
  • Will your application be considered only with others from the same discipline, or alongside applications from different fields?
  • Will you need to supply names of referees (and how many)?

Carefully consider your timing

When’s the right time to go for promotion is a really tricky one. You can get advice from others around you, make comparisons with others that are working at the level you want to be promoted, look at your professional stats and metrics etc, but ultimately it’s down to you to decide:

  • Can I tell a convincing narrative about how and why I’m suitable for promotion at this point in my career?
  • Can I provide evidence against enough of the criteria to demonstrate that I’m working at the level required for promotion?
  • Do I feel up to the challenge of taking on the responsibilities that come with the next level up? (Note: it is normal to feel daunted/scared about new responsibilities – having these feelings is not necessarily a reason to run from the hills from promotion if you meet the criteria – in fact they are often a sign you should run towards it, often the things most worth doing are also the scariest…..)
  • Am I feeling mentally/emotionally resilient enough to withstand a rejection if it doesn’t work out this time round?

I appreciate that these are tough questions to answer. It can be helpful to consider these together with a supportive colleague, mentor, coach or manager who can help you to look objectively at your case for promotion and to consider when the time is right for you to make your best possible case.

Leave nothing to assumption in your application

Yes, you might know some of the colleagues that are on the promotions panels, but don’t assume they know everything about your work and what you’ve been up to. To make the process fair, they will only be able to judge your application on the basis of the evidence you provide in your documents. You’ll need to carefully highlight your achievements, and spell out how you meet the criteria. Don’t assume that people will automatically ‘get’ why speaking at ‘x conference’ or publishing in ‘y journal’ is so prestigious. If it is a big deal, tell them so in your documents – now is not the time for modesty.

This is particularly important if your application is being considered at a multidisciplinary panel, where the norms and conventions of your field will not be understood by everyone. For example, in some fields it is normal to publish several journal articles per year and this is the ‘gold standard’, in other fields articles are not the norm and books/monographs might be the most prestigious. If you do not clearly articulate your approaches and achievements and explain them in the context of how things work in your field, a multidisciplinary panel could draw incorrect assumptions. Therefore, write your application as if for someone who knows nothing about what you do or why it’s important. That way you’ll be less likely to leave anything to assumptions. If you can, run your application past someone who is not in your field and see how convincing they find your case.

Describe the outcomes of your work as well as the actions

It not enough to talk only about what you have done, but you also need to effectively demonstrate the influence of your work. For instance, you might have a very long list of courses that you’ve taught on, but if you don’t provide information about how students have engaged with and responded to those courses then we don’t have any information about the quality of your teaching or its impact on your students. Similarly in a leadership role it’s not enough to say that you’ve chaired the research committee for 3 years – the panel need to know what actions have been implemented because of your committee leadership and what positive changes have occurred as a result. In building your case, give just as much attention to outcomes as you do to actions, and provide specific evidence and examples to demonstrate positive influence you’ve achieved through your work.

Approach your promotion application (and result) with a growth mindset

With academic promotions, the stakes can feel really high. This is you putting yourself, and everything you’ve worked for in your career so far, out there to be judged by your colleagues – ergh when it’s written down like that it’s shiver inducing isn’t it?! If you’re inclined to fixed mindset thinking the idea of judgement, feedback and potential rejection that you could receive by putting yourself through the process might be enough to stop you applying. However, if we frame it differently, from a growth mindset perspective – regardless of the final outcome, applying for promotion is also an opportunity to:

  • Reflect on how far you’ve come in your career
  • Raise your own and others’ awareness of your achievements
  • Send a signal to the institution that you want to progress in your career
  • Get some constructive feedback on your strengths and areas for development
  • Identify your goals for the next phase of your career
  • Build a carefully crafted career portfolio that you can draw upon for evidence and examples to support future job/grant applications

Of course, you also will be hoping that your hard work and bravery in going for promotion successfully pays off with institutional recognition, a change in title and a pay rise, and if it doesn’t work out of course you will feel disappointed for a while. But whatever happens, by engaging in the promotions process you are demonstrating to yourself and others that you are proud of where you’ve got to and that you’ve got the courage and determination to keep moving forward in your career. If that’s not ‘Excellent’ and ‘Inspirational’ then I don’t know what is!

We’re here to help! If you would like support with the topics covered in this blog post or any aspect of your research/academic role please contact us or visit to find out more about our services for academics and researchers. To keep up to date with our blogs, events, resources and opportunities please join the Research Coach mailing list