Up, up and away? Academic promotions

Let the fax number give you a sense of how long it took to get from one to the other

Straight up, let’s note that I only feel comfortable writing this because I’m not in the game for promotions any more.

Which is rather the point.

This time of year is littered with announcements of colleagues getting the next step up the ladder. It’s always heartening to see people succeeding and getting some recognition of their efforts from their employer.

But it’s also always a bittersweet time: for everybody I see making it through the institutional loops, I’m aware of several others who didn’t make it.

And they don’t post about it.

I know I didn’t, each of the several times I put in for promotion and got knocked back.

Luckily for me, I’ve never done this work for a job title or the pay and I had plenty of other reasons to stick at it. But I can’t pretend it didn’t hurt.

So why mention it? Isn’t it just ‘part of the job’? Shouldn’t we just be happy to have jobs at all?

Not really.

For most colleagues I know, the money thing and the recognition thing matter (the job security thing for those places with tenure). I don’t think anyone really likes to feel they are being bled dry by their employer, prodded to hit some ridiculous targets and then told they ‘didn’t quite make it’, always with the ominous shadow of being able to get in someone else, newer/cheaper.

I want to say we just overthrow this system, but that feels like an overly-ambitious task right now, so instead I want to focus on how we can play it, collectively.

I can think of three ideas might inform how we start going about this.

We talk about it. This has to be the starting point: for something that affects us all, it’s surprising how little it gets aired.

Maybe we chat to our family and friends, or to our line manager, but probably not so much to colleagues, possibly because we feel a degree of competition.

That might be within our home unit, but it’s not so beyond that.

Talking is both a catharsis in itself and a means of sharing ideas and support: there are all too many people out there who have gone through what you’ve gone through and who understand and can help.

We draw others into this. Promotion is both a very personal matter and one that shapes our entire profession [pardon the pun]. As such, we shouldn’t be trying to shoulder the burden by ourselves.

That means pushing our employers to provide sufficient mentoring mechanisms, pushing our study associations to run events and support activities, pushing our academic networks to pull this into how we tackle the various activities of our work.

Doing this shares the load and increases our weight in moulding practice to be more equitable and transparent.

In the same way, working together to ensure we get firmer guidance on necessary thresholds in appraisals is more likely to succeed. As one of the very few places where things get written down, appraisals should be a key way of laying down the tracks towards promotion (and to having a place to point should it not happen).

We don’t leave people behind. The system does let some people through, some of the time. Those people don’t have some mystical powers that made this possible, but they do have an opportunity to help bring others along.

This might include talking about their experiences with others, feeding back into their institutions about where the promotion system doesn’t work, writing letters of support. And following up on this we support: offering to do it again, talking through what happened.

I can admit to a degree of relief when I got my professor title, not least because I wouldn’t have to do another one of those ridiculous piles of forms [note: this is about as sensible a view as ‘I’ll never have to do another exam’, i.e. not at all sensible]. But I hope that I’ve tried to keep helping others in their efforts: I’ve just not been good about the first two ideas I’ve sketched out.

So I’m going to try to change that.

Maybe you can help out too.