Promotion Commotion v.3.0

Inspired by my participation in the HEFCE-supported ‘Responsible Metrics’ event waaaaay back in 2018, and motivated by my strong belief that the promotion process in many higher education institutions is too opaque, I decided to write a series of blogposts. These posts were to give me a chance to outline and discuss Imperial College’s criteria for promotion, as well as providing me with an opportunity to *publish* my promotion-related paperwork. The Lecturer to Senior Lecturer, and Senior Lecturer to Reader step were covered some time ago; this, the final post, discusses the Reader to Professor step.

Having ‘read’ as a Reader you get to ‘profess’ as a Professor, at least in the majority of the UK higher education system. According to Wikipedia, “Professors are usually experts in their field and teachers of the highest rank”. The equivalent position in the US is, I think, ‘Full’ Professor.


So, why did I apply for promotion to Professor? In short, because my departmental colleagues advised me that I should.

I had no burning desire to be promoted at that time (late-2014). I hadn’t felt unrewarded by ‘The System’ and I didn’t see promotion as a way to improve a problematic financial situation. Rather, my line leader (during my annual appraisal) and my mentor, Professor Howard Johnson, simply suggested I was ‘ready’. Howard has been my mentor and confidant since I started at Imperial in 2004. Always willing to tell me the truth, he was invaluable as a readied myself and my paperwork ahead of the final interview.

As discussed in the first blog in this series, the promotions criteria at Imperial fall into four main, inter-related activities, three of which are central to so-called ‘non-clinical’ Research Staff: (i) Education; (ii) Research; and (iii) Leadership and Management.  Candidates should demonstrate achievements in all three, but to different extents. A critical aspect of the promotion process is that individual cases should judged on their individual merits (i.e. you are not competitively compared to other candidates, inside or outside of your department and/or faculty).

The boundaries between grades are rather fluid. Candidates are generally expected to do ‘more’ as they progress. For example, in terms of Education, the step from Reader to Professor should involve a broadening of the contribution to education, from excellence in teaching delivery, through to the organisation and management of Departmental education and student support activity, to leadership on educational matters at Faculty and/or College level.

Progression in terms of Research will involve a growing national and international reputation combined with individuals making an increasing impact on their discipline or profession. In short, originality should be enhanced by seminality.

In the area of Leadership and Management, progression to Professor will involve a rather poorly defined, “increasing contribution to departmental/faculty/College management.”.

Climbing the greasy poll with the help of friends. A metaphor for academia? source:

At this point, I make an important sidebar: as in 2012 ahead of my promotion to Reader, in 2014 I had been approached regarding Professor-level positions in one UK and in one overseas university. And like in 2012, I made the department aware of the situation. As stressed in an earlier post, such interest *can* be important in terms of giving you a sense of your ‘market value’. It may also make your present employer recognise your value.

The promotion application process for Professor at Imperial, or at least in the Department of Earth Science & Engineering, was fairly straightforward, centring on a lengthy application form that detailed my teaching and administrative contributions, research income and publications.

This draft application was assessed in my Department, together with a mock interview. For me this interview served two purposes; (i) it helped the department assess whether or not to recommend that you proceed with a full application (see below); and (ii) it prepared you for what might come in the final interview. It transpired that the Department interview was more testing, intrusive, and intimidating than the final one, given it was conducted by colleagues and, in some cases, close friends, who together had a detailed knowledge of my research area.

At Imperial, the support of your Department is not essential for progressing your promotion application, as an applicant can proceed via a “personal application”. This alternative route can be helpful for example if you feel that your relationship with your Department is not strong.. I am aware of some data indicating that personal applicants are slightly less successful than department-supported applicants.

Paperwork. Great. source:

Having ‘passed’ the Department mock interview, I spent a few weeks updating my application and the final version ran to a rather substantial 43 pages. This was supported by a CV, four key papers with supporting statements, and a merged document containing my teaching assessmentsc (not included here). At this point I should publicly thank Hilary Glasman-Deal, a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Academic English (CAE) at Imperial. She read, reread, and read again my application, removing extraneous words and focusing the text, ensuring it was readable and compelling for a non-specialist. I *highly* recommend you buy here book, “Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English”. I use it every week.

At Imperial, the final bit of paperwork involved recommending referees and at that time six referees were required to support an application for promotion to Professor. I recall that two of the six could be so-called ‘personal referees’ (i.e. recommendations made by the applicant), whereas the remaining four were to be obtained by the Department. In practice, however, I recommended all six referees via a colleague. I am fairly sure all six referees provided references.

So, how did I choose my referees? I recommended three who had detailed knowledge of various areas of my rather broad research portfolio, and three who valued and had familiarity with my ‘service work’ and teaching contributions. I thought it best to provide referees who could show their support across these three areas given these were the three main sub-sections of the application form. Also: academia only works because of some combination of these things…

The interview. source:

The College-level final interview was a bit of a blur. It lasted around 45 mins and I was interviewed by six people, with my Head of Department, Professor Jan Cilliers, and a HR representative sitting in as observers. During the interview, there were no great surprises, which is in itself perhaps not surprising given the volume of the information provided within the application form. I left the interview feeling I had performed as well as I could, which according to my Mum is all you can hope for.

Fast forward a couple of months, and I’m heading to a local café for a coffee. My mobile rings, and my Head of Department asks if he can speak to me. The rest is history.

So, why did I write this blog series?

I wrote it to try and help answer the question; “what do you need to do to get promoted?”. In my first post, I stated that my intention was *not* to show off; especially given most the information in my promotion documentation is available on my website and associated CV. Nor did I intend to proclaim my way was the only way in which someone might be promoted. We all know that each institution, system, and individual is different. Instead, I hope I’ve given some transparency to what *might* be required to get a certain position, at a certain institution, at a certain time, by a certain individual.

In opening up this discussion, I hope you might gain an understanding of the promotion process. I maintain that the current levels of transparency in the promotion process are unacceptable at many institutions; it undermines trust in the system and the individuals working within it. In particular, those with power, for example those who approve or decline promotion, should be especially transparent in how and why they are making their decisions. Making promotion criteria public and open to scrutiny is one way; over the course of these three blogposts, I have argued that making promotion-related materials ‘open’ is another.

Notes: Huge thanks to Dr Ben Britton (Twitter: @bmatb) for comments and edits on an initial draft of this post. All mistakes are, however, mine and mine alone.


Published by Christopher Aiden-Lee Jackson

I am Professor of Basin Analysis @imperialcollege. I ❤️ 🏃🏿, 🚴🏿 and @basinsIC (⛏). I obsess about the tectono-stratigraphic development of sedimentary basins. Why? Because I'm hopeless at everything else.

One thought on “Promotion Commotion v.3.0

  1. Inspirational story. I remember in my last company, Schlumberger, applying for promotion was a must through the system. It took me some time to gather courage of applying.

    Great mentors are always huge blessing. They observe and predict your progress.

    Thanks for sharing.

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