When and how to go for promotion (and when and why you shouldn’t)

career ladder

Being promoted up the academic ladder is widely viewed as a kind of holy grail. A Professorship or other academic leadership role is something we’re almost indoctrinated to believe is where we as academics must head, what we must aspire to.

So what I’m about to say might seem almost sacrilege. You don’t have to want a  promotion! One of my Early Career Researcher mentees recently said to me, “I see what Professors do, and I don’t know if that’s for me. I’m happy and doing fine at my current level – is it ok to just want to stay where I am, and do good work here?”

The answer is yes it is! Not everyone wants to clamber further up the promotions ladder and THAT’S OK. Deciding you don’t want to go for promotion doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful and satisfying academic career. On the other hand, fear or uncertainty about the process or outcome alone shouldn’t stopping you from applying. Knowing your motivations for wanting/not wanting to seek promotion can help.

If you are unsure, here are some reasons people give for wanting to get promoted.

  • To have a goal and something to work hard towards
  • For prestige, status or respect
  • For recognition of performing at a senior level
  • For a bigger salary
  • To open up more leadership or other academic opportunities
  • To acquire greater responsibility
  • To have more power to influence

It’s interesting that many of these can be fulfilled by paths other than just an academic promotion.

But if you do decide a promotion is something you want, and it’s part of your career plan, how do you go about it?

There are a number of things you can do to increase your chances of success. Here are just three initial steps, and some resources linked below to learn more.

Strategies to help become promotion-ready

  1. Research, research, research. Academic institutions will have their own promotion guidelines and procedures. Seek these out early – I suggest up to a year or two  ahead of time (yes that long! remember many academic competencies take years to develop). If possible obtain examples of previous successful applications and see how others have argued their case. Speak with colleagues who have sat on promotion panels about the process. Sometimes the panel will provide insights that aren’t obvious from the written procedures alone (for example, some, but not all, Universities value internal service to the institution as more critical than external service, and assess applicants accordingly)
  2. Benchmark against the criteria, and if possible against other past applications. Identify track record gaps, strengths and weaknesses. Try to do this objectively yourself. Then be brave and ask your mentor, supervisor, manager and/or colleagues to do the same. Don’t only ask people who’ll be nice – you want constructive criticism here. Take a deep breath, ask them to be honest, and be willing to hear and consider all viewpoints.
  3. Develop a promotion portfolio and craft your case. Depending on the outcome of step 2, you may now have some priority areas you need to address to strengthen your case. These will differ for everyone but in typical academic roles could include:
  • Strengthening your research profile: e.g. through publishing (both quality and quantity are important); attracting research funding; profiling your work through conference presentations or other forums; supervising research students; developing collaborative research partnerships with leading researchers or other stakeholders
  • Teaching excellence: Delivering outstanding lectures; achieving great student evaluations; introducing innovative teaching approaches
  • Service contributions: volunteering for University committees (and providing active contributions to these); playing a role in your professional society or discipline; providing community service (see more service ideas here)

Don’t do these things just to get a promotion. Do them for the other inherent benefits they provide, like supporting your team, contributing to your discipline, or enhancing your skills, or simply because you enjoy them! Focusing exclusively on promotion as the end goal can be a strategy destined to fail, as described nicely in this post.

Finally, keep a track of your achievements as you go, not just right before the promotion (it’s amazing how much of what you’ve done you’ll forget) – there’s a cool tool (courtesy of Dr Brownwyn Eager, via Research Whisperer) for doing so described/linked to here. See also this great (UK-based) guide with lots more tips for becoming promotion-ready, including a useful checklist.

Act now:

  • Have you included seeking promotion in your career plan? If so, what are your reasons for doing so? Have you factored in the lead up time often required to undertake steps 1 to 3 above? If a promotion is not currently part of your career plan, is this something you want – can you reflect on why/why not?
  • I’d love to hear your thoughts about promotion – particularly tips on why you did/did not apply, or tips on applying that worked for you. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.





6 thoughts on “When and how to go for promotion (and when and why you shouldn’t)

  1. Thank you Kylie – another very important and useful post. Thank you for encouraging us to step in and step up!
    A couple of thoughts:
    (1) Teaching excellence
    The HEA fellowship provides additional criterion for teaching excellence that many universities (including Deakin) are adopting. Academics may find it useful to review the criterion and curate evidence of their achievement in relation to them.

    (2) I do wonder if promotion is less attractive for some people who are more communally focussed. It seems to me that most of the criteria and the process of applying for promotion make it primarily about one’s own achievements and advancement. There are not many examples and discourses that frame promotion as having leadership roles and more influence within teams, communities, networks and society in order to do more good for others.

    And connected with this, whether some women hold back their goals for progression to soften their perceived ambition given how the literature suggests it is generally viewed…
    This paper is interesting.

    “Women are perceived as less competent and disliked as potential or actual
    leaders, unless they demonstrate communal and agentic attributes simultaneously
    (Heilman and Okimoto, 2007). …Socialisation impacts women’s reluctance to
    position themselves as ambitious (Fels, 2004) and masculine stereotypes thus conceal
    gender discrimination to ensure men have a better chance of being, and wanting to be,
    promoted (Lewis and Simpson, 2012).”


    • Susie thanks so much for these thoughtful comments and great links. Completely agree with the need to reframe how we consider leadership and recognise communal and not just individual achievements in academia (and beyond!). Clearly we have some way to go in addressing this and the associated gender inequities – but it’s great that these discussions are happening – thanks for your insightful contributions as always!


  2. I’d just add a tiny caveat here — at least at some institutions, if you are too happy avoiding promotion, you may find your teaching and admin load slowly ratcheting up, while the so-called “winners” are left to focus on their research (and horrible leadership roles)


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