From Early to Mid-Career: Key Stepping Stones

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Generally speaking, career progression for lecturers in UK universities is mapped out fairly clearly, with progression for full-time posts being defined by three bands. Traditionally, these have been as follows: Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and Reader/ Professor. Now, increasingly, the career bands tend to be Lecturer (or more rarely, Assistant Professor), Associate Professor, and Professor. It is fairly widely accepted that in most cases, the Associate Professor position (old Senior Lecturer), marks entry into the mid-point range of a full academic career. 

The question remains, however, of what the key stepping stones are to get to such a position, and how you can make the most of them.

Laying the ground in the early years

The early years of an academic career can be very demanding, often leaving little time for looking ahead, let alone strategic career planning. Nevertheless, once you get through the initial probationary period, and are starting to feel more secure, you can start to find out what your institution expects of those seeking promotion, and ask yourself if this is the path you wish to follow.

Teaching and admin-led, or research-led?

One of the key questions to consider early on is whether you want to develop as a research-led academic, or instead see yourself following an admin-based, managerial route, perhaps with an emphasis on teaching. This will, of course, depend on the contract on which you were appointed, but even those appointed on a Research and Teaching contract can often apply for promotion on the grounds of exceptional contributions in research or teaching management and administrative service to the University.

It is a good idea to inform yourself early on about what options might be available to you in your institution for career progression. Talk to your mentor about this, or use your annual performance review to discuss the different pathways available to you with experienced colleagues. You may also find invaluable guidance in publicly available University documents on promotion criteria.

Other qualities promotion committees may look for might include evidence of leadership ability, managerial competence, consistently positive student feedback, a growing research output record, and, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – being awarded research grants. It is also a good idea to start to build up your peer network and service record in the wider academic community, through serving on editorial boards, reviewing manuscript submissions, attracting PhD students, and so forth. This can help in cases when promotion committees look to external assessors to help them assess your career progression.

The middle years: now what?

Once you have reached a mid-career position, you might want to ask yourself some questions about how you see your career progressing from here. The mid-career point can be lengthy, and sometimes difficult to juggle with the demands of your personal life, particularly if there is insufficient institutional and/or collegiate support in place. Early mentors can drop away, leaving you to shoulder significant managerial, administrative, research and pedagogic responsibilities on your own.

But this can also be a time of relative freedom and agency. Increasingly, you will find yourself called upon to fulfil strategic tasks, head committees, and lead teams. You may also find that your growing reputation enables you to secure research income with greater ease, sometimes allowing you to buy yourself out of teaching and concentrate on your research in a way you may not have been able to do since doing your PhD. In addition your opportunities to serve a wider peer community may grow (through, for instance, external examiner roles, invited lectures, and/or senior editorial positions).

Furthermore, never forget that learning doesn’t stop. Assess your direction, consider the ways in which you want to develop it in the next five to ten years, and take the time to refresh your learning and push it in new directions.

In short, make best use of the opportunities for development available to you in a university setting. Some may be formalised (e.g. career development courses; grants); others, however, may be less tangible, but none the less valuable for that.

Above all, enjoy the sense of achievement that can come in the middle years, as you look to what comes next. 

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