When Your Bid for Promotion Fails

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The verdict is in, and it is definitely not the outcome you hoped for. The institution to which you have devoted a substantial part of your academic career has rejected your application for full professor. Whether you had an inkling this was coming or were caught off guard, you will want to know what went wrong.

In some academic settings, the reasons will not be explained. Was it faculty politics? Tight budgets? An old score being settled? Or, worst of all, some deficiency in your record of scholarship, teaching, and service?

In tenure decisions, the institution determines whether you deserve a career-long commitment and whether you are a good fit with the place. Achieving full professor is an official endorsement that your career has been distinguished and has brought honor to you and your campus. Sometimes this achievement implicitly means that you have established a national or international reputation, setting yourself apart from less-accomplished colleagues, both near and far.

Failing to win promotion to full professor can feel more personally painful than being denied tenure — because it’s not about your potential but about your record. It means people who know you very well perceive your work as “serviceable” rather than spectacular. It’s a judgment that you have lost momentum and failed to fulfill your potential somewhere along the way. At this point in your career, you know a lot of people across the campus. So being denied the right to wear the mantle of full professor is a source of real embarrassment since friends and colleagues may be aware of your unsuccessful gambit.

In Part 1 of this series, we explored how to decide when (and whether) to seek promotion to the top faculty rank. This time, we analyze the most prominent reasons why things might not have gone your way.

Your scholarly or creative work is deficient. Probably the most frequently cited factor in a negative decision is that the candidate failed to achieve the stated expectations for scholarly or creative productivity. Some institutions specify the type of work that should be produced and the pace at which it should be disseminated to qualify for consideration. Typically that means one good article or piece of creative work (a musical performance, a play, an exhibit) a year and/or at least one post-tenure book, perhaps even two.

At many institutions, however, the absence of clear-cut guidelines to qualify for full-professor promotion leads to misplaced hope and unrealistic optimism. Here are some of the many things that can go wrong:

  • Achieving only the bare minimum. You applied for promotion as soon as you reached the exact number of publications or creative performances specified by your institution. Unfortunately, this leaves you vulnerable if any reviewers challenge the value of even one of your publications. A smarter strategy: Wait until the corpus of your work clearly exceeds the minimum target. Naturally, receiving major awards for your work or large grants can help here.
  • Overworking rejected submissions. It is normal for academic publishers to send a “revise and resubmit” (or “reject and resubmit”) notice if your scholarly article has potential but is not quite there yet. But perhaps you spent too much time reworking the same article in the absence of encouraging words from reviewers. It may be time to face the “sunk cost” trap and abandon that article in favor of a new and potentially more productive direction. Having a scholarly pipeline in place — with multiple manuscripts at different stages of completion — ensures that, if one article founders, another may float.
  • Not crossing the finish line. You may have work in the pipeline that won’t be done before your institution renders its verdict, and “in process” may not serve as the most effective claim for your achievement. We have seen CVs for would-be full professors that list more manuscripts “in preparation” than “in press” or in print. Such pipe-dream lists are rarely a good sign. All of us have years of high and low production — that’s the nature of disseminating research results. But you increase your risk of a negative outcome if you have too many fallow periods (or if they last too long) as part of your track record. Perceptions about the pace of your scholarly and creative output may influence reviewers. The best strategy to avoid this complication: Strive to complete more than the minimum expectation in at least one year so that you have a comfort margin.
  • Overreaching on your “impact” claims. Publishing enough (or more than enough) may not be sufficient to secure promotion. Increasingly, you have to show the impact of your scholarship by using indexes that reflect how frequently other academics cite your work. Your claims of robust scholarship may be further compromised by where your name falls in the byline of a multi-author publication — depending on your field, the most valued position may be first or last. Simply put, if your name is not in the “right” position, you may not have amassed sufficient evidence of your impact and scholarly leadership. Further, publishing in nonselective venues (e.g., those with a low impact factor or so-called predatory or pay-to-publish journals) weakens your claim of influence in your field or subfield. Conference presentations and posters can bolster your case but are not as likely to carry the weight of peer-reviewed publications in selective journals. It may be even more of a challenge for creative performances to provide the “data” that reveal the impact of the work. (A favorable review in a professional outlet that peers read can’t hurt.)
  • Too much time devoted to student-driven research. Some colleges encourage faculty members to support student research as part of their scholarship obligations. The risk, however, is that you’ve developed student-inspired research at the expense of progress on your own agenda.
  • Accepting excessive service commitments. A particular problem — especially for women and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups on the faculty — is agreeing to too many service commitments that eat away at your discretionary time. Saying yes too many times simply undercuts the available time for serious and expansive scholarly and creative projects. When in doubt, confer with your supervisor and mentors regarding the benefits and risks of saying no to particular service requests. Similarly, supervisors can help safeguard your research time by, for instance, arranging your teaching schedule for certain days of the week and leaving other days entirely free for research.

Your teaching is weak, stagnant, or problematic. To reach full-professor status at most colleges and universities, you must have maintained your teaching at a high-quality level. Perhaps after winning tenure, you experienced a slump or even depression (that’s not uncommon). Suffering post-tenure malaise, you may have gotten lax about maintaining or improving your teaching. That can have an adverse effect on the promotion decision, especially if you’ve received a lot of negative teaching evaluations from students, let alone formal complaints. Have you relied too much on “yellowed notes” of yore or “plowed the same field” too many times, instead of designing new courses or first-year seminars that might have energized your teaching? In egregious cases, student complaints that go public about your fairness, behavior, or other ethical deficiencies in the classroom can easily compromise your promotion application.

No one likes you. Being judged uncollegial can be enough of a reason to turn down your promotion. Collegiality challenges can cover a variety of sins. Are you a bully, belittling the opinions of colleagues? Do you dominate faculty discussions and interrupt frequently? Are you a contrarian simply because you can be? Do you enjoy making insensitive or controversial remarks? Then there is the risk associated with displaying garden-variety vanity or borderline narcissism. You may also run into trouble for doing a poor job at the basics: being irresponsible with commitments, skipping office hours, missing department meetings and project deadlines, making additional work for other people, being a poor mentor, and mistreating support-staff members. Such behavior can weigh heavily on whether your character deserves the spotlight that a full-professor title will confer. It’s not hard to avoid the uncollegial tag — just treat people with patience and respect.

You are politically naïve. Like it or not, this promotion decision is a political process. Successful candidates tend to pay attention to how the process works. Who gets to vote? Is the vote anonymous? How many layers of review must be endured before a decision can be finalized? Likewise, before you apply, find out who is serving in positions that will make influential decisions on your application. Are they friends or foes? That can help you determine whether delaying your bid might be a more advantageous route than submitting your application now.

You were discriminated against. You may suspect that your gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or other intersectional characteristic was a contributing factor in the decision to reject your bid for promotion. Most colleges and universities have taken serious steps to reduce discrimination in personnel decisions, but it still happens. And proving your suspicions on this front will be challenging, at best. All you can do to make sure you are treated fairly in the promotion process is document, document, document.

You submitted a sloppy curriculum vitae. This may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t. Is your CV accurate? Is it easy to follow the arc of your career? Are the entries organized and professional? Or is the document filled with typos and exaggerations? We have observed that academics who routinely update their CVs tend to succeed in their professional ventures, including promotion. Those who don’t — who let the task slide and get around to revising their CV once every five or six years — are more likely to struggle, as they have forgotten what they accomplished and when. There is a reason the Latin translates as “course of (one’s) life.”

Your application is unprofessional. A final and, dare we say, silly cause for rejection is whether you followed instructions about how to apply for promotion to full professor. Most colleges and universities articulate the evidence that will be required for consideration. One of our universities provides a binder and a “bucket” — the binder contains predetermined and labeled sections that cover how to make the best case; the bucket provides space for any supporting artifacts. Although the binder and bucket come with a complete set of instructions, applicants still manage to make blunders in what they include or leave out. Again, like it or not, proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation can influence perceptions of your readiness for this high honor. Always work with a trusted mentor who can proofread and double-check your application.

Your self-assessment is boastful or confusing. If the application requires a self-evaluative narrative about you and your work, be certain to get a trusted but critical colleague — not a spouse, partner, or pal — to review it. In particular:

  • Make sure that your description of your work sounds professional and creates connections to the work of others in your field. You need someone who can point out when your confidence in your contributions spills over into conceit and arrogance.
  • If your scholarship or creative work is challenging to understand, do yourself and your review committee a favor: Explain it in concrete terms and contextualize it so that others can recognize how it extends what is being done in your field. Now is the time to use clear and concise language rather than the specialized or playful jargon of your subdiscipline.

Coda. It isn’t the end of the world if you fail to get promoted to full professor on your first try. But it is upsetting, embarrassing, and bruising, and it may require some strategizing about next steps. Allow yourself a respite to treat your ego’s wounds, but then it’s time for a new direction. We turn to concrete strategies for recovery and redemption in our next installment of this series.

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