The academic promotion process: an eye-opening experience

Promotion is an essential part of an academic career trajectory. It is a key way for academic staff members to be recognised and rewarded for their contributions to teaching, research and service. Done well, it is a fair, respectful and equitable process based on the merit of the application.

I have chaired promotions committees, been through the process myself and have been invited to provide references as an independent external expert several times. It is an eye-opening experience being involved in the process as an external referee and perceiving how well it is and isn’t conducted in different places.

The role of an external international expert referee is one that should not be taken lightly. It is a privilege as well as an enormous responsibility to play a significant role in the validation of an applicant’s submission for promotion. That is why it is vital that the institution provides clear guidance to the external referee about the complete process at their institution.

Perhaps more importantly, the institution must ensure it makes available comprehensive and clear procedures about the process, from preparation to lodgement to appeals, to all participants in the process.

Most higher education institutions have some form of documentation about the process in the form of policy, procedures and guidelines. These tend to outline the supporting principles and expectations for promotion to the different academic levels along with the roles and responsibilities of the various parties involved in the process and related key dates.

Some institutions have very detailed guidelines that clearly set out the criteria for promotion.

These extend to explaining the type of evidence applicants should include, such as specific contributions made to improving the work of their faculty or school, contributions to international scholarship and research, to service, leadership and engagement with external stakeholders including industry, government and professions, to teaching philosophy, innovative teaching practices, teaching impact and student feedback data.

The latter also allows an opportunity for the applicant to provide reaction to the feedback.

Most guidelines also stipulate that applicants should indicate the weighting as a percentage they will assign to the three principal areas of teaching, research and service. These weightings aim to serve as a guide to the promotion committee about which of the three categories the applicant considers their main accomplishments to be in.


There is also supporting documentation for those involved in the process. The faculty dean or head of school is usually asked to provide a written report. Referees nominated by the applicant who are internal to the same institution are customarily requested to provide a confidential written reference.

For applicants applying to professor level or equivalent, it is generally expected that at least five distinguished international referees are nominated by the applicant. The applicant also provides a brief commentary about the reasons for choosing each referee.

It is generally up to the promotions committee chair to decide on which of these will be nominated to provide a confidential written reference. However, the chair, in conjunction with other committee members and-or the faculty dean or head of school, may nominate additional referees.

In some cases, external referees are presented with a list of questions to guide their response. These typically cover knowledge and assessment of the applicant’s contribution and impact in their discipline area, how they compare to other scholars at the same level and capacity for continued positive output.

In other instances, guidance is provided about the format for the reference. In a few, a form is provided for the external referee to complete, with a rating scheme for each of the three key areas and related sub-areas.

Regardless of the level of experience the external international referee may have had with the promotions process, there will be subtle nuances particular to an institution not observed at others.

This might include: the designations attached to each academic level which do differ in different countries; the amount of time an applicant must have served at the institution prior to applying for promotion, the workload minimum percentage expectations for the three key areas and how far back the applicant provides details about achievements.

A minimum level of information

When key details and supporting documentation about the process are not provided, it is difficult to know exactly what the institution expects to receive from the external referee. You anticipate that commentary provided about the candidate’s experience and accomplishments will satisfy what the institution has set out as the key criteria applicants are expected to demonstrate.

In most cases the provision of supporting documentation is easily obtained. However, in some cases there is very little guidance for external reviewers and indeed for applicants about the selection of external reviewers.

At minimum, external referees should be provided with the institution’s promotions procedure, the applicant’s curriculum vitae, samples of their key outputs and a summary of achievements against the three areas of teaching, research and service, if not a copy of their application.

A pro forma that specifies the main performance components under the major academic activities is also helpful. It allows the promotions committee to compare and contrast what each of the independent external referees has said against the same dimensions.

The institution should be informed at the very least of the nature of the relationship between the external referee and the applicant, ensuring that there are no personal connections or potential conflicts of interest which could bias the process.

Where additional external referees are selected by the promotions committee, the applicant should be provided with an opportunity to comment on each briefly and indicate with explanation if they prefer to exclude any.

While each higher education institution and each country may handle the academic promotion process differently, it must be guided by the provision of comprehensive documented information about each stage of the process. And all parties involved in the process – internal and external to the institution – must be able to access this in order to ensure decision-making is based on the principles of integrity and equity.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.