Discussing the findings of a study of over 40,000 academic job ads, Lilia Mantai and Mauricio Marrone, highlight how the skills required for academic progression differ over career stage and geography.
The skills required to progress from PhD to professor – the classic academic trajectory –are not at all clear, despite lots being written on the academic profession and how to navigate an academic career. So we conducted the biggest study to date where we analysed over 40 thousand of academic job ads across all academic stages worldwide to find out.
While preparing my own (Lilia’s) promotion application to Senior Lecturer, I wondered what it really takes to progress up the academic career ladder. Much of the personal, anecdotal, as well as researched advice suggested, progression is not a linear path or ‘ladder’ at all, but a convoluted zig zag line with unexpected up and downturns sprinkled with side and backsteps. Overall, however, the academic ambition is to progress and move up the academic ranks as you capitalise on academic expertise and experience. But what does it take to get to the next stage? Do the requirements vary by country or discipline? And how are the selection criteria changing over time.
Sure, my institution’s academic promotion criteria listed certain standards, some fairly concrete and generic (number of publications in top journals), some more specific to the individual context (leadership, impact). But what are the actual skills, competencies and qualities required for an academic to transition from being an early-career researcher to lecturer to professor, if your heart is set on following an academic career, albeit the dire prospects?
Looking at 40,819 job ads from 2016-2021, spanning 40 disciplines, 3000 universities, and 60 countries, we see that academic careers evolve quickly over time and reflect the needs of knowledge societies much stronger than expected.
If you have just been promoted – congratulations! And a word of warning, don’t rest on your accolades because what got you to this stage will likely not be enough to progress further. Independent of discipline and country context, we find that while research and research outputs matter most at the onset of an academic career, other qualities become more important at later stages. Professors, globally speaking, are expected to do more outreach, teaching, and curriculum related work than often assumed.
Further, over the years 2016-2021 we see categories such as Digital Literacy (incl. technical skills like programming, software application, etc.), Teaching and Supervision (incl. curriculum and pedagogical development), Degree and Achievements, Work Experience, and Mobility are listed more frequently. While Research, Interpersonal, Cognitive Skills, Teaching and Supervision gain importance over an academic career lifespan, categories like Digital Skills, Communication, Personal Attributes, and Degree and Achievements lose significance towards the professoriate. Interpersonal Attributes, particularly, include qualities like teamwork, collaboration and partnership, management and leadership, and these are key across the academic career.
Figure 1: Attribute categories by academic career stage (R1= PhD, ECR, postdoc, R2= Lecturer -Senior Lecturer, R3= Associate Professor, R4= Professor)
We also found that the biggest jump, at least in terms of selection criteria requested, is when moving from R2 (equivalent to post-doc and lecturer-senior lecturer roles) to R3 (associate professor roles). This is where our data shows the greatest difference in requested attributes, in terms of the number of criteria listed and the diversity of criteria listed.
Overall, our findings point to the need for academics to continue to learn, grow, and reinvent themselves if progression is the goal. Mobility can certainly be an effective tool in climbing up the academic ladder, but will not suit everyone as mobility often requires significant compromise and resources. At discipline and country level significant variance exists as to what attributes are valued more and therefore requested more frequently.
Austria, the Netherlands, and Poland ask for a number of diverse skills, while Spain signals their need for Digital Skills and Previous Work Experience, categories that are most associated with earlier career stages. In Finland and Portugal, early career academics seem to require more time on teaching than senior staff. In Norway, the opposite applies, early career academic roles list more research related criteria. In Germany, junior academic roles ask for less teaching and supervision skills than professors, but spend more time on service functions. Country differences are in part rooted in long-established academic cultures and traditions and the context is important.
Figure 2: Summary for the top five countries and top five disciplines per attribute category (+ positive relation, -negative relation)
At the discipline level, there are significant differences, too. Biological Sciences, for example, ask for a diverse and wide skillset covering 5 out of 6 attribute categories, while other disciplines emphasise one or two attributes. Disciplines have distinct cultural characteristics with regards to research, external engagement and patterns of learning and teaching. Hence, it makes sense to include disciplinary experts on promotion committees and resist the trend to form interdisciplinary committees.
Our job data research demonstrates that academic selection criteria reflect the needs of the higher education sector, and there is much more to find in job ads. For instance, future research might examine how gender and casualisation are reflected in academic job adverts, if at all. Analysing the job benefits that are listed along with the selection criteria (e. g. holiday or parenting leave) might indicate gender preferences for a particular role, at a particular stage, country, discipline, etc. Our preliminary investigation into the temporal aspects listed in the job ads (e.g. part vs full time, short term contract) revealed that non-continuing roles, which often form parts of precarious career structures, tend to expect more skills, for example. Further job data research on aspects such as gender, casualisation, etc. might show the impact that such factors have on the nature of academic careers and skills sought after at each stage.
This post draws on the authors’ paper, Academic career progression from early career researcher to professor: what can we learn from job ads, published in Studies in Higher Education.
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