Academic References for Promotion + some advice

For those unfamiliar with academic promotions (e.g., moving from assistant to associate or to full professor) the process remains labor intensive. It frequently involves lengthy documents where a candidate explains why they are worthy of promotion* alongside assessments from line managers, Deans, and senior academics from other institutions. Once all of these documents are amassed, committees discuss what should happen next. These meetings happen a few times a year. 

It's all rather stressful. 

As an external person, I’m starting to get more reference requests and these tend to occur around the same time of year. Whenever I feel able to provide something useful, I will prioritize these because they are essential to the candidate and without them, the promotion process can drag on even longer. 

All one can do is make an assessment of someone's contributions while keeping in mind the institutional criteria.

That said, I still feel universities probably place too much emphasis on recommendations from outsiders.  

This can result in errors because local information is displaced by the views of people who know comparatively little about the candidate. Again, the rules vary between universities but most institutions want references from academics who have never worked with the candidate in any capacity. An external reference may provide a positive review of a person's research while being blissfully unaware that an individual is a bully and makes their Ph.D. students cry daily. 

An extreme example perhaps, but you get the picture. 

To be clear, I’m not saying external references are bad per se - they can be useful, especially when placing a candidate's work in context. As an aside, it would be nice to see more references coming from practitioners or other non-academic beneficiaries who could comment on the external impact. 

However, I do think candidates should be able to see them (perhaps once they are anonymized) and be allowed a right of reply (like peer review). This is even more important if an assessment is critical or contains errors. 

At this point, you might be thinking ‘Surely an academic would not provide a negative assessment’. 

You would be wrong. They can and do. 

Until the system changes, my advice would be as follows.

When building a case for promotion, candidates should give careful consideration to who they suggest as an external reference. Of course, this assumes you get to make any suggestions. Some or all of these decisions are frequently removed from a candidate's hands and may be at the discretion of others. As a middle ground, some references may come from those whom the candidate has nominated and others from elsewhere. 

If it isn't already obvious, academic promotions in many institutions are far from transparent. 

Be aware of it and plan accordingly. 


*The quantity of paperwork required from the candidate directly does vary considerably between institutions.

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