Professorships: Academic Trajectory and Tips for Applicants

A photo I took of the solar eclipse in 2015, available from https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=220466

In June 2019, I received informal word that I was to be promoted to a Personal Professorship in Electronic Engineering at the National University of Ireland Galway, with the formal letter coming in early July. The promotion process as a whole has become a lot more transparent in recent years, with evaluation and scoring criteria published online, and the process is still being improved. I believe it is useful for those who are thinking of applying to have some guidance from someone who has gone through the system, and therefore I wanted to write this blog post of tips and in parallel share my application with colleagues. (When I had gone through the Senior Lecturer promotion process at NUI Galway, I was also asked by the University to share my application and record a video with some tips for internal use.)

The term “professor” is used quite differently in the US and in Ireland (and the UK, which has a very similar academic structure to Ireland). A professor in the US can be tenured or non-tenured, junior or senior. I spoke at Stanford in 2013 about being a “professor entrepreneur” even though at the time I was still a Lecturer (a level below Associate Professor). In the UK and Ireland, a full professor refers to the most senior academic position. In terms of full professors, there are two main types: Established and Personal. Typically an Established Professor (sometimes called an Established Chair) also acts as the Head of Department (or Discipline), and the pay scale goes a bit higher than that of the Personal Professor. The Personal Professor does not necessarily have formal departmental responsibilities. According to a recent report on NUI Galway via the HEA, “the Personal Professor grade in NUI Galway is similar to a Personal Chair in other institutions”. In another definition, a “‘personal professor’ […] is a full professor academically, without management role”. I also found this explanation of a full professor from academicpositions.com: “Professors hold a ‘chair’ in a subject which can be either established or personal. Established chairs exist independently of the person who holds it, and if they leave the chair can be filled by someone else. A personal chair is awarded to a specific individual in recognition of high levels of achievement. If they leave, there is no guarantee the chair will be available for someone else.

As background, I will give you an overview of my academic trajectory. I started as a contract lecturer in 2000, having done a small bit of part-time teaching in the late 1990s. I taught for four years, worked hard at my teaching and administrative duties, finished off my PhD in 2002, but didn’t get to do a whole lot of research (one or two papers and some small projects). In fact, research was just becoming a really important thing at the University, although I didn’t know it yet. I applied for an academic position (Lecturer) in my Department, didn’t get it (no research funding), and had to look for other opportunities. This was pretty difficult for me, because I’d been ‘doing’ electronics for 14 years since my undergrad and there were no other academic vacancies in this area.

Anyway, I applied for a position as a postgraduate researcher at a newly formed research institute (DERI) in 2004 where I switched to an entirely different area (the Semantic Web) and worked there for four years. I nearly didn’t get in in the first place because I wasn’t really a fit (EE, not CS), but a kind person and mentor vouched for me. I got a lot of experience in paper writing and research projects which really stood to me later. In 2008, I applied for and was appointed as a Lecturer (Above the Bar) in Electronic Engineering. For my interview, I structured my presentation around what I brought and what I would do in six areas: basic research, publications, applications, projects, collaborations and outreach. I was promoted in 2014 to Senior Lecturer, and then as mentioned to Personal Professor in 2019. But I had my share of failures along the way too. I applied for a Personal Professor position in 2014 and had a very difficult interview due to illness and timing. I applied for some more professorial positions last year and didn’t even get shortlisted (not a fit). But the promotion route worked out in the end.

Apart from the obvious requirements of high levels of achievement to academic scholarship in the areas of teaching, research and contribution, it is difficult to know how to structure a promotion application because everyone keeps theirs to themselves (it’s a secret!) and there’s little precedent/a lack of templates to base a new application on. Here are some of my tips about how to plan and structure an application:

  • You should be thinking ahead – about a year in advance of the deadline – in terms of putting your application together, as it takes a lot of time. In my case, I knew when I was eligible to apply for both Senior Lecturer and Personal Professor (i.e., when I would hit the top of the pay scale), and therefore planned to gather material about a year back from the next promotion application date after that would happen.
  • Make sure you are fully aware of all the required documents and what is needed in each. In NUI Galway, there is a cover letter, an application form, a CV, a list of publications, and a teaching portfolio.
  • Try and add some structure to your cover letter. I made some paragraphs with a first phrase in bold, roughly corresponding to the essential and desirable eligibility requirements of another professor job advertisement I found, and with the rest of the paragraph outlining the highlights of what I brought to the role under each heading. The evaluation criteria in Section 3 or the new detailed evaluation and scoring criteria in Appendix 5 of the Guide to Applicants could equally well serve as these headings.
  • For the application form, try and use bullet points where possible, especially for contributions (this will also help with the word limits). Add pictures where appropriate.
  • If you’re a LaTeX user, do read my previous post about “My Curriculum Vitæ/Résumé Template for Researchers/Academics using LaTeX”, and even if you’re not, have a look at the headings I use in my LaTeX CV here: http://bresl.in/cv
  • Don’t leave writing your CV until the last minute. In fact, you should have your CV always ready for additions, almost like a wiki page. Once something new happens – a public talk, a committee invite, a media interview, etc. (and there is nearly always an email message associated with this), don’t just answer yes and file the message away. Put the item in your CV first and then file the corresponding message(s) away.
  • If you haven’t already taken a postgraduate qualification in teaching and learning, you should probably do so. This will help a lot with putting together the required Teaching Portfolio. The Guide to Applicants has a section on the Teaching Portfolio which lists nine areas and associated sub-areas, which I used as my major and minor headings (along with additional minor headings I added for sub-areas not covered).
  • Be prepared to provide more information if you pass through the various stages of the process. In my case, after about eight months (passing the ‘Prima Facie’ stage), I was asked to provide a soft copy of what I considered to be my most important publications (from a minimum of five to a maximum of ten). After another five months, I was given the opportunity to provide an updated addendum to my application (on recent achievements and activities) for consideration by the Board.
  • Be prepared for delays. The process took nearly a year and a half from submission to notification. As well as the formation of an internal Promotions Board, external assessors have to be found in the relevant area of expertise and who will accept the invitation to assess an application.
  • To give you an idea of the lengths of my submitted documents, my cover letter was three pages, application form was 15, CV was 35, publications list was 14, teaching portfolio was 46, selected/highlighted publications was 2 (for the index) plus the papers themselves, and the later addendum was 10 pages. Unlike the Senior Lecturer process which involved an interview, the Personal Professor process at NUI Galway is (at the moment) entirely by application, with supplemental documents requested/provided along the way.

(Colleagues in NUI Galway can request access to my promotion applications for both SL and PP by emailing me with the subject “Promotion Applications”… Best of luck!)

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