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Pathways to professorship

  • 24 April 2024
  • By Roger Watson
  • This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Roger Watson, Academic Dean, School of Nursing, Southwest Medical University, China and outgoing President of the National Conference of University Professors.
  • This piece is a review of Pathways to professorship: a toolkit for success by Marily Leask (2023) published by Routledge, London.

Asking an established professor how they arrived at that position can be like asking a centipede to explain how it walks. Those of us who got here were often too busy doing the kind of work that got us here to keep note of the steps and strategies. In fact, I doubt that many of us had a strategy.

During my PhD study and in my early days as an academic, I recall individuals who did claim to have their pathway to professorship worked out or who aimed to be a professor before they were 40 or some similar goal. Without exception, while many of these people became successful academics, none became professors. It seems to me that many of us got here by chance, although that would be to ignore the help of informal mentors who gave us the occasional nudge in the right direction. Many, equally, prevented us from the career-ending incidents to which some of us are prone.

Pathways to professorship is a remarkable book. As far as I know, it is unique, although Leaske does refer to one other work which is specific to psychology. Also, while Leask is attributed as the author of the book, she is also the editor in the sense that there are other contributors. With two exceptions, these are all women. This is a notable, although unstated, feature of the book as while nearly half of UK university academics as female only 28% are professors. This was borne out in the recent NCUP (National Conference of University Professors) survey, The role of the UK professoriate, where other differences regarding being mentored and providing mentorship were noted among female professors.

The book certainly has face validity as many professorial colleagues will identify with and, indeed specifically relate to much of the advice given. However, the book is not about ‘how I got there’ or ‘reflections on getting there’. It really is about developing a pathway if, indeed, becoming a professor is your aim.

Beginning with a ten-year plan and progressing through another two chapters to choosing a university and also developing awareness of contractual obligations, the early part of the book provides helpful information that many new and established academics will wish they had been given prior to setting out. One specific piece of advice which may seem mundane was to keep an accurate and up-to-date CV from which other versions can be generated and from which biopics can easily be extracted to suit different needs. I was drawn to this piece of advice as I never cease to be amazed at colleagues — junior and senior — who eschew the practice of constantly updating their CVs with presentations and publications. They see the production of a CV as a periodic task to be accomplished only when requested for promotions or job applications. Such colleagues automatically begin on the back foot. Towards that end, as I have also advocated, the value of having an ORCID page cannot be emphasised enough. Essentially, your ORCID page should be considered to be a version of your CV.

Whilst anomalies abound, to be a professor worthy of the title you should be an expert in some aspect of your field and a ‘thought leader’ for your profession or discipline. The author covers this before one of the guest authors steps in to outline and emphasise the importance of mentorship. You must identify the right person or people (you may need mentorship with different aspects of your career), and you must be specific about your needs when you approach such mentors. By their very nature, they will be busy people. The book contained advice on work-life balance and was not afraid to cover the issues inherent in trying to develop an academic career while raising small children. I believe in some places, however, the authors may have been disingenuous in that there was not a single mention of the long and unsociable hours many academics must work, especially those on the route to professorship.

There was some overlap with early material in two of the chapters about developing a media and social media presence. Nevertheless, the material was complementary. There was a useful list of social media sites to consider using and also the value of having some training in dealing with the media, interview techniques specifically. There are two types of profiles: one is social (e.g. LinkedIn and Twitter) while the other is professional (e.g. Mendeley and ORCID) and both need to be maintained.

Pathways to professorship is more than a book… it should be on the shelves of every university library.”

Naturally, since publishing is probably the prime task of any academic but especially for professors, this occupied two chapters: one on books; and one on academic articles. The advice in both was very sound based on my own experience of publishing and editing several academic journals. There was advice about finding short quality times to write rather than expecting to be able to take or be given long spells of writing. I especially liked the advice, when writing and completing a section, to take notes of what you will write next and use this as a starting point. Great advice for any writer aiming for professorship or not. The chapter on academic articles contained excellent advice about authorship issues and considerations of where to publish. I was surprised, despite paying to publish being raised, that the problem of predatory journals was not mentioned specifically. Also, little consideration of the issues involved in open-access publishing was provided given how prominent it is now.

Applying for research funding was the subject of the penultimate chapter which, in some disciplines may not sit well. In the laboratory sciences, it is impossible to proceed without funding and this would be the emphasis, not only for budding professors, but for all aspiring academics. Obtaining funding certainly is a major distraction in some corners of academia. However, this may reflect the disciplinary backgrounds of the authorship which was mainly educational. The final chapter contains some reflections from across the world.

The book is replete with checklists and links to online resources some produced by the main author and specific to the book and others from across the higher education sector. Pathways to professorship is more than a book, it is a major development within academia and should be on the shelves of every university library, human resources department and on the shelf of any junior academic who aspires to the title.

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  1. Professor Linda Martindale says:

    Having a guide to support career development towards professorship is a valuable part of the toolkit. Those of us in academic leadership positions also have a key responsibility to support and guide more junior and early career colleagues. This book doesn’t seem to cover the scholarship pathway to professorship that is now being encouraged in some universities, including research intensives. Recognising the vital and impactful contributions of education and scholarship track academics is part of a well-rounded institution that values education and the wide range of scholarly activities that academics undertake.

  2. Alaa Garad says:

    The book is excellent, and this article is wonderful and complements the book. I suggest that the authors consider the feedback in this article.

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