Do I have to move up the ladder?

Photo by Geran de Klerk |
Photo by Geran de Klerk |

My last post about sharing hard truths in the academy seemed to really strike a chord, particularly with early career researchers who confirmed that hearing the truth was better than being placated with false assurances. People contributed some great comments: well considered and sometimes sad.

One of these comments, from Megan, included an interesting question:

I have one, maybe slightly odd, question. I did a PhD so I could work in research, not to scale the heights of academia. I love my job but I love other aspects of my life just as much (!) and am not keen to have to put my job above all else as it seems is necessary to progress (from what I have observed anyway). Basically I would be more than happy to keep working as a level B, say, on different projects and feel confident enough in my general skills (I had a career before academia) that I could do this. I also know that senior academics need good people at that level to actually deliver their projects.

However it seems to me that staying at the one level is not possible as a career path – the institution kind of forces you to look and move ‘upward’ because of the need / desire for high performing researchers. And while I know some projects have non-academic project managers I’m not as interested in that as would still like to use my academic skills / write a bit and so on. Just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on this.

This prompted so many thoughts that I had to write this post! My caveat for this is that it is drawn from my own experiences – I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows of research into promotion patterns and aspirations in academia.

So, where to begin?

The short answer is that you could have a career as a Level B academic. If you manage to land a continuing Level B position (title of ‘lecturer’, 2nd step up from entry-level continuing academic appointments), you could – if you wanted to – stay at that level for as long as you like. That is, as long as you’re not made redundant by your institution, or ‘fail’ to do your basic job as an academic (in which case, you may then be ‘performance managed’ out of your role).

If you’re fulfilling the job of a lecturer (and probably beyond), and just don’t ever feel like applying for promotion, this becomes interesting. I’m writing a chapter for a book on ‘academic wellbeing’ that focuses on the very question: what it means when you know that fighting for your work/life balance means a direct compromise of promotion chances and track-record building opportunities.

For example, if you decide that doing international conferences isn’t the go for you right now, how does that affect your profile and relevance in the field? In this age of social connection and sustainable networking via different platforms, I would say it doesn’t have to affect your profile and field relevance at all. But others would beg to differ, sometimes quite vehemently. Personally, I haven’t presented at an international event for many, many years. The last time I went overseas was for research activity that didn’t include a conference because that trip’s priorities were to get other work done and to be home ASAP (my kids were 1.5 and 4 years old). Pre-kids, I would’ve aligned as many events as possible around the time overseas, weaving in conferences and multiple university visits to connect with colleagues in the field, even if this meant more side-trips and a longer time overseas.

While no-one may necessarily throw you out of the institution for being happy for a long time at Level B, I suspect the evaluation of you as a scholar and researcher could fast diminish. The academic sector is very much geared to the gold-star mentality, ladder-climbing, and endless hoop-jumping when it comes to the question of ‘are you good enough?’. We resent having to do these things. Yet when our colleagues aren’t doing them, it can lead to negative judgements about them. Is it a case of feeling like those who aren’t moving up the ladder aren’t pulling their weight in some way? Is not seeking promotion seen as a sign of not doing anything, or of being incapable of reaching the next level? Can it be accepted as a choice that someone has made?

Hand in hand with the endless striving for ill-defined excellence (here are my views on that score!) is the assumption of career ambition. It’s an interesting enmeshment of academic identity with limitless ambition. Where it gets messy is that ‘ambition’ is understood in narrow ways that mean applying for promotion, moving to higher level jobs, and always looking up. If your ambition is within your field of research and drives finding those social justice solutions, better health outcomes, or industry results, these don’t necessarily equate to climbing an academic ladder. Sometimes, not having a promotion can work better in your life.

That said, there are two things that I think can have a huge effect on whether someone stays happy at Level B, over the long term:

  1. Recognition for your experience. If you are fulfilling your role as a lecturer, chances are you’re doing teaching, research, and taking on service/engagement roles. Within the ‘doing research’ component, this would include publishing, applying for funding, working with collaborators, and supervising postgraduates. If you are doing all these things, gaining experience and wisdom as you go along, you may start to feel that those who are climbing the ladder are less qualified than you are but they are gaining more recognition and reward for the things they do (e.g. via promotion, higher level opportunities).
  2. The influence to enact change. You may not feel you want or need the monetary rewards of climbing the ladder. Keep in mind, though, that while academic promotion can equate to more responsibility and higher amounts of output (which puts more pressure on the scholar), it can also mean bigger, more exciting opportunities and more ability to influence the way things are done both within the institution and beyond. For example, sure you can get on a major grant as an early career researcher, but if your passion and drive to be in the field means you may need to lead a team at some point, rather than hope that someone will come along who will do so (in the direction you’d like and involve you significantly) you may need to be more senior.

Everyone’s situation is different, and Megan may well have considered all these elements already. In my view, if people are happy, interested, and feeling like they’re still learning/gaining knowledge at Level B, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to stay one for as long as they’d like. For many, having any kind of longer-term job in academe is reward enough, Level B or not.

What do you think? Can someone create a well-regarded, desirable career at Level B in academia? And should they?


  1. As a level B lecturer for the last 15 years or so, I’ve made a decision not to have my life judged by the title given to me by my employer. I get sufficient satisfaction, recognition and remuneration from my job and my colleagues to meet my needs and I have a full life away from work. Lack of “ambition”? Probably. Happy? Definitely. Everybody would benefit from consideration of life goals and how your job contributes to achieving it or them rather than blindly jumping through hoops just because they are put in front of you or because society expects you to.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m an ECR, and I met with a potential mentor who is approaching retirement. ‘I’m not very successful as an academic’ was her opening line, before going on to elaborate on how choosing never to return to full-time employment after maternity leave has restricted her ability to ‘climb the ladder’. But when I asked her, ‘have you had a satisfying career’ and ‘have you been able to achieve your financial goals’, she described immense satisfaction; doing important research she enjoyed on a variety of great projects, supervising brilliant RHD students, and contributing to her family’s financial stability as a dual-income household. I then asked her what part of that wasn’t successful, and she was stumped. It was like she’d never even considered that being ‘not a full professor’ at retirement could be a successful outcome.
    Academia, both as a whole and as a community of individuals, needs to review our definitions of success.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have colleagues who have made the decision to stay at level B, mainly to enable them to resist grant applications or to allow a slower research output cycle (not because they are research inactive). Eventually the expectation of applying for grants at Level B appeared and they moved into teaching specialist roles and report some regret as they did not anticipate such a high impact on their ability to research.

    My observation is that even without being a teaching specialist, you will end up with a heavier teaching load, partly because more senior people use grants or admin roles to reduce their load. I also suspect that your ability to attract grants might be compromised as you age in the system. A shiny level B you take a risk on; a level B who has never advanced, perhaps not (altho if you maintained an exceptional track record for research it might not matter, but see comments on constraints on time).

    At a certain point, your institution will take advantage of your experience to get you to do senior things for less money. You need to be prepared to fight this every time and not be the good citizen.

    Finally if you mean staying in temp research contracts, this is possible- but very stressful unless you are prepared to move regularly to maintain your income. Large chunks of life may find you on multiple small contracts to make ends meet. The people I know who do this find the instability stressful, even tho they’ve sometimes done it for decades.


  4. Posting this comment on behalf of Ella – RW readers’ thoughts most welcome!

    “I am in a similar-but-different position that has me weighing up almost the same factors …and I would really like some input from you or your readers if you think it is appropriate.

    Is it worth completing my PhD ?

    I was appointed from industry to a Fulltime Level A teaching/research position. At the job interview I indicated my willingness to complete a PhD and the university indicated its desire and willingness to support me to do this. Roll forward three years and when our university academic workforce was “re-shaped”, I was appointed as a Teaching-only Academic. The research component of my workload was cut to 10% and allocated only to “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”. I have published a couple of journal articles while employed, but published far more when I was in industry. I managed to be promoted to Level B a year later, by demonstrating through industry achievements that I had “equivalence” to a PhD, sufficient for promotion.

    Four years on, I am getting toward the top of Level B. I have not started a PhD, although my work will offer me 1000 hours of paid time toward this, on the proviso that if I leave the university within six months of completing my PhD, or never complete it, I may be asked to pay back the hours. If you allow for a minimum of 48 weeks of fulltime work over three years for the average PhD, then this is 5400 hours. So, under this arrangement I would need to complete 80% of my PhD in my spare time, outside of work hours. Of course, if I am strategic, I could attempt a thesis-by-publication, given that I theoretically need to be writing as part of my job anyhow…. however my teaching and admin workload are such that most of my writing has been done outside of work hours anyhow.

    I am approaching 50 and still have a couple of kids at home. Like Megan, I love my life outside my work also.

    Even if I was the world’s best administrator, or teacher, most non-research positions that I could apply for require a PhD, so I think I will never be Head of Department or able to take on a role like Dean of Student Engagement without one. I believe I could make a case for promotion to Level C, but probably not further without a PhD. I feel very vulnerable to possible changes of policy that may require PhDs and affect my employment. I feel that I cannot change universities without a PhD. Realistically I am facing staying in exactly the same job (which is secure, enjoyable, paid well enough) until I retire unless I somehow find time to complete a PhD. I could, of course, quit my job and complete a PhD, but the competition for tenured academic positions is such that if I left and then applied with a PhD, I think the competition would be very strong and I would likely not be hired.

    I guess my question is an adjunct to Megan’s “Can someone create a well-regarded, desirable career in academia, without getting a PhD?””


  5. Thank you very much indeed for the paper and clear insights into this question. I have had the same question and like Megan, I’ve had work experience before starting my PhD (13-years in industry). My last position in corporation was project manager so I am confident to say that I am aware of how promotions would direct me to deal with significant responsibilities. Although I could handle the job but personally that was not the lifestyle I really enjoyed.
    I agree with all points the paper have discussed about possible negative judgments, not seeking promotion as a sign of not doing anything, recognition disappointments and lack of opportunity to have adequate influence. These insights would help me to prepare myself and set my mind to face the reality if I decide to stay in level B and not trying to climb the ladder.
    I would like to add my opinion about long-time-staying in one level; to me, the judgments and recognitions are not the first drivers in researching career path because I had all these experiences in industry before starting academia. In other words, being a researcher was my vision for a decade and having this position is going to be the first motivation. In my opinion, staying in one level might work well for experienced people but not new graduates, because skilled people would decide based on their real try-and-error job expectations.
    Again, I should thank you for the paper and opening this discussion. I believe that many PhD students would have the same question in their mind specially who come from industry.
    Best regards,
    Sara Z.Zadeh
    PhD Scholar
    The University of Queensland


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