This is a naive question, coming from someone who has never had an academic job. I'm asking what is involved when a junior professor is promoted. My question is wide, since I don't understand academic life. Some answers are obvious, but I'd still like clarification:

  1. Funding. Professors I know seem to be obsessed over funding. They're constantly writing grant applications and are constantly unhappy at how much of a lottery it is. However, since the professors are presumably paid a salary by the university, so what if they fail? It's not like the university will stop paying them, will it? Especially if the professor is tenured.

    Does the source of the funding matter? Suppose Alice is a beginning professor. One day Bill Gates calls Alice and says "I'd like to be your PhD student, and I'll give you $1 billion of funding". Will her head of department be delighted? Will Alice immediately be promoted to full professor? Is the idea behind the $1 billion that Alice will now be able to hire an army of postdocs and PhD students (can she actually do this especially if the university doesn't have office space for them?), which will boost the department's research output and therefore improve the university's ranking? If so, does that mean academia is essentially "whoever has more money wins"?

    Suppose that Alice had won $1 billion at the sweepstakes instead, and decided to put that money into her work (can she do this?). Does the same scenario as the above play out?

  2. Research output. I imagine this is related to funding - if one has more funding, one can hire more postdocs and PhD students. But at that point, it's the postdocs and PhD students that are doing the research. The professor might have his or her name on plenty of papers, but never as a first author. Presumably, the papers will look good on the postdocs' and PhD students' CV, not so much on the professor's. Is that the case?

  3. Teaching output. Presumably this must count for something or there'd be no reason for departments to have "best teaching" awards. I also imagine that departments will try to spread (mandatory) teaching loads around so everyone teaches roughly the same number of courses. This doesn't include Honours, PhD etc students however, and as far as I can tell different professors have different numbers of PhD students. Is it an advantage to have lots of such students? The obvious answer is "yes", but if so, I don't understand why professors don't just take on students until they hit capacity. They probably have a lot more prospective students than actual ones, especially at big universities, which is why the admission rate can be so low. If this is related to not having funding to pay the students (aren't students expected to pay for their education? This certainly applied at undergraduate level), does this mean that a self-funded student will have no trouble getting admitted even to prestigious universities?

  4. Other ventures. I imagine this must count for something, or I don't see why a professor would agree to serve on a journal's editorial board. It's usually not a paid position, and it's time-consuming. I also see professors do things like start companies and try to sell commercial products. Question: why would the university tolerate this? It means the professor is putting time into something unrelated to the university. My contracts with (non-academic) employers typically have a line "you are expected to devote your full attention to affairs of the company". Does getting involved in these non-university activities help with getting promoted?

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    Would someone kindly provide an answer for US universities or should I open another question?
    – Bluebird
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 14:15
  • I don't understand why professors don't just take on students until they hit capacity students cost time, bad students are a waste of time (once you reached the point where you don't need to polish your cv).
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 16:29
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    Bill and Alice would have an insurmountable conflict of interest in your scenario. Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 16:46
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    "Presumably this must count for something or there'd be no reason for departments to have 'best teaching' awards." Or: "Best teaching awards" are created to fill the gap that teaching otherwise doesn't count for anything. Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 18:34
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    This question is incredibly broad, verging on unanswerable--you could tighten it up by specifying a general location, field, and type of institution (since you've accepted an answer, you might as well make it UK research institutions in the biological sciences).
    – 1006a
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 20:29

2 Answers 2


All of this is going to be very field- and country-specific. I will answer for biological/biomedical sciences at UK universities.

The career progression at most UK universities is:
Lecturer → Senior Lecturer → Reader → Full professor

In the UK there is no such thing as tenure unless you got it before 1987. However sacking someone from any job in the UK is much harder than in the US.

Promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer usually involves demonstrating:

  • You can secure on-going substantial funding for your research. This means getting multiple grants at different times that bring the university substantial overheads (not all do).
  • You have some leadership role in teaching – you have created new modules and now co-ordinate them, or are lead for a degree program or a reaching in a sub field.
  • You have at least one major admin role in the department, such as head of admissions, chair of the equality committee, head of outreach, exams co-ordinator etc.

Reader is normally a purely ceremonial position, that comes with no salary or benefits increase and usually awarded in recognition of a being a leader in your research field.

The big step to professor (also known as a chair) is generally entirely research-based (although some places are now awarding professorships on the basis of world-leading innovation in teaching). Promotion to professor usually involves obtaining references from international colleagues saying you are where it is at in your field, worldwide. You will have brought in funding above and beyond what is normal, probably more than once (e.g. funds to start a research institute, or a large, multicentre program etc). You will become your universities leader in whatever it is you do i.e. Prof Such and Such, University of Neverland’s chair in X studies.

As for your specific questions

  1. Funding is all. If you don’t get funding, you can’t do research. If you don’t get funding, you definitely won’t get promoted. In my university, if you don’t get funding you won’t pass your probationary period to get a lectureship, and at many places if you don’t keep getting funding, you are in danger of losing your job. Not all funding is equal, because not all funding comes with overheads: that is, if I apply for a grant to buy a $ 100,000 piece of equipment and the funder gives me $ 100,000, then the university gets nothing. There are different ways of seeing this. You could see it as the university wanted to profit from the grant. Or you could see it as the university needing to find the funds to pay my salary, heat, light and clean my office etc. Making the university a lot of money is primarily what gets you promoted.

  2. Research outputs. A cynic would say that as far as the university is concerned, research outputs are adverts that allow you to get more funding. Either by advertising to funders that you are worth investing in, or to companies that might want to licence your tech, or to student choosing a uni. A special case of this is the quadrennial ranking of universities by the government on their research outputs.

  3. Teaching output matters in so far as having a reputation for good teaching helps you recruit undergrad/masters students. As for PhD students: in my field at least, getting a student is treated like winning a small grant. A PhD students costs someone around $ 195,000 over the course of their four-year studentship ($ 85,000 in tuition fees, about the same again in stipend for the student, and about $ 25,000 in research costs). Any student who can come up with that themselves is likely to be welcomed with open arms. Very few can.

  4. Being an editor and sitting on committees is a service to the community that even universities recognise is necessary for academia to continue. It also brings prestige. For the professor, being editor of a leading journal is a good way to demonstrate you are at the top of your field. As for companies: if you are starting a company, you are likely to be doing so using IP licensed from the university. Spin-outs also look good when a university is try to demonstrate to funders/government that they are good at doing research that has an impact on society (the so-called impact agenda). In the US of course, once you are tenured, you can spend your time doing whatever you like.

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    Point (3), likely to be welcomed with open arms, are you quite sure? There may be policies or regulations that prevent this. I know one professor (in Sweden) who turned away a self-funded PhD student because he didn't want to lead a group where some PhD students were employed, unionised, and reasonably well paid, whereas others were just-about-managing and in a much more fragile situation; he thought this would be poor for group cohesion and thus for overall productivity.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 16:40
  • @gerrit The answer does say it's for the UK, where PhD candidates are most definitely students, not staff.
    – origimbo
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 17:26
  • @origimbo I realise that, but I wonder if there may still be policies (for good or bad reasons) to not welcome self-funded students with open arms.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 17:36
  • @gerrit From the fields I or friends have been involved with, then yes, if the student clearly doesn't meet academic standards (and will thus drag down completion rates) they might have problems. Ditto if the institution literally doesn't have physical space to run any more students. On the other hand if they're at least borderline, have the money in the bank, or a firm contract with an industrial partner, and a suitably qualified supervisor lined up, then I've never heard of problems.
    – origimbo
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 19:23
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    @user3727079 I did say i was talking biology. My grants run to about £0.5M. About half of that is staff costs. Both my own, and that of research assistants. In my dept we don't so much 'buy out' classes as pay for the research time the uni is already giving us: my contract is for 50% teaching, but the uni must pay for the other 50% somehow. People who have many grant will tend to be givien a lower teaching load, but we are all expected to do some teaching however much time has notionally be committed on grants. Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 10:14

In response to [research output] The professor might have his or her name on plenty of papers, but never as a first author. Presumably, the papers will look good on the postdocs' and PhD students' CV, not so much on the professor's. Is that the case?

No. Being supervisor of successful PhD's and postdocs is a good thing of course. Each field has its own conventions where the supervisor is placed in the author list (2nd author, last author, ...), which are usually familiar to people working in the field (or deciding about grants in a specific field). Therefore, being in the supervisor/professor position on papers does look good on your CV.

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    Not all fields have the convention where the supervisor is senior/last author. I work in atmospheric physics/Earth observation, and the supervisor is usually 2nd author.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 16:41
  • Thanks @gerrit, didn't know about that. I included the info in my answer, trying to make if valid for all fields/systems.
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 17:49
  • And in my field, the supervisor is not automatically an author, and authors are always listed alphabetically.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 20:21

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