Career Development as a Christian Academic

This share and develop session focused on both promotion and progression in an academic career since an academic unlike other professions has to often set the agenda for how they will progress their career and elevate their position. This is in contrast with other careers where it is more a case of when someone is offered a promotion or encouraged in progression within a competitive job market. Likewise in business it is more a question of how an employee may seek other opportunities elsewhere which an employer has more of a responsibility to surpass or match such opportunities to retain the employee. Though moving from one institution to another does happen in an academic career, it is not something that can so easily be achieved due to domestic restraints or that one may be working within unique establish research facilities or environment that cannot be easily matched. Therefore, given that an academic has to take more initiative and responsibility themselves for their career development the question arises for the Christian academic how to approach that. Two questions were used as the focus of the discussion in this 45 minute session:

  1. What are the benefits, expectations, and potential problems of progressing an academic career?
  2. For the Christian academic, what does that mean for a Christian academic and how might the criteria be different?

Promotion pathways are so slow both in the UK and Europe and there is risk that we can enter a point where we are cynical about the matter, which is important to avoid so as to not distract us from God’s purpose and direction.

There are two main differences to promotion in continental Europe and the UK notably:

  • In Europe, it is a struggle to get the job to begin with but once appointed to assistant professor on a tenure track, such a contract as an assistant professor cannot last more than a given number of years, after which the next stage of associate professor is offered or otherwise the contract would conclude. However, progressing onto full professor is substantially harder and requires a ‘publish or perish dilemma’ to both enter an academic career and subsequently progress.
  • In the UK, the promotion path is somewhat different in that it is generally easier to enter the academic career with a lecturer or assistant professor post in terms of required past research track record but once appointed, there is a very strong ‘publish or perish’ agenda imposed from above in order to progress that can often be unmanageable around the substantial teaching and administration duties. Through their career an academic has to apply for promotion at a point they feel fit and there is difficulty for an individual in deciding whether they should apply ahead of other colleagues who may be more deserving, but also not too late where other colleagues get ahead who may be less deserving. Seeing other colleagues getting unexpectedly or rapidly promoted can be disheartening and department heads may be unfairly partial in who they encourage to apply for promotion. A further very important point is that many are employed on precarious or short term academic contracts (which is also more the case on research contracts prior to finding an academic post) that make the career not easy to remain in, particularly where domestic issues do not allow them to move to other destinations if no continuing contracts are available at their current institution. Academia in the UK can be very unsettling in this regard that it may lead to leaving the career altogether.

A final pertinent issue was raised for those who had reached heights of promotion in their career where there is a difficulty to climb back down again. Most notably, one may hold a substantial leadership role, or heaven headship role in their department. To move back to what might be considered ‘minor’ jobs and hand over the reins is not always easy to handle. The research agenda may have to be re-ignited if the previous roles had an extensive administrative load. Departments need to be organised in a supportive way that the responsibilities can be circulated regularly and with ease.

In response to these issues, a strong point of wisdom shared is that we can be focused on our mission in life whether we leave academia, return, or don’t even enter it until later in life. God’s plan can impact that on an international scale and sometimes call us to unexpected far away locations. However much experience or expertise we build long term in academia, nothing is wasted. However slow, or fast our career is progressing, or even if it feels stationary, we can be assured that God’s mission will not stall. That means there will likely be trials from the saying that for every success there are two or three failures. Unwelcome frustrations will also come our way as the top down managerialism will be hard to beat that leads to often unhelpful box ticking problems. To take the quote from Alvin Plantinga that was shared, “We aren’t a philosopher who happens to be a Christian, but rather a Christian who happens to be a philosopher.” In this we pray humbly and bring our petitions to the Lord to ask him what our primary purpose and mission is.


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