Career Options The Industry Mindset

Landing a promotion: Top tips post-PhD.

Landing a promotion in the workplace is often seen as the benchmark for success. However, most academics don’t approach this in the right way. To help achieve a promotion it’s important to leave our feelings at the door, keep the conversation open, and to start the discussion as early as possible.

Promotion is a common topic and is often the benchmark we use to evaluate our career success. In academia, this necessarily isn’t the case. The post-doc revolving door and limited opportunities to make professorship result in a relatively stagnant or linear career journey. Much of our efforts are spent in acquiring accolades instead. Papers, publications, grants, acronyms, you name it. This subsequently means we’re a little out of practice when it comes to navigating a promotion in the workplace, or at least in industry. Due to this, it can mean we’re not approaching a promotion in the right way, and are more likely to feel disheartened or demotivated when they don’t necessarily materialise. This can lead us to jump from one organisation to another to ‘acquire’ said promotion.

More often than not, this doesn’t need to be the case, and constantly jumping from ship to ship might not actually be the best way to supercharge your career. If you’re not careful, having a historical pattern of changing jobs after a year or less is likely to raise some eyebrows during an interview – or possibly before then as this will be outlined on your CV. Employers will have subsequently less confidence that you’ll stick around for the long run. From an organisational perspective, it takes a lot of time and money/resources to train someone up into a new role. They’d much rather invest this time and energy into someone who’s going to stick around.

Sure, changing after a year or less generally won’t impact your employability post-PhD. Having a PhD in and of itself helps communicate commitment, patience, and resilience which will offset some negatives/concerns from the employer. However, when this starts to turn into a consistent running theme across your employment history expect interviews and finding a job to get a little bit harder.

Before jumping ship then, it’s important to explore whether a promotion or role change is a viable option in your current organisation. Again, if you’re in a toxic work culture, the job doesn’t support a good work-life balance or there’s other misalignment with your personal values then a promotion won’t necessarily fix that. However, if you feel relatively content and happy in your role, enjoy your current lifestyle and have good working relationships with your colleagues and the main driving factor for a role change is to have a bigger challenge and/or move a step closer to your salary goals – then perhaps a promotion is the best option.

As outlined in the beginning, most people fail at the first hurdle. They approach the promotion conversation with a lot of emotion or work-placed trauma. Feelings of being unappreciated, not valued, or even past employment experiences may take over the conversation and derail you. These blockers can also show up when asking for a raise. Therefore, it’s important we do our best to leave these feelings at the door. We want to embark on the conversation that is more driven by logic, and you have facts or so called ‘proof’ that a promotion is the best option, not only for yourself, but also for your organisation. In short, we want to approach the conversation with a little more openness and curiosity.

The objective is to not turn the conversation into a me vs them discussion, or a win vs lose scenario. Aim to keep the conversation flexible, dynamic, and open. As soon as we fall into black and white thinking, we start an uphill battle. Nobody likes to feel backed into a corner, and if you’re approaching this conversation as a ‘give me this or else’ conversation, then you’ll most definitely not succeed. This isn’t a hostage negotiation.

To enable this openness and flexibility then, it’s better to start planting the seeds, or broaching the conversation early. This then puts your goals and intentions on the table in a way that’s subtle and not as intense. Floating the idea of how you can progress over the next 6 months, what the long-term vision is for your team, or even expressing a desire to develop and learn new skills is a nice conversation opener for a promotion.

This can help you approach the topic of promotion through the lens of ‘I may not be ready right now, but what can I do to get there in X months’ time’. Here you can collect feedback, identify any skill gaps whilst also exploring what your boss or employer is looking for so you can make the next step. Now you have an objective sounding board that you can collect proof against. If you need to demonstrate more stakeholder management to get a promotion, you can start to think more objectively on how to do this. When you get an opportunity to engage with stakeholders to do so, you can document and make a point of this to your boss.

This creates a more ongoing conversation about your promotion, where you are today and how do you get there in the future. When an opportunity presents itself, your name will instantly come to mind. Much of navigating promotions in the workplace is about creating visibility for yourself and drawing attention to the things you do without falling into the background – a common pitfall most PhDs fall into.  

Eventually, over time this groundwork of ‘exploring’ a promotion early will begin to compound to the point where your manager is ready to support and advocate your next step. It can feel like a slow process, but this approach is likely to lead to a better chance of success than turning up out the blue demanding a raise or a promotion – a tactic far too many people appear to adopt.

If you’re thinking about a role change currently, see this post as a sign to start planting those seeds and get ready for your next move, and as always, good luck.

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