Recognising Teachers in the Life Sciences: A Review

How to cite the reviewed work:

Harris, J. 2015. Recognising Teachers in the Life Sciences. The Physiological Society. London. Available at: [Accessed: 24 April 2016].


Within the UK it has been the traditional norm that academics carry out research and teaching as part of their role. However, with the emergence of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 1986 and its subsequent evolution to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), discipline research is increasingly restricted to academics whose research meets the requirements of the REF/RAE. A direct consequence of this is that an ever-increasing number of academics are now employed solely to focus on teaching, and on education management. However, the literature on teaching-focussed academics in the UK is still limited, hence the growing interest in this publication from the Physiological Society.

Why This Booklet is an Important Contribution

The Physiological Society has made an attempt to further our understanding of teaching-focussed careers through the publication of this booklet entitled “Recognising Teachers in the Life Sciences.” This booklet features 32 academics in the biological and medical sciences who have been promoted at one or more stages in their career on the basis of their contributions to teaching and/or education management. These academics are drawn from three categories:

  • Group 1: Academics whose first permanent appointment was focused on education
  • Group 2: Academics whose career focus switched from discipline-based research or a clinical role to education
  • Group 3: Academics who combine discipline-based research or a clinical role with significant educational activity

The Physiological Society hopes that by publishing this booklet, teaching-focussed academics will have role models to emulate, and universities will have practical examples to help them to develop teaching-oriented promotion criteria for their own academics.

The booklet also provides important advice to those of us seeking to gain recognition and promotion on the basis of teaching and education management. This is because promotion on the basis of teaching is a relatively recent phenomenon. Hence, few or no people on academic promotion committees have any personal experience of the teaching-focussed academic role.  Also, departmental senior academics tasked with appointing and overseeing teaching-focussed academics have little or no guidance on developing roles that have scope for academic progression. Consequently, academic departments often lack the necessary resources to provided adequate mentorship and leadership to teaching-focussed academics.

Areas for Further Research

For the reasons discussed above, the booklet is a very timely addition to the literature on teaching-focussed academics. However, an analysis of the 32 academic careers showcased in the booklet also raises some serious concerns with the teaching-focussed academic role. I will now turn my attention to these concerns.

1: Gender Bias: As Table 1 shows, the 32 academics featured in this booklet are roughly balanced in terms of gender, with 17 being male, and 15 female. In addition, two of the academic categories have significantly more males than females. These two groups comprise academics who switched to teaching-focussed roles from discipline-based research or a clinical role to education, and academics who have maintained these roles in addition to a focus on teaching. In contrast, Group 1 which comprises academics who were appointed directly into teaching-only roles, has only one male and 7 females. Whilst the sample size is too small for these differences to be statistically significant, it is pertinent to establish whether or not the teaching-only academic route, as typified by Group 1, is becoming an academic role to which women are shunted into.

Table 1: Gender Distribution

Group Actual Numbers   Percentage Ratio  
  Male Female Male Female
All 17 15 53.1% 46.9%
1 1 7 12.5% 87.5%
2 11 6 64.7% 35.3%
3 5 2 71.4% 28.6%

2: Parity of Esteem between the Teaching-only Role and the Research and Teaching Role: Table 2 gives the distribution of professors in each of the three groups. Only 25% of teaching-only academics, as indicated by Group 1, have attained professorships. This is in contrast to academics in Groups 2 and 3 where professors make up 64.7% and 71.4% of the groups respectively. Again, whilst the figures in this booklet are too small for these proportions to be statistically significant, one is left wondering if teaching –only academics, as indicated by Group 1, have significantly more difficult chances of securing professorships than academics in the other two groups. One might assume that perhaps this may be due to differences in lengths of services of the academics in the three groups. However, the average length of service for the three groups is 20.5, 26.0 and 25.14 for groups 1, 2 and 3 respectively. These lengths of service appear to be sufficiently close to each other to rule out disparities in length of service as a contributing factor.

In practice, research-focussed academics typically attain professorships within 10 to 15 years on average. Given the relatively high number of non-professors in all three groups, and the average length of services that in excess of 20 years, this may suggest that a focus on teaching is detrimental to academic progression in the current higher education environment.

Table 2: Distribution of Professors by Grouping

Group Total No. of Academics No. of Professors Ratio of Professors to academics (%)
All 32 18 56.25%
1 8 2 25%
2 17 11 64.7%
3 7 5 71.4%
  1. Impact of University Type on Progression of Teaching-focussed Academics: The 32 academics presented in this booklet comprise 23 academics from research intensive institutions and 9 academics from post 1992 non-research intensive institutions. Of the 9 academics from post 1992 institutions, 8 are full professors compared to only 10 of the 23 academics from research intensive institutions. Again, whilst these figures are not statistically significant, it strongly suggests that one is more likely to progress to full professorship in a non-research intensive university than in a research intensive university. Of course it may be argued that the academics covered in this booklet are based on opportunistic sampling and are not representative of all biosciences and medical academics within the UK. However, given the objectives of this booklet, it is reasonable to assume that the editors went out of their way to identify and include those academics with the strongest promotion records.

Table 3: Distribution of Professors and Other Academic Staff Categories by University Type

 University Type No. of Professors Total No. of Other Academics Proportion of Academics who are Professors (%)
All 18 14 56.25%
Non Research Intensive 8 1 88.9%
Research Intensive 10 13 43.5%

Concluding Remarks

The booklet is an important contribution to our understanding of teaching-only academic roles, and I would recommend it to all teaching-focussed academics, senior academics with management responsibilities, and academics serving on promotion committees. For the higher education researcher, the booklet also gives a snapshot of  some of the emergent mutations of the academic role, and also raises important questions regarding parity of esteem and sustainability of teaching-focussed roles vis a vis the established research and teaching role.

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