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The rough and tough journey to the rank of professor



Summary: Many academics don’t submit their papers for international vetting, fearing to be trashed and embarrassed.  

Author Biography: Abasi Kiyimba is Professor of Literature at Makerere University.

In the Makerere system, which we inherited from Britain, there are six academic ranks. They are:

  • Teaching Assistant
  • Assistant Lecturer
  • Lecturer
  • Senior Lecturer
  • Associate Professor
  • Professor

(The Americans have only three - Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor.)

When one graduates with an Upper-Second or First-Class degree, he or she stands a chance of being appointed as Teaching Assistant on a two-year contract, renewable once. Within these four years, they are expected to work for and acquire a master’s degree.

If they show progress towards acquiring the Master’s but fail to complete within the stated period, the contract may be renewed for the final time. But if the teaching assistant fails to get the degree in six years, s/he is considered unsuitable for a University teaching career.

After getting master’s degree, one is appointed as Assistant Lecturer. This is a regular but transitional appointment. It is understood that the appointee will use it to work for a PhD. Equipped with the PhD, an Assistant Lecturer can then be promoted or appointed to the rank of Lecturer.

A candidate can also come from outside the university with their PhD and apply directly for appointment as Lecturer.

Generally, people who teach at University are called Lecturers; but formally, this is only the third rank in the hierarchy. This information is important because some people are very sensitive and they get offended when called lecturers if they are above it, just like some professors get offended when they are called Doctor.

From Lecturer onwards, progress is registered by publication. In the Makerere system, one needs three peer-reviewed publications to become a Senior Lecturer, with evidence of supervising at least one master’s student and attendance at international conferences. It is at this stage that we begin to distinguish between an academic and a scholar. The academic makes sharp on the spot analysis of research material, and successfully works for qualifications like Master’s and PhD.

The scholar makes original contributions to knowledge through digesting available scholarship and adding his or her own. Acquiring a PhD is the top academic achievement; and publishing in order to progress from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer is the beginning of scholarship.

To move from Senior Lecturer to Associate Professor, Makerere requires one to submit three new publications, which will go for international vetting. One should also show evidence of supervising to completion at least three graduate students (since previous promotion) and attendance at international conferences.

And to be promoted to Professor, one should submit at least five new publications, which will go for international vetting.

One must also show evidence of supervising to completion at least five graduate students, attendance at international conferences as well as membership of professional association in your field of expertise. The time taken in this process depends on individual commitment.

It should also be added that the publications we are talking about are those in one’s official area of specialization. In my case, while Makerere takes note of my publications in the area of Islam, the ones that are considered for promotional purposes are those in Literature.

When publications are sent for international vetting, the period that follows can be very agonising. Makerere usually sends it papers to the UK, US, Canada, Kenya, Nigeria, South Arica and India. The applicant has no way of knowing the country or the vetters themselves.

Some vetters take their time – papers have been known to take up to five years or more. I was lucky that in my case it took one year. Also, vetters can return a negative assessment. This is one of the greatest humiliations in a University teacher’s career. It is the one thing that makes colleagues fear to submit their papers.

The retirement age for University staff is 60, but Associate Professors get an extension of five years, and Professors 10 years.

The other relevant information that I want to provide is that when someone becomes a senior lecturer, they qualify to head an academic unit like a Department or School (or faculty in the old arrangement).

To become a Principal of a College, or Vice Chancellor/Deputy Vice Chancellor, one should be Associate Professor or Professor.