Pinching Myself Again: Switching out Dr for Professor

While I was away on holiday, I got some pretty amazing news, and now that the contract is in and signed, I finally feel like I can share it. I made Professor! You may think that as I’ve known for a couple of weeks this is coming, this blog post would have already been written, but I didn’t really believe it would come through until I got the official letter so I’m afraid I’m playing catch up.

As you may have picked up, I am still blown away by the fact that this has happened and because I genuinely never thought that someone like me would get here, I thought I would share a little about what it means, why it means so much and how it happened. I do this to inspire others to follow, not to crow, although in the spirit of full disclosure, I am super happy that it’s happened.  Also, a warning, I can only talk from my experience, and that is linked to a somewhat unconventional path. Please read the below in that light.

What is an Honorary Professor anyway?

Now, before I go any further, it is an Honorary Professorship as I’m still employed by my Trust rather than UCL, and because of that, it is also not a Chair. It is a title given to someone, who is not employed by a university, but who contributes to the work of that university, in my case via grant funding, paper writing, lecturing and student supervision, but unlike a Chair I am not involved in management. It is also worth noting that, like the academic professional pathway itself, it changes between universities and my only experience is with UCL.

In the UK, this (Honorary Professor) is the highest title to be awarded to individuals whom the university wish to appoint, honor, and to work with. These individuals are not university staff nor employees. An external person is usually recommended by an internal university academic staff, and recommended for approval by the head of department, for which the documents are then forwarded to faculty dean, vice president and president (or deputy vice chancellor) for approval.

As the title is Honorary, I’m allowed to use the title, but no, I do not get an office, a pay rise, or anything other than a webpage 🙂 My father may have asked me a few times. The success is more about reaching an academic benchmark and achieving recognition for both your work and it’s impact. It also is the final significant step on my journey as a Clinical Academic. I was always told that I should try to ensure that I move up both professional ladders in order to demonstrate success in this area, and so for me, this is as big an achievement as when I became a Consultant in my clinical work.

Why the surprise?

Let me start out by talking about why this felt unattainable and why, therefore, it is such a surprise. I’ve been developing a Clinical Academic career since 2008, so the best part of 15 years. In that time hardly anyone has suggested that making Professor could be something I should aim for. Worse than that, it is in fact an aspiration that I have been told more times than I can count is out of reach for ‘someone like me’. Now, the ‘someone like me’ description changes between the advisors, but a sample have been: you’re a scientist in a medics world, you’re too emotional, you’re too open/honest, you don’t play enough politics, you’re too young, you’re a woman, you will never publish in good enough journals as you work in Infection Prevention and Control.

To put this in context, my medical colleagues automatically make Associate Professor the moment they become consultants, irrespective of their publication or funding track records. They are therefore lined up for the next step and the pathway is fairly established. That said, very few of them go on to take it, partly because that next step is more like climbing a mountain. Put that together with the fact that only 3% of people who graduate with a PhD get to be a professor, and you can see why many people may not decide to pursue it, and why this moment feels momentous to me. Being able to show the world that this is actually what a professor CAN look like is really important to me. To be able to show you can not fit into the stereotype and still get there.

It’s not just about time served

Meeting the criteria to become a professor is not about length of time in post or time served post PhD, there’s quite a lot more to it. You have to be able to demonstrate a diverse portfolio that ticks a number of boxes. One example below is for progression linked to research, but as you can see, you also have to demonstrate not only suitability in the research domain but also in at least 2 other domains.

Progression through the above grades might be expected to be attained by demonstrating an ability to meet:

the threshold research criteria at the next level; and

several of the core and/or specialist research criteria at the next level; and

at least the threshold education criteria or some of the criteria in either of the two other domains (enterprise and external engagement; institutional citizenship) at the next level.
Research thresholds

Along the way, you will meet a LOT of people who will have an opinion on how you should develop the CV to enable you to eventually apply. One of the things I learnt early was to not listen to those who just said I shouldn’t do try. That’s different from not taking advice. It’s different from heeding the advice of people who say not yet, because there is more to do that will increase your chances of success. These people are often the ones who are wishing you well on the pathway and have some knowledge of the process requirements. The ones who can’t share your vision are the ones to thank for their input and move along. The ones who contribute to your process are incredibly valuable, even if sometimes the truth is hard to hear.

Education thresholds

I’m only an Honourary Professor, but even so, I have to meet the same thresholds as my full-time colleagues, as there is only a single standard. As I said above, the Honourary bit really links into your employer rather than the standard you have to attain.

What kind of things do you need to do?

It was International Women and Girls in Science Day this weekend, and I wanted to take a moment therefore to recognise why it can be much for challenging for women and people of colour to attain a Professorship, why it can be difficult for women to find the support they need. I mentioned that some of the stats say that only 3% of PhDs become professors, but the numbers are significantly worse if you are female, and worse still if you are a female person of colour. I’m no expert in this area, but I think it’s worth talking about and raising awareness. There are articles from those better informed than I to talk about it:

Are Female Professors Held To A Different Standard Than Their Male Counterparts?



Why so Few, Still? Challenges to Attracting, Advancing, and Keeping Women Faculty of Color in Academia

One of the first lessons I learnt was that you are going to struggle to get to the finish line if you try to do it alone. I’ve said it before, and I genuinely believe it, science is a team sport. It will be that team who enables you to demonstrate the breadth, as well as the depth needed. I have a wonderful academic colleague who supported my application, and my research group have always pushed and supported me to aim for the sky. That said, it strikes me that when I say science is a team sport, and that a team is what is required to get you to the finish line, sometimes women are not invited into the same rooms that support others. I’m so aware of the pub nights, meeting clubs, etc, that I’ve been briefly involved in, where names are thrown around prior to meetings, where relationships are built and plans are made. The hours I work generally preclude me from the ‘just popping to the pub’ crowd and the ‘medical discussion groups’ I’ve been to were just too linked into the Old Boys Network tradition for me to feel comfortable. I’m lucky though, at least occasionally I get asked, and therefore I could make an active choice about my path. That isn’t true for everyone. I chose to make my own path, I chose to play with a team that works for me. The word choice is key, and it speaks to my privilege that I get to use it.

The other factor is that women often have ended up being the ones that do the majority of some of the ‘non core’ activities, such as chairing diversity committees or undertaking public engagement. These activities are often things I love and the breadth they provide have always been important to me. The problem is that you have to have enough ‘core’ to secure promotion. You have to be getting grants, publishing papers, and supervising PhD students. Without these, you won’t be able to move forward, no matter how wonderful or talented you are. There are only 2 ways to handle this, keep doing more (and therefore having no time to be ‘in the club’) or be really clear with your boundaries to maintain time for core activities, and this can be easier said than done. To change the stats we have to support each other enough to be able to help with this. Someone’s worth for progression shouldn’t depend on their ability to say no!

It’s a marathon and not a sprint

There are so many boxes to tick and things to be achieved that making Professor is definitely a task of years, on average 15 years post completion of a PhD. I can’t say it enough times, however, that it is not merely about years and time. There are so many things to learn about yourself and your work before it becomes a possibility. What kind of supervisor are you? What is the work that inspires you? Even before you start on the knowledge accumulation.

As I said above, there is also a lot of growing to be done, and I’m nowhere near finished yet. Being able to set boundaries, being able to say no, knowing when to say yes, all of the leadership challenges you can imagine, on top of trying to be creative and deliver new thinking in order to move your research area forward. Just making the networks and finding your collaborators in order to make this happen will take years, and it takes time to build trust and relationships. So buckle in for the ride, and know there is no shortcut for gaining experience.

You will fail and fall many times, but like most challenges in life, it’s about having the passion and persistence to just keep turning up. To turn up after the failures and the difficult conversations. To turn up and take the learning and the growth. To always see the opportunities and develop the knowledge of how to circumvent the barriers. Keeping true to who you are and your values in the face of that failure and the criticism that sometimes comes with it. All of these things, if you don’t let them change you and make you bitter/cynical, will make the successes oh so sweet. Then it’s your job to pay it forward.

Take the time to know you

Like every long-term career journey, becoming a professor requires you to take some time to also know yourself. I’ve said that I got a lot of advice and one of the things I took away from it was that, because it’s a process of years, no 2 people will go about it the same way. From the criteria listed, you can see that you can put a lot of the puzzle pieces together in different ways. Therefore, it’s important to develop in a way that works for you as an individual. What aspects of the role bring you joy? What helps you thrive instead of feeling burnt out? It’s OK to focus on these things and maintain them within your portfolio of practice.

I also think knowing what you are not good or are weak at is also key. None of us are good at everything. None of us enjoy everything. You will have to pick up some core tasks that may not intuitively suit you, but knowing when they are core and when they are not will help you make better judgements. Also, being aware of your weaknesses will enable you to approach those areas more strategically in order to allow you to overcome.

It’s not just what it means to me

I actually don’t have words to express how grateful I am for the responses I’ve had since I shared the news. Part of me always worries about the fact that I might get ‘well why you’, I think it’s the imposter syndrome. Everyone has been so supportive, more than that, a lot of comments have talked about it showing to others that it can be done. This, to me, is SO important. There are so many wonderful Healthcare Scientists out there, so many wonderful Clinical Academics, but so few of them are Professors. It may sound trite, but you can’t be what you can’t see. If you don’t know this is an option, it’s hard to aspire to it as a path. So thank you for your support. Thank you for being my cheer leaders and for sharing what is such a joyful moment for me. In return, I share with you the email my father sent out to my old school teachers and his friends, in order to demonstrate that I know both what this means and how fortunate (or badass) I am. I’m off to break open a bottle of bubbly!

Congratulations to Elaine Cloutman-Green

Thank you to anyone and everyone who has contributed to Elaine’s development by offering advice, education, knowledge, guidance, comfort, discipline!!!!!!!, culture, sophistication!!!!, fellowship and friendship.

Especially her soulmate, mentor and amazing husband Jon.

Plus a small contribution of determination, intelligence, gin!!, character, industry, more gin!!, worldliness, industry, even more gin!!, nouse and a chunk of good, old fashioned, inherited Yorkshire grit from herself.

Who would think that a coalminer and car worker’s grand daughter,
born in Good Hope Hospital of common stock,
Villa Holt End season ticket holding fan,
whose education was via Northfield Manor Junior, Hillcrest and Shenley Court Secondary Schools,
then Liverpool University Biology (BSc 2.1), Physics(MRes) departments, UCL (Msc Queen Mary’s Med Sch) and PhD
Who could forget reading her thesis “The role of the environment in the transmission of Healthcare Associated Infection”?
Fellowship of the Royal Society of Pathologist could achieve such high academic status.

Deputy director of Prevention and Infection Control at Great Ormond Street Hospital,
Pathology consultant
British Empire Medal in the New Year’s Honours List for work on Covid
Freman of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers (I would not let her turn on a tap!!!!)

Now UCL, University College London have for her research work on the prevention of the spread of water bourne diseases and academic teaching programmes about Virology and reducing the spread of disease have in their infinite wisdom have honoured and rewarded her making her:


Very well done
Eeh ba gum, sh dun reyt gud tha’ nose!, anno we’er chuffed to bits,
Her sister Claire would have been even prouder of Elaine than her Dad of her success

Dr Alan Green January 2023

All opinions in this blog are my own

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