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What type of leaders should a PhD program produce

I read a curious quote today. It comes from a Careers article in Nature Magazine (22 Nov 2018), where they talked to several PhD students:

“Becoming a leader is what you are supposed to be doing in graduate school”

I find this quote notable because it is well recognized that a PhD is about many things: learning science skills, building your network, and becoming a leader in a specialised discipline.

But the idea that a PhD is about developing as a leader more generally is a recent development.

But if ‘leadership’ is what people want, it begs the questions, why is leadership important for your career? and what does ‘leadership’ mean anyway?

I’ll explore those questions in this post, in the next post I will look at how PhD students can seek out leadership experience.

Modern students expert a greater diversity of training from their PhDs

PhD Students are starting to ask for training in a greater diversity of skills from their PhD training. This is a good thing.

Universities are finally recognizing that most PhD graduates don’t go onto jobs in universities, and that a diverse skill-set is important for grads to succeed in the job market.

Leadership skills are key, because they are in demand in a huge variety of different careers.

Why is developing as a leader so crucial in the job market?

Perhaps the most common question in job, scholarship and grant applications is some form of ‘demonstrate your experience in leadership’.

The first time I ran afoul of this tricky question was after undergrad, when I was interviewed for a Rhodes Scholarship.

The interview was in a huge dining room in Government House. The interviewers, who were six esteemed leaders in business, academia and sport, plus the Governor of Tasmania himself. I was very intimidated.

It was when the sports leader asked me what leadership I had shown in sport that my campaign for an Oxford scholarship came unstuck. I explained that I had been captain of the Tasmanian state junior underwater hockey team - second division. Yes a pretty niche position, having the honour of most experienced team-member in the lowest ranked state team for an obscure sport.

It didn’t help my case that one of the other applicants went on to win a gold medal in the Beijing Olympic games.

Leaders create opportunities

So what is ‘leadership’? I would say now:

Leaders create opportunities that let them reach their goals.

For instance, some scientists can seemingly create funding out of thin air, through identifying the needs of research partners, like government, and then offering science solutions. They know how to create demand for the research they want to do.

In this way, the career of an experienced leader isn’t beholden to jobs that are advertised, they are creating the opportunities for employment to take their career where they want to go.

Purpose and perspectives

Key traits that let leaders create opportunities are a sense of purpose and the ability to understand other people’s perspectives.

Leaders will be motived by their own sense of purpose and work toward goals they have authored themselves. These goals might truly be leader’s own personal goals, or goals for their team or institution. The important part is that a leader has some ability to decide their own goals, they are not just taking the goals that someone else has given them.

Leaders can also understand other people’s perspectives. This means they can see how their own goals fit within the bigger picture of what other people want.

How having ‘purpose and perspective’ helped my colleague address a contentious debate

I want to give an example of these traits in action.

I recently co-authored a paper about long-term declines in shark populations on the East Coast of Australia. The study’s lead, George Roff, anticipated a lot of media interest in the paper, because of concern in Australia about shark attacks.

In fact there was a shark attack the very week that our paper was published. Our concern was that we would be drawn into a contentious debate about whether shark culls were an effective means to prevent shark attacks on beaches. Many people believe that we should be trying to wipe out sharks.

George’s approach to interviews with the media demonstrated all the abilities in leadership I’ve described above.

He approached the media interviews with a strong sense of purpose - the media attention was the opportunity he had been seeking to raise awareness about how some of Australia’s iconic shark populations are threatened with extinction. So George directed the interviews towards discussing shark conservation in a reasoned and calm way.

He was also able to take the perspective of the general public and interviewers and understand that their would be considerable interest (and potentially anger) about shark attacks. George knew that many media outlets would be seeking a shark attack angle, so he had to work with this perspective in order to get his message out there.

However, he nicely dealt with these contentious questions by sticking to his key message (the study was about shark conservation, not shark attacks). He was also ready for questions about specific shark attacks, and deflected them by talking generally about technologies for shark safety that don’t require killing sharks.

You can judge for yourself how he did. Needless to say, he was busy for 3 full days doing interviews everywhere from local radio to national TV.

Developing as a leader in your PhD

Much of what I described above is a very summarized version of principles on ‘self-authorship’ from growth edge coaching.

So how can students, supervisors and universities support students to develop as leaders? That is the topic of my next post.



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