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How to get leadership experience in your PhD

Many modern PhD students expect to learn leadership skills in their PhD studies. In a previous post I discussed why leadership skills are important for successful careers. Here I look at what students can do to further their leadership experience and how supervisors and institutions can help.

If you missed the past post I defined leadership generally as:

Leaders create opportunities that let them reach their goals.

So this might include leading other people, but could also include being a scientific leader in your discipline.

Creating your own opportunities as a student

A key action you can take in your PhD is to create your own opportunities to practice leadership.

A sense of purpose (goal setting) and the ability to understand diverse perspectives are important aspects of leadership. Many students start with only a vague idea of where they want to go in their career and limited understanding of how other people can help (or hinder) that goal.

So developing leadership means exposing yourself to situations where you must:

Most PhDs cover these aspects. For instance, researchers are usually motivated by a sense of purpose, such as helping the environment. Most research also requires working with and around other people.

But I think supervisors and universities can do more to meet the demand for developing leadership skills in PhD students.

Where to start developing as a leader

It can be hard to get formal leadership experience early on in your career (for instance, you typically won’t have the finding to hire someone and supervise them yourself). But, examples of demonstrating leadership can make your CV stand out from the crowd.

A key role for me in my postdoc days was volunteering to teach courses and run workshops in the R programming language, which is my own research tool of choice.

My purpose was to further other people’s education and improve the quality of statistical analysis.

Obviously working with other people is a key part of teaching. But to see people successfully change their habitats to use R consistently, I had to learn to step out of my own perspective of ‘R is great, why wouldn’t you use it?’ and start to try and understand why other people might struggle with R e.g. as in this post.

Taking on other people’s perspectives is a key step in developing as a leader.

Ideas for getting leadership experience

Be creative about exposing yourself to leadership opportunities. Some ideas from the people around me:

Try to find roles that are close to your own career goals.

Picking an activity that fits with your career goals will help further develop your sense of purpose, and creates a more coherent story for you to sell yourself with on job and grant applications.

The R program is my research tool of choice, so it just makes sense that my leadership was around training others to use R.

How can universities and supervisors help develop leaders?

If you are looking to start a PhD, then do your background research on the supervisors and the university’s culture. If leadership is important to you, ask potential supervisors how they help leaders grow. Ask them if they support students to take on other roles that help develop leadership, like volunteering for societies. And look at what their grads have gone on to do.

Many well established and renown labs will offer more traditional training, which will emphasise training in a scientific field over developing more diverse skills in leadership.

Some highly productive labs create a lot of research that fits nicely with the supervisor’s own research goals, but are not necessarily training students who will be leaders in a topic of their own choosing.

I think that an important part of developing leaders is helping students develop their own research questions, which should stem from what intrigues them. So ask prospective supervisors some questions to see how far they would be willing to support you in developing your own research interests.

Borrowing from the business world

For me, I like to find new ways I can expose my students and postdocs to leadership experiences. This can often fit quiet naturally with the PhD research. For instance, organising, running and leading workshops with other scientists or stakeholders.

I also think that academics can borrowing techniques from the business coaching world to help students grow as leaders. This can be as simple as broadening the scope of supervisor-student discussions.

One technique is to discuss with a student where their goals ultimately come from: from within themselves or were they handed to them by other people? (a technique from growth edge coaching).

Bringing more diverse ideas about training into the PhD experience will enhance the value of a PhD in the modern job market, no matter whether the student goes onto an academic career or otherwise.

Contact: Chris Brown

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