Content by Gareth Moore, attendee at the Leadership in Academia workshop in May 2022.
Why should a PhD student be concerned with leadership training?
After all, being in a position of leadership, especially in academia, comes after many years toiling in the lab. You’ll no doubt be aware of the immense challenge of establishing yourself as an independent researcher; a Principal Investigator (PI) securing funding to lead their own research group. The path is fraught with long days, regular failures, and chronic insecurity, all while under the pressure of ‘publish or perish’. If the hard part is making it to a position of leadership, then there’s no point worrying about leadership as an Early Career Researcher (ECR), right?
For two days in May the UK Reproducibility Network and BBSRC hosted us, a small group of researchers ranging from first-year PhD students to PIs, for a Leadership in Academia training session. Staying at Cumberland Lodge, a former royal residence in Windsor Great Park, gave us all the opportunity to retreat from the stresses of lab life and completely engage with a group of new people. Having welcomed the likes of Winston Churchill and Roald Dahl, Cumberland Lodge was the perfect place to discuss and dissect the essentials of strong leadership – allowing us to stand on the shoulders of (big, friendly) giants.
It was thanks to the openness of discussion amongst my peers, coupled with an emphasis on personal reflection, that I was able to see further into what good leadership looks like. There is little to no formalised leadership training in academia. The criteria for success focus on research output and, more crudely, publication record. This means people in positions of management and authority aren’t necessarily the best leaders or, at least, haven’t been trained how to be. Most people learn passively over time, usually from their own bad experiences. The Leadership in Academia course seeks to proactively equip researchers to develop their leadership skills.
The training took a very hands-on approach, recognising issues with leadership before discussing ways to manage and overcome them, particularly in the context of academia. With a lot of ground to cover, sessions were split into different aspects of leadership: from personal responsibility and reputation to collaborative leadership and how to give and receive feedback. A major focus throughout was on self-reflection, although there was plenty of opportunity to share and discuss experiences of good and bad leadership with our peers. A personal highlight was the Leadership Insights sessions, which saw everyone share an experience that had left an impression on their understanding and leadership style. It was fascinating not only to hear the lived experience of people above and below me in the food-chain, but also eye-opening to hear how their perspectives have changed and been shaped. The emphasis on group discussion and debate provided a very engaging way to interact with the topics covered and I certainly came away feeling like I had learned a lot more about how others view leadership – and through that myself.
Amongst all that I learned, five things particularly stood out to me:
- Leadership is different to management and authority. Management is largely organisational and procedural, while authority is the basis by which one person exercises control over another. Leadership is about how you interact with people, manage relationships, and the wider implications of your actions.
- Good leadership can involve good management skills if that is the authority dynamic, but leadership can also mean taking the authority and responsibility to make a decision and be held accountable for it. Anyone in a team can do this.
- It’s ok to be disagreeable. This makes sure you hold people to account for their actions and to share high standards. The concept of radical candour means balancing direct challenge while having the person’s best interests at heart. For this to be effective the feedback culture is key – everyone needs to feel empowered to give feedback as well as receive it.
- Anyone can display leadership; this doesn’t just mean leading by example but also developing others by challenging and encouraging them.
- You have agency! Use it to make the change you want to see. It can be easy to blame factors that feel outside of your control, especially with many of the issues with academia listed above. Don’t fall into this trap – take action by being proactive about what you can control, yourself. This can be hard to do alone, so make allies and build a network to ultimately bring about culture change.
It’s these last two points I came away reflecting on the most. As a very early career researcher, the attrition and insecurity of academia is daunting and sometimes leaves me feeling powerless. The Leadership in Academia training showed me how I can be a better lab mate now while developing the skills for positions of greater authority in the future. This builds towards a better research culture around me immediately, while equipping me to be part of the long-term improvement in research culture. This is why a PhD student should be concerned with leadership training, because they can, and should, display leadership: in their own project, in their work with colleagues and collaborators, and in how they interact with the scientific community.