You know what’s strange to think about? We are all future leaders.
It may not feel like that now. When you’re knee-deep in a Masters or doctoral thesis, it’s easy to feel insignificant. You spend so much time struggling to get published, and navigating uncertain career prospects, and generally trying to get people to take you seriously, that you can feel like a junior in everything. It doesn’t help that often, friends of the same age are rapidly climbing the ladder in their careers while we stay students for so long.
But on the other side of all that struggle is a life of leadership. Think about it. There are very few scenarios in which a person with a higher research degree doesn’t become a leader of some sort.
Some of us will become academics, and will lead the direction of thought in higher education. Some of us will become professional researchers and lead the way in science and technology. Some of us will become business leaders or entrepreneurs, and lead teams of employees. Some of us will devote ourselves to non-profit work and become leaders in our communities. Some will enter government, and lead cities or countries. Even those of us who don’t pursue careers in a traditional sense will still be looked up to as educated people.
So given that some kind of leadership is almost certainly a part of our futures, how do we prepare for that now?
One way is to think about the specific skills required of leaders, and ensure that you are building those skills through your work and research. These include the ability to:
- motivate others
- have a vision for the future
- make plans for the future
- communicate effectively to a variety of people
- give constructive feedback
- maintain the self-awareness to recognise your strengths and account for your weaknesses
- manage change and overcome challenges
- make informed and responsible decisions
Postgrad research is great for building many of these skills, because you have to become your own project leader. Inevitably, you will plan for your research, have a vision for its impact, motivate others in your supervisory team and/or your school, and overcome challenges. So to an extent, the development of leadership skills is something that happens through the research process – regardless of what you’re actually researching.
But you may also like to take on ‘extra-curricular’ leadership positions to strengthen your skills in this area further. Teaching undergraduates is one way to do this, as you will guide their learning and give feedback on their work. Leading a club or special interest group is another way to build these skills. You could also volunteer to organise a conference, which has the added benefits of giving immense insight into academia, and adding to your CV.
Part of this is also recognising the leadership skills you already have – and I don’t care who you are, you have some. The fact that you are reading this blog implies that you have taken the initiative to craft and embark upon a postgraduate research project. That means that you are already able to galvanise the support of others to take action and achieve your goals. Even if, some days, you achieve your goals by working in your pajamas on the couch.
It’s also worthwhile to recognise that the people around you are also future leaders. So get to know your office-mates and lab buddies, because the colleagues working on their theses and dissertations now will be valuable contacts throughout your career.