How to take the lead in your career

March 29, 2021

At any stage, building leadership skills can help scientists promote their ideas and bring out the best in others.

Austin Gray has to wait until May to start running his own laboratory, but he already knows what it’s like to lead. Gray, an aquatic toxicologist, received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The Citadel, a military institution in Charleston, South Carolina, where students march with rifles in the courtyard, submit to regular uniform inspections and salute officers.

Gray found his scientific calling in The Citadel’s labs. Outside the lab, he quickly rose through the ranks. By his final year as an undergraduate in 2012, he was named company commander, a position that put him in charge of 105 fellow students. At an institution with deep roots in the US Confederacy, and where the Confederate flag is still on display in the chapel, his rise was both a personal challenge and a sign of change. “I was the second Black company commander in the school’s history,” says Gray, who until last month held a postdoctoral position at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Running a lab won’t be exactly like commanding college cadets, but Gray expects to thrive in his new tenure-track role at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg. To become a company commander, he had to connect with people from different backgrounds, earn respect and lead by example — skills that will come in handy in civilian science. “I wouldn’t be the leader I am today without that experience,” he says.

At any stage of a scientific career, it’s possible to start working on the skills (see ‘Keys to leadership’) that can ultimately give researchers a chance to be a leader in their own lab and beyond, says Kate Jennings, head trainer of the Lab to Leader programme offered by Cambridge Executive Development, UK. Leadership skills can help scientists to promote their ideas as well as their careers, but not all scientists naturally embrace the role of leader. Jennings has seen it many times: people who are brilliant in the lab aren’t always adept at inspiring others.

Keys to leadership

Being a good leader requires skills and a certain mindset. Here are three tips.

Know yourself. Assessing and improving emotional intelligence — being aware of emotions and expressing them appropriately when working with others — is crucial. For many scientists, the area that most needs improvement is self-awareness. Scientists who want to lead should recognize how their attitudes and actions come across to others, says Kate Jennings, a trainer at Cambridge Executive Development, UK.

Stay positive. Optimism can be a precious resource in difficult times, but good leaders can dig deeply to find it, says Ana Flávia Nogueira at the University of Campinas in Brazil. “I have to keep my students motivated,” she says. “They need some hope for the future.” The trick, she says, is to not let optimism completely overshadow realism.

Be flexible in your style. As director of research-capacity strengthening at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Evelyn Gitau deploys a serious persona for her interactions with university vice chancellors and other members of the academic bureaucracy. Her previous position as a programme manager with the African Academy of Sciences required a different tone. “In the innovation arena, I had to be a vibrant and exciting leader,” she says. “It’s very different from now.”

Fresh thinking

To become true leaders, Jennings says, scientists must form strong connections with the people around them, a feat that often requires a new way of thinking. “Scientists need a lot of self-sufficiency and determination,” she says. “But the things that helped drive you forward for your individual success don’t always play so well when you’re trying to bring out the best in other people.”

Leadership skills can be a huge advantage in the hyper-competitive world of marine-mammal biology, says Rebecca Boys, a second-year PhD student at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. She started taking the initiative early and often in her career. At every opportunity, Boys tried to be visible. As an undergraduate at Bangor University, UK, she did voluntary work for the annual conference of the European Cetacean Society, helping to run the registration desk and sell merchandise. After three conferences at which she met, greeted and networked with researchers from all stages of the career spectrum, she was voted student representative, a position that put her in charge of volunteers as well as all student events. In that role, she had to work side by side with other committee members, including senior scientists in her field. “It gave them a chance to know that I exist,” she says.Award-winning mentors share their secrets

Boys is still getting her name out there. She was on the student organizing team of the 2019 World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, Spain, and she is a committee member of the Australia and New Zealand student chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, a role in which she helps to organize conferences and seek sponsorships. “It’s a great way to show management skills to future supervisors and employers,” she says.

She’s still not sure of her career plan, and is mulling working for a marine-conservation organization or perhaps eventually running her own university lab. But she knows that experience with leadership will open doors and help her to prosper amid the intense competition in her field. “I would encourage all marine-biology students to pursue leadership positions,” she says.

Leadership skills can be especially crucial for postdocs, says Matthias Barth, who studies higher education at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. Barth is one of the steering-group members of the Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership, a training programme for researchers in the sustainability field. Postdocs have to accumulate publications and citations to advance their careers, but they also have to engage with stakeholders to make sure their ideas have a real impact. “It’s not either/or,” he says. “You have to combine them.”

A key goal of the programme is helping postdocs learn to network in and navigate the ‘messy’ world of sustainability research, a field that draws together scientists from disciplines ranging from physics and chemistry to political science and sociology. “They have to be able to break down complex problems as a team,” Barth says. In that arena, communication skills are a key currency for leadership. “They have to develop a language where they can talk across disciplines.”

Postdocs who stay laser-focused on their own work without worrying about leadership are often setting themselves up for failure in the next step of their career, Barth says. More leadership-training programmes specifically geared to postdocs could have a big impact on their future success, he says. Without that training, postdocs have to learn leadership on their own, but the reality, he says, is that many never master the skill. “Postdocs are incredibly important for science, but there is little out there in terms of support.”

Supporting others has always been a top leadership priority for Evelyn Gitau, director of research-capacity strengthening at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi. The past year has put that priority to the test. “Our biggest concern is making sure people don’t fall behind during the pandemic,” she says. “Students need help to progress but also to survive.”

High tolerance

Gitau and her team worked with organizations, such as the London-based biomedical funding charity Wellcome, to get extensions and bridge grants to support PhD students, including those who were burdened by childcare duties. Before she could ask for more money, she had to make sure that her institute was already working as efficiently as possible. That meant going through the budget item by item, to find savings. Sometimes, she says, leadership requires a tolerance for tedium. “The process was very boring, but it was necessary to convince the funders.”

Gitau learned early about leadership. She started her research career nearly two decades ago, at a time when the African research system was rapidly expanding. She made a point of being an active participant in that progress. “As a postdoc, I participated in capacity-building committees, and I put myself forward to set up a data-governance system in the lab,” she says.

Ana Flávia Nogueira, a chemist at the University of Campinas in Brazil, is also trying to turn her leadership into a lifeline for others. As the director of the Center for Innovation on New Energies, a research institute funded by both industry and the Brazilian government, she supervises nearly 240 researchers, including many postdocs and PhD students. All postdoc fellowships at the centre are scheduled to run out by the end of this year, and Nogueira is at the forefront of efforts to restore funding. That task requires all of the persuasive skills she can muster. “It’s been hard to convince our sponsors that we need an urgent input of resources to stop the leaking,” she says.

Pandemic partnerships

Fellowships for PhD students are also at risk because of a lack of government funding, Nogueira says. She’s working with private businesses to create partnerships that could support PhD students and postdocs whose career arcs have become even more precarious because of the pandemic. Nogueira has also approached Brazil’s science-funding agencies to seek more money for scholarships. “Half of my people are going to be unemployed by the end of the year,” she says. “If I don’t get money in 2021, I won’t have the human resources I need in 2022.”Collection: Research leadership

In September 2020, Nogueira won a Brazilian Women in Chemistry Leadership in Academia award from Chemical & Engineering News and the American Chemical Society. Nogueira sees the award as vindication of her leadership style — personable yet tenacious — as well as recognition of her work developing innovative materials for photovoltaic cells. She says that she felt extra pressure throughout her career to show that women can lead, and she often has to go to great lengths to defend her directives. The key, she says, is to make decisions that stand up to scrutiny. “Some of my colleagues have a resistance to accept orders from females,” she says. “Eventually they accept it because it’s the right thing to do. I manage to do what I was planning, but it takes more time and energy.”

For his part, Gray is looking forward to putting his leadership training to the test at Virginia Tech. “I want to set an example for how to carry yourself in a lab and how to conduct your research,” he says. “It goes back to the core values of The Citadel. We lived by a code that we do not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do. You always have to be truthful with your science.”

Gray is also the co-founder and co-chair of the Inclusive Diversity Committee of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry North America, a position that requires persistence as well as persuasion. “A lot of people believe that they’re already doing enough to improve diversity,” he says. “When we say we can do better, there can be a lot of pushback and a lot of resentment.”

In both positions, Gray says he hopes to improve his leadership skills as he goes along. For him and others, leadership is a skill that’s never really finished or perfected. “I want to be honest with myself, and I always want to be learning,” he says.

This article was originally published in Nature.