6 Ways to Improve Your Leadership Skills for Research

by Jamie Vernon | Jul 16, 2019

Geese in formation-someone has to lead!

Jamie VernonAs scientists and engineers, we tend to already be a group of quick learners, creative thinkers, and persistent problem solvers, but there is something else that can make each of us a more valuable and effective researcher: leadership skills. Researchers with strong leadership skills can understand the technical aspects of their job and  motivate team members, strategize, advance projects, and stick to a budget. In today’s competitive job market, acquiring leadership skills can also facilitate promotions, salary increases, and new career options. 

Leadership skills are important no matter how long you’ve been in research.

  • High school and undergraduate students: You are a leader of your own time, and need to take responsibility for completing the steps necessary to finish projects.

  • Graduate students: You are managing research projects, working in teams, sharing your results, and seeking research mentors. Some of you will teach and lead lesson plans for students.

  • Postdocs: You must take ownership of projects, establish collaborations, seek funding opportunities, and lead teams.

  • Professors and More Professional Career Paths: You are leading projects, teams, and labs; motivating and educating your team members; and communicating your research findings.

Picking one or two of the following leadership skills to develop will be a solid start in making you a more competitive and productive researcher.

  1. Communication: One of the most important things I’ve learned about leadership is that communication is key. Leaders must be able to clearly articulate their goals and expectations to their teams and stakeholders, be open to feedback, recognize the team for successes, and reassure them in failure.

  2. Building relationships: Relationships are about building trust with others so that you have a network that you can use to give and receive support and knowledge. Strong relationships help you work better in teams and find opportunities such as jobs, funding, and mentorship. The biggest challenge for me in developing leadership skills was not having a mentor who had followed a similar career path to mine—exiting academia, taking a fellowship in government, and ultimately joining the nonprofit sector. Try to find a mentor who can help you.

  3. Strategic thinking: I don’t recall anyone offering training in strategic thinking when I was working in academia, but having a plan in place that defines goals; approaches that you will take to reach those goals; time-bound, measurable objectives that define the desired outcomes; and the tools that you will use to do it all ensures that your team knows your expectations and the plan to get where you need to go.

  4. Project management: I was inspired to read articles about how to be a more effective project manager when I took a fellowship position in the federal government as a policy analyst. I realized how inefficiently I had managed my research projects the day that I learned about Gantt charts. I’ve also learned that delegation is a necessary part of good project management. To not delegate elicits frustration and self-doubt in team members with specialized skills. Thankfully, new tools abound for keeping our projects on track. I’m currently testing a digital platform called Basecamp. Other platforms are specifically designed for research projects. I recommend that all researchers acquire some formal project management training and I am planning to offer leadership training opportunities to Sigma Xi members.

  5. Time management: In academia, I had very little formal training on time management but it’s a critical skill to being efficient and effective in any workplace.

  6. Financial discipline: Knowing where to find funding, how to stay within restrictive budgets, and what is required for reporting will help you get the next budget approved.

What helped you develop your leadership skills? Please share your resources, struggles, and successes in the comments below. 

Jamie L. Vernon, PhD
Executive Director and CEO, Sigma Xi
Publisher, American Scientist

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