Leadership in academia

We need a counter-narrative to the traditional view of a supervisor’s role as merely making sure research group members complete their projects on time with enough funding. We may even need to re-think some common expressions in academia such as “to be a leader in the field”, which is more commonly related to scientific production and not necessarily with leadership excellence.

If we take the word “supervisor” we observe that, in the academic context, it carries interesting connotations in different languages. For example, in German you call your supervisor “Doktorvater” (doctoral father) or “Doktormutter” (doctoral mother), depending on the gender of the supervisor. In Indonesian, a supervisor is “pembimbing”, which means guide/counselor. “Danışman” in Turkish means counselor/consultant (both are the same word in Turkish). In French, “directeur/directrice de recherche” (research director). However, some languages seem to have got it right, at least in their choice of word to describe a supervisor as a leader. Such is the case of Ukrainian which uses the word керівник for supervisor, and it means leader. The same in Russian, руководитель – leader. In Czech is “vedouci”, which is a noun derived from the verb “vest” which means to lead.


Effective leadership is essential for the success of every organization. It is well known that good leadership increases work satisfaction and levels of performance in organizations, but what about academia? Should PhD students, postdocs and supervisors be trained in leadership skills?

It is very unlikely that, outside academia, newly graduated PhDs will get an entry-level job. As highly educated specialists, they are likely to get a position which requires some degree of leadership skills. Even when remaining in academia, PhDs and postdocs are expected to excel as project managers, teachers and supervisors.

However, are people in academia being trained to be leaders? And how willing are supervisors and PIs (principal investigators) to send their PhD students and postdocs to transferable skills courses such as leadership training? I may be wrong but I believe that, most likely, supervisors would prefer to have them working in the lab and being productive regarding their research projects instead. Some may even argue that leadership skills are to be learned vicariously by been led, but what if the supervisor or PI are excellent scholars but not very good leaders?

You may have come across those “brilliant scientists but not good leaders.” For example, that supervisor whose work is internationally acclaimed but that under the premise “PhD students should learn to produce science independently” hardly ever meet their PhD students.


Why is good leadership important in academia?

A PI or a supervisor with good leadership skills will increase job satisfaction, build a cohesive team, sustain group and individual confidence and create a productive work environment. It has been argued that, for example, education in team building and situational leadership – recognizing the needs of individuals or teams and adapting a leadership style accordingly – will give postdocs leadership practice and credentials that will increase their employability. This is especially important, considering that around 70% of postdocs will seek for jobs outside academia (www.ecoom.be/en/research/doctoralcareers). However, leaders must be sensitive to the individualistic culture of academia. Research group members may have chosen academia for the relative independence of this job and not all of them would like to be constantly led or being leading. A good academic leader will effectively prepare every member to be a leader at some times, a team member at different times, and an independent thinker and actor at other times (Bio Science 2014, volume 64, issue 7).


What are the consequences of bad leadership in academia?

Low levels of wellbeing or the presence of ill health are not simply the symptoms of an individual but the result of an imbalance between the individual and his environment, which leads to stress (Stubb et al, 2011). A recent study shows that the type of leadership experienced by PhD students, and particularly a lack of inspirational leadership, was associated with a higher risk for mental health problems (Levecque et al, 2017). High job demands and little social support in research groups are other predictors of negative health outcomes in PhD students. Exactly the factors that good leaders could tackle before they appear.

Junior faculty members with no training in leadership skills will lead research teams by trial and error to the detriment of the research group and their own careers. Senior faculty members who fail to create a supportive and collegial culture may unwillingly lower the morale in group members and harm the reputation of their department.


Characteristics of a badly lead research group

According to research, badly lead groups are characterized by the presence of interpersonal conflicts such as feelings of alienation, anger, apathy, arrogance, belligerence, contempt, despair, disgust, disrespect, envy, exasperation, fear, hate, impatience, indifference, jealousy, outrage, resentment, self-righteousness, spite, suspicion, vindictiveness. (Nature 523, 279–281,16 July 2015. Lifelong learning: Science professors need leadership training). Another indicator is the presence of sick-leavers due to job-related stress.

Here is a vignette of a badly lead research group that will help us visualise a case scenario:

PhD students and post-docs in a research group meet almost every day at work but they hardly interact with each other. From the day of the job interview, group members were told that they were expected to work individually and everyone seems to be in their own world. The supervisor in charge has not been seen for a while. Suddenly, she arrives one day and wants to know the state of affairs on a general meeting. Talking about their struggles sinks the morale of some junior members. Instead of providing advise, the supervisor refers them to previous works in the research group and advises “Do like X did” and continues the meeting with someone else. The supervisor interacts with group members giving more deference to those who already have received a PhD. The junior members are interrogated on the spot about the statistics and research methods in use, making them nervous. After the meeting, all group members sit around a table to have a coffee. The atmosphere is meant to be more relaxed but nobody looks relaxed. A post doc comments that her son is having certain health problem. The supervisor, a MD herself, talks extensively about all the terrible side effects of the medication used for that health condition. After the coffee, all group members go back to their computers. Nobody feels uplifted.


Leadership training at Karolinska

In Karolinska Institute, there are two courses on leadership in academia. One is  Leading for Change and another course on Leadership for Supervisors .

Let’s stop supervising and start leading, for a healthier and more productive scientific community.

Share with us your own stories of good or bad leadership in academia. We would like to hear from you.


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