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A PhD In Leadership: 9 Academic Skills That Turn You Into A Boss


Contributing Author: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

How many PhDs miss their calling as leaders because of academic failure? 

I remember my own academic education well.

Like other PhDs, no one taught me how to develop my leadership skills.

Leadership is a core part of real life, of industry.

But it’s not a focal point for academia, which is why so many students get their PhDs only to face a harsh reality…

Instead of success and recognition, PhDs feel used.

They’ve been used by a university system that chewed them up and spit them out.

There is no clear path to success or fulfillment, only unanswered questions.

Look for a position in industry? How? What kind?

You’ve got no idea what to do or how to get a real job – there’s nothing to cue you in. 

Some PhDs respond to this situation by settling up for positions that are beneath their skills and accomplishments.

Others curl up in an academic lab where they feell safe – they take up a postdoc despite the low pay and poor working conditions.

This is how I felt.

I didn’t realize how many leadership skills I had actually developed over the years.

My time in academia had endowed me with leadership skills – the abilities that I needed to take charge of my professional life and meet my full potential.

But first, I had to realize how to leverage this skill set outside of academia and own up to my identity as a capable PhD who deserved respect.

Now, it’s your turn to do the same.

Your PhD makes you a potential champion of industry whether you know it yet or not.

Why Academia Will Never Let You Grow As A Professional

Let’s start here: Academia is broken. 

Do you think you’re going to get tenure? 

Think again.

Only 30% of professors get tenure, and less than 1% of graduate students become professors at all.

If you’re one of the lucky few, then that’s great.

But as a PhD, you don’t need basic probability and statistics explained to you – academia is like the lottery, and it will only provide real success for a minority.

The great majority of PhDs will keep doing postdoc work, which only hurts their careers.

Does this make you mad?

It should.

You have worked very hard for your PhD, harder than most people will ever work for something.

I know personally how rough it has been on you.

Students and professors are suffering in an anxious work environment.

The pressure-to-reward ratio is not healthy – you are insanely pressured to perform and given almost nothing to show for it.

Academia compels you to focus on keeping your position safe, on “staying afloat.”

How can you develop as a leader when you’re just trying to survive on a pathetic stipend and avoid the wrath of your PI?

If you haven’t already, it’s time to see academia in an honest light.


You have to recognize that if you stay there, your leadership potential will probably never be realized.

Industry, on the other hand, is always looking for strong leaders.

Your PhD is an asset, and with the right attitude and practice, you can be exactly what industry is looking for.

9 Skills That Change PhDs Into Visionary Leaders

I’ll say it again: Industry needs leaders.

Project success is integral to a business’ welfare…

Yet, 36% of projects fail due to poor management.

This means that the ability to manage teams is worth a lot to industry businesses. 

And your ability to coordinate with other employees dictates whether a company will hire you into a leadership position.

As a project, product, or program manager, a large part of the job will be to lead your team in solving strategic problems.

As a PhD, you can develop and hone leadership skills whether you are currently in academia or not.

Here are 9 major transferable skills that PhDs can build in academia before and will help them land an awesome managerial industry position. 

If you feel that you already possess these skills, remember that they can always be honed further.

1. Catering your communication style to the audience.

As an industry leader, it is essential that you coordinate your team efficiently. 

For example, project managers need to prepare post-meeting summaries with key goals and actions, which allows team members to know what success looks like.

Then, they can work together toward a common goal.

If you aren’t getting your message across to listeners, it’s not their fault– it’s yours. 

Own up to your position as a leader and pay attention to how your team likes to receive information. 

It will be difficult to do this when your team is made up of individuals. 

Leadership is hard. 

But your attempts at project management will not succeed without strong communication skills. 

Multiple web platforms not only help to foster communication between meetings but they decrease meeting volume, allowing more time for personal productivity.

In academia, you have practiced your communication skills by doing presentations or teaching.

Don’t hesitate to ask for feedback from colleagues or attend local public speaking forums such as Toastmasters International to improve your communication skill set.

2. Develop your own mentoring style.

The first meeting of a new project is critical. 

It will act as a foundation for relationship building amongst the team.

A leader has to communicate all expectations upfront – make sure everyone understands the purpose of the collaboration. 

Start this practice at the beginning and be sure to maintain open communication.

You must be specific with regard to everyone’s role, the overall goals of the project, and where people can turn to if (when) problems arise.

Open communication clarifies the chain of command and assures team members that they can express concerns without retribution. 

This builds a certain level of trust, and that trust must be maintained from the beginning of the project until the very end.

A good way of practicing open communication in academia is by teaching with an active learning spirit.

Simply put: Ask students questions.

If this approach doesn’t engage them, try changing your communication style –  rephrase your question or develop new techniques to tailor your teaching style to the personalities in your audience.

And never forget to be openly thankful for everyone’s efforts.

Just like you, people love to be acknowledged when they do a great job.

3. Setting purposeful goals and knowing when to be flexible.

Good leaders have to plan and manage time every day.

This important routine enhances your ability to solve strategic problems. A good strategist is able to understand the start and endpoints – to set goals by budgeting resources and time.

 They work to design a clear path to the finish line.

A strategist must be flexible and able to tweak their strategy depending on the outcomes at each step of the project.

PhDs have a strong background in solving complex projects strategically. 

They are not afraid to research a problem, home in on previous solutions, and determine how to tackle it from a new perspective.

For instance, they know how to budget laboratory resources to solve these problems. 

But if resources are not available, they know how to collaborate with other teams to reach mutually beneficial goals – or apply for further funding.

PhDs can apply this experience to any industry management role.

These challenging roles will demand a lot of you. 

You will be asked to apply strategy as you troubleshoot problems, manage budgets, and enhance team cohesiveness in pursuit of a common goal.

This is one of your strongest skill sets, and you can never hone it too sharply. 

Keep finding ways to practice. 

When the time comes to highlight this leadership skill set for a potential employer, you’ll be glad you practiced.

4. Knowing your team members.

Being a leader means having the right people on your team in order to achieve common goals.

Set out to have a team with a shared vision for success. 

You can lead the way and draw others to your vision by acting as a source of positivity in the academic lab.

If you want to reach a management position in industry, you have to prove you’ve worked on a team. 

You have to distinguish between helping and collaborating.

Helping means assisting the efforts of another person. 

Collaborating means working together towards a common goal.

You can practice this kind of teamwork in your lab. 

Find complementary skills among your labmates and collaborate strategically to reach a shared goal.

You can also create your own team. 

This can be as simple as supervising trainees or taking on interns who wish to learn more about working in a laboratory setting.

5. Listening actively and capitalizing on others’ good ideas.

The art of active listening is difficult to master. 

It requires concentration and practice, but it can be your ultimate secret weapon.

If you actively listen and observe people, you will glean important details about the strengths and weaknesses of your team members, as well as the overall team dynamic.

This can help to determine whether team members are ready to take on more work or whether they feel overwhelmed and need help.

Active listening makes any manager a superior delegator, and it helps them understand the ambition and motivation of their team.

It also allows them to solve conflicts by taking on the concerns of the team, asking smart questions and developing solutions that will move the project forward – without excluding the opinions of others.

PhDs can practice active listening during meetings with their supervisors, conference presentations, or similar events.

Think about all the times you were asked probing questions by audience members – when they asked about your project.

It was natural to automatically get defensive and try to shield your precious submission, whatever it was.

Instead of reacting this way, though, think about why the question is being asked in the first place.

Ask for clarification, acknowledge the other person’s opinion, and discuss potential solutions.

6. Engaging problems head-on and with enthusiasm.

Agreeing to take time away from the bench is the first step to initiating change and leaving your comfort zone.

Leaders are proactive.

They do not complain about problems – they invite challenges and solve problems with confidence.

They take each failure as a lesson that, once learned, will make them better leaders. Your revisions must be reflective and strategically planned.

Every problem is an opportunity to improve your environment, your team, or your project.

If you don’t already, it’s time to shake up your perspective and get used to seeing problems this way. 

If you are inclined to whine or pout about problems, you can forget about being a leader in industry.

Do your homework and see how you can balance cost, improvement, and risk. 

Finally, try to evaluate potential changes by actively listening to your colleagues and community members.

Set small goals and be persistent, but don’t get overwhelmed by inertia and other difficulties.

This might seem like a pipe dream for PhDs, but there are many ways you can do this. For instance, you can develop a procedure for the lab, start a club or organization, or organize an event.

7. Innovating endlessly.

Leaders must ask a lot of questions in order to understand how things work.

This is how you improve your processes and approach more objective standpoints.

Good leaders do not hesitate to push boundaries or take calculated risks.

As an innovative leader, your job will be to develop opportunities for improvement in each situation – to experiment without being afraid to fail.

Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder and asked.

Entrepreneurship is increasingly common, especially within successful companies that trust and empower their employees.

This leads directly to efficient project management with minimal supervision.

PhDs must learn to see their discoveries as potential applications of knowledge.

Acting on this potential is the spark of innovation. 

As a PhD, you will have to work by yourself to develop competent innovation capabilities – to look for ways to improve any given project.

8. Mastering constructive criticism.

Constructive criticism is all about rhetoric and communication.

If you are giving feedback, try to make it a positive experience for the recipient.

Be timely when providing feedback. 

Don’t wait until months after a mistake has been made. Your feedback must be both immediate and regular.

A well-known method for delivering feedback is the “compliment sandwich.”

Using this strategy, you express what you like first, then provide your suggestions, and conclude with a positive result. 

Think of the critical portion as the meat in the middle of the sandwich.

In general, though, you want to bring solutions, not problems – don’t be aggressive or judgmental – Be specific in your statements. 

You can practice constructive criticism by giving feedback during lab meetings and department presentations.

9. Always be ethical and authentic (especially if you were treated poorly in academia).

If your academic supervisors made you feel good, use their style as an inspiration. 

But if they were abusive, remember how that felt and be a better leader than they were.

Beyond the project and individual work, good leaders train team members to take on responsibilities while making them feel unique and important.

Team members should be confident in your ability to lead and trust your vision.

If you behave in an ethical way, you will earn the respect of your employees.

Most industry projects come with a set of inherent challenges, embrace them, and allow them to stimulate your creative thinking and strategic planning. 

Approach the challenge with an optimistic mindset and confidence.

This authenticity will inspire others to follow your leadership.

As a PhD with experience in teaching and expert communication skills, you can inspire your students by personalizing your presentations and courses.

If you have the opportunity to work with trainees, don’t be afraid to let your passion show.

Inspire them with your energy, enthusiasm, and determination.

PhDs and postdocs develop many leadership skills that are valuable in different management positions in industry. You just need to identify them, further develop them, and learn how to communicate them. Developing your communication skills, your ability to collaborate and deal with criticism, and your mentoring skills during grad school will help you become an industry leader who knows how to keep their team inspired and motivated.


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Isaiah Hankel


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