10 Skills That Will Give You An Edge When Applying For Management Positions
Written by: Gad Sabbatier, Ph.D.
I was one of the lucky ones.
The road to my PhD was an incredible experience.
Aside from the research, I gained a well-rounded profile by teaching, collaborating, organizing conferences, writing, and founding a student organization.
Looking back, my PhD-student journey was successful because my mentors created a proactive and friendly working environment, and supported my teammates in our pursuits outside of the lab.
Simply, we were trusted.
As with most of my labmates, I was happy to learn in this academic bubble.
When it was the time to finish my PhD, I found it difficult to imagine life after my thesis defense.
Look for a position in industry? How? What kind?
My first mistake: I did not network with industry professionals to help me answer these questions.
As with many other introverted PhDs, networking was awkward at the best of times.
Second mistake: I had no idea what type of alternative careers were available to me.
So I decided to continue as a postdoc at another university.
As I was interested in research management, I expressed my desire to manage students and trainees during my postdoc interview.
“Absolutely”, I was told.
Meanwhile, my days were spent working alone, doing experiments, and producing data.
Managing and supporting other students to accomplish their projects simply never happened.
After months of being glued to the lab bench, I forced myself out of my rut and turned my dreams into positive actions.
I started my own group.
I founded, raised money, and led a not-for-profit student organization where everything was organized by students for students.
I learned very quickly that if I wanted to get ahead, I had to gain management skills by myself, change my perspective, and leave academia.
Postdoctoral fellows or scholars sit in academic purgatory between graduate studentship and professorship.
The ultimate goal happens for so few people.
I understood that tenures are helpless in managing postdocs through the academic system.
So, why was I sticking around?
I began to get informed about non-academic careers.
I learned that all the transferable skills I gained in academia are not only useful, but will have a greater impact outside academia.
I was able to put a name on my future job — Project Manager.
I revamped my industry resume and my LinkedIn profile to target this position and was surprised how it all came together so quickly.
How To Develop Your Missing Leadership Skills
Only 4% of projects fail because of technical issues.
On the contrary, 36% of projects fail because of poor management.
Proving that you have the leadership ability to manage teams is worth more to a company than proving you have the technical know-how.
Your routine lab work may be the most crucial part of your learning process to obtain your degree, but this will not help you when it comes to alternative careers like project management.
You must make time to develop other transferable skills while still working in the lab.
Your PhD project teaches you to establish and follow a strategic plan.
You are able to manage time and resources with short-term and long-term goals, as well as maintaining collaborations and fending off competition.
These transferable skills are significant for managing projects in a lab, but they don’t make the grade if you are trying to lead a team.
The truth is, nobody is likely to help you to develop your teamwork and leadership skills in academia.
Because academia is broken in multiple ways.
Today, less than 1% of graduate students obtain a professorship and 30% of them get tenure.
This underemployment creates an anxious working environment in which both the professor and their students are under pressure.
The “publish or perish” culture preoccupies them.
They struggle to secure grants and get high-impact publications — key measures of success of PhDs in academia.
These obsessions in turn create an unreliable academic institution.
Even if there are outstanding professors in academia that pay attention to the well-being and the future of their students and postdocs, preparing graduate students for their industry transition is not mandatory, and far from the norm.
Even if academia is made for teaching students, little training and money is allocated to train PhDs for the next steps in their career-planning, or to develop transferable skills such as leadership.
The future of PhD students does not enter into the academic equation.
10 Leadership Skills Many PhDs Already Have
Face-to-face with your research project, you have three goals: finish your experiments, publish, and get your PhD.
In industry, you experience team work, and your ability to act as a team player will dictate whether a company will hire you.
As project, product, or program manager, a large part of the job will be to lead and be the catalyst for your team members to solve strategic problems, as well as to interact with others inside or outside of the company.
Leadership encompasses many characteristics.
You can easily develop and hone leadership skills while still in academia.
Here are 10 leadership traits necessary for management positions …
1. Initiative and engagement.
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.
Each failure is a lesson to be learned to make them better leaders in the future.
How to turn these characteristics into action?
First of all, any initiative you start must be reflective and strategically planned.
Every problem is an opportunity to improve your environment, your team, or your project.
Think of an initiative that could solve a problem that is faced at your institution or within your community.
Do your homework and see how you can balance cost, improvement, and risk.
Finally, talk to your colleagues and community members and try to evaluate potential changes by actively listening to them.
Set small goals first, be persistent, but do not get overwhelmed by inertia and 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.
2. Team building and collaboration skills.
If you want to reach a management position in industry, you have to prove you have worked in a team.
This is different from simply being a member of a group.
You have to distinguish between helping and collaborating.
In helping, you facilitate the action of somebody else, which is great, but in collaborating, you participate in a common project, you foster a relationship, you save energy, time and resources, and you learn.
You can practice teamwork in your lab.
If you are able to find complementary skills among your labmates, you can start to collaborate strategically and efficiently to reach the same goal.
Another way to stimulate team working in a lab is to create your own team.
This can be as simple as supervising trainees or taking on interns that wish to learn more about working in a laboratory setting.
Being a leader means having the right people on your team to achieve common goals.
Set out to have a team with a shared vision for success.
Be the source of positivity in the otherwise bleak mindset that can overshadow academic labs.
3. Clarity and communication.
Project management cannot be successful without strong communication skills.
It is essential to coordinate a team efficiently.
It can come in many forms and be as simple as delegating orders at meetings.
Project managers also need to prepare post-meeting summaries with key goals and actions so all team members know what success looks like and can work together toward a common goal.
Multiple web platforms help to foster communication between meetings and help to decrease the number of meetings as well.
You can practice your communication skills easily in academia, for instance, by doing presentations or teaching.
Do not hesitate to ask for feedback from colleagues to improve your communication skill set or attend local public speaking forums such as Toastmasters International.
4. Conflict resolution and client service skills.
The first meeting of a new project is critical for building relationships.
It is important to lay the expectations of the collaboration from the beginning and practice open communication.
You must be specific with regards to everyone’s roles, the overall goals of the project, and where people can turn to if problems arise.
Open communication makes it clear what the chain of command is and assures team members that they can express concerns without retribution.
This builds a level of trust and must be maintained from the beginning of the project until the end.
A good way for PhDs to practice open communication is teaching with an active learning spirit.
Ask students questions.
If it falls upon deaf ears, try changing your communication style, rephrasing your question, and developing new techniques to tailor to the learning styles of your audience.
And never forget to be thankful.
Just like you, people love to be acknowledged when they do a great job.
5. Listening and delegation.
Active listening is a difficult art to master, and requires concentration and practice, but it can be your ultimate secret weapon.
If you listen and observe people actively, you will understand team members’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the team dynamic.
It can help to determine whether team members are ready to take on more work or whether they feel overwhelmed and need help.
Active listening allows managers to delegate better and understand ambition and motivation.
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 and not exclude the opinions of others.
PhDs can practice active listening during meetings with their supervisors or conference presentations.
Think about all the times you were asked probing questions from audience members about your project and automatically wanted to go on the defensive.
Instead, think about why the question is being asked.
Ask for clarification, acknowledge their opinion, and then discuss potential solutions.
6. Strategic problem-solving.
A core day-to-day task of a manager is to plan and manage time to solve strategic problems.
A good strategist is able to understand the start and end point, and set goals by budgeting resources and time, as well as designing a clear path to the finish line.
A strategist must be flexible and be able to tweak their strategy depending on the outcomes at each step of the project.
PhDs have a strong background to solve scientific problems strategically.
They are not afraid to research a problem, find out what has been done in the past to answer it, and how they can tackle it from a new perspective.
They know how to budget laboratory resources to solve these problems.
If resources are not available, they know how to collaborate with other teams to reach mutually beneficial goals or to apply for further funding.
They are not afraid to tackle otherwise unsolvable problems.
As a PhD, you can take all of this experience and apply it to any industry management role.
You will be asked to be strategic in troubleshooting problems, managing budgets, and enhancing team cohesiveness for a common goal.
This is one of your strongest skill sets that you need to strengthen and highlight for industry.
7. Mentoring and team motivation.
Beyond your project and your individual work, a good leader trains and grows 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 earn the respect of your employee.
It is important to exhibit a positive attitude.
Sometimes, a project is really challenging.
Let’s be honest, all projects are challenging.
Instead of being overwhelmed, you should embrace the challenges of the project, allowing it to stimulate 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.
8. Constructive feedback skills.
Constructive criticism is an art of rhetoric and communication.
Try to make it a positive process and experience for those you are providing feedback to.
Be timely when providing feedback — don’t wait until months after a mistake has been made — and make it a regular occurrence.
Prepare your comments beforehand.
A well-known method is to express what you like first, then provide your suggestions, and then conclude with a positive result.
The key is to bring solutions, not problems.
Do not be aggressive.
Do not judge individuals.
Be specific in your statements.
You can practice constructive criticism by giving feedback during lab meetings and departmental presentations.
Why not create a journal club to regularly practice giving feedback?
9. Innovation and creativity.
Leaders must ask a lot of questions in order to understand how things work, in order to improve and be subjective.
They do not hesitate to push boundaries and take calculated risks.
As an innovative leader, your job is to develop opportunities to improve in each situation.
Experiment without being afraid to fail.
Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder and asked.
Intrapreneurship is more and more common in companies such as W.L. Gore & Associates in which employees are trusted and are empowered to manage their project with a minimum amount of supervision.
Today, PhDs are encouraged to see their discoveries as an application and be innovative.
As a PhD, you will have to work by yourself to develop innovation competencies and always look for ways to improve any given project.
10. Professional awareness.
There are multiple ways to improve reflection for yourself and your team.
A self-aware manager is someone who is in tune with their emotions: how do emotions affect their behavior, how to use them as strengths, and how to deal with corresponding weaknesses without hiding them.
Take a moment to evaluate your emotional intelligence.
Ask family and friends what they feel are your greatest strengths and weaknesses.
You can bring this self-awareness to the team by doing postmortem meetings after various stages of your project.
A postmortem must be relaxed, constructive, and timely to gain feedback while the experience is still fresh in everyone’s minds.
The goal is to improve the team for future projects, not to place blame or point fingers.
Remember to balance criticism with compliments to keep the team morale high.
The fact is, there are many ways to nurture your transferable skills and boost your profile from a highly-educated academic to an experienced scientific project manager and team leader. The first thing to do is to unstick yourself from the lab bench. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your experiments will still be there tomorrow. Begin to think of academia as a cross-functional platform to develop your leadership skills with other activities, while continuing to work in the lab. Don’t go through your academic life secluded and alone.
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