A plea for Academic Leadership Courses

A plea for Academic Leadership Courses

This plea is not going to bode well with many academics. “How dare this young researcher – until now without credentials – tell us how to do our job?” might they say. But the reason is simple and everyone who is not in academia would agree with me.

It is well-known that people do not quit jobs but bad managers. For example, Forbe’s contributors Amy Rees Anderson and Karen Higginbottom have published about how bad managers drive turnover. This is supported by Gallup.  And also Harvard Business Review states that it is management that makes people look for other jobs.

Outside of academia it is well-known that doing your job well does not equate being a good manager. Excelling at your job and managing people are two different things. The tasks of managers go beyond coordinating employees and work flow, and include developing employees. As a manager it is your responsibility to discover the hidden talents of your employees, to give them the right tasks to grow and develop their skills, to motivate them, and of course to warn them when their behavior and performance is below expectations. For this reason coaching and leadership training is a given in many organizations.

But not in academia. Promotion is (nearly) entirely based on your research track record: How many grants did you get, how many papers did you publish? What is lacking from this system is that climbing the academic ladder also means that you have to supervise undergraduates, graduates, and post-docs. Supervision does not mean looking over the shoulder and micromanage. It is the responsibility of professors to provide graduates and especially post-docs with the right environment to deepen their knowledge, offer them the opportunity to apply for a grant, and support them through it. Celebrate their success and console them when they fail. Graduates and post-docs are researchers-in-training. They want to learn how to conduct good research and publish articles.

To provide good training requires skills. I conducted a short non-scientific survey about what graduates and post-docs think are crucial skills their superiors should have. I used a convenient sample, and applied an iterative coding method to develop axial codes.


Ph.Ds and Postdocs need the freedom to develop themselves and do mistakes. Mistakes are great ways to learn. This is not a call for professors to let their Ph.Ds fall flat on their face, but wrong turns and near misses are ok. Failures are great, because they force you to rethink your steps, to consider the reasons why you failed and connect it with your existing expertise. Failures have the potential to uncover hidden assumption in your thinking. For those interested check out Chris Argyris work on double-loop learning.

Giving you researchers freedom accomplishes two goals: First, they are given the space to explore their discipline, go into fields that are outside the expertise of their advisors, and contemplate methods their advisors have never used. Secondly, professors who give freedom, show that they trust their mentee. This trust is important. It also relates to feeling safe to do mistakes.

Take-aways for Professors:

  • Write down the research interests, weaknesses, and strengths of your mentees. Think about domains of expertise but also soft skills. Give them the space to explore their research interests and develop their strengths. But give them additional support in the area they are weak. It is part of your job to support your mentees so that they have the emotional and mental strength to persist over 5 years and maintain their intrinsic motivation.
  • Phrase your recommendations as suggestions. Ph.Ds and Postdocs are then required to find out more about your suggestion, but feel that they have the freedom to disagree with it, once they found enough supporting arguments.
  • In relation to point 2, don’t micromanage and give orders. I’m pretty sure as professors you enjoy the academic freedom. You can be pretty sure, that Ph.Ds and Postdocs, as professors-to-be, value academic freedom.

Pedagogical Skills

Not surprisingly, professors should know about learning theories. Specifically, they should be expert in providing good feedback. They should keep the bigger picture of the project in mind. That means reminding the young researcher to look at a problem from a different perspective, to explore a different angle, different literature. We can get lost in our project, forgetting what it’s all about.

What a Ph.D does to your world view (From the Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D)




Pedagogical skills also include to stimulate your mentee to reflect on their learning and writing skills. Writing good articles is very hard. Your audience includes experts and non-experts, and you need to catch the attention of both. Introductions should not be “scary” or tedious. We need to learn to take a step back and see the theory and results as someone who has never seen them before. After spending years in a field and weeks analyzing data, this step can be difficult.

Take away for Professors:

  • Ask the annoying “Why” question. This is a simple way to push Ph.Ds and Postdocs to explain their actions. If you have created a safe environment, asking “why” does not create a feeling of questioning our work, but an opportunity to explain our decision-making processes.
  • Giving good feedback is difficult. The easiest thing to get better at it is to give feedback on papers and presentation shortly after they have done. Connect the feedback to a specific slide, sentence, or actions and provide a suggestion for improvement.
  • Provide the Ph.D and Postdoc with literature on their problem but from a different angle.

Be available

There is nothing worse than being stuck. Sometimes we hit an impasse in our thinking or we need to make an urgent and important decision. In those circumstances advice is crucial. While colleagues are great sources of advice, when it is important, I also want to get the opinion of my advisors. This only works if you are available. Available can mean to be very quick in replying to emails or Skype. But what I cherished over the years is the knowledge that I can always drop by my professors office. In some cases even when they had meetings I could get a quick answer from them. I knew that no matter what, I have a safety net. At this point I want to publicity thank Professor Jeroen van Merrienboer on who I could count to answer my emails within 24 hours (unless he was on holiday).

Take-away for Professors:

  • Tell your Ph.Ds and Postdocs what is the best way to reach you. This can be email, Skype, or in real. In my current team, Skype is the way to be available, something that was not the case in my old team.
  • Have clear expectations on when you are available. For example, can you be reached during conferences or holidays?

Know your field and your colleagues

Professors should also have expertise in the field. Now, some people may disagree with that. Guiding someone does not require expertise in a domain, but expertise in mentoring. The advantage of being an expert in the field is that it is easier to judge the originality of the junior researcher’s work, because they know the trends. This can lead to better decision-making. Another advantage is that experts who know the field, know about how to sell the research to journals. They can provide advice on what arguments to make in the manuscript to avoid certain comments from reviewers. It may boil down to personal preference of junior researchers and professors. Personally, I found it sometimes challenging that in certain areas of my Ph.D I knew more than my advisors. However, this has taught me the important lesson to reach out to others, in the network of my advisors and outside their networks, to ask for help.

Take-away for professors:

  • Build a diverse network. You need to be connected to experts in different fields, not just for that crazy Ph.D who is doing something outside your area of expertise, but also because your work will be more original if you interact with experts in other fields.
  • If you are an expert in the field of your Ph.Ds and Postdocs, update your knowledge. In other words, use your mentee to learn about new methods and trends.

Lastly, don’t forget Ph.Ds and Postdocs are unique human beings. What works with one, may drive another nuts.

I like to end with a call to Ph.Ds and Postdocs: Years ago for a project on Ph.D support and career management, I interviewed several department heads. One of the quotes I clearly remember is that Ph.Ds need to learn to manage their advisors. I think this is also true for Postdocs. We need to achieve that they work for us.

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