Austin Gray will have to wait until May to run his lab, but he already knows what he has to do. Gray, an aquatic toxicologist, received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The Citadel, a military institution in Charleston, South Carolina, where students march with rifles in the courtyard, submitting regular uniform inspections and salute officers.
Gray found his scientific calling at The Citadel Lab. Outside the lab, he quickly rose through the ranks. By his final year as an undergraduate in 2012, he was named company commander, a position that put him in charge of 105 fellow students.
At the institution with deep roots in the US Confederacy, and where the Confederate flag still continues to be displayed in the chapel, their rise was a sign of personal challenge and change. “I was the second black company commander in school history,” Gray said.
Running the lab would not be exactly like commanding college cadets, but Gray expected to play his new tenure at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg.
To become a company commander, he had to engage with people of different backgrounds, earn respect and lead by example – skills that would come in the way of civilian science. “I wouldn’t be the leader of today without that experience,” he says.
At any stage of the scientific career, it is possible to start working on skills (see ‘Key to Leadership’) that may eventually give researchers a chance to be leaders in their own laboratory and beyond, says Kate Jennings, Head Trainer Lab to Leader Program offered by Cambridge Executive Development, UK.
Leadership skills can help scientists promote their ideas as well as their careers, but not all scientists naturally take on the role of leader. Jennings has seen this many times: People who are talented in the lab are not always adept at inspiring others.
To become true leaders, says Jennings, scientists must build strong relationships with those around them, a feat that often requires a new way of thinking.
“Scientists are in great need of self-reliance and determination,” she says. “But the things that have helped you move forward for your personal success don’t always play so well when you’re trying to bring out the best in other people.”
Leadership skills can be a major advantage in the hyper-competitive world of marine biology, says Rebecca Boyz, a second-year PhD student at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. He began taking initiatives early and often in his career.
On every occasion, the boys tried to appear. As an undergraduate at Bangor University, UK, she volunteered for the annual conference of the European Cetacean Society, which helped to run the registration desk and sell merchandise.
After three conferences, in which he met, greeted and networked with researchers from all stages of the career spectrum, he was a student representative, a position that put him in charge of volunteering as well as all student events.
In that role, he was to work shoulder to shoulder with other committee members, including senior scientists in his field. “It gives them a chance to know that I exist,” she says.
The boys are still extracting his name. She was on the student organizing team of the 2019 World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, Spain, and is a member of the committee of the Australia and New Zealand Student Chapter for the Society for Marine Mammalogy, a role in which she helps organize conferences. Look for sponsors. “It’s a great way to show management skills to future supervisors and employers,” she says.
She is still not sure about her career plan, and is working for a marine-conservation organization or perhaps eventually running her own university lab. But she knows that experience with leadership will open doors and help her prosper amid intense competition in her field. She says, “I would encourage all marine biology students to lead.
Leadership skills can be particularly important for postheads, says Matthias Barth, who studies higher education at the University of Leufana in Lüneburg, Germany. Berth is one of the steering-group members of the Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership, a training program for researchers in the field of sustainability.
Postdocs have to submit publications and citations to advance their careers, but they also have to engage with stakeholders to determine whether their ideas have real impact. “It’s either / or not,” he says. “You have to combine them.”
A major goal of the program is helping postdocs learn and navigate networks in the field of sustainability research, an area that connects scientists with disciplines ranging from physics and chemistry to political science and sociology.