Career Advice

Gaining Leadership Skills from a Middle Graduate Position

Melissa McCartney

The middle is full of value. Think of an Oreo … the frosting in the middle holds the entire cookie together and enhances the flavor of the chocolate wafers. Without the middle, the Oreo falls apart. 

In your scientific training, you may find yourself to be in the middle. You are no longer an undergraduate student focused on learning the fundamental content and skills of your discipline, but you are not yet leading an academic department, lab, or industry research team. You are likely focused on your own individual research projects, collecting and analyzing data, and troubleshooting obstacles, but you may not yet be focused on leadership.

How can you start to capitalize on the opportunity to be a leader from the middle ranks?  To start, it is important to realize that leading from the middle is not a function of the position you hold. Instead, leading from the middle is a function of learning how to interact with and manage a team. Strong leaders are able to collaborate and work with colleagues to achieve a common end goal, provide creative solutions to challenges, and develop a mission statement or a purpose to inspire their team, and you don’t have to wait until mid- to late-career to achieve this.

Let’s walk through some simple shifts you can start to make now that will enable you to start leading from the middle.

Shift from “me” to “we”

As a scientist in training, a lot of your focus is on developing yourself: your own interests, your own research project, your own scientific reputation. As a leader in training, it is important to expand that focus to include helping others to develop themselves.

A “we” mentality requires embracing the idea that you and your research are part of a larger ecosystem and that some of your time needs to be spent tending to the ecosystem. This shift does not come naturally. It happens slowly, over time, in small increments, and you are probably already somewhere on the spectrum of this shift.

If you have taught a technique to a new lab member and helped with troubleshooting later, you are shifting toward “we.” If you have invited lab members on a tangential project to join in on a brainstorming meeting, you are shifting toward “we.” If you have organized an impromptu lab meeting to discuss a better system for cleaning the communal glassware, you are shifting toward “we.”

Keep shifting and you’ll achieve the leadership skill of building strong, effective teams.  

Shift from “pure specialist” to “specialist with a side of generalist”

Individual research projects during graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships can sometimes get very niche. Most often, this is a good thing because you are aiming to carve out your own unique place in science. However, leaders need to learn to balance being a specialist in one area with being a generalist in many areas in order to be successful leading a diverse team.

Think about the principal investigator of your lab. The PI knows an enormous amount about each project the team is working on but is not the definitive expert on any of them. The best way for you to start making the shift to generalist is to emulate your PI and get yourself involved in different parts of your lab.

In my own postdoc, I joined the lab with the intent of collecting electrophysiological data from hippocampal neurons (pure specialist). Over the course of a year, I got involved in a calcium imaging study where I knew enough to contribute to a poster presentation (side of generalist) and an immunohistochemical study that I was able to connect back to my own work (side of generalist). I was able to keep my roots deep in electrophysiology yet learned the basics of two additional techniques along the way. This allowed me to retain my electrophysiology credentials yet still competently engage with colleagues on different projects, essentially becoming a versatile member of an expanding team.

I was experiencing a new apex leadership position where I could talk to all team members and easily pivot into a set of complementary experiments, all because I knew enough (side of generalist) to keep the team integrated.

Shift from “warrior” to “diplomat”

To be clear, I do not think there are actual warriors in science labs. However, there is fierce competition among scientists to acquire funding and publish first in top journals, and this pressure is extra high in the early years. It can be difficult, and unnatural, to start to let your guard down. Think about the PI of your lab. They likely use the tools of diplomacy, such as negotiation and alliance building, to ensure the lab engages in great science. They may even collaborate with scientists they directly compete with for funding and other opportunities in ways that support the best interests of the lab and science.

Knowing when to be competitive and when to be collaborative is a leadership skill that takes a long time to develop, so think about getting started on this now. 

You can begin to do this by managing critical relationships with a little strategic planning. Spend some time identifying who in your science circles, competitor or not, could become a strategic ally. Maybe your diplomacy will take the shape of a new collaboration for combining data points for a joint manuscript submission or submitting a collaborative proposal instead of two separate competing proposals. Or maybe your diplomacy will remain “competitive” through the organization of a discussion panel or opinion piece where opposing views in your field are able to present a compelling argument for their position.  This method of diplomacy may encourage other members of the field to carefully question the evidence and will ultimately keep your field moving forward.

No matter what method you choose, alliance building is fundamental for effective leadership.

Shift from “static” to “dynamic”

If you are static, you are lacking in movement. In the lab, this might look like focusing on one project in one specific area for a large amount of time. It can also look like taking directed actions by following step-by-step instructions and sticking with a carefully developed protocol.

If this is you, please, come up and take a breath. Move your eyes up to the horizon and start looking at the bigger picture. There are a lot of other opportunities out there and learning how to choose which one(s) to pursue is going to strengthen your leadership skills.

Dynamic leaders continuously adjust to the changing landscape in front of them. They know enough about the issue (generalist) at the beginning to plan a predictable course and to implement a plan of action. In this way, they can adapt to the constant change, activity, or progress going on around them to help their teams succeed.

In my professor role, I once applied for a departmental leadership position that I was ultimately not chosen for. However, I knew I had the knowledge, experience, and insight to be a valuable leader for my university at some level. I chose to be dynamic and sent an email to the dean explaining what value I thought I could bring to a leadership position and inquiring if there was a way for me to serve outside of my department. Within 2 weeks, I was serving on a college-level task force appointed by the dean, and I have been contributing at a level above my department ever since.    

How do you learn to be a more dynamic leader from a position in the middle? The best way is to jump right in! Although all the shifts previously discussed happen in small increments, they do need to actually happen. So, go for it!

Is there an opportunity in your lab to train a new member? Jump in and work on your shift to “we.” Is there a transition happening in the lab where projects will need to be covered? Jump in and work on your shift to becoming a generalist. Have you been thinking about collaborating with a scientist in a similar field? Reach out and work on your shift to becoming a diplomat.    

One small shift will start a cascade. For those keeping score, you have likely noticed that all the small shifts described here will have a compound effect. For example, reaching out to start a new collaboration (diplomat) will also aid in your shift from “me” to “we.” Similarly, working with a lab mate on a new project (generalist) also helps the shift from “me” to “we.”

Collectively, these small shifts will make you more dynamic. Shifts beget shifts. Leadership doesn’t happen overnight, but remember, the middle has value, and you don’t need to be a CEO of hundreds of people to develop leadership skills. You can start from where you are, in the middle, with the team you already have around you in the lab. Start with a small shift and keep riding the momentum.