Academic leadership

Academic leadership or academic leader…. There are the two buzzwords that I have been hearing and reading about more often recently.  As Google N-Gram graph shows below, there is a growing trend in the use of ‘academic leadership’ and ‘academic leader’. Obviously, there is also an increasing trend for the use of ‘leadership’. According to Zenko, who researches foreign policy, “the call for leadership is typically one that is associated with a more confrontational and aggressive policy”. In this case, this raises the issue of whether the higher education sector is getting more aggressive due to its highly competitive nature.


Vitae, which is a non-profit researcher development organisation in the UK, describes itself as “‘the global leader’ in supporting the professional development of researchers, experienced in working with institutions as they strive for research excellence, innovation and impact”. Many organisations, including universities and Vitae, recommend that early career researchers should present themselves as ‘leaders’; however, ‘academic leadership’ and ‘academic leader’ in academia remain elusive concepts.

Academic leadership is often associated with formal leadership duties that are undertaken by senior academics. In the NOW corpus, for example, the top five adjective collocates of academic leadership are ‘senior’, ‘outstanding’, ‘distinguished’, ‘experienced’ and ‘accomplished’, which emphasise the state of being higher in status. Then, how can PhD students or early career researchers exercise leadership while we are at the bottom of the academic ladder? Over the winter break, I read about three information booklets or guidelines of leadership prepared by three different non-profit organisations (I count universities as non-profit organisations) in the UK for early career researchers. Surprisingly, advice given in these guidelines seems different. In particular, the priorities that researchers are advised to give or the top skills that the organisations recommend that researchers should have to develop their leadership are far from being the same. Based on the top 4000 most frequent words in each document, I used multidimensional scaling (an exploratory multivariate data analysis technique for visualising the level of similarity of the dataset) in R to explore similarity of these three guidelines (the wordcount of each guideline ranges from 19.000 to 22.000). As can be seen in the graph below, these documents, unexpectedly, do not seem to be very similar, although the document one and two show some similarity on one dimension.


A possible explanation for difference in these guidelines is that different leadership types can be valued by different organisations. I have read about the different leadership types, including intellectual leadership, innovative leadership and exemplary leadership, and I will try to summarize them below. Of course, for academic leadership, being an intellectual leader is crucial in planning our own research agenda and inspiring that of others. Having a PhD and writing research articles are one of the manifestations of intellectual leadership. Intellectual leadership also requires being clear-sighted about the direction our research field is taking.

Innovative leadership necessitates taking risks, implementing and evaluating new ideas in the organisation, and these ideas can be related to research, teaching, and public engagement. The disadvantage of innovative leadership is that people may not succeed in their endeavours each time they implement a creative idea. This semester, inspired by a very innovative lecturer at my university, I am exercising innovative leadership in that I am trying to use creative methods in my teaching, which will increase students’ engagement. As it is seen here, inspiration is key to developing leadership which would lead to a shared vision and encourage others to exercise leadership. This is relevant to another leadership style: exemplary leadership which entails dedication, collaborative ethos, empowerment and believing in capacity of people you are working with, and generosity with time. Exemplary leadership can be developed across different areas, including, academic service, research, teaching, and public engagement. In this sense, I have been lucky enough to have supervisors and get to know academics who serve as role models for me.


The final leadership style I will touch on this post is civic leadership which brings about having a positive ‘impact’ on and making a difference in the local community or society. This leadership includes public engagement, and it goes beyond that since a positive contribution to the society or community is required through public education, community service, and public scholarship. Actually, civic leadership is closely intertwined with intellectual leadership because it is expected that research studies make a change ‘beyond academia’.

There are many more leadership types than the abovementioned ones that can be embraced by academia. These leadership types are not mutually exclusive, and different universities may prioritise different leadership types, as my rough analysis suggests above. Therefore, PhD students and early career researchers need to develop their awareness of different leadership types rather than just receive a training on trait-based perspectives of leadership (leaders should be visionary, decisive, etc.). My action plan for academic leadership is that I will try to develop different leadership types through experimenting and learning from others so that I will be able to inspire others by showing exemplary leadership in the future.

Manchester GRADschool 2015

As a PhD student, my day normally starts with a cup of coffee and creating a daily to-do list, and it continues with writing and reading in front of the computer. Last week, at Manchester GRADschool, I stepped out of my PhD routine and had the privilege to explore and work on different skills. This year’s GRADschool theme was “Communicating Effectively: You, Your Team & Your Research”, and we were given a wide range of tasks, including making a research film, creating a research poster and storyboard, writing a film treatment and press release, tweeting, etc.

Our team won the research poster competition!

Our team won the research poster competition!

We had the chance to work in teams of six researchers from different disciplines towards the deadlines. It was interesting to see that the team members had different approaches of how a task should be carried out. Though we (Green team) worked harmoniously towards completing the tasks, working in a team was a very challenging experience. In this challenging journey, we practised debating and negotiation skills. As the deadlines approached, the pressure increased and tension seemed to seep into our team room. However, we managed to maintain effective collaboration. The last-minute tasks added to tension, leaving us under pressure, but we got used to ‘expecting the unexpected’. Actually, this made our experience more real-life. At the end, we managed to finish all the tasks on time. A set of unexpected tasks pushed us to develop flexibility and remain open to spontaneity.

At the end of each day, we had team reviews, reflecting on how we worked together, what worked out well and what we could have done differently. This was both useful to understand the group dynamics well and to do self-reflection about Manchester GRADschool my role in the team. What I liked most was the feedback session on the last day. We spent five minutes with each team member, and gave each other positive feedback on how we worked and constructive criticism on what skills we would need to sharpen. I absolutely enjoyed receiving positive feedback and constructive criticism since this process raised my self-awareness of how I worked in a team. Also, giving feedback to my peers provided me with the opportunity to practise the delicate art of offering constructive criticism.

In addition to the group tasks, we were also required to tell our PhD to the camera in 60 seconds and explain our research to one of the participants very briefly. These tasks made me think about the different ways of communicating my research clearly and how I could attract non-specialists’ attention to at least one aspect of my research. While I was listening to others’ research, I realised that I was genuinely interested in the talk when the speaker added a personal element to his/her research at the beginning. I tried to use the same strategy when I talked about my own research.

Manchester GRADschool was not all work. In fact, the whole event was really enjoyable with all the team games, drawing activities and bite-size workshops! I also socialised for 3.5 days with other researchers, which is actually rather unusual for a PhD student! Within the team, I worked with five other PhD students, each of whom was from a different country with different background. This was an enriching intercultural experience as we talked about global issues, our countries and cultures, apart from our PhD lives.

Manchester GRADschool was a very unique and fulfilling experience which increased my self-awareness and self-confidence and enabled me to practise a wide range of skills. I am now back to my desk, fully refreshed with great memories…