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A Google search for “leadership qualities” produces a plethora of leadership characteristic lists covering everything from honesty to vision to empathy. Of all the espoused leadership qualities, I believe the core quality of any effective leader must be the ability to inspire others. Without willing followers, a leader just spews hot air. With willing followers, a leader can change the world, for better or worse.
During their program, PhD students learn how to inspire others in at least three ways: observing effective faculty leaders, leading their own collaborative research projects, and teaching their own students.
As effective leaders themselves, tenured faculty members become role models for their own PhD students. By observing their faculty acting in various leadership capacities, students can learn firsthand what works (and in some cases what doesn’t work) as their mentors implement various tactics to inspire others. In fact, students who ultimately defend their dissertation often look back in appreciation of their mentors’ motivational methods that helped them cross the finish line to earn that PhD.
Ideally, students work on multiple research projects while in the program, and most, if not all, of these involve coauthors. At some point, students become lead authors of one or more of these projects. Through firsthand experience, students learn how to divide tasks and motivate all members of the team to complete the project in a timely manner.
Whether holding TA office hours during their first semester or teaching their own course later down the line, nothing beats the personal experience of teaching to find ways to inspire students to learn. When a group project exceeds expectations, or students stop by to learn more about a subject outside of class, teachers know they have lit a spark in somebody—a core leadership ability.
In addition to inspiring others, PhD students learn several other leadership lessons on their journey. The process of completing a PhD dissertation teaches perseverance. Integrity is reinforced via formal ethics training. Resilience is built by absorbing criticism from instructor feedback, student evaluations, research paper reviews, and challenging mentor feedback. Creativity is practiced by generating undiscovered knowledge. Communication skills are honed by teaching and presenting research many times.
Truly, with a multitude of experiences over four to five years, the path toward a PhD provides numerous lessons for the academic leaders of tomorrow.
Ph.D. Program Director