Academic leadership

Last week I was interviewed by a sociology student for her PhD focused on women and academic leadership. I sat down with Candace* over coffee and we had a great chat about academia, universities, feminism and neoliberalism.

Although I’ve written before about academia and what I think being an academic entails, Candace had a bunch of nutty questions I really hadn’t thought about before. What do I think an academic leader looks like? Are there leaders in my research school? Does my school encourage one way of being a leader?

Working as a young academic can be a high-frequency oscillation between being exciting, energised and optimistic about work, and feeling hopeless about long-term career prospects, our capacity to make a difference and to produce high-quality research.

Candace caught me in a trough. At first I took a hard line. Universities are devoid of true leadership; they have very little idea about what their purpose is and what they aim for. They are highly conservative institutions and forward thinking is discouraged.

As our conversation drew on, I realised that my thinking was blatantly incorrect. In my work, of course I interact with leaders.

At the moment, I’m particularly inspired by a mid career researcher in my school. I’ve talked before about working in a strongly male dominated area and school, where life as a young woman can at times feel quite isolating. But Marie+ is a superstar!  She’s a world-class scientist, generous mentor and thoughtful supervisor. She has persevered through some rough working conditions to become an established and respected academic who practices a highly collaborative, generous and considered type of academia.

I also work alongside a group with an energetic and dynamic leader. He is also a mid career researcher, decorated with several international awards and a bunch of high-achieving students and postdocs. Simon# is incredibly generous with his time, thoughtful about his researcher and his role as a teacher and a committed superstar Dad. Over the least 8 years, I’ve known Simon and I’ve known that I can drop in anytime for some gentle encouragement over a coffee. I credit his generosity with my preserving through my tough PhD times.

In my previous job, I was supervised by another strong leader. John% was an established academic with an international reputation for research excellence and producing effervescent, well rounded PhD graduates. I was lucky to work with John for nearly three years. He is a frighteningly enthusiastic man! John has high expectations for his students and postdocs but is unwaveringly supportive. He encouraged me to consider what I wanted for my career and encouraged me to pursue it bravely. He supervised me openly, without his own expectations or agenda.

I’ve been very lucky to be exposed to great leadership. But it seems that even in difficult working environments, or in places where an ECR might feel a little out of place, there are demonstrations of leadership qualities. And these are likely to be very different for different ECRs.

Having given a little more thought to leadership in academia, I hope that I can foster these qualities that I admire and incorporate these into my own practice of academia. Finally, having thought a little more explicitly about admirable qualities of academia and leadership, I incidentally busted out of my trough and negative perspective. This week, I’m now thinking that academia is a fantastic industry to work in, and is being driven by generous, thoughtful and intelligent leaders.

* Not her real name.

+ Also not her real name.

# Unsurprisingly, not his real name.

% I think you can guess what I’m going to say here.


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