June 15, 2021

Inclusive leadership training is key to career success and equity in science (opinion)

Leadership and inclusion skill sets are increasingly recognized as essential competencies for Ph.D. students and…

Leadership and inclusion skill sets are increasingly recognized as essential competencies for Ph.D. students and postdocs, or trainees, in the biological sciences. As today’s trainees enter the workforce in research, education, business and advocacy, they will become leaders tasked with creating a more equitable and inclusive culture of science.

To develop inclusive leadership competency, trainees should reflect on career goals and make a training plan that incorporates opportunities to build leadership experience and self-awareness. They should seek out such leadership experiences and be able to recognize and articulate to others their leadership skills. In addition, institutions and educators can support bioscience trainees’ leadership development by implementing a new ready-to-use curriculum, the Leadership and Management in Action Program (L-MAP), which is now freely available under a Creative Commons license with generous support from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. I’ve described in more detail these elements below.

Gaining Leadership Experience During Graduate and Postdoctoral Training

Bioscience trainees can gain leadership and management experience to enhance career readiness in a number of ways. Many trainees start developing leadership skills by joining a group for students or postdocs at their institution and taking on a leadership role. Such groups can include student government organizations, identity and affinity groups, and career interest groups or other trainee organizations. Serving on departmental, programmatic or other ad hoc institutional committees is another way to gain experience and learn from academic leaders. Professional societies and local organizations also have opportunities for service on committees or volunteer activities.

Postdocs can also find opportunities to exercise leadership while conducting research. They can talk to their principal investigator about managing a project or protocol that involves working with research teammates or improving the working environment for everyone. There may also be opportunities to mentor junior scientists, including undergraduates. Working on a collaborative project with colleagues from other institutions or interdisciplinary fields is another great way to develop team science skills. By engaging in such experiences, trainees develop leadership skills and stories that they can share with hiring managers during a job search.

Developing Leadership Self-Awareness Through Self-Reflection

For career success, Ph.D. scientists must be able to communicate the value of their leadership skills and experiences to potential employers. Understanding and articulating their value on the job market requires confidence in and awareness of one’s leadership skills. Reflecting on experiences, individually or in a group setting, is a great way to develop self-awareness and language that can be used in job materials and interviews.

Leadership self-awareness is not only a valuable asset for job seekers but is also essential for the creation of inclusive work environments. Leaders and managers have a strong influence on group dynamics and organizational culture, so it is important to have a deep understanding of one’s own leadership style and how it affects others. Through self-reflection, Ph.D. scientists can acknowledge leadership biases and systemic inequities, allowing them to more actively and effectively engage in creating diverse, inclusive and equitable work environments. As the scientific leaders of tomorrow, Ph.D. students and postdocs with leadership self-awareness can positively influence the culture of science by practicing culturally sensitive and inclusive workplace practices in their future careers.

L-MAP: A New Curriculum for Building Inclusive Leadership Skills

Participating in a formal leadership training program allows trainees to develop leadership self-awareness, learn new leadership approaches and achieve leadership skill-building goals. The Leadership and Management in Action Program is a new, ready-to-use leadership curriculum for bioscience trainees that applies an equity and inclusion framework to leadership skill development. The training materials can be implemented at any institution for free under a Creative Commons license. The L-MAP workbook has been downloaded for use by educators and trainees at public and private research universities, medical schools and teaching hospitals, independent research institutions, STEM education organizations, scientific professional societies, the National Institutes of Health, and biomedical companies.

The L-MAP curriculum provides a knowledge base and active learning exercises to help bioscience trainees develop leadership skills and self-awareness. It includes case studies for discussion-based active learning in groups, individual reflection prompts, guidelines for writing a leadership statement and instructions for setting SMART goals for ongoing development. The program was developed from evidence-based research on the leadership and team dynamics challenges that bioscience trainees regularly encounter in the research environment. It was informed by surveys and focus groups and acknowledges the ways that dominant white culture affects leadership and organizations.

In postworkshop evaluations, trainees who completed the program reported that reflection and discussion using the L-MAP curriculum provided “a new dimension to … graduate school training” as well as “unique perspectives and views” on leadership. Trainees also recognized that L-MAP is just the beginning of their inclusive leadership development and acknowledged the need for continued experience and reflection.

Tips for implementing L-MAP at your institution include:

  • Career development educators: Organize a workshop series or course based on the L-MAP workbook. A facilitator guide and train-the-trainer resources are available for anyone who would like to conduct inclusive leadership training using this new curriculum.
  • Principal investigators: Discuss L-MAP articles and case studies with trainees in your lab and encourage them to incorporate leadership SMART goals into their individual development plans.
  • Ph.D. students and postdoc groups: Use the workbook to organize a leadership journal club or informal discussions of leadership skills.
  • Individual trainees: Use the L-MAP workbook for self-reflection, self-study and goal-setting.

The graduate and postdoctoral training periods are ideal for developing leadership skills and experience and for reflecting on one’s values as a leader. These activities can increase career readiness and prepare trainees to communicate their value to hiring decision makers in academe and beyond. Taking time to reflect on leadership styles helps job seekers identify work environments that fit their values and understand their role in creating or changing a workplace culture. Graduate students and postdocs, as the next generation of scientific leaders, have an opportunity to practice leadership that prioritizes inclusion and equity to create a culture where all are welcome and all can succeed.