An interview with Vibeke Broe, the PhD career consultant of Aarhus University (https://www.linkedin.com/in/vibeke-broe-2b70b24)
To read Part 1 of the interview, click here!
BA: What, exactly, does it mean to be a skilled leader? When should doctoral students highlight their leadership experience?
Vibeke: The importance of leadership skills depends on the position you are applying to. Leadership skills—like willingness to debate, taking responsibility, influencing/motivating others, selling your ideas, and understanding what is needed to be a leader—can be a benefit, if the company wants to hire a manager However, excessive focus on leadership skills can also be dangerous if you are applying to a company where you will not be in leadership position. Managers may be careful to hire somebody who has a very strong interest in leadership. For example, it can be very difficult to hire a wannabe project manager for a non-project manager position, because they can be difficult to control. Academics tend to be quite autonomous in the first place, because they are used to making lot of decisions on their own.
Major companies, like Novo Nordisk or Arla, are actually focusing on your development. So if they see that you have the interest and potential to be a great leader, you will be pushed to develop your skills.
BA: How can doctoral students develop leadership skills?
Vibeke: It’s a difficult question and depends on how you define leadership skills.
All doctoral students take ownership of their project to some extent and use it to present their ideas and knowledge. If you have developed your own project, pitched it to a dissertation committee and earned their approval, you have demonstrated a capacity to convince others. That is being a responsible leader .
It is more difficult for most grad students to develop people management skills. Some doctoral students will have gained people management skills while supervising research assistants or other students. You will not become a perfect leader in this situation, but it will give you a sense of how to manage others. You need to find your own style to motivate other people to get the best result. You can also seek out extracurricular activities to develop people management skills, if your university or department doesn’t afford you the opportunity to do so.
BA: How can doctoral students improve their leadership and management skills?
Vibeke: If you have already developed some leadership skills, you can improve them by reflecting on where you are and what kind of leader you want to be. Develop an awareness of what kind of manager you aspire to be and who you are managing. It is one thing to motivate people; it is another to guide them to understand the purpose and importance of their work. You can also become a better leader by clarifying to your team the purpose, expectations, and end goals of the project. These are skills that you develop over time.
BA: How can you showcase your leadership skills to companies?
Vibeke: It depends on what the employer is looking for. If they are looking for somebody who will take responsibility, who can manage a project right from the beginning and take leadership, you can boast about your leadership skills. Otherwise, you can say that you have the capacity to take responsibility for a project, pitch your own ideas, and motivate and influence people. So you can project self-confidence and a vision of your career path regardless of what type of leadership skills an employer is seeking. But if the employer asks for stronger leadership skills, definitely give them more.
Also, it is important to be aware that project management experience from the university and project management experience from a company are two different things, and they are not valued equally in industry. Some grad students definitely develop leadership skills, but their skills differ from those people who have done project management for three years at a company. So, PhDs should be aware of that reality. Thus, do not to undersell your skills, but also realize that you are not yet a project manager just because you managed your own project.
BA: Vibeke, thank you for your time and your insights! We wish you a happy holiday season and all the best in 2016!
Interview conducted by Daniel G. Szabo (BA2016 team)