When young scientists start thinking about leading a research group they feel overwhelmed by the number of transferable skills they have to learn. There is now considerable agreement that young scientists should develop their leadership skills. To make a good start it is important to get an idea of which skills are important and where to begin.

Thanks to Yves Soen, HR manager at Hasselt University, we have developed the following list of skills to give you a map of which skills are essential to become a successful group leader in science. We think that these skills are important for most positions in academia, industry and the public sector:

After extensive discussions with other colleagues we would like to suggest following the two lists of skills outlined below:

Basic leadership skills in science Advanced leadership skills in science
  • Performing a SWOT analysis of yourself and your institution/company
  • Conflict management
  • Giving constructive feedback
  • Defining and communicating your vision
  • Motivating people
  • Situational leadership (Blanchard)
  • Effective communication
  • Complex project management of multiple projects
  • Intercultural leadership
  • Transformational leadership
  • Effective delegation
  • Empowerment  of staff
  • Change management & negotiating
  • Finance for non-financials
  • Effectively handling administration

The skills are in random order, thus, they are not ranked according to importance. As expected there was considerable debate on which skills should be termed “basic” or “advanced”. We would suggest starting with the list in the first column because you need some knowledge and experience whith these skills before learning the more complex skills in the second column. Performing a SWOT analysis of yourself and your institution to get to know your strengths and weaknesses and your wishes and talents is a good start.

Reading through these lists is overwhelming for most people. It helps to keep the following points in mind:

All these skills are interrelated

The good news is: When you develope one of these skills the others normally follow suit. For example, developing communication skills normally also improves conflict management and communicating of your vision (if you have one). Learning effective delegation may also increase the motivation of your group members and improve the management of multiple projects.

Learning these skills never ends

It is crucial to understand that all these skills must be developed for the rest of your life. No intelligent person would say “I have learned enough about communication skills” or “I finished studying complex project management.  I do not have to learn anymore.” Thus, learning these skills will continue as long as you are in a work environment – but you also have a lot of time to develop expertise.

All these skills should be trained routinely and systematically

In order to learn continuously it is important to practice these skills on a regular basis – for example by following a course every 2 or 6 months. You can do this in person or online. Many institutions and companies offer courses for staff members on a regular basis. The two lists above may help you also to develop a systematic approach because there is a certain probability that you neglect important skills which are outside of your comfort zone. It is always a good idea to focus on your strengths – however, quite often a course can be an eye-opener to discover new strengths even in contexts which are out of your comfort zone. Therefore, you should attempt to learn and develop each skill on the above lists sooner or later.

Please help us to improve this ‘map’ for young researchers and leave a comment below – what do you think about these two lists and which additional skills should be included.

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