Nature careers feature: How to (better) lead a lab

Being promoted to PI very often means that young scientists have to face challenges like lab and staff/student management, budgeting, and other administrative tasks for the very first time, or at least, for the very first time entirely on their own. On top of that, not only are they responsible for advancing their own career, but that of their respective teams as well. More often than not, they are rather unprepared for this. And still too often, things do not change for the better when junior PIs become senior PIs.

In its recent careers feature, Nature asked several leadership experts, including Sue Hewitt, for options that may help scientists to become better team leaders. Sue worked as a postdoc in academic research and then in science publishing before moving into a career in leadership development. She has been working with hfp consulting for several years, including delivering workshops for female leaders in science.

Nature’s main question was whether there were any aspects from outside of science that may help scientists to improve their leadership skills. The answers were as multifaceted as were the backgrounds of the respective experts.

Peter Hirst, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, M.A., recommended treating any research project similarly to a business in keeping track of resources and monitoring its impact. In his approach, managing tools developed for the purposes of the industry are applied in order to optimize the output of research projects.

Sen Sendjaya from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, on the other hand, teaches an approach called servant leadership. His focus is on the optimal development of the followers of the team leader, putting their needs above those of the leader. This approach is supposed to work particularly well in science, as scientists tend to be creative, autonomously working and thinking people with whom the classical hierarchic approach might not work very well.

Sue Hewitt explained that actually, scientists in leading position need leadership training like any other profession might. In contrast to many corporate employees or civil servants, however, they still very rarely receive this. She also emphasized the importance of female only leadership training for female scientists, as some female-specific problems concerning work in science can be addressed much more effectively in an all-female environment.

Ken Ingram, head of practice at Roffey Park Institute, a leadership development organization in Horsham, UK, pointed out that especially those people who have achieved a leadership position due to their superior expert knowledge tend to feel insecure with the “ambiguous nature of managing people”, and need help in accepting these key aspects of their new job.

Kate MacMaster, programmes director at the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust in Canberra, Australia, emphasized the importance of self-awareness for team leaders, which may help them in learning more about their basic personality traits and their predominant leadership style. She also emphasizes the importance of defining a research team’s shared purpose and values and bringing these to the awareness of all team members.

In conclusion, there are many different ways by which a PI might improve leadership related skills and become a better team leader, and scientists should check out their university for respective programmes or ask for funding for applying to external workshops. The complete article, including links to several leadership programmes exclusively tailored to the need of scientists (hfp consulting included), can be found under

  1. Roberta Kwok: How lab heads can learn to lead. Nature 557, 457–459 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05156-3

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