When I started the leadership certificate, I did not know anyone else in my Ph.D. program (physics) who had. The certificate and Ph.D. seemed a rare combination but suited to my interests. I had come to the Ph.D. after an entrepreneurial venture in Chile, where I had seen the necessity and challenge of effective leadership play out again and again.
Stereotypically, leadership is often painted as a mysterious blend of charisma, decisiveness, and self-confidence. Many eagerly proclaim leadership to be an innate talent they possess in abundance, though this self-assessment is often questionable. Others believe that they are destined never to lead, again for frequently questionable reasons. A common but increasingly debunked dichotomy pits technical competence against leadership ability.
The leadership certificate model inverts these presumptions, positing leadership as a set of learned competencies that adapt to different circumstances, personalities, and domains. A key shift is from self-judgment to self-improvement, realizing that challenges and failures will happen, and seeing in them the potential to understand something new. Furthermore, effective leadership can mean not always seeking a traditional leader’s role at every opportunity. As a graduate student, it is easy to take on too many responsibilities, and each commitment passed up is an opportunity to do everything else better.
The value of leadership experience for scientists is strong if not always recognized. The role of a senior research professor often involves as much team management as direct lab work. Beyond academia, Dr. Crystal Bailey of the American Physical Society noted at a UIUC physics career seminar that “communication and leadership skills” and “ability to function well in an interdisciplinary context” are highly desired but often missing from physics training. Conversely, in a global society increasingly built on technology and under threat from climate change and pandemics, there is a growing need for leaders with advanced scientific knowledge.
The typical, undergraduate leadership certificate classes don’t necessarily count for graduate credit, and one’s research advisor might not promote activities without an obvious connection to one’s scientific domain. For me, earning the certificate meant waiting for opportunities to fit relevant classes and experiences, relying on the flexibility of my leadership coach, my research advisor, and the certificate program. Even for graduate students in the same program, the certificate journey will probably vary just as scientific activities differ vastly between students with different subfields or projects. Finally, the certificate, like a science Ph.D., is more a start than an end. What I learned in the certificate program has given me the awareness to analyze and learn from the experiences and situations I will encounter going forward.