ECRs can still evidence leadership and management skills on their CVs

Even when you’ve ‘just’ been a postdoc, the key is correctly labelling your skills and experience so potential employers understand what you bring to the table

Emma Williams's avatar
EJW Solutions
28 Jul 2022
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As an early career researcher, you can sometimes be faced with a barrage of opportunities for the next step. But fellowship calls are often looking for potential sector leaders, while outside academia, job adverts echo this one for an environmental sustainability manager: “You will need excellent leadership capacity to oversee and manage team members in the delivery of programmes and projects, providing an opportunity for individual members to contribute”.

You may often find you have all the right technical skills for the roles – but how do you discuss management or leadership when you have been “just” a postdoc?

Breaking the chicken-egg loop

The postdocs I work with often feel trapped by the lines “must have leadership skills” or “must have management experience”. How can I get a position that will give me this if I don’t have it? they wonder. It can cause real panic, and I wonder if the natural hierarchy present in academia also folds into this. Our research boss is the group leader. We have a head of department. Our everyday experience reinforces the fact we are not in charge.

But if we revisit the job description, the employer needs someone who can deliver “programmes and projects, providing an opportunity for individuals to contribute”. This is pretty much the definition of research! Even if you’re working on a project alone you will still be interacting with fellow academics and funders in the field. The key, as with all job applications, is the correct labelling of our skills and experiences so the potential employer understands what we bring to the table.

You need to drill down into the essential and desirable characteristics on the job description that lurk below the generic terms of leadership or management. Could you do the job? How can you evidence the skills they are looking for? Evidence can be presented as a mini case study using the CAR framework. What were the circumstances (C)? What actions (A) did you take? And what were the results (R)?

By generating these for each specific skill on the job description you will be forced to scan your career for evidence. Often, we’ve forgotten when we’ve acted as a leader. Now add into your evidence a sprinkling of active verbs such as ignited, convinced, motivated, revitalised, optimised, reduced or increased, shaped, advocated or united.

Taking apart leadership positions

To illustrate this, let’s head to the top. Below I quote a recent advert for CEO of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. You might not be quite ready for CEO, but I’m willing to bet you already have some of what they’re looking for:

  • “Understanding and appreciating complex and high-level stakeholder environment.” Stakeholders are simply people who are interested in your research. If you’ve worked with industrial or public sector partners, you will be used to juggling everyone’s needs and desires.
  • “Bring a natural ability to develop effective partnerships across public, private and third sector.” Your experience might not be so wide-ranging, but bringing any group of researchers together to deliver a project, apply for a grant or even agree on an authorship list are all examples of effective partnerships. Make sure that you evidence this with measures of success that are tangible. The paper. The grant. The impact.
  • “Have strong experience of developing and delivering a strategic vision and leadership for a successful team.” Think about when you led on a project. Or developed the field through writing a paper. When did you set the agenda? When did you set the strategic direction? Yes, we often work in large teams, but don’t forget the words of John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”.

Managerial ‘soft skills’

I hate the term “soft skills” because these usually more people-focused traits can be hard won at times. So stop worrying about the official “manager” label and think instead about what good managers actually do.

  • Coaching and mentoring: you may not be a coach or senior enough to be classed as a mentor, but if you’ve nurtured an undergrad in your group who’s doing a project you have a great example of coaching and mentoring. You may not have any formal coaching qualifications, but it’s not about the piece of paper. If you provide a sounding board and advice to colleagues − those things constitute coaching.
  • Delegation: admittedly this can be a tough one, because quite often we don’t! Think about how you would or have set about giving a task to a junior colleague or collaborator. How would you ensure they can go away and take something off your plate that also benefits them?
  • Relationship-building: we all naturally do this in our everyday life. Relationship-building could be as simple as connecting to colleagues on Twitter or organising working groups at conferences. Academic networks are so important we might underestimate just how much of this we’ve done.
  • Motivation: How do you motivate yourself? How do you motivate others? How do you understand what it is that motivates others? How would you interact with a student who has to finish a research project but wants a career far away from academia?

All researchers lead and manage. Use those research skills to start noticing when you’re taking a leadership role in your work and start collating those mini case studies into a dossier. It will not only help convince your future employer but also give you the confidence to apply.

Emma Williams is an independent trainer providing advice for early career researchers. A former postdoc, she is also former head of academic practice at the University of Cambridge and co-author of What Every Postdoc Needs to Know, with Liz Elvidge and Carol Spencely.

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