Self-Leadership for PhD Students

As a researcher of leadership, I’ve had significant opportunity to reflect on my own conceptions of the process and how it manifests (or doesn’t) in my life. I’ve come to realise that self-leadership is integral to progress in the PhD, but there isn’t much discussion of this area which utilises the language of leadership.

Self what?

So, what is self-leadership? Manz and Sims Jr. (2001, 78) consider it to be “the influence we exert over ourselves in order to perform better”. According to these scholars, everyone practices self-leadership to some extent and it is a skill that can be further developed.

PhD students are great self-leaders: they are motivated, intelligent, and passionate about their field of study. However, this is not to say that the PhD Gremlins don’t affect them (and hence their confidence to self-lead). In fact, recent research has found that over the course of the PhD, 50% of us will experience mental distress, often arising from our environmental context such as organisational structure and supervisor relationships.

The important thing to remember, though, is that it is always possible to practice self-leadership, and even though you cannot control your environment or the actions of others, you can control your own thoughts and actions in a way that allows you to remain true to yourself, your work style, and your research project.

Here are some tidbits I’ve learnt from various leadership theories, and how I’ve applied them to my own life and PhD experience:

Be authentic

Authenticity is a key focus of inquiry in the current wave of leadership scholarship. One of its core elements relates to the idea of being true to yourself in your work and life.

In terms of how this can be practically applied to the PhD, the key is to have a clear understanding of what you value about research and your life in general. In turn, this helps you to concentrate your energies on the activities and practices that reflect those values.

For instance, if you highly value the creative process of idea generation, activities that may help you stimulate this area could be going for a walk or free writing. In doing the things you value, you are contributing to a happier state of mind that then enables you to better facilitate both internal (self) and external (role/research) leadership.

Find the natural rewards

I also incorporate Manz and Sims Jr.’s concept of natural rewards into the practice of authenticity. Natural rewards are incentives that are inherent to the task you are doing.

For example, if you enjoy reading then a natural reward for reading a journal article is the pleasure of reading in itself. In the context of idea generation, this could involve keeping separate notes of ideas that pop up as you write your chapter or paper. These ideas could relate to your current project, or they could be linked to future research. Even if you don’t enjoy the task as a whole, it is possible to identify elements of the task (natural rewards) that correspond with your values. You could also blog (hello!) or do some creative fictional writing.

Boundaries and ownership

An understanding of your broader life values also assists with self-leadership, because your research is just one part of your life as a whole. Other parts include family and friends, physical, mental and spiritual health, and hobbies. Establishing clear boundaries between your research and other parts of your life will ensure that these areas are given attention. This, in turn, contributes to a holistic wellbeing that will only benefit the progress of your research.

Yet, more than understanding and implementing your values, authenticity means that you own your process. You do the things that work for you and which help you to feel energised about your research. These things will be different for everyone, and it is up to you to work them out.

In reflecting on what works for you, be mindful of the comparison trap. Comparison is useful only to the extent that you can use the practices of others to continue to explore the range of activities and work approaches that might help you with your research. When used as a form of judgment against yourself or others, however, comparison becomes a practice that inhibits self-leadership.

Be a curious listener

Being a curious listener has two distinct benefits. First, it is linked to a growth mindset of constant learning that reflects the transformational leadership style of intellectual stimulation. This style is connected to practices such as innovation and challenging old ways of doing things. It helps you to push at the edge of your research area, because you are consistently learning and questioning.

Second, being a curious listener in your conversations with peers and colleagues assists the speaker’s own leadership development. This is an element of another transformational leadership style known as individualised consideration. Being heard is a powerful thing. It validates and helps the speaker to process the experience.

Being a curious listener does not mean that you have to invest significant amounts of your time and energy into the progress of your peers and colleagues. However, it is possible to have constructive conversations with your peers that build them up. This process enables you to draw lessons from their experiences to inform your own practices going forward.

Break the cycle

The approach also challenges the competitive nature of academia and instead encourages collaboration and support – a key, I believe, to breaking the cycle of broken academics. This could be as simple as congratulating a peer on a recently published paper and having a conversation with them about the process they went through in writing and publishing. Not only do you learn from their experience, but also in drawing out their own reflections on the process, they are able to confirm their own lessons.

Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion, or “self-leadership of the mind” according to Manz and Sims Jr. (2001, 107),  involves challenging the beliefs and thought patterns that are overly critical of your ability to “do” the work of research. As I said earlier, PhDs are highly motivated people, but a prevailing culture of academia that encourages suffering alone and in silence can significantly impinge upon that motivation.

The practice of self-compassion is necessary if you want to progress your work. This is because you cannot effectively do the work if you are not in a good place mentally and emotionally. You also cannot genuinely and sustainably extend compassion to your research and to your peers if you do not first offer that same compassion to yourself.

This aligns with self-leadership practices such as positive self-talk, the re-framing of situations, avoiding comparisons, and doing the work of self-care.

To take positive self-talk as an example, rather than mentally accepting a perceived failure as a condemnation of your ability to research, shape your thinking around an opportunity for improvement. Say, for instance, you are in the middle of a presentation about your research and you freeze.

Instead of criticizing yourself for forgetting your point or using it as evidence that you cannot present in public, view the situation as an opportunity to practice the presentation more extensively in future. It can also serve as a catalyst for reflection on the specific thoughts and feelings that led to the freeze. Or, if you feel that you did not answer a question effectively, consider using it as an opportunity to develop and practice a more thorough answer.

It starts with you

Self-leadership is a lifelong, internal journey of reflection, learning and compassion. Within academia, effective self-leadership will enable you to be a leader in your discipline. However, it is important to remember that leadership itself is not just a role or being at the peak of your field.

It is also a process, and that process starts with you.

So, I’m curious – what are your own approaches to self-leadership? I would love to know and reflect on it for my own self-leadership journey.