I am currently in my second year of a PhD program. I have not yet decided on academia, industry, or entrepreneurship for a career, but in all these cases my success will be strongly influenced by my ability to lead and manage a team of students/postdocs, research engineers/technicians, or co-founders/employees.

I have found that graduate school offers no opportunity for practicing the kinds of interpersonal skills most relevant to leadership (delegating tasks, maintaining motivation, creating an inclusive atmosphere, resolving conflicts, etc.). Note that I distinguish leadership from teaching and mentoring. The closest thing I can think of would be to mentor an undergrad in research. The situation will likely be similar if I do a postdoc.

How can I practice or develop these skills while still in graduate school? Or what would be some important surrogate skills I should focus on instead?

  • If you are part of a research group, you have all kinds of opportunity for practicing what you define as leadership in your second paragraph. Unclear what you are looking for here.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 16, 2018 at 13:25
  • Another kind of leadership is grad student self-governance: Associated Students, grad student unions, whatever the relevant structure is in your university. These often have elected officers and leaders. Is that something that would interest you? Jul 16, 2018 at 18:25

2 Answers 2


I think it's likely you can develop these skills, they're just not taught formally. For example, you could join an extracurricular club, or serve as your class's student representative. From what I've seen these positions tend not to be in high demand, and some student representatives are even paid.

If you don't have even these options, then you could try to initiate something. For example, you could start a weekly meeting with other PhD students to discuss any interesting papers from last week. You could try to invite researchers from other institutions over to give talks (your department might be able to provide you with some funds for this), or join the organizing committee of a conference.

Finally you mention mentoring an undergraduate in research. To do this, talk to your professor and express an interest. If she takes on an Honours student, you could be a co-supervisor, if not in name then at least in practice.


Actually, I am surprised your graduate school doesn’t offer these kind of trainings. Graduate schools prepare PhD-students for their future life, whether in academia, industry or entrepreneurship. My graduate school offers for example also trainings on: leadership, group dynamics, teamwork, effective negotiation, autonomy and self management.

You probably have some room for ‘electives’ in your curriculum. Maybe you can use that room and follow your prefererred trainings in another (nearby) graduate school or in private sector. It may bring some additional costs and your department should be prepared to pay for it.

I would certainly contact your graduate school about your needs because these are legitimate and in line with the objectives of a graduate school. In my university graduate students can also contact an HR advisor to talk about their future career development. I would be highly surprised if your graduate school or HR advisor could not / would not help you in shaping your future path. Maybe your request even helps your graduate school to improve or expand its curriculum.

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