Career building and leadership advice for PhD and graduate students around the world

Students present their research posters during the McDonnell International Scholars Academy Symposium in Brisbane.

By McDonnell Scholars Andrea Balassy and Yi-Ling Lin

“There is no such thing as a career plan. A successful career is about making the right decisions because the enemy of a great opportunity is a good opportunity”

“Your brand is defined by how you act not what you say.”

 “The best way to build strong enduring networks is to give to your network, not take. The more you give, the more you’ll get back…usually in strange and mysterious ways which is what makes a career so interesting”

–Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts, Chief Executive Officer of Trevor-Roberts, a leading careers consultancy

These are just some of the takeaways from the skills development workshop for graduate students delivered by Dr. Trevor-Roberts during the McDonnell International Scholars Academy Symposium in Brisbane.

Dr. Trevor-Roberts offered some practical tips for building our brands as PhD candidates:

  • Manage one or two social media platforms well, such as LinkedIn or, because social media has become one of the main sources that our future colleagues will use to learn about us before actually meeting us in person.
  • Write down positioning statements and capabilities to help construct our career map and future plans. Writing is important, because one tends to follow and achieve one’s goal when there is something written down, according to psychological research.
  • Think about what we can give to others, in order to build up our networks. This pointed out the importance of building up trust among peoples, and we think it is more important to enlarge this to “what we can give back to the society, and make it a better place while building up our own brand.”

These tips are especially important as the academic job market is in a transitional period, in terms of getting a job. Our mentors and professors found their jobs through traditional ways, and they are still using similar methods to look and search for their new and younger colleagues nowadays. However, more and more younger scholars build up connections and even finds their jobs through online medias, making the online networks even more important.

Developing leadership skills

An important part of making our brand successful is to develop a “We” oriented leadership style.

Alex Haslam, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at The University of Queensland, discussed the role of the group on successful leadership styles.

He compared the general approach that has a tendency to concentrate on “I”, an individual, abstracted, distant type to “We”, a grounded, group oriented way of leading. “We can only be led if there is a We to lead.”

There are different worldview strategies that a leader needs to apply for certain projects and groups.  These strategies involve a given knowledge about vision, communication, seeing others and oneself, adapting, assigning activities, seeing the project from a logical point of view, etc. All of these capabilities can be grouped in three main areas: vision, human, and rational leadership 1.

Although these categories are somewhat formulaic, leaders are considered to be successful if they have skills, demonstrate their abilities, and inspire and appreciate their followers. A good leader is able to engage its group in a meaningful way, hold them together and give a sense of direction.

Haslam proposed a new model of leadership identity that incorporates three main challenges: reflecting, representing and realizing.

In our opinion, the most thought-provoking questions on leadership are how to change perception, achieve charisma, and maintain credibility. Many people think these are fixed properties.

Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, proposed that human nature and personality style can be predicted and classified. Everyone has preferences and styles, which may come from childhood or form during our life impacted by friends and colleagues. But what about timing or cultural influences? Over time the response from followers can alter, therefore integrating the different needs coming from the group in order to fulfill the expectations is essential for success and defines appreciation.

We hope that persistence and determination are always rewarded regardless of nationality or religion. However, we need to realize that the goals and the journey to achieve them are always context and environment specific and making the best decisions embedding the above mention factors can truly reveal who can be widely recognized as a good leader.

Read more from the McDonnell Scholars

[1] Thomas A. Browdy, Topics in Project Management (2010)