The most desired qualities of academic leaders


I am exploring the topic of leadership for almost 6 years now, roughly since the Top 500 Innovators training at Stanford University that our group took in 2012. We were taught then how important the effective leadership is for the success of any organization, in that case of universities and similar research institutions.

The concept of leadership cannot exists without people, and I am lucky to work closely with a group of smart and dedicated students. They taught me that my actions and behavior can indeed influence their activities, performance and sometimes even mood. It was humbling, and over time, I understood how much more there is to learn and practice…

It is hard not to notice that the internet is flooded with leadership advice aimed at entrepreneurs. Thing is, even though academia is a bit different from the business environment, it still needs to embrace challenges of the modern world and apply suitable leadership practices. I look at trends and challenges of leadership, especially in the context of youngest generations, but there are hundreds of posts and articles being published on this topic every single day. It is just counterproductive (and impossible) to read everything.

Earlier this year Google updated its list of 10 behaviors that characterize best managers. There are so many lessons on this list to be learned by scholars. Especially those working closely with or supervising other researchers. Let’s discuss this list in the context of academic leadership.

Academic Leader…

Is a good coach

Being a research supervisor means that you have an knowledge that you share to the benefit of your students. Good mentor knows his expertise and stays within his competences. It is important to stay away from giving advice in areas that you have no prior experience. You might look competent on the short run, but the truth will always surface. This is not the way to build trust in the team.

To support a research team, it is necessary to understand that everyone has different needs and expectations. The only way is to find out how your team members work best, and adjust your coaching to match their work style. This requires to develop empathy to understand when the team need to be nurtured, and when it needs to be pushed towards the desired goal.

Empowers team and does not micromanage

Empowering sounds simple, but it is tricky. In reality it is often difficult to let go and allow others to think for themselves. After years of working in trenches, the transition to supervising position is challenging. Not everyone finds the new role enjoyable, as it usually means less hands-on research, more meetings, and much more administrative tasks.

Becoming leader in academic environment requires getting rid of the whole I-can-do-it-better mindset. Empowerment means that young researches need to be allowed to make their own decisions and take responsibility for these decisions. This demands substantial degree of trust and willingness to share valuable information. Great mentors know that information empowers, while the lousy ones think that sharing undermines their position. Truth is, only if young researchers will be allowed to fail, they will learn from their own mistakes and produce above average results. So, no more ready answers and no more micromanaging.  Empowering, just like leadership, is a skill and like every other skill it can be learned and practiced. So, there is hope for all of us.

Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being of all members

Progressing towards PhD title is often stressful and lonely endeavor. Thing is, the most effective research is done in a collaborative environment. The group can support themselves and find solutions to individual member’s problems. It is now generally accepted that sparks of creativity most often fly in diverse groups. That is why many top world universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, made collaboration and team work very important part of their curriculums.

There are various ways to create inclusive academic environment. It is important to get to know team members a bit better on personal level. Flexibility with regulations and deadlines is also recommended, for example allowing working from home if necessary (actually, unless you need a lab, this is not a big deal in scientific research). Encourage collaboration between team members, for example facilitate teaching substitutions or help them working together on some small research project.

Is productive and results-oriented

Daily survival in academic environment is especially challenging for people without clear goals and laser-like focus.

Various dangers lurk around corners, awaiting everyone about to embark on a journey towards a PhD degree. Working on thesis can quickly take a student on an endless voyage towards the horizon of knowledge. The more she knows, the more she finds to learn, study, and understand. It is so easy to lose the way. At the same time, a scientist must avoid focusing solely on “the next paper” or “the next report” and keep an eye on larger goals (like writing thesis). The research is done for a purpose, and it is not wise to forget what this purpose it.

The guidance is especially valuable here, as the supervisor is often the one looking and at the compass and steer the research in the right direction. Pushing towards doing the right things.

Is a good communicator — listens and shares information

Staying silent and listening allow other people to share information about their work issues, and sometimes even their personal life. Being good at listening increases ones trustworthiness, and at the same time helps to gather information. This is important because it is impossible to direct young researchers effectively without understanding of their situation and needs.

Only a fool mentor will rush in and start speaking and acting without discernment. Yet, I find this the most difficult skill to develop. Shut up and listen.

Supports career development and discusses performance

Many young researches do not know what is expected of them at work. They need a clear direction on what is expected of them, how much and when. They need to be held accountable for results and should be provided with regular feedback on their performance. They need supervisors that are approachable, responsive, and  available whenever mentee needs some support.

An academic leader should be a role model and mentor. The long-term relationship between research supervisor and his mentees means that he will have substantial influence on their career development. It is not only about honing research skills. It is also about explaining nuances of academic life. It requires frank and direct conversations about long-term aims, as well as short-term performance.

Has a clear vision/strategy for the team

It is just impossible for a PhD student to start with a clear well-thought career and research plan. This is a job of his research supervisor. Student might have some plans and expectations, but usually their understanding of academic reality is rather vague. So he needs to rely on advice of his older peers.

Great leader is focused on the future looking for potential opportunities for his team. He plans research, dissemination, collaboration and, at the same time, develops his team in order to prepare it for upcoming opportunities.

Has key technical skills to help advise the team

One cannot drive the research team without fundamental understanding of the studies being done. True, after several years the competency level of a PhD student on a particular topic might exceed his supervisor’s. Still, collaboration and effective leading are possible only if both sides understand each other needs and expectations. What I found, this puts quite a burden on the supervisor, who needs to improve his expertise constantly in order to keep up with his team. Especially, if he works with a group of PhD students carrying on different research projects.

Collaborates across Google Faculties

Academic environment is very rigid. Quite often, interaction is limited and the level of secrecy between research teams is high, especially between groups studying similar topics. Academic leaders need to focus on building agile and energized research networks. The times of science cultivated in solitude are over.

Unhealthy competition between research groups prohibits collaboration and advancement. It is not easy to bulid rapport and establish trust between teams, but in the long term, this might be only way to ensure progress in XXI century.

Is a strong decision maker

Any significant progress requires action, and action always follows a firm decision. Academic environment is especially susceptible to procrastination that expresses itself in unending ongoing research. Endless studying is very addictive, and it is as bad as perfectionism.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to establish effective collaboration between business and academic environments. Time seems to be an unlimited resource at universities, there is no harm in one more read paper or one more conducted experiment. At the same time, entrepreneurs desire quick and correct answers, here and now. They cannot afford waiting.

This is why academic environment, now more then ever, would benefit from convinced leaders capable of making competent and strong decisions. Academia no longer has luxury of being slow and perfect. I do not necessarily appreciate that fact, but the world changes very fast nowadays, and the only way for us is to adapt.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

The academic summer is finally here!


After several months busyness, today I came to completely different workplace. The quiet office. No one was waiting and there were no urgent things to do. I arrived at 6:30 in the morning, sat and waited… At the beginning nothing particularly interesting happened. Some random thoughts crossed my mind, but I quickly got rid of them by scribbling a few notes in a notebook. Took me a moment to consciously register that rising feeling I was waiting for so long. Quiet and peaceful solitude… the bliss of academic summer!

This is one of the most gratifying moments of academic life. The end of semester. Teaching is done. Grading is done. Administrative paperwork, well, shall be done soon. There are less disturbances, no students, no questions. The closest deadline is weeks away. Coffee cup steams on the table and a book is at hand…

The feeling lasted maybe an hour, as there were few appointments coming my way, and consequently several things I needed to prepare. Still, it was amazing!

I enjoy teaching immensely. Yes, occasional downs happen, but there aren’t that many things in life that can build you up as the interaction with a smart and dedicated student. The one that challenges your concepts and stirs your thoughts.

It is just that every semester is generally filled with a constant unstoppable noise. Sheer amount of people you have to deal with is sometimes overwhelming. To the point, where it gets difficult to memorize names, faces, obligations, tasks, etc. Most of the daily stuff morphs into an unrecognizable blur and students contribute to this buzz, as many of them has questions, problems to solve, issues to discuss. They need assistance and attention.

Suddenly, the summer comes… and it becomes unbeliveably  quiet. It is something that we all expect and long for. Still, every time it happens, it is a shock.

So yes, teaching is great, but for many academics no other experience compares to this magical end of June or sometimes July.

Happy summer holidays!

Photo by Luke Pamer on Unsplash.

How joining two COST Actions changed the way I think about research

How joining two COST Actions changed the way I think about research

Recently, I was asked several times what is the COST programme about and if it is worth considering at all. This is not a difficult question to answer. I joined two COST Actions and it influenced the way I understand scientific networking and research collaboration.

Everything started in 2016. Together with Agnieszka, the PhD student that I co-supervise, we established collaboration with the ILK-Dresden. We learned that they are involved in something called COST Action.  Few months later, we were flying to Spain for the NANOUPTAKE Management Committee meeting and the first Training School. It was just the beginning of collaboration that resulted in research, internship, more training schools, conferences, and joined papers…

Well then, what is the COST?

Chances are that being a researcher in a European country you have already heard about the COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology). It is an EU-funded programme that helps to build and facilitate research and innovations networks. It is said that COST is Europe’s longest-running intergovernmental framework, as It was founded in 1971. Long before The Maastricht Treaty and establishment of the European Union as we know it today.

The networks funded by the COST Programme are called Actions, and there is a good reason for that. Networks often sit passively waiting for something to happen. Like a club that you join to be able to reach your colleagues only if necessary. COST Actions are more dynamic. People meet regularly and work together. They communicate, share knowledge, and solve problems… The COST (short from COST Programme) provides funds for all that networking activities: conferences, meetings, training schools, short scientific exchanges or other networking activities.

Joining the Action

So, what does it mean joining the COST Action? Well, I am currently a member of two. Both are huge and their aims are spectacular. Their topics are very different though, and my involvement is each of them is different as well.

The NANOUPTAKE aims to create a Europe-wide network of leading R+D+i institutions, and of key industries, to develop and foster the use of nanofluids as advanced heat transfer/thermal storage materials to increase the efficiency of heat exchange and storage systems. The members of NANOUPTAKE focus their research on various types of  nanofluids. Our own contributions are about properties of graphene oxide nanoparticles. We were able to observe some interesting things happening in a thermosyphon filled with this nanofluid. Research paper is underway. I will write more about it in a separate blog post after it is published.

The RESTORE (REthinking Sustainability TOwards a Regenerative Economy) is very different. Its goal is to affect a paradigm shift towards restorative sustainability for new and existing buildings across Europe. Here, a huge group of interdisciplinary researches is working on principles behind Restorative Sustainability, Processes, Methods and Tools for and Restorative Designs, and more. During the kick-off meeting, I volunteered to serve as a Science Communication Officer. It turned out to be a learning opportunity and, at the same time, a challenging adventure!

While being a contributor, you don’t have to change anything in your research activities. Well, almost… You can continue the research the same way as you’ve always done. The difference is that your work is now a part of a larger goal. As there is an audience to share knowledge and people to collaborate with, you will see your own research in a different way. You may suddenly find larger purpose!

This is a EU-funded project, which means that there are many rules to be followed. The structure of the COST Action, administrative procedures, reimbursements… everything is precisely explained in multiple documents at website. For example, this is how you join an existing COST Action.

Being a part of the COST network can be leveraged in many ways. For example, you can use it to build consortium for H2020 grant. You can develop your PhD students by sending them to other institutions or laboratories for Short Term Scientific Mission (STSM). You can sent them for a dedicated Training School (all Actions organize specialized trainings), or perhaps some conference. All that can be funded from the budget of the Action (there are some limitations though).

Participation in the COST not only widened my horizons, but allowed me to meet incredible people from many countries. The experience is great, so I strongly encourage you to consider joining the Action and try yourself!

Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Teaching is very important part of academic life. It is a never-ending cycle of all-to-similar problems and questions. Yet, there is one teaching responsibility that stands out from the others, i.e. being an academic means supervising writing of theses.

Usually, the thesis is the most complicated and the longest document that STEM students have to write since enrollment. They may have written structured essays (with a proper introduction, discussion, and conclusion), but nothing even remotely as complex and demanding as a full academic text. For this reason, writing a thesis is a difficult task. Even more so if the author lacks writing and reading habits. Compiling 40-60 pages of an academic text can be a particularly daunting experience.

Still, the work needs to be done. So, at the beginning of every semester, I discuss with all my students how to start writing a thesis. Over time, I developed a system and guidelines that helps them to write at their best.

This post is not a guide how to write a thesis. It is merely the discussion on how I set up collaboration between me and my students in a way that improve their writing process. If you are a student, you will learn here about some tools and techniques that will improve your writing. If you are a mentor, you might find below a few ideas on how to organize collaboration with your own mentees.

There are three things that I always discuss with every student that wants to write his/her thesis under my supervision. We establish rules that allow both of us to work in coordinated purposeful manner. First, I ask them to ditch Word and learn how to write everything in plain text LaTeX. Second, we establish a plan for our collaboration (an outline). Third, we agree to have regular meetings to discuss progress and problems.

Write everything in plain text

There are many ways to write an academic text. Normally, the process requires a word processor. So, for a long term users of Microsoft Word, it will be a tool of first choice. I would like to encourage you to try using much simpler editor (any editor) that lets you write efficiently in plain text.  Microsoft Word, despite its powerful features, is a distracting writing environment. It shines in business context, but it might hurt your academic writing.

Your goal should always be “extreme simplicity” because in such raw environment you will stop worrying about fonts and start thinking about words. For academics, the tool of choice is LaTeX, and chances are that you already know what LaTeX is.

Have you seen any LaTeX document lately? I am quite sure you have. They are very distinguishable because of their elegant and professional formatting. Even incoherent and badly written report appears like a work of an expert. As the final document looks awesome, it gives its author emotional feedback and stimulates his writing process in a good way.  I noticed that since we transitioned to LaTeX, theses became better thought over and generally more interesting. Engaged authors write better.

There are thousands and thousands of written and recorded tutorials on how to write in LaTeX, so I will not dig deeper here. All answers you need are a single search away.

And if you are curious, my personal editor of choice is Sublime Text. Very flexible and with built-in “distraction free mode”.

Start with the proper outline

I am telling all my students what every writer understands intuitively: writing should always start with a plan. Writing a thesis is a project. Writing a book is a project. Every project needs a plan, in this case an outline that contains synopsis details of all chapters, sections, and sub-sections.

Regardless complexity of the topic, the structure of thesis is usually quite simple. Like any other academic text it should contain: introduction, several body paragraphs, and conclusion. Body paragraphs (typically chapters) discuss separate topics, provide supporting details, introduce examples, and end with conclusions. It is very important to think about the contents before even typing the first letter.

Having to write an outline forces student to think about his thesis as a whole. Down the path, this will make writing much easier because the goal will be clear. I found that thanks to completion of this simple task, students stopped asking what else they should write about. On the contrary, their approach is now more proactive. They often inquire if it is a good idea to add more content because they feel it will improve their work.

If the thesis involves making designs and calculations (all my advised theses do), I ask students to focus on the introduction and literature review first. For STEM students, writing is challenging, require grit and determination. Usually, they are not accustomed to looking for and reading of sources, taking and reviewing notes.

Meet often and regularly

Being a thesis advisor means having to meet with the student to discuss contents of his work. After few years, I came to conclusion that it is necessary to meet often. Single session doesn’t have to be long – my own standard is 30 minutes. But it needs to happen every two weeks. More often if necessary. It is not only about the progress. Usually, all a student needs is a little push and a dose of motivation. Encouragement is more important than any substantive help.

One thing that I try to convey during those meetings is that writing a thesis takes time. The text will have to be rewritten. Its quality is a function of how many times that revision happened. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is s**t!”. Who am I to disagree with the master, but in case of thesis this is especially true. This is just something we all need to accept. Sooner, the better.

At the end of every meeting we set the date and the time for the next one. The appointment is an effect of negotiations with a student. I usually propose a date (plus minus few days). She agrees (or not) and declares how much progress she expects to make. It works.

Few years ago, I started to send calendar invitations. Many students rely on modern organizational tools. It is very convenient for them, as well as for me.

The above described process is very simple, but it works. I hope that you find some inspiration in my methods and they will improve your own writing/advising experience.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.

Three things I learned during my stay at Stanford University

Three things I learned during my stay at Stanford University

Few years ago, I spent two months on certified training at Stanford University. I was a member of a larger group in the Top 500 Innovators Programme organised by Ministry of Science and Higher Education. We were sent to California to learn research commercialisation from the world’s best. We looked into forces and principles that stimulate cooperation between academics and business environments, hoping to implement the best practices back in Poland. Our goal was to absorb as much as possible and bring back the knowledge, but also the motivation and the spirit.

Looking back at the time I spent at Stanford University it was one of the greatest periods of my life. The place and the people that I shared this experience with, they left permanent mark and change me in several ways. For now, I want to tell you about three lessons…

Environment matters

One thing that surprised me was how quickly our group started to run at “Silicon Valley speed”. Scholars from Poland, taught and trained in the Central European country, we adapted to the Stanford way of work surprisingly fast. Very soon the new norm was long intensive study hours, followed by overnighters fueled by dozens of coffees and energy drinks.

It is not that all of us suddenly become productivity monsters. It was the place that demanded so much that we had no choice but to put extra hours. I don’t think it was healthy, but back then we felt like superheroes and nothing could stop us.

The environment pushed us to work at the limit. Every single thing around was there to inspire creative thought and team collaboration: white boards, open rooms, cafeterias, and the heroes… because you never knew who will show up at the corner. I gave up on a lunch once just to sneak into Melinda Gates seminar (this one), wouldn’t you?

There is only so long you can survive such intensive craziness, but the lesson learned was clear. In order to achieve you must find or build for yourself the setting that will properly inspire you. True, there is only one Silicon Valley, and many of us struggled upon return to Poland, where things moved at different pace. Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to create your own little stimulating environment.

It will not be easy, and you will probably fail a few times. Still, do not get discouraged and remember that in Silicon Valley…

There are no failures, there are only lessons

One thing that you learn quickly at Stanford is that everything is a lesson. Every mistake you make is there to let you draw conclusions, correct, and try again… or “pivot” to something else. The one thing that you will be judged upon is the numer of attempts. Only those who don’t do anything are left in contempt. The mantra is “It is ok to fail.” and everything is about owning the mistakes and move forward.

Sure, life is often not that simple and some mistakes have bigger consequences than others, but at Stanford the experience is everything. It is hard to disregard people for their past mistakes. The failures are like battle scars. They are permanent, but it is up to you if they are the mark of shame or the sign of competence.

Once you get in your mind that there are no failures, only lessons, you quickly understand that the fastest way to success is to…

Get to know the people

There is only so much you can do alone. The entire Silicon Valley understands that. The great importance is given to working with the right people. Your true strength and degree of success depend on the team you work with.

At Stanford, homework was usually a team work. Groups were different in every class, and we needed to learn how to work with a different pack every time. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not. We were quite diverse group of scholars at different age, career path, speciality, experience, and character. Every single one of us was looking for or wanted something different. But there we were, stuck with each other, needed to work together. So we did, and it was an amazing experience. The lesson was simple. There are great people around you, and you can work together with anyone. You just need to find what you have in common, and build on that.

The Top 500 Innovators Programme was an unbelievable experience. Over the years total five hundred people were trained at the top world universities: Stanford University (US), but also University of Berkeley California (US), and Cambridge University (UK). We came back to Poland motivated and full of ideas.

Years have passed and some of us are still in touch, some collaborate on research, some have became friends. Many are now involved in Top 500 Innovators Alumni Association. They are implementing the best practices right here in Poland, encouraging collaboration and building bridges between representatives of science, technology transfer, and business. Together, they have written many stories…

On jokes and presentations

On jokes and presentations

I just learned the hard way to never put jokes in a speech, especially if it is recorded and you intend to share the video afterwards.

It is already a year since I volunteered to become Science Communication Officer for the COST Action RESTORE. In February 2018, RESTORE and ABUD organized a conference in Budapest. Because of my position, I had few minutes to speak about collaboration opportunities, scientific communication and dissemination of results.

At one point, I used very peculiar combination of words that sounded like a pitch for some kind of tech product. Hardly an issue, but in the context of my talk, it sounded awkward. I improvised a joke to disarm the mistake. The audience got it, people laughed, everything seemed to be fine.

Unfrotunately two weeks later, after watching the video of me presenting, I found that this seemingly innocent joke did not really help. My attempt to repair the damage now appears rather unfitting and the video is not really publishable. So, I learned in a painful way that jokes belong to stand-up comedies and almost nowhere else. In professional environment, jokes (especially improvised ones) will usually weaken your performance, and the bad ones will simply make you look foolish. Avoid.

Obviously, I am not going to show you my presentation, but all the other speakers are featured on the COST Action RESTORE YouTube channel.