Leadership and management in science

The evidence base

The skills gap for new scientific managers

Featuring our own Lead Consultant, Kate Jennings, this article from Nature explores the importance of developing excellent leadership skills for ambitious scientists: How to take the lead in your career (nature.com)

The below article from Science provides a neat and accessible description of the case for management training when scientists move into positions of leadership, quoting scientists and drawing on findings from researchers who have studied the issue.

Key quote:

“You spend all your time as a student and postdoctoral fellow learning how to be a good experimentalist. Then you become an independent scientist, and if you are successful, before long you are no longer doing experiments because you don’t have any time, and personnel management becomes a major issue.”

Robert Donns, Chair of the Department of Microbiology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine


A common theme in the literature is the challenge faced by new managers in scientific organisations due to the lack of formal preparation they have received during their education and early career. This thesis reports lower levels of job satisfaction across several measures for scientists with management responsiblity, and also highlights the importance of formal training in mitigating this effect and increasing scietific managers’ satisfaction in their roles:


Supporting the idea that scientific training may be leave scientists ill-prepared for management, this paper compares their ratings of their own competence across a range of skills to the levels of ability in the same skills they perceived as demanded in their jobs.  Whilst early career scientists felt well equipped in terms of discipline specific knowledge and their abilities to gather and interpret information and manage data,  their perceptions of their ability to manage others and work well in a team were significantly below what they felt they needed to do their jobs well:


The tension between the demands of science and management

This paper from the Review of General Psychology describes a study of the personality factors associated with both interest in and success (measured in citations/publications) in science:


Read in conjunction with this paper from the Leadership Quarterly, which contributes to the significant body of work that emphasises the role of emotional intelligence in leadership, this suggests a clear tension between the attributes of creative, productive scientists and those of a great leader or manager:


 Successful physical scientists tend to be task-oriented, introverted and dominant, whereas effective leadership is characterised by emotional intelligence and people orientation.

It seems that being a great scientist doesn’t necessarily mean you are great at helping others become great scientsists too.

Indeed, research suggests that when scientists are asked to describe the scientific leader they most admire, they are much more likely to cite compassion and managerial ability (inclusing communication and conflict management skills) than technical brilliance:


Particular challenges for women in science

This paper attempts to account for the low levels of female science leadership, describing a range of processes and that may be implicated. It suggests that biases and barriers exist indepently both for women who want to embark on STEM careers and those who aspire to leadership roles. These two sets of barriers combine to create ‘double jeopardy’ for women who wish to become leaders in STEM:


This article from the Journal of Leadership Studies uses Hierarchical Logistical Modelling of survey data to compare the intrinsic leadership capabilities and leadership efficacy (i.e. confidence in own abilities) of women at the end of STEM and non-STEM university courses.

The key findings were that whilst the two groups women had equal capacity for leadership and showed similar confidence in the ability to lead at the start of their degree programmes, by the end of them the STEM women had significantly lower leadership self-confidence than the non-STEM group.

The authors hypothesise that this suggests the experience of scientific training may erode confidence in leadership compared to other disciplines. Some specific factors that can improve this outcome are identified.


Important development areas

This study describes that scientists in managerial roles who have undertaken management training perceive higher levels of variety in their work, higher task identity and have greater belief in the significance of their work than those who have not. These elements are tied together under the heading, ‘meaningfulness at work’, a key predictor of job satisfaction:


In this article from Ecology and Evolution the focus is on one specific management skill – mentoring. Here evidence is presented for both the need for and impact of formal management training to help scientists mentor and coach others, and the desire for such training amongst mentors and mentees:


An important development area for many scientific leaders is around self-efficacy – confidence in their ability to lead. Training and coaching have powerful roles to play here. These studies explore the role and nature of self-efficacy in self- and group- leadership:



This paper presents evidence for how self-efficacy can be learnt, and that improvements are linked to increases in leadership ability:


This paper suggests a link between personality traits, self-efficacy and leadership ability, highlighting the importance of understanding how personality can impact on leadership performance. Understanding this relationship through training and coaching provides an opportunity to develop behavioural strategies to break free of or manage our ‘default’ settings: