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We are pursuing our doctoral degrees during a time of significant change and disruption in higher education. Public scrutiny of colleges and universities is growing, due to issues related to increasing tuition costs, access to higher education, and student and faculty diversity. We are also seeing a perceived disconnect between the education and skills that colleges provide and the needs of an evolving work force. Public perceptions of administrative bloat and the growing debate over higher education as a public or private good also continue to challenge colleges and universities.

Institutions of higher education must continue to innovate to meet the diverse -- and often conflicting -- needs of many stakeholders. They must also continue to pursue new strategies to advance and succeed in an increasingly competitive environment. Given that such demands are not likely to disappear any time soon, doctoral programs must equip students with the skills and tools for best responding to them at a departmental and institutional level.

As undergraduate students, we both had the fortune of serving as student representatives on senior-level search committees for our respective institutions. This experience, coupled with our many co-curricular leadership activities, allowed us to see the inner workings of our institutions. We hunted for opportunities to become more involved in our departments, schools and institutions, realizing that the institutional agenda is set by the people who are present and those who choose to engage in the process. These experiences sparked our individual interests in higher education leadership and led us to participate in the Rutgers University Predoctoral Leadership Development Institute.

Doctoral students involved in the institute are simultaneously scholars in training and leaders in training. Although the goal of doctoral education is to engage students at an advanced level in specific areas of study, doctoral programs should seize the opportunity to prepare doctoral students as leaders, recognizing that many graduates will pursue leadership positions in higher education as well as other sectors. The traditional goals of the doctoral degree and the new opportunities for leadership education are not mutually exclusive. Based on our experience in leadership development programs, we have found that the repertoire of skills that one gains as a leader, along with the growth in self-confidence, can enhance and enrich one’s abilities as a scholar, researcher and teacher.

To fill the growing need for formal leadership training, instructors in the two-year PLDI program use a variety of instructional methods to teach a diverse cohort of doctoral candidates about the distinct challenges facing higher education and the formal and informal leadership competencies needed to excel in this sector. Given the already busy schedule of doctoral students across disciplines, sessions are held on Friday mornings during the academic year. Senior leaders from Rutgers and other institutions serve as guest speakers throughout the program, and key readings from higher education news outlets and higher education leadership texts provide a foundation for the weekly class seminars.

Building upon the seminars from the first year, institute fellows are paired with a campus mentor for the third semester of the program. Fellows shadow their mentors -- deans, directors, vice presidents and chancellors -- and analyze the leadership competencies they employ in their specific roles.

In the final semester, fellows participate in a capstone presentation to leadership-minded faculty, staff and peers on a complex and multifaceted topic of interest for leaders in higher education. Past topics have included online learning, academic freedom and faculty diversity. Beyond researching and presenting on the selected topic, fellows are expected to use the opportunity to analyze their own leadership competencies as a member of the group. In summary, the first year of the program provides a conceptual foundation for leadership in higher education, and the second year provides hands-on opportunities for leadership learning and practice.

After completing the institute, we saw an opportunity for further programming in this area, leading us to design a series of facilitated conversations with doctoral students around some of the leadership issues and major insights that emerged from our experience in the program. Those Success in Academic Leadership seminars are student-led sessions for graduate students and postdocs with an interest in academic leadership. The sessions are offered with support from the Graduate School New Brunswick, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Center for Organizational Development and Leadership, and the Graduate Student Association. Past topics have included “Essential Insights for a Future Career in Higher Education” and “Mindful Communication for Leadership.”

Students who participate in these one-time workshops are invited to apply for the more extensive PLDI program. Through those conversations, we found a real need, desire and interest for engaging in leadership-oriented conversations with other graduate students in a safe and inclusive environment. Targeted leadership training with direct insights into the academy affords us the best opportunities to be future innovators, change makers and luminaries in higher education.

The many challenges facing higher education require effective leadership -- leadership that is the result of careful preparation, intentional learning and applied practice. We write this piece with the hope that doctoral program administrators may consider ways to encourage leadership development in their respective programs.

Additionally, we would encourage doctoral students at all levels to pursue opportunities for enhancing their leadership development at their own institution. We recommend pursuing one or several of the following:

  • volunteer for leadership responsibilities on a research team;
  • participate in formal and informal leadership programs sponsored by professional associations;
  • design a student-oriented leadership program for your department or school;
  • secure a mentor to facilitate your leadership growth; and
  • demonstrate leadership through the planning of a conference, seminar or symposium.

If you take the initiative and advocate for yourself, a leadership opportunity may be one of the most important outcomes of your graduate experience. What’s more, the future of our institutions and the academy depends upon it.

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