5 Tips for Developing Leadership Skills as a College Student

The sooner you can begin practicing leadership, the better, especially if you aspire to be a leader. Leadership skills require practice to develop, and book-learning alone cannot instill the same lessons as real-life experience.

Even though I was shy and introverted as a teen, I gravitated toward leadership roles. I always seemed to be the group project leader, captain of a sports team, or camp councilor, and I thrived in those roles. While I did not always want to be the leader, people saw me as such and followed my leadership. When I entered the [male-dominant] field of physics, things changed.

As a woman in a male-dominant field, I discovered that there were only a few avenues to practice leadership as a college student.

In college, I decided to establish a chapter of Society of Physics Students at my university since I had no clue what I was supposed to do to join the field of physics. I felt like starting this organization would benefit both me and my colleagues, and help us find the opportunities we needed to become full-fledged physicists (like scholarships, REUs, internships, conferences, and more). When I think back to our first meetings, I remember the feeling of apathy or indifference lingering in the air. The graduate students would come by for a moment to grab free pizza and almost gloat (we were just the lowly undergraduates). And if a physics faculty member passed by me in the hall or the department office, I felt this air of condescension yet curiosity as if they were saying “oh you’re the little girl who is trying to lead this organization”. I did not feel taken seriously as a leader of this organization by most of those I looked up to for support in the physics department.

At the same time, as an undergraduate student and officer of Society of Physics Students, I was singled out for opportunities in education and outreach initiatives. When there was an open-house, I was asked to volunteer and lead educational workshops. When a month-long college preparatory program for high school students, called Upward Bound: Math and Science, needed a councilor/tutor who was a physicist, I was asked to fill the role. At these education and outreach events, I felt positive energy as I was grated leader-level status. My professors and fellow students encouraged me in this path, and I felt like I was fulfilling my moral imperative of sharing my love and wonder of science with others.

At the time I was not aware of this double-standard:

In the physics community, I was not granted leader-status in physics or in the physics community, but I was granted leader-status in physics education and outreach.

Despite the fact that I was learning physics, and not teaching skills, and growing my expertise in physics, not pedagogy, I was granted a higher level of leader-status in pedagogy than in physics. Why? I am fairly sure it is because I am a woman, and women are stereotyped as naturally nurturing and as educators. My colleagues were comfortable with granting me leader-status when it came to education, but not much else in the physics community.

Throughout my career, I have seen this pattern emerge for myself and others. Stereotypes play into the type of spaces where each of us are granted leader-status or benefit-of-the-doubt in general. As a college student seeking leadership opportunities, it is important to recognize that in certain spaces it will be tougher to lead than others simply because of your immutable characteristics and stereotypes. For instance, from what I hear, people who are black or LGBTQ+ are often asked to lead diversity initiatives and programs. This is because this is the space where they are granted authority. Women tend to be asked to do more education and outreach (in my experience).

While I feel like it is a shame how strongly stereotypes dictate where someone is granted authority, as a college student you must make the most of the opportunities you have to learn and practice skills, including leadership. Even if you have minority-status in your field and are, therefore, not given leader-status like your majority peers, there are ways to leverage what you can control to practice leadership.

As a senior scientist, entrepreneur, and leader of multiple organizations, these are my tips for developing leadership skills early in your career:

Tip #1: Consider leading in the spaces where you are granted authority, but be mindful of your own interests

  • Recognize that while this space may not be where your passion is, the leadership skills you will practice here will still benefit you.
  • For Beginning Leaders: I recommend to start growing your leadership skills in a space where you are granted authority because you will be going with the grain of society (and if you have self-doubt, it can be incredibly discouraging to start in a space where you are looked down on).
  • Word of Caution: While you are granted authority in this space, it is important to realize whether or not you actually want to spend time growing in that space. For example, I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate doing education and outreach because I was given authority in that space; however, I did not want to become an educator. I wanted to become a research scientist. Spending time doing education took away time that I could have spent honing my research skills, entering technical competitions, etc. While those spaces were great for growing my leadership skills, I could have grown leadership skills in other spaces as well, even if I had faced more resistance.

Tip #2: Take initiative

  • Start a student organization related to a topic that you want to learn more about and recruit members
  • Run for election at an existing student organization
  • Enter a competition as a team lead and recruit teammates
  • Plan an event to host a speaker you admire
  • Ask to join a professor’s research group

Tip #3: Seek leadership opportunities outside your university

  • While your university may lack diversity and you may feel like an outsider, recognize that there is a big world beyond that ivory tower. Any hostilities or indifference you face may just be the culture of your university and not the field as a whole.
  • Are there leadership opportunities in your city?
  • Join a professional society (at the student discount rate) and ask for opportunities to get involved
  • Establish a chapter of a national society or organization at your university
  • Join a leadership-specific organization, or an organization that will help you practice leadership skills (like Toastmasters)
  • Join an online community or group (Linked In and Facebook have industry-specific groups that can help you connect with people with similar interests and career trajectories)
  • Volunteer for an organization
  • Start an organization or group outside your university, even if it’s just a running group or bar trivia team (if you’re 21+).

Tip #4: Use every experience as a moment to practice leadership

  • Is there a class project? Volunteer to be team lead.
  • Does your dormitory floor have a bad-smell that needs to be addressed with the housing office? Be the person to organize and file the work-order.
  • Step up when a leader is needed for any and all opportunities.
  • Take advantage of EVERY public speaking opportunity you can get.
  • Own the moments when you are a leader, and add them to your resume! Keep track so that you can describe your abilities during job or internship interviews.
  • If you have an internship, initiate or lead a project. (In one of my internships, there were several interns who had very little to do, so I started assigning them work from a project I initiated, which they were happy to do and learn more from me!)

Tip #5: Dedicate yourself to being a life-long learner

  • Read books and attend seminars, classes, trainings, and more about leadership
  • Understand that there is always more to learn and ways to grow as a leader
  • As a leader, remember that LISTENING to those you are leading is vital; you can learn so much from others
  • Take leadership courses at your university

While in academia, students are often made to feel insignificant or infantilized because of the power structures of that system. Remember that this feeling of powerlessness is only an illusion. You have control over how you take initiative to seek opportunities for your own growth and success. Remember that just because you are, perhaps, young or new in your field, you do bring value!

As a minority in your field or classes, it can be hard to be seen and treated as a leader, but know that the struggles you overcome will help you be even stronger as a leader later in your career. Focus on what you can control, and work within that space. If you do experience any kind of harassment or microaggressions as you lead, know that you do have rights and do not deserve to be treated that way. The world needs your skills and talents, and growing leadership skills early-on in your career makes your path to sharing your strengths much easier.

Me giving a speech during opening of the Sally Ride Center for Environmental Science as a college senior!
The NASA administrators selected me for this opportunity because they knew me through my internships with the NASA SOFIA Program and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.

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