In Pursuit of Leadership…
…by Caitlin / from the UK / studying Public Health / 3rd year
I started the MPH at the University of Edinburgh because I wanted a change. I had spent 10 years as a laboratory scientist in the infectious diseases field; when the pandemic hit and my lab was closed, like so many others I suddenly had the time to consider what I really wanted. I still loved science, but lab work wasn’t as fulfilling as it used to be – I wanted to seek other opportunities in global health, and decided that I was going to need to expand my skill set to do so. The MPH at Edinburgh was a perfect fit.
Unexpectedly, one year after starting courses, I made the career switch the MPH was supposed to facilitate. I was now on the other side of the bench, and I loved it. My MPH courses were perfectly complementing my new role, so I never had any hesitation in continuing, but I was left considering how to use my third year most effectively now that my future had changed course.
The SLICC (student-led independently crafted course) was an obvious option for me. I have done one thesis already, and as anyone will tell you, one is enough. Doing a SLICC gave me the chance to set my own learning goals on my own topic, which I could use to explore my new role. While I was still in the infectious diseases field, I was in a completely different area of research focusing on data and therapeutic innovation. I could use the SLICC to take stock of my new environment, as well as progress my career.
One of the best pieces of advice I got from my SLICC mentor was to sit down and list what I wanted to achieve with my SLICC project. I realised that what I wanted was to develop confidence and expertise in my new field to impact research development and progress my organisation’s goals, with the capacity for strategic and creative thinking – in other words, I wanted to develop leadership. This felt rather presumptuous, declaring I was going to be a leader without being invited. However, I was encouraged by my mentor and the course coordinators to pursue this goal, so I plunged in.
My first challenge was deciding what I meant by leadership, the second was figuring out how I was going to accomplish it. I was still relatively new in my role, and how do you go from new to leader? In addition, I needed to keep in mind the requirements of the SLICC: there is a framework of independent learning objectives that need to be fulfilled, including application of concepts and skills from course modules, dissemination of learning, and research. I addressed the first challenge by investigating how leadership and management were different, and focusing on the three aspects of leadership that I most wanted to achieve: influencing change, demonstrating expertise, and contributing to the strategy and resources of my organisation.
I dealt with the second challenge by falling back on quantitative habits and making a formula:
If I was going to achieve the expertise necessary to engage in my field with confidence, I needed to expand my knowledge and understanding. By utilising the skills I gained during the MPH I could critically engage with and analyse the topic, adding value with new ideas and perspectives. This kept me aligned with the objectives of the SLICC, as well as giving me a checklist to assess my activities and progress against. And the end product, if all went well, would be leadership.
The result: a fledgling leader
And you know, surprisingly enough it was – at least the beginnings of it. I have been far more successful than I anticipated, and have seen the results in ways that I can “measure” with my formula’s checklist, as well as in more intangible ways. I have been asked by others for help in developing content for presentations, been invited to give my opinion and advice, and included in higher level meetings to develop strategy or engage with collaborators.
Two key takeaways from the experience have struck me. The first is that to be a leader you have to share. Keeping your ideas and knowledge to yourself is not going to get you anywhere. It can be difficult and uncomfortable to do so – notions of modesty, of keeping in your lane, can cause inhibitions. But leadership doesn’t need to be loud. What it really hinges on is takeaway 2: seize, or create, opportunities. One of my biggest successes did not involve me standing at the front of a room pontificating to people, but was one in which I seized an opportunity to design a conference symposium for my organisation that was a complete change to what we normally present, but was in an area that I felt strongly we needed to address.
There is plenty of room for continued growth in my leadership journey. My formula and goals focused more on “thought leadership”, developing myself as an expert authority. There is a great deal more to leadership than this, such as self-awareness, motivation and inspiration of others, and emotional intelligence. There are many different aspects of leadership, and many different ways to be a leader – so much so that in reality, you can’t really create a formula, mix up the ingredients, and immediately create a fully formed leader. But, my formula was the start for me. It was my way of making sense of something that felt daunting and out of reach.
I still find it a little uncomfortable to baldly state that I am developing myself into a leader. But it no longer feels unreachable or ridiculous. Taking the first steps on the journey are the hardest, but it’s important to remember you don’t need to be the perfect leader all at once. Choose a goal or two, work towards it, then assess. Make a list, make a formula! Once you start moving, it’s astonishing how far you can go.
More information about SLICCs casn be found here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/sliccs