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Preparing Future Academic Leaders in Graduate School

Leadership and Management

Preparing Future Academic Leaders in Graduate School

Doctoral students typically do not receive preparation for future academic leadership roles, a shortcoming of graduate education that Rutgers University’s PreDoctoral Leadership Development Institute (PLDI) is seeking to fix.

The program, now in its third year, is an interdisciplinary, cohort-based initiative that offers a combination of leadership theory and practice. PLDI is designed to help prepare doctoral students to become effective future leaders by providing them with leadership development opportunities and exposure to the workings of the academy. The program is open to doctoral students in all disciplines and consists of a four-course sequence, a series of presentations by noted leaders, mentoring, and an annual higher education forum held in Washington, D.C.

In an interview with Academic Leader, Brent Ruben, PLDI director and executive director of the Center for Organizational Development and Leadership, and a distinguished professor of Communication, talked about the rationale for the program and progress to date.

The need

According to Ruben, “There is a great need for faculty leaders who are able to collaborate and communicate effectively. This is a critical need within our institutions where we face a number of pressing challenges, and equally so externally, with the diverse array of constituencies including government, accreditors, governing boards, and the public more generally, each of which has many questions about higher education’s purposes and direction. We have a shortage of people who are able to speak articulately on behalf of higher education as advocates to external constituents because we primarily learn to talk to one another.”

Leadership skills can be useful whether someone has a formal leadership position, Ruben says. “Most people think of leadership in a positional way. A leader is someone who has a title. But there is a broader view of leadership reflecting the notion that leadership dynamics are at play in all social settings, where decisions are being made and there’s an opportunity to have influence. We participate in many situations where these skills can be learned and practiced in low-risk environments with friends, family, and colleagues. You then become increasingly recognized as someone who is good at working with differences, facilitating agreements, and providing direction. Having these competencies increases the likelihood you will be tapped for formal leadership roles and increases the capabilities you are able to bring to those roles.”

If one looks at leadership in this way, then leadership development should be an ongoing process, not something to be delayed until a faculty member has tenure or assumes a formal leadership position. “If you spend the early years of your career focused solely on your own scholarship in your own discipline, it’s unlikely that you have acquired either the skill set or the motivation to shift your attention to an emphasis on the future of your colleagues, department, the school, or the institution. That model—the idea of waiting to engage in leadership development until you have a formal leadership role— has not worked all that well,” Ruben says.

The program

The purpose of PLDI is to provide doctoral students with knowledge of higher education issues, trends, and leadership theory and practice as a part of their academic preparation for future faculty roles—as a complement to their training in their chosen discipline. In addition to readings, the program features case studies and experiences designed to hone their leadership skills, including self-reflection, collaborative projects, and shadowing university administrators. PLDI treats the university as a learning laboratory, and the academic and administrative leaders of the university as program faculty. Thus, the program uses the resources of the institution to create a rich and robust field experience. 

A key component of the program is a capstone course built around a project that requires the collaboration of PLDI fellows from the broad array of disciplines, perspectives, and methodologies they bring to the program—something that is relatively uncommon in graduate education. One recent project examined a real-life leadership crisis at a major university with an emphasis on the cultural, leadership, communication, and constituent perspectives.

The final piece of the program is the Washington Higher Education Forum that includes meetings with policy and legislative leaders. “Fellows benefit greatly from hearing these perspectives and are sometimes quite surprised to hear the diverse points that legislators and policy leaders have on key issues of higher education,” Ruben says.


Developing a vision and acquiring the necessary resources and institutional support to sustain a program such as this can be a challenge. “When people hear about this program, a common response is: ‘What a good idea. Why aren’t there more programs like this?’ I can tell you the reason. This is an interdisciplinary program, and supporting and sustaining interdisciplinary efforts in organizations that are historically very siloed isn’t easy. And there’s the issue of vision: You simply have to have people who see the pressing need, are knowledgeable, and are willing to participate,” Ruben says.

Funding for PLDI comes from the Center for Organizational Development and Leadership, the Office of Academic Affairs, the School of Communication and Information, the Graduate School of Education, and the Graduate School-New Brunswick (where the courses reside).

PLDI instructors are not compensated for their work, nor are the people who serve as mentors. Rather, it’s the strength of the idea that has garnered support. Many of the leaders who teach in the program serve in academic leadership roles; others serve in leadership roles in administration, student affairs, and service areas. The PLDI faculty has included the university president; senior leaders from academic affairs, business, and administration; legal affairs; and deans and chairs from a variety of academic units. “What the PLDI faculty members all have in common is that they are knowledgeable leaders and wonderful teachers who help students grasp what’s going on in the laboratory in which they work. Students are very knowledgeable about the teaching-learning aspects of the university, but learning about the economics of the university, legal issues, IT issues, identity, and branding issues is an eye-opening experience,” Ruben says.


Assessment of PLDI includes pre- and post surveys that include both quantitative and qualitative approaches as well as evaluative techniques that focus on each course and activity associated with the program learning goals. Results to date indicate that PDLI graduates have been very positive about the program.

“We follow up on PLDI students after they graduate and are very interested to see where they end up, how it is they ended up there, and to what extent they believe PLDI contributed to their careers. Several graduates attribute success in securing their positions directly to their PLDI experience and credentials. On more than one occasion students report that during job interviews there were more questions about their work in our program than their primary discipline,” Ruben says.


Currently PLDI cohorts are between 15 and 20 fellows. As for expanding the idea to other institutions, the University of South Florida has adopted the PLDI model and the model has generated some interest at a recent “Big 10” Committee on Institutional Cooperation event. “The need to develop competent future faculty leaders is great, and I believe programs such as ours are likely to become increasingly popular in graduate education core programs at many institutions,” Ruben says.

For more information about the PreDoctoral Leadership Development Institute, see www.odl.rutgers.edu/pldi/.

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