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In Praise of the Sherpa: Moving From Follower to Leader in Your Career

I have just finished the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a harrowing account of a disastrous climbing expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996. It struck me that there are some parallels to a career in science.

As Krakauer notes in his account, Sir Edmund Hillary is world-renowned as the first man to summit Everest. However, Hillary's lead Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who also summited Everest, is an historic figure who has been relegated to the "Trivial Pursuit" level of recognition. Krakower notes that the Sherpas (Tibetan climbing guides) play a critical role in the success of climbing expeditions. While the expedition leader provides the overall vision, direction, and, most importantly, the financing to make the expedition possible, it is the Sherpas who carry the bulk of the equipment and prepare the ascent route. Without the Sherpas, an ascent of Everest would never have taken place.

Ideally, the Sherpa-expedition leader relationship is built on mutual respect and mutual dependence. The Sherpas provide much more than brute strength -- they share their climbing experience and extensive knowledge of the mountain. Some Sherpas go on to lead their own expeditions.

It struck me that this relationship has some parallels to science. In science, a principal investigator (PI) leads the group -- providing vision, direction, and grant money to make research possible. Graduate students and postdocs supply the strength, skill, and their own insights. Together they climb the mountain.

Ideally, this apprenticeship gives young scientists the skills, vision, and access to funding they need to become PI's themselves. However, as with the Sherpas, there is no formalized process for teaching leadership skills to young scientists: Young scientists are simply expected to pick up these skills through osmosis.

The Sherpa Versus the Husky

The race to the South Pole, another milestone in the exploration of Earth's extremes, provides an example of another type of "partnership" that is much darker than that between Sherpa and expedition leader: the partnership between human and sled dog.

Both Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, and Robert Falcon Scott, an Englishman, used dog sleds to carry themselves and their supplies southward to the pole and back. In a dog sled team, the human controls all the supplies and food and stands on the back of the sled while a team of huskies pull the mass across the snow. The dogs are selected based on their ability and desire to pull -- a nearly uncontrollable urge in some breeds. Far from being apprentices, the dogs are used as beasts of burden, wholly dependent on the human for food. The dogs, having been conditioned to this dependence, live for few rewards: the occasional praise from the master and some pieces of dried fish.

During the most challenging expeditions, such as the race to the South Pole, the dogs themselves become a consumable commodity. Amundsen, who eventually won the race, systematically killed and fed his sled dogs to each other as the team progressed through their journey. His British rival, Scott, possessing the quaint English sentimentality for "man's best friend," refused to allow his team to indulge in the same logical brutality. And Scott's team perished in a storm 11 miles from a supply depot.

A Disturbing Parallel to Science?

In some fields, research is becoming increasingly competitive, overpopulated, and under-resourced (some National Institutes of Health grant programs, for example, have funding rates that fall below 20%!). In such a climate, the Sherpa model is devolving to the "dog sled syndrome." Graduate students are selected not for their capacity to make original contributions to science but for their ability to grind out results. I have heard stories of a few PI's who actively recruit hardworking foreign Ph.D. students and hold the threat of deportation over them if they fail to do the PI's bidding.

From Sherpa to Mountaineer: Learning to Lead

Because leadership and professional development skills are rarely explicitly taught to graduate students and postdocs, making the transition from apprentice to master can be extremely difficult. Some graduate students find the whole concept of "leadership" nebulous and vexing. Others hope to find a position where they can conduct their research without having to deal with "office politics." I have some sobering news for such people: No matter what direction your career takes you, some amount of leadership will be required for you to be successful. Developing the skills now can speed your progress to a fulfilling permanent job.

Leadership Can Be Learned!

Many people -- scientists and nonscientists alike -- think that leadership is an innate skill. You are either born with it, or you're not. This is simply not so. You can develop the elements of effective leadership wherever you are in your career, and these skills will make a big difference in your future.

Here are some of the elements that I believe are critical for effective leadership:

  • Organization. Many people fail to appreciate that leadership skills are more than personal traits and charisma. The ability to analyze, organize, and bring clarity to a project or organization is, I believe, a key trait of successful leaders. Courses and books on project management can teach you a great deal of what you need to know.

  • Communication. The ability to receive and communicate ideas and feelings to people is another critical skill. Listening is often more critical than speaking. Obviously this goes beyond being articulate and comfortable with people -- it includes an ability to connect with people. There are books and courses that teach people about effective communication and organizations, such as ToastMasters, that help people improve their communication skills.

  • Vision. A leader must be able to articulate a compelling vision for where the group is going. People who want to lead for the sake of leading often encounter difficulties when steep climbing is required.

Practice Makes Perfect

These skills are best developed by practice. I have found that the graduate students and postdocs who have taken on some leadership role in their department, school, or community tend to have an easier time when they transition from research apprentice to research master. While some degree of "nose to the grindstone" is critical to succeed in the early stages of your career, finding an extracurricular project to manage can be an invaluable opportunity for you to practice leading, as well as to broaden your horizons.

Picking the Right Leader

For those of you who will be choosing graduate or postdoc advisors -- consider your choices carefully. There are a number of "Sir Edmund Hillary's" out there who can lead you to the summit of whatever scientific mountain you choose to climb. There are also quite a few "dog sled drivers." Check out the PI's accomplishments, track record with students and postdocs, and by all means TALK TO THE SHERPAS YOURSELF.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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