Computing Profession

The Ph.D. Grind: Lead From Below

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This article addresses one of the most important questions faced by young professionals in computing and related fields: How can a junior employee implement their own creative initiatives when they are at the very bottom of an established hierarchy?

Most articles on leadership advise people in positions of power — corporate managers in industry and research professors in academia — on how to lead from above their subordinates. In contrast, this article is for those on the other side: the junior engineers, computer programmers, designers, technicians, postdocs, and (the lowliest class of all) Ph.D. students who want to lead from below.

At first glance, the premise of this article is absurd: How can someone with no power possibly lead? I don’t mean leadership in the traditional sense of managing people. Leading from below means taking charge of one’s own career interests rather than just catering to those of one’s superiors. Subordinates who lead from below will enjoy their jobs more and might someday become leaders in their field; those who don’t leave their fate entirely to their superiors.

This article is drawn from my own experiences as a Ph.D. student in computer science from 2006 to 2012. By far the most important lesson I learned throughout my Ph.D. was how to lead from below (as documented in my online book, The Ph.D. Grind). Although I describe the power relations between subordinates and superiors in academic research — Ph.D. students and professors, respectively — these observations generalize to any job such as design, engineering, and research where subordinates have some degree of creative freedom.


Starting Assumptions

If you are in my target audience, chances are that:

  1. Because you are a junior employee, it’s impossible for you to implement creative initiatives without your boss’s support. You simply can’t go it alone.
  2. Your boss is probably not a world-class mentor who continually looks out for your best interests. They have too many other concerns on their mind.
  3. Also, your boss is not as open-minded as you are. In general, older people are more set in their ways and less amenable to new ideas, especially those proposed by younger subordinates. 


The Dilemma

These three assumptions underpin the main dilemma that an ambitious young professional faces: Their boss claims that creative ideas from below are valued, but when they try to push forward their own ideas, they are quickly turned down and instead told to just implement the boss’s ideas.

This same frustrating scene plays out everywhere: Whether it’s a Ph.D. student pitching their research vision or a junior engineer proposing a radically different approach to a problem, bosses are reluctant to accept proposals from those with less experience. Leaders want to believe that they encourage creativity from below, but few live up to that ideal. Such conservatism is understandable: After all, why would any sensible leader risk staking their reputation on unproven ideas from a lowly subordinate?

Many of my peers — smart and capable young professionals — grasp this dilemma within their first few months on the job and then give up hope of taking creative initiative in their work. Instead, they just plod along and accept the defaults that their bosses hand to them.


Lead From Below

You can’t rely on your boss to support your creative ideas right away.  Finding a different boss or job might help, but you’ll still face resistance because you’ll be a junior subordinate no matter where you go. And very few people can make a living without having a boss. So what can you do? Here is a practical three-phase method for leading your own initiatives from the bottom of the power hierarchy:

Phase 1: Discover what your boss loves and generate ideas around their interests.

Phase 2: Maintain good week-to-week relations with your boss as your project gains momentum.

Phase 3: Get your boss and other leaders to sell your ideas and accomplishments to influential people.


Phase 1: Discover What Your Boss Loves

The first step to leading from below is to stop thinking about ideas that you love and start discovering what your boss and other leaders love. Begin by doing basic on-the-ground reconnaissance, not by idly dreaming in your head.

For example, in the world of academic research, the easiest way to discover what professors love is to read their papers, editorials, grant proposals, and any other documents they will let you read. Also, attend their research lectures to observe their in-person mannerisms and reactions to audience questions. By doing so, you will learn both the content of their research and, more importantly, their subjective biases and quirks: What areas of research excite them?  Which people in the field do they respect? Who are their main academic rivals, and what are the causes of those rivalries?

Once you understand which ideas, approaches, and philosophies your boss loves, start thinking about which subset of those get you excited. If you’re lucky, then there will be a large intersection between your boss’s interests and your own, but most likely that will not be the case. Chances are, what you really want to work on falls outside of your boss’s core interests. However, you have no choice but to be more open-minded. Your boss’s tastes are more fixed than yours, so the closer you can adapt your interests to theirs, the easier it will be to push forward your ideas. In general, the younger and lower-ranking you are, the more adaptable you need to be.

Why is it so important to craft your project idea around what your boss likes? Leaders such as professors, managers, and senior engineers have many ideas that they are passionate about but don’t have the time or resources to implement, since most of their days are spent on meetings and other managerial duties. They will be delighted if a subordinate enthusiastically offers to implement some variant of one of their ideas.  If you can fill that role, then your boss will gladly help you with advising, guidance, and making political connections. But if you propose an idea that they are apathetic about — or worse, opposed to — then they will probably dismiss your idea and order you to work on something else that they like more.

But isn’t this just doing what your boss wants?  No, there is a crucial difference: Since you’ve first identified your boss’s interests, you can proactively frame your own project ideas so that they fit your boss’s mode of thinking. You might end up implementing only a fraction of your original idea and making certain compromises, but that’s still better than getting flat-out rejected. By adopting this pragmatic approach, you are taking the lead to craft your own project rather than following what your boss hands to you.

One effective strategy here is getting your boss to think that you’re working on their ideas when, in fact, you’re pushing forward your own agenda that just happens to engage with their preferences. As a subordinate, you need to do enough convincing so that your boss feels happy supporting your project; but if you overdo it, then they will believe that the project idea is entirely theirs and view you as a human subroutine carrying out their instructions. (Also, skillful bosses can jujutsu/Inception you into working on their projects while making you believe that those ideas were originally yours.) 

The key tactical element when making your pitch is to relate your ideas to your boss’s prior work, such as software they wrote, scientific experiments they ran, business deals they championed, academic philosophies they endorsed, or accomplishments from their youth that they are particularly nostalgic about. Use the proper language and terminology from their school of thought, reinforce their likes and avoid their dislikes, and build genuine rapport by appealing to their expertise and sense of authority. This is the time to make full use of all of the reconnaissance you’ve gathered about your boss so far.

And once you’ve gotten the green light, the real grind begins …


Phase 2: Maintain Positive Week-To-Week Relations

As you proceed with your project, keep up positive relations with your boss so that they feel good about letting you continue working on it instead of ordering you to do something else. Since your boss is super-busy, they can allocate only a tiny portion of their total attention to managing you. Employees (e.g., Ph.D. students) typically meet with their boss (e.g., professor) once a week for less than an hour. Thus, the main strategy in this phase is to get your boss to associate positive emotions with those brief interactions.

To illustrate the benefits of maintaining a positive vibe week after week, imagine a professor with two Ph.D. students: Alice and Bob. Alice comes into each weekly meeting with an optimistic yet realistic tone, summarizing what she tried in the past week, honestly describing what worked and didn’t work, proposing a plan of action for the upcoming week, and then asking politely for feedback. In contrast, Bob comes into each meeting sounding cynical and frustrated, blaming last week’s failures on colleagues, and whining about how he is being treated unfairly by everyone around him.

Which student is the professor looking forward to seeing each week?  Who is the professor more willing to leave alone to continue their planned course of action? And who is the professor more willing to help?

Think hard about whether you’re more like Alice or Bob. Does your boss look forward to or dread meeting with you every week? Do they smile or sigh when an email from you enters their inbox? When they talk about you to their colleagues, do they say positive or negative things? Are you a pleasure or a burden to manage?

"But isn’t my boss supposed to be a mentor who guides me in my professional journey?" No, your boss is not your personal career counselor. The professors I worked with throughout my Ph.D. all got their jobs because they were amazing at computer science research and grant fundraising, not because they were ultra-empathetic mentors. Some turned out to be great advisors, and others weren’t so good. Regardless, assume your boss’s managerial style is unchangeable — as the subordinate, the onus is on you to adapt and lead from below.

Tactically, by coming into each weekly meeting with a verbal progress report and a rough plan for the upcoming week, you are putting your boss in a position to respond rather than to dictate. Since their mind is preoccupied with a ton of other work-related burdens, as long as what you say seems reasonable, they will nod and approve. Also, because you’ve primed the conversation around your concerns from the start, your boss’s comments will potentially be more targeted and helpful.

During your meeting, listen carefully when your boss talks. They will inevitably offer opinions, suggestions, and advice. Since they have many other concerns on their mind, they might forget what they told you the previous week, repeat themselves repeatedly, or even contradict their prior claims. Don’t be offended if they don’t remember the details of your project. Instead, hone in on the points they keep repeating — that’s what they find interesting and exciting. By actively listening, you can collect week-by-week reconnaissance about your boss’s moods and priorities, and then adapt accordingly.

If you need guidance, make it easy and worthwhile for your boss to help you, and then show genuine gratitude afterward. Your attitude determines the outcome of your requests: For example, a professor is more willing to help an optimistic and self-reliant student like Alice than a needy and whiny one like Bob.

After each meeting, try to implement at least one of your boss’s suggestions. When you come into the next week’s meeting, show your boss how you took that suggestion and the way in which it benefited your project. For example, if you are building a software tool, demo the new feature they suggested; if you’re running an experiment, show them the improved graphs or data tables that resulted; if you’re doing product design, make a sketch or prototype inspired by their ideas.

By consistently incorporating your boss’s suggestions, you are giving them weekly jolts of satisfaction at seeing a subordinate implement their ideas. In reality, you are driving the direction of your project and steering it by selectively picking suggestions that you agree with anyways. As long as your boss is happy with the few suggestions that you did take, they won’t remember all of the ones that you ignored (again, because they are super-busy).

But what if all of your boss’s suggestions stink? Rejecting everything they say will probably sour your relationship. Instead, choose one suggestion that is the least terrible and also easy to implement, try it out to appease your boss, and simultaneously push your project along in your own direction. Since you’re at the bottom of the pecking order, you will inevitably need to "waste" time implementing your boss’s not-so-great ideas just to keep them happy; all Ph.D. students I know had to humor their advisors’ bad suggestions at some point. But it’s a small tax to pay for pursuing your own initiatives.

If your boss is satisfied with your current direction, they won’t want to derail you: Their ego is tied to your project’s success, since their ideas are vicariously coming to life through your efforts. Even better, they might also protect you from boring errands and instead assign those to their more passive subordinates. Thus, if you lead from below week after week and make some boss-appeasing course corrections along the way, your project’s momentum will become harder and harder to stop.


Phase 3: Get Leaders To Sell For You

If you’re fortunate enough to lead your own project as a junior employee, you now face an even bigger challenge: competing against projects spearheaded by leaders with far more political capital at their disposal.

In any professional setting, only a few creative endeavors get recognized and survive; the rest fade into obscurity. The default state for innovative projects is to be dead — the more innovative, the more dead. In academic research, several different groups work on the same problem, but only one gets recognized with a top publication, citations, and continued grant funding; in entrepreneurship, only one product ends up dominating a field and the other competing startups go bankrupt; in a large organization, if your project doesn’t appeal to the higher-ups, it will get canceled and you will be reassigned to less appealing tasks.

The disconcerting reality for young scientists and engineers in particular is that technical merit alone is not enough; successfully "selling" your project to those in power is just as important, and oftentimes more so, for its continued survival. Even if you are averse to "salesmanship," there is no denying its importance in keeping your project alive.

Your more experienced competitors can probably "outsell" you, so you need to enlist all the help you can get from your boss and other more powerful allies. Again, you can’t go it alone.  If you’ve done a good job in Phase 1 and Phase 2, then your boss should already be the most enthusiastic advocate for your work, since they feel that their ideas are being realized through your efforts.

Regardless of your boss’s level of support, your project stands a better chance of surviving if you can get other influential people in your field to endorse it. The same sort of reconnaissance applies here — discover these people’s passions and then demonstrate how your project fits with their mode of thinking. The key psychological mechanism to leverage is that older, more experienced people genuinely want to believe that they are promoting fresh, young ideas; but deep down, they feel safe mostly with ideas that are well within their mental comfort zone. Thus, you need to give leaders the satisfaction of seeming open-minded, when, in fact, catering to their core preferences.

Furthermore, if you can get one leader on-board with your project, then mentioning that fact to fellow leaders will make it more likely that they will support it as well (a phenomenon known as social proof, which marketers and politicians have mastered). However, do careful reconnaissance first — if you mention to someone that one of their rivals supports your project, then your plan might backfire.

When I was a Ph.D. student, the most effective way for me to sell my projects was to get well-respected professors excited enough about them to publicize on my behalf. Their authoritative words hold much more weight than the claims of a no-name student. Why was this support important?  Because even in supposedly objective fields like science and engineering, a great deal of human subjectivity determines what is and is not "legitimate research" that deserves to be funded, published, and made into a Ph.D. dissertation.

My mentors guided me on how to craft arguments in my papers and how to avoid faux pas that might offend academic critics. They eventually provided the social proof needed to convince my department that I had done enough "legitimate research" to graduate.  Of course, this entire process starts with genuine technical merit — these professors are far smarter than I am, so I couldn’t fool them with cheap gimmicks or random schmoozing at conferences. I had to first do good work, but without support from leaders in my field, my projects would have never gotten wider recognition.


In Closing …

The one trait that pervades all three phases — project inception, maintenance, and publicity — is empathy. As a junior colleague, it’s hard to lead your own creative initiatives without deeply understanding the preferences, values, and motivations of your superiors. A few intrepid mavericks will succeed outside of the establishment (and inevitably write blog posts and books about their techniques), but those people are the exceptions rather than the norm. The rest of us have no choice but to be perceptive and persistent when pursuing creativity in the workplace.

Finally, there is no magical one-size-fits-all prescription for leading from below. The ideas in this article are general guidelines that must be adapted to suit your unique personality and surroundings.






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