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Career Advice

What career coaches can do for PhD holders


Career coaches seem to be rising in popularity these days. Once hired primarily by mid- and late-career professionals in the corporate world, coaches and career consultants these days are sometimes specializing in working with graduate students and academics. Their services were news to me when I was in the early stages of my post-PhD transition. Today, I am one of these service providers. We do the kind of coaching that supervisors are usually unable to offer, especially when it comes to exploring career options beyond the professoriate or searching for non-academic jobs.

Potential clients have a range of services available to them, from one-on-one coaching to structured group programs, from pure coaching to mentoring to advising services, as well as job-seeker tutorials and resumé editing. Most coaches work virtually, meeting clients by phone, Skype or other web-conferencing software, and many of them have clients around the world.

For this article, I reached out to a few of my colleagues to learn more about what they offer. If you’re considering hiring a professional to support your post-PhD transition, explore your options and identify which services you want and can afford. The colleagues I spoke with agree that students, recent graduates and postdoctoral fellows should also take advantage of any free university career services available to them. These educators and counsellors can provide information, administer career assessment tools and offer job search training and advice.

The career and life coach I personally worked with, Hillary Hutchinson, coaches clients to decide for themselves the career path they want to follow. “Some people finish degrees and no longer want to continue in academia. Those that do [want to stay] find the market discouragingly tight,” she says. “Either way, I help them explore the wide variety of possibilities available to those with higher degrees and to build their confidence in pursuing their dreams to reality.”

Some coaches like to be more focused with their advice. Catherine Maybrey offers critiques and tutorials of resumés, cover letters and LinkedIn profiles. She coaches PhDs to be proactive and to understand the value of their transferable skills to non-academic employers. “Some clients simply need someone to be accountable to with their job search and career exploration activities,” she says, “while others might need a more guided approach, with homework and regular checkpoints.”

Maren Wood runs a “boot camp” program for PhDs in career transition. “We [academics] have a lot of skills and a deep work history but we usually lack relevant work experience,” says Dr. Wood, who helps doctoral degree holders to understand their transferable skills. “Ask a recent PhD about what they do and they’ll tell you, ‘I study medieval literature in France.’ From the perspective of an employer, that’s not very helpful. They want to know what tasks you accomplish and the skills you use, so they can measure how you’d fit within their organization.”

Recent graduates tend to seek out career coaches when they’re actively job searching. But it’s never too early to hire a coach. Fatimah Williams Castro, founder of Beyond the Tenure Track, recommends PhD students come to her in the first years of a doctorate. That way, she can help them identify opportunities to build professional experience and develop skills while still in graduate school. “When students begin this process late in their graduate school careers,” she says, “they inevitably miss out on externships, internships and other programs that are geared directly to enhancing graduate students’ professional skills and, ultimately, their career pathways.”

A recent postdoctoral fellow, Marianne Peso worked with a career coach while she was sorting through the emotional aspects of a probable transition from academia. “Our meetings created space for me to think about what I could and should do with my life. I felt guilty about taking this time before, and that negatively impacted many aspects of my life,” she says. Most importantly, she got “the support I needed to make better decisions for myself in an environment free from the expectations that other people have for me.”

Instead of trying to pigeonhole her into a known career, Dr. Peso and her coach identified her skills and values and investigated how she could find a job to fit these criteria. “I needed this desperately as I was coming from a world where there was only one accepted model of success, a model that was suffocating me,” she says, referring to the expectation that she would seek a tenure-track faculty position. Her coach helped her deal with the emotional aspects of transitioning to a new career.

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  1. Reinhart Reithmeier / April 9, 2015 at 11:38

    Everyone knows that, in sports, coaches are essential to bring out the very best in athletes, keep them on the right track, and move them to even higher levels of achievement. A job coach can do the same thing for PhD graduates as they make the transition from academia to the “real” world. Every graduate student would benefit from even a single 1-hour session with a good job coach, and well before they reach out their hand for their diploma at convocation and suddenly wonder what they should do with it.

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