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From PhD to Life

Coaching graduate students


On my new LinkedIn group (called From PhD to Life, natch), Laura Graham asked me what I thought were “the greatest areas of need” when it came to working with graduate students. At first, I responded briefly: I am a coach, not an editor or mentor-for-hire, which means I take a non-directive approach, and that it was difficult to generalize. Well, yes, but what an unhelpful answer! So a few hours later I responded more fully, reflecting on my own experience coaching graduate students.

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote about the main issues that have come up in my coaching work:

  1. Taking control. Graduate students often don’t feel in control of their lives. Part of my work as a coach is to help clients take and feel they are in charge by making changes to habits, mindset, and embracing who they really are. This isn’t something that comes from me, but follows from the client taking steps in the right direction.
  2. Building good habits. Doing a thesis or dissertation is very difficult, but not for the reasons we tend to think. The biggest challenge is often the deceptively simple matter of establishing good basic habits. Getting a dissertation done isn’t intellectually insurmountable, but it takes commitment to ongoing work, at least some of which is tedious. Procrastination must be seen for what it is — aversive behaviour, usually — and tackled in appropriate ways.
  3. Goal setting. This is crucial, and often graduate students get overwhelmed by the work ahead of them. The key is to break tasks down into smaller and smaller bits until those bits take very little time and energy to complete. Coaching can help clients come up with those bits, and commit to doing them.
  4. Gremlins! Inner critics abound, and get in the way. “I’m not good at…,” “I could never…,” “I’m a procrastinator,” imposter syndrome. Noting when an inner critic is in the way and coming up with strategies for silencing it when needed is very important. Inner critics bedevil anyone taking risks and doing new things. The competitiveness and criticism that is a normal part of academic life feeds into negative self-talk and personal fears. Coaching can help clients notice when their gremlins are causing harm, and realize what they are saying isn’t true.
  5. Uncertainty about the future. This crops up more for my PhD-in-hand clients and ABDs on the job market. Not knowing where one will be living or what one will be doing causes stress and anxiety. Spending time during and in-between calls on what is certain can help. A client’s own values, strengths, and lifestyle priorities and goals frame a coaching relationship. My agenda as a coach is to help clients embrace who they are, and get them living in accordance with their values, strengths, and desires. When we feel more rooted, we feel better able to take the risks we need to.
  6. Being vs. doing. So much of our language, both inside and outside academia, equates what we do with who we are. “I’m a graduate student” or “I’m an unemployed PhD” or “I’m a failed academic.” When one’s identity is wrapped up in one’s job, the criticism and career uncertainty that comes with doing a PhD is more than professionally challenging — it’s personally damaging. One outcome of the coaching process is identity re-crafting. My clients may be doing PhDs but that’s not who they are. Who they are at a deeper level transcends what they do, and endures despite the ups and downs of life.

What do you think? What’s your experience working with graduate students, or doing a graduate degree yourself?

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Mademoiselle Scientistm / July 30, 2014 at 14:44

    Great tips, especially tip #2.

  2. Lakshya / August 14, 2014 at 05:05

    Great post, loved reading it. My favorite one was number 6 Being vs. doing. Hope to see more from you.

  3. Arran / August 23, 2014 at 15:02

    All the above could have been written specifically for me. Very helpful advice that I shall endeavour to remember, when those Gremlins come knocking

    • Jennifer Polk / September 8, 2014 at 12:59

      I’m glad you found this helpful, Arran! Thanks for your comment

  4. Zosia D. / September 28, 2015 at 10:42

    Definitely great article. All points are important, but I like most 1, 4 and 6. Jen, thanks to your posts, I started to smile and being more hopeful about my future. Thank you 🙂

  5. Dr. Anil Behal / November 3, 2015 at 11:40

    Excellent piece, Jennifer. W are in the process of mounting our new “Coach Cohort” with an emphasis on academic coaching. Please contact me ASAP if you’d like to know more.

    Best regards,

    Dr. Anil Behal