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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Adam Sanford, academic coach


phdtolofe-asanford-322Adam Sanford works as an academic coach, writer, and adjunct instructor. He earned his PhD in sociology from the University of California, Riverside in 2012. Follow him on Twitter @undergradeasier and find him on the web at

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I started my graduate program in 2007, right before the big economic crash of 2008. Originally, I wanted to teach community college full-time, which disappointed some of the faculty in my department since they felt a tenure-track was the only acceptable job goal for a PhD. I never realized how bad the academic job market was for PhDs, even before the crash, or how much worse it would get. I also had it in my head that in order to be competitive for a teaching position, I needed the PhD – that an MA would not be enough to get me the job I was hoping for.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I worked as an adjunct at two or three different schools in Southern California after I finished my PhD.

What do you do now?

I still adjunct, because I love the work, and because it keeps me in contact with the students, who are still my first priority. Being in regular contact with students allows me to maintain the professor’s-eye view of their problems – it’s not just an academic issue to me (pun intended).

For the last year I’ve been building a student-coaching business as well, based around workshops that I developed for my students at my adjunct positions, to help college students develop the necessary skill sets that they need in order to succeed.

What kinds of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

As an academic coach, my main clients are high school seniors and college freshmen-to-be. I also work with students who are outside that range, if I feel that I can help them be more effective or focused.

I meet with my coaching clients on Skype either once or twice per week, and discuss what their needs are and how to accomplish their goals. It’s very individualized because every client is different. I spend a lot of time not just skills-coaching but mindset-coaching, too. For example, I had to explain to a client recently that an A-minus is an extremely good grade, not the end of the world. I also end up coaching their parents sometimes, helping them to ease up, back off, and let their child learn how to manage their own issues, instead of stepping in and managing the issues for the child.

I also spend several hours each week researching what I’ve learned from clients in the past week’s sessions, and finding new methods to help them with the issues they’re working on.

I write a blog each week for my website on issues that are important to college students – study skills, organization, time management, writing, goal-setting, and research are some of the main ones. My most recent blog post was about how to write a letter to your professors so that it’s effective. I’m also working on blogs aimed at parents, to help them understand what’s effective and what’s detrimental when they’re trying to help their student succeed. And I send out a newsletter-type email once every other week, to keep my followers updated on the latest tips and tricks I’ve found to make college life a little less stressful.

What most surprises you about your job?

I had never thought that effective teaching would be possible outside of a formal classroom setting. It took me a while to adjust to the more free-form methods I need to use with my clients, as opposed to the formal classroom structure of a syllabus and a lesson plan.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Seeing a client’s face light up with the “aha moment.” I live for those moments. Every time a client makes a breakthrough, I want to dance around the room. I also like that I can work from home.

What would you change about it if you could?

Right now, I’m still in the steep part of the business learning curve. I’d like to get a better handle on some of the skill sets I need as a businessman, but I know that will come in time. It’s just the getting there that’s a little discouraging sometimes, not to mention time consuming.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m going to continue to build my business, because I think that it’s really my calling, to help people be more prepared for college. I plan to give free public talks to educate parents and let them know about my services, as well as putting together paid courses on these skill sets through an online learning platform, where clients can work on specific skill sets that they have identified as problematic. I’m also taking an academic life coach training course, to refine my skill set and learn new tools to help my clients even more.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

You may not believe it right now, especially if you’ve had your heart set on a tenure-track position, but there are many uses for the skills you learned in grad school that have nothing to do with being in an academic position. I never thought that my research skills would help me coach college students, but knowing how to find information and vet it for its reliability has been an enormous benefit to what I’m doing with my clients. Knowing how to write concisely and explain things clearly has helped me reach clients and their parents. The skill sets I learned in grad school are now the skill sets I help my clients acquire.

One of the scariest things for me, when I realized that the tenure-track job market had dried up, was trying to figure out how my skill set could ever translate to the “real world.” I had trained to be a teacher – and I thought the only place I could do that effectively was inside an institutional classroom. I’ve read a lot of the alt-ac literature since then, and my view on this has changed. Now I know that the institutional classroom is only one of many places that effective teaching can happen.

The other shift I had to make was looking at myself and my skills and talents as the sources of my income, rather than looking outside myself for what’s amusingly referred to as “job security.” Even having tenure doesn’t guarantee job security these days. I now look at everyone I work with as a client, whether it’s my one-on-one coaching clients or the universities where I still adjunct. It’s a challenge, but it’s also enormously freeing.

The last thing is that if you’re going to do what I did and go into business for yourself, don’t quit your day job. Let your business grow while you continue to bring in your income from the day job. This is advice I’ve seen given to writers and actors, but it also applies to alt-acs. Give yourself the time you need to grow the life you want, and in the meantime hold on to the income stream that will allow you to tend to its growth.

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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