Coaching for Academics
Given my long experience as a lawyer, I believed myself to be self-motivated and good with deadlines. But, when I started my PhD, I found the process daunting. Despite having supportive supervisors, at times, I felt isolated and discouraged.
Talking to other PhD students across different disciplines and from different backgrounds, I realised that I was not alone – others were struggling even more than me. International students were particularly vulnerable, especially during the long vacations.
Feeling isolated and unsupported can have a negative impact on a student’s output which can lead to plummeting self-esteem and confidence. There was a gap in the University’s provision for such students. Those living at some distance from campus also felt poorly served.
I have a long-standing interest in personal development and, in 2012, when given an opportunity to become accredited as a coach, I persuaded the School of English to let me use my conference fee allocation for that year towards the training. The course, delivered by RD 1st, was promoted and subsidised by NAWE (National Association for Writers in Education) and the Arvon Foundation (a charity established in 1968 to promote creative writing). Both bodies recognise that writers can feel isolated and in need of support.
I started the course without a full understanding of what coaching involved and believing that I would learn tips on setting priorities and avoiding procrastination and so on. Instead, I found the training – two lots of three full days separated by a month of coaching practice – to be rigorous, underpinned by strong ethical values and challenging on a personal level. It was a revelation to discover that you do not need to mine someone’s childhood to effect real and meaningful change.
Time management, life/work balance, fear of failure/success and perfectionism are some of the issues addressed during the sessions with my clients, but anything that helps or hinders the achievement of goals is open for discussion. My academic clients have, for example, set goals around health problems, relationship dilemmas, exercise and diets as well as the kind of things one might expect, such as deadlines, presenting conference papers and attending submission reviews and applying for tenure and promotion.
The testimonials section shows how clients have benefited from working with me. As coaching is confidential information is not shared with supervisors or the university. (For this reason that some of the feedback quoted in the testimonials section is anonymous.)
The coaching scheme I devised and ran for the Schools of English and Law at the University of Kent won a Barbara Morris Award for teaching innovation in 2016. The support provided during the long vacations and for distance learners has proved invaluable, particularly for vulnerable students.
I usually work with people for blocks of sessions – three being a good starting point, but nine or twelve being a typical overall total – although, as can be seen from the testimonials, given that the demands of academia are relentless an ongoing coaching relationship can be very helpful. At the first session, the client will set a macro-goal for what he, she or they would like to achieve by the end of the group of sessions. This is broken down into smaller goals on a session by session basis.
Appointments tend to be more frequent at first. As clients gain confidence and become better at setting realistic goals as well as identifying their particular menu of habits and behaviours that help and hinder, the gaps between sessions tend to become longer. Twelve sessions can typically support someone over a period of a year including the long summer vacation. The scheme is flexible allowing for periods of teaching, study leave and so on.
I work with academics at all levels – from PhD students and early career researchers through to professors – and am touched and proud to have been credited in the acknowledgments of a number of monographs both as a coach and in a personal capacity.
Most recently, in 2021, I ran a pilot scheme coaching early and mid-career academics at Birmingham Law School. Participants who responded to an evaluation survey rated the coaching as ‘excellent’ and ‘likely to … have a positive impact on the school as a whole’. Vinita’s coaching style was variously described as: ‘approachable and friendly’, ‘useful, non-judgemental and warm’, helpful and constructive’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘professional and sensitive’; one participant observed that she ‘managed to identify behavioural patterns in a very short period of time.’