Do you need an academic coach?

This week we feature a guest post by PhD student and Whisperer reader @cuteangel. Here she reflects on whether or not an academic coach is the answer to PhD woes.

Being a PhD student and a mother made realise there can be certain similarities between being a child and a student. My kids are young and are still in the needy years. They are always seeking attention; wanting me to do things for them, or at least wanting me to tell them what to do.

At the same time attention is what I crave most from my supervisors. I know I am post grad who is supposed to be in control of my project, but the overwhelming size of the project, and the length of time it takes, makes me long for a mother figure. Someone to nurture me through the various stages of self-doubt, loneliness, and writing dilemmas.

This yearning is fierce when I am stuck. During this state of mind I find myself starting the morning by typing into Google terms like ‘PhD help’ or ‘PhD support’. One of the interesting (at least for me) approaches I discovered through this searching was people who act as a thesis or dissertation coach. I was fascinated to read about the various issues that coaches claim they deal with including: time management, procrastination, practical ideas on dealing with writer’s block and so on.

When I discovered these services they seemed unreal – exactly what I’d been looking for. Could it be that someone with a magic wand would be able to help me and take me through this journey? Could an academic coach really tell me what to do and when to do it? I was happy enough to pay someone – so long as they could be there for me in this way!!

So I got in contact with some very interesting people and ended up working with one for a while. The first few sessions were alright I guess. But there was nothing new to me. I have already read dozens of ‘How to’ books which detailed the experiences of other PhD students. Sadly, in the end I have to say the academic coaching ended up being a complete waste of time and money. Most importantly, my progress, especially in terms of writing, was not positively affected.

The coach I worked with was patient and supportive, but she was not right for me. So I ended the coaching relationship and went back, determined to work things on my own and be more assertive about writing everyday in the morning before anything else. But my difficulties were not at an end. I got into the same cycle of self-doubt and began a second journey of seeking help.

I tried university counseling. Not a very good experience. The first thing the counselor said to me was: “what makes you think you are the only one going through this?” which made feel very bad, almost like a whining child. Then I looked for another thesis coach, thinking “maybe my first choice was not very good”. I still had the idea in my head that I could invest in a coach who could help be finish quicker, hence move on and find a job with a decent salary. But after sending few emails and talking to some great people, I realised the advice is the same everywhere.

The problem is that advice is not always easy to translate into action.

It’s funny how I can pay strangers to tell things and then get angry with my husband, when he actually says the exact same thing! I get angry with him when he tells me; “just write it. You can do it”. I reply most of the time: “what do you know about a PhD?!!”  I will make it up for him once I finish – one day 🙂 As for my supervisor, he is great – once I actually submit something for him to comment on. Otherwise he waits for me to make the first move. He is appreciative of my being a mother so does not pressure me into regularly producing written work.

I am sure there are students out there who may benefit from a coach, or who actually need one, but it doesn’t work for me. I think the problem is I am looking for help everywhere, but not looking at myself.

I know all about the ‘Awakening the Giant within’ self empowerment stuff. I know I can do this, I have enough faith in my abilities. I have attended conferences, I presented papers, I even organised a an international conference last year. I passed (though not very smoothly) my two milestones (confirmation and mid-candidature review). So why am I not able to keep up? Why do I act like a child seeking attention? Do I really need someone to mother me through this journey? Someone to hold my hand every step of the way so as not to get lost?

I honestly don’t know how to answer these questions. At least for me, these tendencies to act like a child seeking motherly attention creep up when I am under pressure. I can say with certainty that support is important and I find reading blogs or forums on PhD related issues very helpful to me. And at least they have no financial cost.

I am nearing my submission date and feeling the pressure. I wake up every morning determined to work harder. Sometimes it is o.k; sometimes it is not. But I at least I am trying, and I know no amount of help, coaching or mothering will help me unless I have the determination to finish. I need to repeat that to myself, or engrave it on my desk, to avoid searching again for a coach who will tell me things I already know.

21 thoughts on “Do you need an academic coach?

  1. Sarah jameson says:

    I find meditation calms my nerves and centres me so I can make decisions. Trouble is, that when under pressure I cant’ stop to meditate! I was given a CD on the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. His soothing voice reminds me of how I can be in the world rather than how I am presenting. I sometimes put him on for 5 mins before I go to sleep, any part of the cd. In the morning I sometimes put him on and catch snippets of him as I wake up and get the day started. On the train, in the car, I listen to bits of him. When ever I need to be reminded that I have it all inside of me I put him on.
    Out of this comes a stream of intense knowledge and quietness that I can do it. I find myself pulling myself up when I start the voices in my head of panic or inability to act. I hear his words and I remind myself that I am the only one to be able to help myself.
    I love meditation and when I am good I can sit quietly and do it on my own and achieve great focus and energy for the rest of the day.

  2. Heather Davis says:

    Great post Cuteangel.
    Perhaps the answer is in your moniker? Perhaps you are looking for a ‘cute angel’ to help you glide through this!!
    I have many of the same doubts and insecurities, I think as writers, this is the normal state of being. I have yet to meet a PhD student who says, “I’m writing way too much quality and relevant material and I can’t seem to find a break in my writing to take a breath”!!
    As writers of a thesis there is a looooong space between conception and completion and so much time for these insecurities to take hold.
    Another aspect of the research degree is that, unlike coursework, we don’t get marks/validation along the way and perhaps this is the ‘attention’ we all seek, a kind of security blanket.
    You will get through, and probably on time and look back and wonder why all the angst. I hope this is what will happen for me too.
    A friend’s words help me when I get stuck, and these are to simply “Put down your clever and pick up your ordinary” and get stuck in.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I love “Put down your clever and pick up your ordinary” – put it on a post it on my screen (next to “university politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small” 🙂

  3. Deb Rockstroh says:

    Thanks for your interesting post cuteangel, I think many PhD students such as myself can relate to the dilemma. And from my experience, Heather hits the nail on the head by mentioning the length of time between conception and completion, the lack of validation along the way, and the doubts and insecurities that arise often throughout that period. That is so true about putting down the clever and picking up the ordinary, writing a PhD is much less about rocket science than we might have been led to believe it is at the beginning of our studies.

    The amount of reassurance and support we receive along the journey from supervisors, peers, family, and friends, appears to be fundamental to persuing ideas and persisting through doubts and insecurities. We come to realise the process is as much one of learning about ourselves, as it is learning about the topic we are studying and developing the confidence to express our findings/theories. Conferences and other presentations should help develop this and provide insight into how we are going through peer feedback, but for those who can afford to go to them (or have opportunities at their own uni) this feedback does not always seem forthcoming or particularly constructive, and sometimes these feel like a ‘tick the box’ occassion.

    My university advocates students form small support groups to meet regularly and follow agreed structures such as taking turns, how long to focus on each member, what is to be discussed next meeting etc. This worked really well for my group whlle it lasted because we shared some things we could each relate to (eg all mature age students, all mums) and others that were different (eg disciplines, methods used) where we could provide the more objective thoughts of being ‘outside’ that area. We enjoyed sharing over a cuppa, offered advice, encouragement and support and suggested contacts to one another and it was a positive experience while it lasted.

    Online social networking such as this great site show us that we are not alone in our struggles, and that what we are going through is ‘normal’ which is perhaps what we need to be reminded of most of all.

    • ingermewburn says:

      That group sounds very effective Deb – why do you think did it not last? I am interested in why these initiatives tend to fall apart after awhile. I notice those that are actively facilitated by an academic tend to have the most ‘legs’.

      • Deb Rockstroh says:

        Unfortunately one member of the group was diagnosed with a serious illness (from which she has since thankfully recovered), and the two of us remaining fell into the trap of putting other research related priorities and uni/work commitments ahead of our support meetings. Around that time I temporarily relocated to Sydney for a 6-month block of temporary secondary school teaching (very little similar employment here on mid-north coast) and upon my return the other students had reached submission stage.

        The academic from our uni who advocated the formation of support groups was promoted and as far as I know (we are on different campuses) was never replaced in that role.

  4. JoVE says:

    Have you ever talked to your supervisor about what would help you? I note that you say that he is understanding about your other commitments but I wonder if flexibility is what you need.

    When I was doing my PhD, my supervisor gave me deadlines. We met monthly. We talked about what I’d do before our next meeting. Sometimes I’d done it. Sometimes life had intervened, or I’d had some kind of intellectual crisis or whatever. She was never judgemental about that but rather helped me get back on track.

    I never thought of this as childlike.

    I do recall that at our first meeting, she asked me what I needed, what would be most helpful. I knew that without deadlines I tended not to do anything, so that’s what I said. She set deadlines. A coach can do the same. No one has a magic wand, unfortunately.

    • ingermewburn says:

      It strikes me that this would be the real value of a coach – I respond much better to externally imposed deadlines than internal ones… A coach might have a broad experience of different student needs and what works in each case. Inexperienced supervisors tend to rely more on their own experiences.

  5. cute_angel says:

    Thanks Inger for posting this.

    The comments are very helpful.
    I love the idea of mediation, unfortunately I’ve never had the patience to pursue it. I think my mantra will be from now till submission would be: put down your clever and pick up your ordinary” thanks Heather.

    We used to have small groups for support; most of the students submitted and moved on. I am the only one left. I usually go to writing groups organised by the library which also provide a nice informal setting for students. I’m moving on with my thesis at the moment. My supervisor is being more assertive as the deadline is approaching.

    thanks again for posting.

  6. Gretchen WEgner says:

    I really appreciate this post! I work as an academic coach primarily for teenagers, but I also have a few dissertation clients. In my experience what people need most is simply companionship. Being a grad student is intellectually lonely! One of the reasons I enjoy coaching adults is that I’m fascinated by what they’re writing about, and my clients seem to appreciate having an interested, smart adult who enjoys engaging with them around their topic. And yes to one of the previous comments: having someone who will hold you lovingly accountable for deadlines is a huge help. In the end, though, the conclusion to your post is the most true — that it’s a painful process, doable process and ultimately you are the one who needs to be determined to finish. Congrats on getting so close!!

    On another note: at one point I led a play group for adults writing theses/dissertations! We moved our bodies, got silly, told stories, played some odd games — all while talking about our work. (We were using a form called InterPlay as the foundation to our play). It was a fun experiment, and someday I’d love to do it again.

  7. ingermewburn says:

    I received this email from Anuja:

    I wanted to respond to the post on your thesis whisperer website (the one from yesterday), but can’t seem to (great site by the way), so I thought I might just email you instead. Feel free to pass it onto Cuteangel if you think they would be interested.

    I really liked your post. I don’t think your tendencies are childish at all. I think that we all seek help when we are under pressure, and a PhD is an extreme case. You said yourself that you know it is about self empowerment, but I think that is just part of it. There is a reason its called a doctor of philosophy in ALL disciplines. It’s because it is about understanding yourself. Some people will tell you it’s about overcoming your insecurities and weaknesses. I find it easier to think that it’s about learning to ignore them. It’s not about NOT procrastinating, but about ACCEPTING the fact that you spent the last week sitting on the couch watching telly, or surfing the net, and learning to move on. I tell people that the process for me was akin to ripping out all my weaknesses and fears and have them put directly in front me. I just had to learn to look beyond them. It seems easier to think that we don’t have to get rid of the negative stuff, just that we need to keep shifting our focus to the things we have to do. I ended up saying that I would try and figure out what was going on in my head AFTER I submitted. And now that I have submitted, I find my challenge was in pushing forward in spite of those insecurities.

    Do you might be seeking someone because you are scared of what you can achieve? A PhD is something that is intensely personal. It is completely your own, and probably one of the only things that ever will be. But you have to ‘own’ it before you can finish. I submitted recently, and about two months before submission, I realised that no one else was going to help me in they way I wanted (of course my supervisors were excellent, but they can only take you so far). Actually, I realised that what I was really searching for in other people, I needed to give myself. That is, the time, the understanding, and the commitment to my thesis to see me to the finish line.

  8. cute_angel says:

    Hi Anuja,

    just wanted to say thank you for your comment. Yes, accepting and moving forward beyond insecurities are important to manage your PhD journey. Sometimes its not as easy as it sounds, but perseverance is the key.

    and congratulations on submitting 🙂


  9. racheloreilly says:

    Another timely post. I especially loved this part of Anuja’s comment:

    Some people will tell you it’s about overcoming your insecurities and weaknesses. I find it easier to think that it’s about learning to ignore them…. It seems easier to think that we don’t have to get rid of the negative stuff, just that we need to keep shifting our focus to the things we have to do. I ended up saying that I would try and figure out what was going on in my head AFTER I submitted. And now that I have submitted, I find my challenge was in pushing forward in spite of those insecurities.

    • Anonymous says:

      Peter Rosato’s post is for a company that sells thesis writing services. Although the etymology of the word “coach” implies that you will be carried along in luxury, I think this might be a bit too far 😛

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