Do Top-Notch Academics Need Coaching?

Career coaching for academics of all sciences is something relatively new. The reason behind this is quite apparent: going through academic training, researchers become very self-reliable and independent. They are used to making their own decisions, prioritizing their own work and schedule, etc. However, academics, too, get stuck sometimes. By society they are viewed as people who always have the answers to everything. They are assigned characteristics such as intelligent, reliable, and self-sufficient. The image of the lonely academic who sits at a table in a small room, head deeply in the books is still relatively common. Moreover, an academic career is also seen as linear. Once on the career track, the only decisions an academic supposedly has to make are about his or her research agenda, which projects to follow, which ones to drop, which classes to offer – all in all, decisions that seem quite unspectacular.

The truth is that an academic career requires a great amount of self-motivation and discipline. For example, academics usually do not face the same restrictions in their workplace as other employees do. Nobody supervises their face time; nobody asks if they got their work done, you cannot find time clocks in departments. Other measures weigh more heavily, such as number of publications, funding acquired through grant writing, satisfaction of students, etc. Since academics typically do not have fixed work hours, they tend to work as long as they have to in order to get something done. The result is that leisure time and work time blend which is a very critical process. The pressure to advance one’s own research is so great that academics typically also work on the weekends.

The necessities that derive from this are clear. Many academics do not know how to create free time for themselves, how to dedicate time to their families, much less how to found their own families. The statistics show: academics have substantially fewer children than other groups of professionals.

In European countries a wide variety of coaching offers for highly qualified academics has developed over the past decade. Universities have acknowledged the need to train academics in certain areas, such as soft skills, and have established career centers for academic training. Academics are supposed to not only be excellent in their field of expertise; they are also expected to know how to act appropriately in their own scientific community.

Essentially, there are two main areas which career coaching for academics can involve, even though there is no limit to what can be tackled with coaching. The first area is the actual career development. This has many different facets. In one-on-one coaching for example, the coach can help the academic develop perspectives in case the desired career path cannot be taken. Not every researcher can become a professor, simply because there are not enough professorships. Consequently, it is very important for every academic to come up with other opportunities besides the professorship. At the same time, even a professor might be able to make good use of coaching, for example when a change in direction is forced on them because there are budget cuts in the department. A professor is apparently not a HR specialist, yet he or she has to make employee decisions which can present itself as a conflict. In group coaching, soft skills or skills necessary in order to become a successful academic can be mediated.

The other realm is that of work-life-balance. According to the motto “Make your life a career, not your career your life”, researchers are often confronted with an extremely high work load. Given that nobody determines how much a researcher should work per se this group of people often run the risk of burning out. Coaching can help setting healthy boundaries and coming up with feasible plans on how to deal with family, friends, or other social obligations on the one hand and work on the other hand.

The academia is a very special sub-system of society which draws certain types of individuals. These individuals often struggle with the same problems. Being over-achievers, they have created a belief system for themselves which is strongly focused on personal success and which demands a lot of self-sacrificing. Coaching can help create deeper awareness of one’s own boundaries and celebrating more of the successes that have been achieved.