Have you ever considered a dissertation coach?

When I left my Phd program, I don’t recall ever having heard the term ‘dissertation/thesis coach’

I (think) wish I had as it may have been the lifeline I needed at the time. I don’t know if it is an internet thing but since leaving and returning to my dissertation there seems to have been an explosion of dissertation coaches – many who seem to offer excellent services.

I want to be really upfront here

I have never used a dissertation coach although I am both open to the idea and have plans to use one if the need arises. I have done a stack of research on the subject and have been in email contact with several coaches regarding their services. I have also talked to, posted about and searched for feedback on the coaching process and after many months of information gathering, I realised that the fruits of my labour could be helpful to others who may be stuck in the dissertation process and who either had not heard about or, were unsure of what to expect from a dissertation coach. What I hope is that some of what I have found is useful for others. I would also love to hear from anyone who has experience with coaching so please, add your ideas or comments below!

The coaching services that I was motivated enough to contact were both professional, prompt and had some excellent advice about how to consider coaching services because, believe me, not only are there plenty of different coaches and coaching approaches, there is a huge difference in pricing. Navigating the information about coaches and coaching can be daunting. It can be difficult to determine what services you require and whether or not a particular coach offers those services.

My research seems to indicate that the best or rather most effective coaching is that which is a combination of support and generating a good KITA when you need it. A good coach will help you plan and structure your research by setting achievable goals and helping you with accountability. Dissertation coaching is a very specific field – it’s not life or success coaching, it is designed (or should be) to assist you in completing one major task – the dissertation.

Obviously your coach should have completed their own dissertation (but be thorough, check!) and ideally work within your general area of humanities or science. It is up to you if you think you need someone who has a background in your exact discipline, personally I don’t think this is a requirement as the coaching is about the process of the research and this stretches across sub-disciplines but, you need to decide upon this aspect for yourself and then spend some time researching the backgrounds of available coaches.

Info from coaching sites:

The following is taken directly (although I have trimmed it slightly) from The Dissertation Coach and describes what a coach is, what a coach does and whether or not coaching might be what you are looking for.

What is dissertation coaching?

  • Dissertation coaching is a service designed around your needs to help you successfully complete your doctoral dissertation or thesis once and for all.
  • It is a system of structuring the dissertation or thesis process to increase productivity so you make consistent and tangible progress.
  • Dissertation coaching helps you identify and change beliefs and behaviors that interfere with your motivation and productivity.
  • It involves providing accountability and a significant avenue for solving any problems or issues that interfere with your progress.
  • Dissertation coaching provides you with the support you need to get motivated, stay motivated, and manage the inevitable challenges that arise during the dissertation process.
  • Dissertation coaching can help students in the humanities, social sciences, and the hard sciences at any stage of research.

How does dissertation coaching work?

  • Dissertation coaching can be done in-person (for students in Chicago and Los Angeles), by phone, or via Skype. We work with graduate students throughout the Unites States and internationally.
  • Initially, we design an overall structure for completing your dissertation that includes a master timeline and weekly action plans to help you develop: 1) a sense of how long it will take you to finish and 2) a clear set of dissertation tasks you can complete on a weekly and day-to-day basis.
  • We will meet with you every week to review your progress, coach you to overcome internal and external challenges, and set new goals.
  • As dissertation coaches, we help you maintain an accurate and realistic work plan to keep you on track.
  • We provide unlimited email communication as a way to support you, intervene when problems arise, create a sense of accountability, and keep you on task.
  • Dissertation coaching is provided on a monthly basis. There are no contracts to sign or long-term commitments to make.

Do I need a dissertation coach?

  • Are you tired of being “ABD” but cannot seem to make consistent progress?
  • Do you feel stuck?
  • Do you get caught in cycles of procrastination and self-doubt that interfere with your progress?
  • Do you feel you need more accountability?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed by the dissertation process itself?
  • Do you feel that the stress associated with the dissertation process is interfering with your ability to work effectively?
  • Do you fear that you lack enough intelligence, creativity, motivation, or other necessary qualities to finish your dissertation?
  • Do you struggle with perfectionism?
  • Do you make new to-do lists on a regular basis that do not help you be more productive?
  • Do you work full or part-time, have children, or health issues that make it difficult for you to find the time or stamina you need to consistently work on your dissertation?
  • Are you frustrated by your inability to build or sustain motivation?
  • Do you no longer live in the same state or city as your graduate program?
  • Are you receiving inadequate support from faculty or your committee during the process of completing a dissertation?

If this all sounds great then the following information will probably be useful.

The following was garnered from a variety of sources

who have had some experience with coaching. I have divided the responses up into general headings but some overlap in more than one. I found all of these responses helpful in ascertaining exactly what to expect from a coach and in determining if coaching is something I could/would consider.

Why consider a coach?

  • “I really think if chairs did their jobs, this wouldn’t be so much of a problem. My chair often went weeks or even months without answering my (and other students’) emails, and did not want to see any material until the whole dissertation was completed. In some ways, I’m glad now, because I can really say the whole thing is MY work, but I was definitely on my own the whole time. It was partly because of thatI turned to the coach”
  • I wish academia would be a little more attuned to this need of graduates. It just seems crazy that we end up going to a lengthy personal project, completely self-directed, and we’re suddenly supposed to do that on our own, after years and years of writing to task within our programs. I guess those who have involved/motivated DAs don’t have to struggle with all that as much, but for most of us, it seems there’s an inevitable period of inertia that comes when comps or classes are over and there we are, suddenly on our own. I guess that’s the real test of an academic, and we’re supposed to be able to pass it, but I really wonder if more people would finish and with better results if there was more guidance in this part of the process.

The following are from PhD grads who used a coach at some stage of their dissertation:

  • I used a service to help me with my proposal and they were really effective. They also offer more of a psychological component in getting you over procrastination, etc
  • I hired a dissertation coach after I spent a year on the proposal and still couldn’t get my methodology, lit review and research questions to align. After about 45 minutes on the phone she had fleshed out and given me more direction than I could have imagined. She helped me put together the basics of how to write this up in a proposal, and I filled in all the gaps. In all she spent about 2.5 hours and it cost me $300. Here’s the thing though, I give her 100% credit for getting me unstuck. Perhaps other universities have people that would sit down with them like this, mine did not. Later when my committee and proposal were in place, one of them, a statistician, was so enthusiastic about how smart the design was, I feel like I had support from the get-go. In my situation, being stuck for a year was huge, I would GLADLY exchange $300 again for the momentum that it put into my entire project.
  • I could not have finished without her
  • Coaching won’t help everyone. If it did, the secret would be out and everyone would have a coach. Some people get help from coaching while others don’t
  • You need to want to help yourself and be reasonably certain that you are the kind of person who will respond to coaching. Otherwise, speaking frankly, it’s a waste of money. You also probably need to have some specific goals what you want out of coaching. Vagueness is a sign of something that coaching probably can’t fix easily. If you feel that you could benefit from a coach, then selecting one is the next challenge. Generally, the best selection criteria is certification and word of mouth. 

Another Perspective:

  • What works for me: coming to the session with a clear idea of what I need to accomplish in it – what is going on that my coach has the experience to help me with, support me in, etc. Do I need info? A pep talk? Perspective? Thinking about my purpose for a coaching session helps me come out of it with a plan that I can follow through on. Also, coupling coaching with journalling or some other accountability mechanism – helped me see if/how I was doing the follow through on the coaching sessions.                                                            What doesn’t work: Using coaching sessions to gripe, complain, whine, etc. I wind up thinking “I spent how much on THAT?” and I don’t really feel any better. Also, not being clear with coach when proposed solutions don’t sound workable to me. If I agree, but am thinking “No way!,” I haven’t used her expertise. Better for me to say “I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think I’ll actually do that. Any other ideas?” On all but one occasion, she had an alternative to offer. The one occasion was when she had to say, “It sounds like you don’t really want to solve this, because you’re rejecting every suggestion,” which gave me plenty to think about!

What a coach is or isnt:

  • I think a coach can be someone who facilitates your process and helps you get past blocks. I don’t think of a coach as an authority figure giving you deadlines.
  • Also seconding that coaches don’t make deadlines. They are coaches – and coaches don’t schedule the games. I can tell you right now that a coach will ask you to draw up your own reverse calendar and set deadlines for yourself, and then help you figure out along the way what the blocks are in meeting those deadlines. They can also coach you about balancing work/life, setting smart goals and making up a realistic time line of deadlines, but the rest is up to you. The effort and the ‘overcoming’ part of this has to come from YOU – no coach can supply THAT. If all you need is a taskmaster who is involved and will put pressure on you to meet deadlines, see if another committee member can help you in that regard. If you want to identify and overcome the obstacles that you are self-sabotaging yourself with, then hire a coach. Perhaps the two together might give you what you need.
  • The Coach I used was very reasonably priced — and she provided me with incredible support and practical problem-solving advice for any problems I had with getting to work. I agree that coaching should not be a supplement for the advisor. Rather a coach should help with strategies for getting work done and solutions for road-blocks in the research or writing process.The coach I used does the first appointment for free. Check out the details of the website I posted above on what the coaching entails and what to expect. it’s the best investment I made. And in terms of the rewards you gain for the price you pay — more than worth it.

Is coaching ethical? Isn’t this your supervisor’s job?

  • I have hired a coach and been a coach. I don’t see anything anti-academic ABOUT it. After all, we are supposed to be part of a COMMUNITY of scholars, and if that community fails to function correctly, why not go outside of it? I am a very high-achiever, but was so paralyzed at the thought of starting my dissertation that I needed some help to get rolling. What I find is that the people who come for coaching are often the BRIGHTEST and MOST motivated, but they are uncomfortable with moving from smaller, structured tasks to unstructured ones. And let’s face it, academia kind of dumps us into that unstructured task all of a sudden, doesn’t it? There are just so many ways in which that is not pedaogically sound . . . .  If someone had a broken leg, we’d say go to a hospital. If someone were dyslexic or had ADD, we’d encourage them to find alternative ways of approaching their work. So why is it that academics are so reluctant to offer/sanction these other kinds of help for problems that EVERYONE struggles with? I haven’t met a single person who did not have at least some problem adjusting to the dissertation phase. I can also say this: I would have finished with or without the coaching, but it sure helped my outlook to have it.
  • I credit her (and, well, my hard work) with getting me through defense more quickly than anyone in my year. She did not give field-specific advice, as I had a fabulous advisor who did that. What she did do was help me understand how to work most effectively with my advisor, the rest of my committee, and the academic atmosphere in general. I had far fewer wandering-in-the-dark, afraid-to-ask-questions moments surrounding the process, because she had been there, done that, and was able to diagnose (usually very accurately) what was going on when the process got stuck. I’ve just started working with her again to help me navigate the early days of tenure track. It feels expensive when I pay the bill, but when I see what I accomplish as a result, I think it’s worth every penny. So I’m a big fan of coaches (call them expert consultants, if coach has a negative connotation for you). There’s no rule that we have to do everything ourselves!

Do I really want someone else making demands? 😦

Should you tell your supervisor/advisor?

  • I hired a dissertation coach and did not tell my supervisor. I didn’t feel the need given that a coach was a support for me personally and not for the academic work. She was my academic cheerleader. She helped me strategize to get through difficult committee meetings, and keep myself on track. Unfortunately the coach had to stop coaching. And I am really feeling her absence. I think I need a coach for the last few steps.  My advice: get a coach and keep it to yourself

As I mentioned at the start,

I have contacted two coaching services seeking clarification about services. I sent off a rather long, rambling email to the first, trying to explain my situation and needs and what I received back was calm, thoughtful and helpful strategies for thinking about whether coaching was for me. I also got a link to a fabulous webinar on iTunesU which I have watched several times and have found to be exceptionally informative and helpful (you can find instructions for accessing the video on my resources page – scroll down, it’s under the tips section).

I was going to end this post with links to the coaching services that I contacted but I am reluctant to do this as I have no actual experience with any coaches and think that it is such a personal decision that it is probably a good idea to do your own research based upon your own needs.

I do intend to utilise whatever tools are available to me during my dissertation and if the time comes when I think that a dissertation coach will value-add to my experience then I will not hesitate to use one. For me it is a financial issue as well so that is a factor that I will need to consider when choosing whether or not to use a coach, for how long and even whether I can afford my ideal coach.

If/when I do use a coach I will certainly report my experiences here at thereturningresearcher. In the meantime I would love to hear from anyone who has experience working with a coach or who is considering working with a coach.


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