Every researcher needs a coach

Standard mentoring is not enough if we want a resilient, compassionate and happy research workforce, says Mark Reed

March 25, 2022
A swimming coach
Source: iStock

Mentoring schemes seem like an intrinsically good idea. But when I was asked to review one academic school’s mentoring scheme recently, I was surprised to discover how many mentees approach mentoring with a sense of dread.

The reason seems to be that if they already feel that they don’t measure up in academia, it is difficult for them not to feel inadequate when well-meaning senior colleagues tell them how they manage to produce a stream of seemingly superhuman outputs.

What junior academics really need is someone who can appreciate the pressures they are under and help them maintain their self-belief enough to keep going. Some of us are lucky enough to have friends who can help us put the pieces back together when our grant applications are rejected, gently challenging our self-limiting beliefs. But what about those who aren’t so lucky?

The recommendation I made to the school that commissioned my review was to transform its mentoring programme into a coaching programme.

Unlike standard academic mentors, coaches work with their clients across the whole scope of their working and private lives, helping them develop more effective approaches and mindsets. And the evidence suggests that a good coach can make the difference between aspiring to change and actually transforming how you work.

In his 2021 book, What Works in Executive Coaching, Erik de Haan, director of the Hult International Business School’s Centre for Coaching, found 35 relevant randomised control trials. He concluded that all but three showed significant advantages for coached (experimental) groups versus control groups. These advantages included improved professional skills, knowledge and confidence; improved ratings of their effectiveness by their managers; greater self-belief, goal attainment and job satisfaction; improved resilience, workplace well-being and career satisfaction; improved health and life satisfaction; and less depression, stress and burnout.

In other words, the personalised care and motivation provided by coaching can enable people to bounce back from and reframe academic rejection, find new meaning in their work, and prioritise the things that are most important.

One of the reasons is that empathy is at the heart of coaching. As we identify with each other and make space to reflect, we begin to practise self-compassion – which, in turn, enhances our capacity to be truly compassionate towards those around us.

If compassion is “empathy plus action”, as Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin defines it, then it is not just something you are born with; it is something you can learn to do better. And we invest in training to make us better researchers, lecturers and leaders, so why not invest in training to build skills in compassion? We might all be better researchers, lecturers and leaders if we were able to empathise more effectively with our colleagues and understand the sorts of actions that might meet the needs we perceive.

The problem is that very few academics are aware of the benefits of coaching – and few universities offer it to those who want it. Just training existing mentors on how to coach could make a difference. However, it is even better to invest in highly trained specialists. Health coaches, for instance, (my wife is one of many who now work with researchers) can work on home-work balance, diet, exercise, health and wellbeing.

This is much less expensive than the occupational health visits and the countless days of lost work that are caused by ill health. And prevention is far more humane than our current approach of picking up the pieces after it has all gone wrong.

Compassion training is becoming increasingly common in the business world, but if you don’t think such stand-alone programmes would appeal to your colleagues, why not integrate it into your leadership programmes? Or include it in equality and diversity training; perhaps it might allow us to go deeper than ticking boxes and really put ourselves in the shoes of our least fortunate colleagues. This will allow us to start calling out privilege in ways that educate and nurture, rather than judging those who are unaware of their privilege.

We may not have the courage or resources to make all the changes we would like to see in the world. But if a few more of us felt able to bring our authentic selves into academia, we might together be able to create the kind of nurturing workplace so many of us crave, where we can dream and do the best work of our lives.

As the Persian poet Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”. You can be the culture you want to see.

Mark Reed is professor of rural entrepreneurship and director of the Thriving Natural Capital Challenge Centre at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). He is CEO of Fast Track Impact, which offers health resilience training and coaching. His latest book, Impact Culture, is published on 25 March. Most of it is available open access, accompanied by free resources and a year’s worth of free training and events.

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