Strength training and weight lifting

Professional coaching - a common tool in business - is just starting to make inroads in the academy. Matthew Reisz speaks to advocates of tailor-made tactics for defeating stress, stasis and discord

July 21, 2011

Credit: Getty
Nudge: Even high-flyers can get hung up sometimes. Coaching can help them clear the obstacles and get themselves under way again

Corporate coaching has spread rapidly from the US across the world, with the business sector happy to buy in such support for employees they are grooming to be high flyers. The higher education sector, in contrast, would appear to offer a less obviously lucrative, and perhaps more sceptical, market. Yet coaches in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK, are working with an increasing number of academics, helping them to confront not only the challenges they share with many other professionals (notably the sheer lack of hours in the day) but also the pressures specific to the sector.

Nathalie Houston, associate professor of English at the University of Houston, has just begun to offer coaching to academics outside her own institution. In addition to her full-time tenured job teaching and researching Victorian literature, literary theory and the history of the book, since 2009 Houston has been involved in the ProfHacker blog, where a team of more than a dozen writers offer "tips about teaching, technology and productivity".

"I write about time management and work-life balance," she says, "topics I've been interested in for a long time."

Recognising that she often provided informal coaching to colleagues, friends and students, Houston decided to gain a formal qualification and set up a practice that she hopes to extend to about 15 clients.

She "meets" them, either for 30 minutes three times a month or 45 minutes twice a month, by phone or by Skype - mostly, she says, "on Fridays, when I don't teach or have university meetings, and on Saturdays, so it's compacted into a certain section of my week".

The basic principles are simple. "While therapy tends to look to the roots of the problem, to trace it back to some dynamic or trauma," explains Houston, "coaching is about what you can do now to change the situation.

"As one well-known coach said, if a stick in a river gets stuck, you don't ask what made it stuck - it just needs a nudge to go on floating down the river. Coaching focuses on the nudge. It's action-oriented, and present- and future-directed.

"One of the fundamentals of my coaching is that individuals have the answers within them but they don't yet know it. One person may want specific tools such as time-management software. Others may want a coach to hold them accountable and will email me every time they have written something as a way of checking in, so they feel that somebody cares. It's different for every individual, but they all leave each session with homework, something to do or work on before the next session."

Although she is aware of only a handful of coaches who work with academics, all of whom have backgrounds in psychology and education, Houston believes there is a huge "unmet need" and that, as an academic herself, she can "bring a different kind of experience to my coaching work".

So what does she consider to be typical issues that scholars are seeking to tackle?

"Academics are trained to be critical of texts and of power structures," suggests Houston, "and that can make us very self-critical as well. It can be useful in helping us improve, but not every day is going to be brilliant and typically we keep going over the ones that didn't work. We need to learn not to get stuck on 'I had a terrible class'.

"In universities, the barriers between life and work are not as clear as in the corporate world. You can write at home, in the office or the coffee shop. The places where we work, the hours that we work, are not always externally imposed. They may be relatively flexible, which is one of the great benefits, but it's also very difficult, because it means you are responsible for managing your time, setting your priorities, and balancing research, teaching and service requirements. That's a complicated work-life situation."

Another complication, Houston points out, is that the sheer demands of research mean that you need to be "passionately connected to your material, even if it's not always clear why. At the same time, the conditions of academic life may mean that reading what you love becomes your work and, if it's always work, the love gets complicated."

Coaches believe they can provide the tools and outsider perspectives necessary to help scholars find their way through these hazards.

Clinical psychologist Gina Hiatt, who is based in McLean, Virginia, is the founder of a company called The Academic Ladder, which "coaches graduate students and professors in their writing and other aspects of navigating the academic career".

These services are further subdivided into what Hiatt calls "dissertation, tenure and promotion coaching". All address issues that she regards as distinctive to the academy.

"At least in the US," she notes, "there is little training for those who 'rise up the ranks' of administration, whether to department chair, dean or any other position. As a result, I believe that academics are ill-prepared for dealing with internal discord among faculty members. This can result in situations of bullying and mobbing."

Such situations, in Hiatt's view, are more widespread in academic than in corporate contexts, since "there is more accountability for behaviour and more concern about the bottom line in business. I have seen departments where all the best professors have taken jobs elsewhere, until the department is decimated, and the dean turns a blind eye to the way the department chair and his/her cronies are treating the rest of the faculty members.

"I think this is also a huge problem in the UK. I'm on a mailing list that consists of mostly English academics, most of whom have undergone all kinds of unfair treatment within their university. I've worked with quite a few clients who have been in unbelievably bad situations."

Rather different are the challenges facing those who are embarking on PhDs. In a recent article for the website Inside Higher Ed, Hiatt recalls her postgraduate training in psychology at McGill University in Canada, when she "spent hours hanging around the postdocs. I learned at least as much from them as I did from my interactions with my professors. The expectation was that I would be at the lab from 9 to 5 or more, every day. I saw my adviser daily."

But in many other disciplines, by contrast, the lack of a laboratory environment can leave PhD candidates struggling on their own.

"As a dissertation coach," Hiatt observes, "I've worked with many such students. The luckier ones are early in the process and not yet consumed with self-loathing and shame. Others have been at it for years and feel terrible about themselves. It is noteworthy that 80 to 90 per cent of the calls I receive for dissertation coaching are from students in the humanities, social sciences or education."

Furthermore, as they move up the career ladder and seek tenure, Hiatt argues, US academics often hit a brick wall in "maintaining productivity on long-term writing projects". The stakes, the environment and the sheer solitary drudgery can all make this a painful process.

"Blocks to productive writing can be caused by a variety of external factors, such as busy schedules, illness or a new baby," she notes. "But a large part of what contributes to writer's block comes from psychological factors. I'm not talking about deep-seated pathology, more the garden-variety negative thinking and self-doubt that we all have. I believe that such negative thinking about oneself does get exacerbated by the academic environment.

"In the academy, there is training in analytic and critical thinking. Such types of thinking are important to scholarly endeavours. But often such analysis or criticism of the work of others can be quite biting and cruel. Many academics have been burned by harsh critiques and start avoiding writing, in order to prevent a repeat of the 'traumatic' experience," she says.

So what can coaches do to help academics climb this major career obstacle? Along with individual and group telephone coaching, Hiatt has created an academic writing club with her own proprietary software. This service aims to provide flagging academic writers with "features such as daily accountability to both a coach and to their small group; graphic tracking of their progress to help with motivation; daily questions to answer that use a cognitive psychology approach; daily feedback from group members about their responses to that day's questions; and twice-weekly coaching feedback, plus a telephone class and a telephone coaching group.

"They also have use of a forum and chat rooms, in addition to a wiki that has tons of information about everything academic, from teaching hints to poster sessions and, of course, academic writing. We don't read their work; our focus is on the process of writing, not the content. I currently have 360 members, a number of them from the UK, Australia and all over the world," Hiatt notes.

So what can we expect, in terms of coaching, at a UK university near you? "It doesn't surprise me that America is ahead of the game," says Susanne Simms, senior lecturer in speech and language therapy at Birmingham City University. "Coaching came later to this country, although I know a lot of people who work privately in the field - and it's still underdeveloped within higher education.

"I would like to see a one-to-one coaching service for university staff, as is offered in a lot of businesses. This would be really helpful. We often talk about everything in terms of benefits to students, while supporting staff seems to be a neglected area. And yet it seems pretty obvious to me that resilient staff will offer a much better service to students."

As well as teaching psychology, Simms is a trained coach. As part of her day job, she offers sessions for struggling students who volunteer for them, and she also gives more informal peer support to academics. Simms has now embarked on a PhD at the University of Worcester where she will train both academics and support staff in using coaching in their work and then assess "the impact on their well-being, resilience and efficacy".

She hopes her research findings will indicate the value of coaching both in terms of performance improvement and enhanced well-being.

Despite the likelihood of increased pressures within the academy, many people will doubtless continue to rely on traditional remedies such as whingeing or a nice cup of tea. But others will turn for help to coaches who, claims Simms, can supply "a solution-focused style of talking that protects people from stress and overload. It's strength-based and not interested in problems. It tries to find out what is working and how to do more of that - it's an enabling conversation rather than talking about what's wrong."

"Coaching is completely confidential," adds Houston. "People feeling stuck in their life or work may not want anyone in their university or field to know. That's fine - I can be their secret weapon."

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