Do You Really Need to Hire a Career Coach?

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By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

A doctoral student recently asked whether I would be willing to meet with a couple of her friends — unconnected to our university — to discuss their new business venture: career coaching for Ph.D.s leaving academe. As an administrator who advises graduate students, I get a lot of meeting requests and I almost never decline, but I declined that one.

Referring graduate students to academic and professional resources is part of my job as director of interdisciplinary advising and engagement at Duke University. But I can’t endorse anything that will cost the students I advise more money than they are already shelling out for their doctoral education — especially when the resources being advertised seem to duplicate what’s freely available (in this case, at our campus career center).

This is not the first time I’ve said no to a career-consulting or coaching business. I have also declined an invitation to speak (without honorarium) for an organization offering career webinars for Ph.D. students. The webinars are often free, yet they appear to serve as marketing for expensive one-on-one career consultations (priced hourly and sub-hourly) and paid programming. I have unfollowed a couple of these enterprises on Twitter, wearied by their relentless promotions of their podcasts, webinars, and the like.

To be clear: I am not, in principle, opposed to paid career consulting, and what follows is not a screed against it. In fact, a decade ago, I even hired a career coach myself. That experience, which I’ll talk about below, showed me that there can be times when a paid coach is a reasonable option. Career-consulting businesses exist in many labor sectors. The ones I’m seeing pop up more and more in our industry offer a broad array of services to help faculty members and graduate students either flourish in an academic career (writing, productivity, time management) or make the leap beyond one.

To be fair, they have identified an existing market, and some may be doing a lot of good — especially when a department or institution has failed to help its graduate students in a miserable faculty job market. These services might particularly be needed by academics who study and work at cash-strapped institutions that don’t offer much in the way of professional development.

In my career as an academic administrator, I have maintained a deliberate distance from such companies, so I cannot speak to the quality of their recent product. Yet the proliferation of outside services targeting the career needs of academic clients gives me pause, for a number of reasons.

For starters, it is a symptom — more than a solution — of a larger problem: Colleges and universities have been unable to keep up with the increasingly complex needs of the people they employ and train. More than a few universities, recognizing that shortcoming, have even hired external vendors to offer professional-development programs for professors and graduate students.

Providing free access to such externally run services is not a bad thing, but are there invisible costs to outsourcing professional development? My answer would be yes. And one of the costs is that, by reaching beyond the campus for professional development, you may be missing out on promising opportunities to build a mentoring network closer to home.

Over the past decade, I’ve held three administrative positions at two research universities, all three posts related in some way to fostering the professional development of either faculty members or doctoral students. I’ve come to believe that the most powerful and effective ways to do that are right on the campus — intertwined with the people alongside whom we study and work. I’ve spent much of my career building peer-mentoring networks, so that professors and students can fully benefit from the wealth of experience, knowledge, and emotional connections that are already well within their reach.

From that vantage point, I offer some reflections here for anyone — graduate student, postdoc, or faculty member — who may feel up against some kind of professional wall, wondering where to turn for help. In one of the richer ironies of my unconventional career path, I am now also an associate-level certified coach through the International Coaching Federation. While I find my coaching skills indispensable to my work with Duke’s graduate students, I do not charge them, and I am not pursuing any business ventures on the side. For that reason, I feel particularly well-placed to offer a candid, disinterested assessment of the burgeoning academic coaching and consulting landscape.

Before you go looking to hire a career coach, it’s critical to know what you need and what free help is already available to you if you know where to look and are willing to reach out and ask for it. For those who do decide to hire help, I have advice on how to be a discerning consumer.

Start with the free resources on your own campus. What help does your institution offer for professional and career development? Graduate students and faculty members tend to be keenly aware of resources (or the lack thereof) in their own departments — but not of what’s available universitywide. For example:

  • If you are a Ph.D. student, what resources are offered through your graduate school? Does the campus career center offer advising and support to doctoral students — as most increasingly do?
  • Faculty members: What professional-development support is available via the offices of your dean and/or the provost? Are there opportunities (research fellowships, mentoring, or leadership training) at campus centers and institutes, tailored to your academic or professional goals?

At least learn the answers to those questions before looking for off-campus help.

Know what (and who) you really need. Do you need a mentor (either academic or nonacademic) to explain the unwritten roles of a particular profession or industry? Do you need expert advice for executing a job search (either inside or beyond academe)? For that kind of help, your best bet would be to look to a faculty adviser or a senior professor, and if those people fall short, then to find a consultant. Or do you mostly need a listening ear and structured support for figuring out your career and life plans? That would be a coach. Sometimes you need a blend of more than one thing.

Don’t take your peer-mentoring network — or the wealth of experience it contains — for granted. One of the first things a good career consultant will tell you, ironically, is to talk to other people already in your network. Most of us have been mentored, advised, and coached at various points by people we work with, and we all need to get better as asking for their advice. Academic peers can give you all sorts of free advice on time management, productivity, or how to prepare your tenure portfolio.

If you wish to explore careers paths beyond academe, and are nervous about discussing that with people in your department, don’t overlook nonacademic professionals in your network. That might include university staff members who spent part of their careers working in other employment sectors as well as alumni who pursued a nonacademic career. It also includes people doing work that interests you within your own family, neighborhood, or city. Ask them about their job and professional journey. They will not judge you for re-evaluating your career trajectory. After all, plenty of people these days don’t spend their entire lives on a single career path.

If you’re reaching out to a professional consultant or coach, understand why. For some, it’s a matter of convenience. Others might value the professionalism and strict confidentiality that a responsible coach would offer. Some networks (especially academic ones) might not, in fact, be broad enough to contain the types of expertise you need to access. Or perhaps you identify with something in a particular coach’s background or seek their expertise in working with a specialized clientele, such as underrepresented or traditionally marginalized academics.

Or you might feel so constrained by your professional circumstances — so locked in a holding pattern — that you’re ready to seize help wherever it’s available. That was true for me in 2011, when, as a young tenured associate professor of English at a small southern college, I hit a wall. I’d reaped many rewards from my academic career, which I (like so many other academics) had regarded as something of a sacred calling. I had recently published an academic monograph. I was also teaching four classes a semester, while parenting two children under the age of 5. In short, I had a really bad case of burnout.

At the time, because I was thinking about leaving academe, I looked for coaches who specialized in helping professors make career transitions. If such coaches existed back in 2011, I couldn’t find them (it’s not as hard to find them now). After some fruitless searching — hoping to find a consultant who was also a humanities Ph.D. like me — I finally settled on a career coach who had done some adjuncting at a business school. I remember thinking that she at least had some exposure to faculty life.

Hiring a career coach turned out to be exactly what I needed. She did not have a deep knowledge of academe but that actually didn’t matter. Rather, she knew what I needed to learn, which was how to plan and execute a career transition, and, especially, how nonfaculty job markets worked. She was a good listener, and our regular meetings provided me the structure I needed to set and execute the many small goals involved in a career transition.

In hindsight, I am glad I found my coach. But having now navigated several nonfaculty job searches — and mentored others through them — it’s much easier for me to see how the basic strategies for making a career switch are surprisingly consistent across industries. (Take a look at Dawn Graham’s Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers for more insights on this.) If you do seek paid help in leaving higher education for a nonacademic career, know that your options are not limited to folks who specialize in working with Ph.D.s.

Caveat emptor. Today academics can dive into a growing pool of career-consulting companies. Of course, a breadth of options also means you have to do your homework. Anyone can hang out a shingle (or build a website).

And then there’s the matter of cost: Webinars and workshops can offer decent value for money, but one-on-one attention from a coach or a consultant can cost you well over $100 an hour. Before you waste your money on a less-than-savvy coach, find out:

  • What demonstrated skills and expertise does your coach bring to the work?
  • Does this person possess any formal training or certifications?
  • Is the coach willing to offer you a brief complimentary meeting, so you can establish rapport and an agreement about how you would work together?
  • Are there testimonials? Blurbs on a website are OK, but unmediated access to a former client willing to provide a fair assessment of the coach is priceless.

Know the hidden costs. Paying the right person to help you can be both easy and effective. But that relationship is very likely to end with the final Venmo transaction. The loss of ongoing support from a long-term mentor — “I saw this opportunity and I thought of you!” — is one opportunity cost of the paid consultant. Or perhaps, by deciding to hire a coach rather than reach out to someone you perceive as a “weak” contact in your own network, the loss was a personal friendship that might have been — someone who would have helped you out because it was the right thing to do, and not because you were willing to pay a fee.

If you can’t afford to hire someone, or just don’t want to, yet you can’t identify an expert in your network, it might be enough to identify one or more people who share your problem: What would it look like to find a solution together?

A couple weeks after I received that email about the new business venture, I received another email from a late-stage doctoral student in the humanities who had diligently worked on her postdoctoral plans for a couple years, with promising early results. She was writing to let me know that, along with two of her peers, she had started “a digital [free] community for current and former Ph.D.s who are moving into nonacademic career paths.” They’d set up a Slack group, “in which we are sharing resources related to networking, personal branding, and the job search,” and were planning an initial first Zoom meeting.

I did not hesitate to share that information with my advisees. It’s wonderful to see doctoral students — acculturated into a model of individual striving — create an accessible, visible community around nonacademic career searches. Not only are they building something much larger than themselves — a vibrant campus culture of peer mentoring — but they are redefining professional development in a way that eschews the centrality of “the expert” altogether.

And career experts, at the end of the day, can do only so much for us. A few years after my first early win in finding a nonfaculty job, I met up with my old career coach (at my initiative) at a coffee shop. She gave me a warm embrace, and said, “It’s my miracle client!”

Startled, I realized that she’d considered me a long shot at transitioning to nonacademic work, especially as I had limited my search to a small geographical area. I felt grateful to my well-trained coach for keeping her personal opinions from interfering with our work. But I also realized how many factors had been beyond our control, including fortuitous timing and sheer good luck.

Executing a big change, whether personal or professional, is always fraught with risk. But the costs of not moving forward — and feeling imprisoned by your circumstances — are often much steeper. The question is: Who can help you move forward right now?

Maria LaMonaca Wisdom is director of interdisciplinary advising and engagement at Duke University. Formerly, she was executive director of a humanities institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an associate professor of English at Columbia College in South Carolina, and a scholar of Victorian literature. She is on Twitter @mlwisdom.

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