On PhD students and professional athletes

In my view, doing a PhD is like running a marathon. It is a lot about endurance, technique, practice, and very importantly, receiving coaching. Let me explain a bit more how I came to this conclusion.

The stresses of being a PhD student

Having a PhD is a big achievement, but getting to the dissertation day is not an easy road. Earning a PhD means putting long hours of work and considerable stress. Often, PhD students must deal with constant rejections for publication, blunt critique of their work, limited budget and limited time of contract. Moreover, relationships with supervisors and colleagues can be rocky. Life events like becoming a parent or getting divorced are not uncommon, and sometimes PhD students have to deal with these difficulties while living away from home. To add insult to injury, they see how friends, working in industry, are gaining seniority and, very likely, making more money than them.

This unease is not just a feeling, or the talk that you hear in the corridor. Here are some facts from a report and an investigation (both in Swedish) that were done a while ago but are still representative: In Sweden, around 50% of doctoral students report having unclear demands from their supervisors and around 50% report experiencing stress to a higher degree (22% of women and 16% of men), 46% consider that doctoral studies are taking longer than expected, 11% of women reported having gone on sick-leave for more than 14 continuous days compared to 4% of male PhD students. From those who went on sick-leave, 67% report high levels of stress as the cause.

It is true that there are self-help methods to cope with stress, like physical exercise and mindfulness practice. However, these methods will not give PhD students clear guidelines on how to deal with uncertain job prospects, interpersonal or life-work conflicts, let behind how to organise their work to beat procrastination, increase productivity and achieve their goals.

Coaching in academia

Just like athletes, PhD students need someone to tell them how to optimize their work, increase skills proficiency, and maintain self-motivation and confidence. Coaching can help PhD students achieve top performance, increase their endurance, and sustain fewer “injuries”. Coaching in academia is a new field within the psychology of high performance. One of the few randomised studies in this field was performed at Stanford University School of Education on 13,555 students (link). The researchers found that “executive style” coaching to university students resulted in higher completion (finishing education) and retention (continuing education) rates in the coached group compared with the non-coached group.

The last year of my own PhD was especially tough. Financing was running out, my papers had been rejected, work relationships were strained, and my health was poor. A friend, who is a global manager in a multinational company, convinced me to get a professional coach. In the corporate world, this is common practice. World-class leaders and top performers, like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt (Google), advocate for everybody to have a coach. Although I was worried that this will waste my time, the skills I learned from day one increased my productivity and helped me to keep razor-sharp focus on my goals in the weeks before my dissertation.

What can a professional coach do for PhD students?

Among other skills, a coach can:

– Give you tools to increase your tolerance for rejection and negative critique

– Train you to beat procrastination and increase your productivity

– Improve your communication skills with peers, superiors, and in public

– Help you to achieve work-life balance

– Increase your confidence and personal insight

– Give you a solution-oriented edge

– Achieve clarity and structure a plan about your life after dissertation

I firmly believe that academia would benefit from including professional coaches in their teams. In addition to supervisors, professors, and a mentor, it is time to include a professional coach in the team surrounding PhD students. PhD students should not be the athletes running marathons without a coach.

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3 thoughts on “On PhD students and professional athletes

  1. Interesting perspective Rossanna. Even better if these tips/strateiges/help could be interwoven into the institutional support network for PhD students, and not something they have to source out themselves.

  2. You are right, Caitrin. Probably in the near future researchers will include “Coaching services” in their budget description when applying for grants. Another way would be if universities or research-schools could cover the costs.

  3. Hi, I am Dr. Subir Kumar Mandal, MBBS & M.Phil ( Medical Biochemistry) from Bangladesh. Really love this institution. Want to study PhD in Medical Biochemistry in this institution. My wife also interested to study MD in Oncology in Karolinska Institutet. This is our dream. But can’t find out the right way to fulfil our dream. Would you please help us..Please response.

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