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Theoretical Relevance of Coaching in the Sciences

Below are some notes crafted to bring out some pressing topics in the field of coaching academics. The content of which was used for a seminar for the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy "Mental health awareness week" in October, 2019.

What is coaching?

  • It is not consulting/mentoring/therapy/counseling

  • coaching is for people who are, more or less fine, who are aware of the various components and aspects needed to complete to achieve their goals and who are aware of the potential to continually optimize their modality of living

  • How it started sports -> fortune 500 companies

  • What is it like today (where is it most popular)What does it look like in practice? billion dollar industry

  • different coaching specializations (career, nutrition, etc)

  • What does a coach do?

  • perceive the abilities and readiness of a client

Academics need more than just a supervisor or mentor, but someone who can exhibit the array of conversational contributions such as:

  • listening deeply

  • powerful questioning

  • encouraging awareness and reflection

  • help the client to uncover, explore untapped talents/ abilities

  • focus on strengths, not weaknesses

  • exploring the direction of unfolding possibilities/opportunities/choice-points

The need for coaching in the sciences

  • The quality of life that a scientist experiences, throughout a lifetime, will be interconnected100% to the actual scientific work one carries out.

  • Rapid, fast paced work environments/competitive marketplace brings lots of stress/challenges/opportunities

  • A director or supervisor may believe it is simply a matter of the staff scientist or student letting the human resources department or director know when they need to really talk to someone (for example, a mental health professional)......instances of self-growth and development are reserved for sessions in extreme situations when excess stress piles up, or when things simply become too much for the scientist to handle. This is the wrong approach, however. How does it help to wait until the crisis point comes along?

  • Mental health awareness week and other programs based around stress management have been sprouting up as if the mental health has been a concern recently combination of stress always being there, but also the changes in technology and communication channels

  • Best if there are clearly defined goals

  • e.g. completing a PhD, completing an instrument commissioning phase, publishing a series or group-defined set of papers, writing grant proposals

  • It's not just about 'external outcomes':

  • a coach’s role in any athlete’s life is more than developing pure athletic ability.

  • Athletes have daily / weekly training

  • There is a gap between scientific mentoring/supervision (and the conversations around those) and the needed conversations about emotions/purpose/meaning/struggle/progress/navigating life and work sometimes not appropriate for a supervisor to discuss; sometimes a colleague may not know what to say and will give general advice

  • Every scientist nowadays needs both personal development and scientific/technical development

  • Every person, throughout their career, needs: determination, purpose and initiative

  • When being devoted to looking at the world through the eyes of the researcher, a coach can help guide the navigation of choice points and deadlines, alive-lines and obstacles, all towards opportunities and possibilities.

  • From the beginning of a career in science to the winding down into retirement, scientists bring an array of career specific needs, as well as basic human needs, that will all be served by having access to a coach.

  • It may not even be appropriate for a supervisor or colleague to question how others feel about the work they are doing, or if they are emotionally, mentally, or spiritually aligned with their working goals.

  • A coach will therefore serve as the one to build on strengths and characterize weaknesses so the scientist can re-connect to a strong inner self and furthermore have the energy to carry out the work with sustained progress

  • Working on communicating one's research can be a focus of coaching based on their responsibilities to tutor or lecture, they may lack the ability to deviate from their own work in order to teach others to the best of their ability

A vision for coaching in the science environment

  • What would it look like if all institutes / departments had a coaching program?

  • At every stage of one’s career, it is important to understand fully the opportunity one has to influence, advance and shape knowledge within the scientist’s field of work.

  • note: Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs

  • a sequence of efforts to challenge the actions of a researcher while being compassionate to their strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and values.

  • The transition stages vitally need clarity and inner propulsion/direction (master -> PhD -> postdoc -> postdoc -> etc.)

  • Feedback, and its effective implementation, regarding the needs/expectations of a PhD student and the supervisor, respectively

  • Accountability and trust between a coach and a scientist Through this shared agreement, a life coach helps scientists to actually manifest their scientific ambitions and dreams while taking care of the often tedious and less desirable tasks of their chosen life’s work.

  • Fostering the attitude of searching for the answer to the questions of:

  • What sort of scientist do I really want to be? What must I do/who must I become to be the best version of myself?

  • Pivotal reflections (career changes/upgrades), when postponed, pile up and become overwhelming resulting in unsatisfactory work to prepare oneself for the future/or haphazard considerations

  • as Goethe notes, “When we have done our part within, the exterior will unfold itself automatically”

  • Many, who are without the benefit/need of formal therapy, who have symptoms of anxiety or depression, would profit from healthy discussions about grander things than what one has been absorbed in through the tunnel vision of one’s work.

  • putting one's work into a larger context

  • Cultivating a 'both-and' philosophy

  • e.g.; recognizing both the beauty of the internal and external world and the need for a harmony between the twoplayfulness and work

  • The work-life balance is a direct manifestation of any individual who can function in a harmonious way with the many aspects of themselves. Coaching aims at developing balance where each person is well centered and grounded, strengthening the stability of both work and life.

  • more than just time-management; encouraging scientists to explore in depth the various facets of their lives with presence honesty, and openness

  • The scientist, often hyper-focused on work, may need to embrace memorable routines and playful habits, finding inspiration for re- search in distinctly different areas of life other than science. *A coach will request means of action to catalog this self-exploration, depending on the individual timing how long one needs to do something playful before feeling refreshed/inspiredmaking a list of all the things one can do each week that are creative and fulfilling

  • Realizing the Act of Will (by Assagioli)

  • scientists may be fixed in mental/physical will-power and lack the vision to implement a skillfull will a coach can foster a discussion around best strategic approaches, what technical skills may need to be acquired (how long they will take), etc.

  • If a scientist has a strong connection to how they are feeling and an awareness of their physical health levels, they may have an advantage in the field, where others may experience burnout and work excessively, not strategically. It can be extremely advantageous to have a direct link to one’s intuition in the sciences, as there are crossroads and decisions that require an inner sense of where to move in a direction that one feels as the best path forward, not to mention how many insightful discoveries arise (in the past, present and future) from scientists’ intuition.

  • Growth as a scientist: one can picture a coach and a scientist discussing ways to fill the gap between a desire to pursue a certain set of science goals and having the energy and thoughtfulness to write a grant proposal to fund these endeavors.

  • developing clarity around why tedious/long-standing tasks are worth carrying outWill alignment

  • The client may have a tendency to stick to old, but robust procedures that are less efficient. Therefore, a life coach helps catalyze the types of motivation or visions and actions that need to be cultivated for mastering a new software package, programming new tools and functionalities in order to do calculations at the state-of-the-art level. Of course, a supervisor or research group director may lead in this endeavor, but the life coach aids in fostering the spirit of using these various branches of volition and aspects of will in life, across all spheres on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis.

  • Visualization exercises such as 'Acting as if' + forward pacing can be quite useful for academics who need to see where they will be in a 2-3 yr time span.


  • A coach will focus on the development of the individual’s scientific career and a healthy life and work experience, never attempting to define or direct the client’s life. Nevertheless, in fact, a coach aims at assisting individuals in gaining their own insights and developments towards what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and why.

  • Again, the potential for unexpected life and scientific discovery is what is so appealing in developing this dialogue between coach and scientist.

Discussion / Q&A

  • What's still unclear?

  • What is the best approach for introducing a coach into a workplace environment which has never heard of coaching?

  • What would a coach be required to know/understand? Maybe a pre-requisite is a PhD in a scientific field? to gain trust that the coach has some similar background/shared experience

  • Who still feels like they wouldn't need a coach, and why?

  • How can a coach be included in the research process without sacrificing lots of time out of the research itself? Are there opportunities to optimize the weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly scheduling to effectively include coaching programs/sessions (group/individual) and to get rid of any wasted time?

  • The hierarchical system, at least in Germany, makes it difficult to sell coaching.

  • Directors might think coaching is infringing on their leadership if not aware of what coaching really is.

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