What kind of coaching is this?

Good professional coaching is like good relationship counselling: It’s agnostic about the outcome, other than that it be good for you.

I used to think of the professional coaching I offer as “academic coaching”. But actually it’s work/life coaching that just often happens to take place within an academic context.

So if you + academia (or whatever other sector you currently work in) feels like a marriage (or a love/hate relationship) that’s in need of some serious work, it’s crucial that you impose no requirement that you stay together. If you work with me, I won’t either. In professional coaching it’s actually simpler than with relationships, because there’s only one of you to worry about (it’s happily not my problem how your university will replace you if you leave, for example). But as in any sphere of life, finding real answers requires really bringing everything onto the table. In the professional sphere, that means not presupposing that your career has to take any particular route. That’s why, although I’ve done this kind of coaching only with people currently working in the academic system, I now prefer to call it professional coaching rather than academic coaching.

Academia has a spiky cost/benefit profile. I‘ve explored some of its contours, and ways of navigating them, in this series on resilience for the Oxford/Cambridge careers blog. Because of how our school lives often give way seamlessly to a university existence, guided often by people who have by definition been successful in this realm, we tend to be sold the benefits a lot earlier than the costs become apparent to us. The academic lifestyle often promises more than it delivers—and it can be easy to ignore or downplay that fact, to our detriment. Yet the intellectual freedoms it offers are great, and the feeling of contributing to something big and meaningful can be too. So it’s natural and right to feel some ambivalence—maybe even painful and frightening kinds of doubt—as you ask career questions for yourself.

Ambivalence is good when it gets you asking questions—and looking for answers. It’s good when it’s part of what brings you to make choices—with your eyes open. Helping you make open-eyed choices is what I understand as one of the major purposes of the professional coaching I offer.

How does my own career path help me help you?

Being forced into such choices often feels hard. For me, after a long time being academically successful and ill and miserable (top First at Oxford undergrad, funded Master’s and PhD also at Oxford), I briefly found a way to be academically successful and fairly happy, thanks to a prestigious research fellowship (yes, at Oxford too) where I could do exactly what I wanted for four years, though I still had many of my default not very functional academic work/life attitudes and habits in place.

And then, though all my senior colleagues had assured me that after this I’d be guaranteed an academic job for life, I started getting rejections.

They were painful, as these things usually are, and they made me angry sometimes too, when they seemed to expose realities about academia that I’d hoped didn’t exist. But they were what pushed me to ask whether I really wanted this enough to keep applying for things I should be getting and wasn’t. Finally, my career assumptions were being exposed to the cool light of actual inquiry, and they didn’t stand up well to it.

Now, I am massively grateful to everyone on every selection committee back in 2015-17 that didn’t give me a job or grant. First, because the rejections brought on the thinking. Second, because I now believe that the career I’ve ended up with suits me an awful lot better than any of those jobs or grants would have done.

We can always carry on a little bit longer, always take another step to prove our success—e.g., let me just get this next job to prove I could, and then I’ll know I’m leaving because I want to, not because I was pushed. We can always try one more thing to confirm the impossibility of success a bit more categorically—e.g., let me just try out applying for this job that seems so perfect for me, and if this doesn’t work out, it’ll be really clear that nothing ever could. But for me, two things helped break that “just one more” cycle. The first was my partner being offered a postdoc at Caltech in LA and confronting me with the decision of whether I wanted to have the option to spend significant time there with him or not (this was before Covid and wfh!). The second was starting to realize that the work I was doing around the edges of the core academic paper- and grant-writing etc., specifically the blog I ran on eating disorders, was actually more meaningful to me—and others—than the academic activity. So for me, despite my genuine interest in some parts of the research I was doing, the costs and benefits just didn’t stack up in favour of what I’d always assumed.

It would have been fine if it had turned out differently, though, as long as I’d let myself ask the questions and answer them properly, for myself. And differently could mean any number of things. One of the greatest lessons for me has been that academia isn’t all or nothing. More specifically, one of the loveliest realizations I’ve ever had was: The fact that this research matters doesn’t mean that I need to be the one to do it. It’s been really satisfying to work out ways of helping good research happen whilst not dedicating most of my work time to it. I do this by keeping a few toes in the academic world—through research associateships I have, the studies I occasionally run, the PhD student I’m cosupervising, the papers I publish with collaborators and students, the ideas I still have a nice readymade context for following through on—without relying on teaching or publishing for my income anymore. I try to balance as well as I can the practical decisions about e.g. how much peer reviewing to say yes to, and whether to really take on that project a colleague suggests, and I don’t always get it right (though erring on the side of no is working well for me for now!).

Being neither fully in nor out of the academic world is useful in my role as coach. It helps me not be dogmatic or polarized about your options. It helps me understand your status quo and your possible futures. It lets us focus on the really interesting questions: How your decisions will pan out, and—if and when the big ones are made—how you’ll make them work as well as possible for you. How we can get things great for you, not just tolerable.

We’ll do this whatever else is going on in your life. The other kind of coaching I provide is for people in recovery from eating disorders, so I know a lot about ambivalence and about how far the tendrils of a mental (and physical) health problem can stretch into everything else, especially work. I know how to help you work out the right ways to intervene so you get maximum payoffs for the whole dynamic of what’s going on with your health and your work and how your life feels.

How exactly can coaching with me help you?

There are some things I can help you with and some things I definitely can’t. Here are the main ones.

Things I can help you with:

Making a success of your academic career in a way that doesn’t compromise your health or happiness—indeed, in a way that enhances both.

We can do this via methods like:

  • Mapping out your current career possibilities within and outside academia (or one foot in one out), so you have confidence that what you’re doing is chosen, not assumed to be your only option (which is a great foundation for exploitation and resentment).
  • Systematically articulating your personal and professional priorities at the interlocking levels of tomorrow, this week, this term/semester, this year, and the next 5 and 10 years. Exploring the contradictions and complements between the personal and professional and how to optimize them.
  • Getting your everyday routines great, including with respect to the vital and often mysterious realities of what actually happens when you ”sit down to work”.
  • Enhancing your capacity to perform the highest-value activities, such as writing, so your habits are as good as they can be for the things that matter most.

Making the transition to a new type of career, whether alt-ac or non-academic, both smooth and exciting.

Here I have particular expertise in shifts to freelance career models, but I may also be able to help you in researching and preparing for alternative employment.

  • Again, scoping out your options is a crucial step here, and we’ll do this with tried and tested structures for identifying your skills, values, and viable futures.
  • We’ll attend to the day-to-day pragmatics of both this transitional time and the way of life you’re building for your medium- and longer-term future.
  • If you’re keeping some academic activity in the mix, we’ll map out how to keep the right stuff in your schedule so it gives you the payoffs you want.

Things I can’t help you with:

Pursuing academic (or other professional) success to the detriment of your health (or happiness), as I see it.

You may disagree with me, but if I think you’re harming yourself, I can’t (and won’t) encourage and perpetuate that. The academic world can be brutal, and I’m in the business of helping people flourish within and beyond it, not helping it get away with things it shouldn’t.

How does it actually work?

The coaching I offer has a shape and a rhythm to it. First we have a no-strings half-hour consult in which we establish what you want and need and whether my approach is right for you. Then, if we you decide you’d like to work with me (and if I am confident that I can help you achieve your aims), you’ll commit to one 4-week block of coaching. I ask for a 4-week commitment, because 4 weeks is long enough to make changes that are both meaningful and sustainable; anything less than that doesn’t tend to be. You can choose from a range of frequencies for our Zoom sessions (or in-person sessions if we happen to be in the same city and you’d prefer that format) of roughly 75 minutes, plus a rhythm of email contact, and phone calls to suit your needs, preferences, and budget. 

Before our first session, you’ll complete an activity that invites you to think about your past, present, and future, to get clear on what exactly you’re doing here and why. We spend our first session digging into the details of your life and work right now, in order to work out two crucial things:

  1. which specific changes that you could make would do the most good (in terms of kicking off sustainable progress towards your end goals);
  2. which are actually feasible for you right now.

By the end of our first session, you will know what you want to be different by the end of this week and this month, and you will know exactly what you are going to do this afternoon, or tomorrow, to start making these desires a reality.

Then we’ll be in touch regularly to check that things are going to plan, whether that’s by you sending me a nightly email update on how the day went, or with a phone call every couple of days, or with light-touch app check-ins, or some combination.

This structure creates momentum and overview for you, it gives you confidence that what you’re doing makes sense and is achievable for you, and it allows you to devote your energy and attention to the everyday changes that need making. 

Your 4-week programme will likely include many of the following elements.

Getting started:

  • Structured assessment of your professional and personal status quo
  • Reflection on your reasons for seeking out coaching and how you want to be thinking and feeling and what you want to be doing when this is all over

In our regular sessions:

  • Laser-focused identification of where and how we can most powerfully intervene, right now, to get powerful cascades of change in motion
  • Detailed planning to give us both confidence that what we decide on can and will actually happen
  • Design of tailored experiments for changing behaviours that are preventing your life and work from being as good as they could be—complete with explicit predictions and the right measures, so we know what the stakes are: if you do x for the next 7 days, what are you expecting to be different by next Tuesday? (or alternatively, what are you sceptical could ever be different but willing to be proven wrong about?!)
  • Targeted demolition work on patterns of thinking and feeling that are serving you badly
  • Explicit learning from what’s gone well and less so, to efficiently build up a bank of knowledge about what works best for you

Via resources and other contact between sessions:

  • Near-realtime opportunities to reflect together (via phone calls or emails) on what happened yesterday or today and how to tweak the details to get things even better—and/or troubleshoot efficiently, or avert crises before they occur
  • Thoughts for the day to shift or expand your mental horizons
  • App check-ins to keep tabs on the little everyday things that can make all the difference
  • Regular reviews to assess your progress and adjust our strategies where needed

Together these kinds of structure have the potential to change a lot, pretty quickly. I also appreciate suggestions from you about ways of tailoring our coaching to what you want and how you prefer to work.

If there’s one quick way to summarize what all this helps you do, it’s making a habit of zooming out to see the big picture, and then zooming back in again to connect what you discovered by taking that longer view with what you’re doing right now today and this week. Without the skill and habit of joining the dots between what’s happening now and what you want to be happening in 1 year or 10 years from now, those futures of yours are unlikely to be nearly as wonderful as they could be. (If you want to read more on zooming out, I’ve explored its importance to recovery from an eating disorder in this blog post.) Everyday busyness and stress are great at preventing this cognitive flexibility and connectedness from developing, and one of my main roles as your coach is, as I see it, to help you become expert at it. This kind of expertise will keep bringing you rewards your whole life.

Testimonials

Here are some comments from Di Wang, my first professional coaching client:

I have known Emily when she led the Baillie Gifford Writing Programme at Oxford. Emily’s coaching completely changed my PhD experience, and was the start of a life-changing path towards freedom and joy. Without her, I wouldn’t have completed the dissertation in time, nor would I have the mental and physical strength to embark on new journeys ahead. As I put it in my dissertation acknowledgement, Emily helped me learn to defend the joy of writing! 

Here’s what another client wrote after we worked together for four weeks in 2021-22:

I had sought out coaching upon realising that my academic difficulties – the lack of structure in writing, punctuality, lack of planning – are deeply linked to larger problems in my lifestyle and mindset. My college tutor helpfully directed me to Emily, who has become a friend to me through the coaching process.

We began by reflecting back on my life so far together. Because of the privacy of our conversations and Emily’s receptive attitude, I was able to face the anxieties and fears I have had for long by confessing to Emily. Through discussions, we identified the central problems and came up with experimental solutions which are specific changes I make to my daily schedule.

At the beginning, we kept in touch during the week through emails – which, my experience show, is an invaluable space for me to gather my thoughts (and communicating them) in a more formal manner (compared to texting), and useful for leaving records which I can go back to. In this way, I was able to feedback on time the difficulties I encounter in implementing the changes or any other feelings that have arisen. The first two weeks, our frequency of contact could even be hourly (as I had a lot of mental difficulties in making changes to longstanding habits).

For our weekly in-person sessions, I would complete weekly reviews which would form the basis of our meeting, we would discuss what went well and what did not go so well and the adjustment we can make it better. We would evaluate goals set for last week and set goals for the coming week. The specificity of our plans and intimacy of contact meant that I was able to change relatively quickly, by week three I did not need to email Emily daily as the new lifestyle has become a habit. Despite occasional emotional breakdowns, though our sessions later we were able to think of responses to these out-of-control moments (like socialising and creative writing) so that I am now able to cope with unexpected disturbance much better.

The greatest reward from my coaching experience with Emily is the ability to write clearly and with a structure. This is not only, I believe, an effect of eating and sleeping healthily, but also having a clear timeline, structured sessions and knowing what I need to finish or focus on before sitting down.

Overall, life coaching with Emily has addressed my mental issues that I wasn’t able to face (or failed to resolve by going to therapists) at a crucial moment in my life (final year undergraduate). I have gained confidence and learnt to express myself confidently (because of the approval, encouragement, and open receptiveness Emily gives), as I hope this testimony can show. I am immensely grateful for Emily’s support more as a friend than ‘coach’.

You can also see the Courses page for more on how clients have responded to the work/life/writing events and courses I run.

Last thoughts

In the end, I would invite you to ask yourself: Am I going to wait for things to magically feel better? Am I going to pin everything on graduation, on promotion, on tenure, on getting some miraculous job offer, on meeting the perfect partner or moving house or my children moving out—after which life will finally begin? Or am I going to accept that my life is flowing by and that if I don’t get it good now, I probably never will?

I don’t mind whether you work with me or you do some other good stuff to get your life feeling better. I just mind that you do something!

If you’d like to know more about my fees, availability, and/or methods, or to book your free 30-minute consult, please get in touch.