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Coaching enquiries and career development for early career researchers

Recently, prompted by a podcast about the research career (to date) of Professor Sir Andre Geim, I thought of some coaching enquiries that I thought might pique the curiosity of some of my clients. In particular, I was thinking of those post-doctoral research assistants (PDRA) and early career researchers (ECR) in UK academia who I work with in coaching partnerships. The coaching enquiries are:

  • What is my experience of belonging in this environment? How might this be different from those around me? What might be the consequences of those differences?’

  • What easy experiment can you do right now that might reward you with results you can act on?

  • What is it that you are currently discarding that might be worth looking at more closely?

  • What property do you have which might not be showing up just now because the conditions are not right for you? How might you create the right conditions?

Read on if you are interested in knowing more about the connections which prompted my interest in these enquiries!

I am enjoying the coaching work I am doing with post-doctoral research assistant (PDRA) and early career researchers (ECR) in UK academia. Personal and professional development coaching is such a valuable resource to offer to this community. It offers a confidential space in which to have conversations that don’t happen elsewhere in their experience of academia. The graphic below gives a sense of areas most influenced by coaching for a group of PDRA/ ECR coachees:

I was thinking of the various projects I have within the research community (which spans partnerships with ECRs and full Professors who are deeper into their careers) when I caught a recent episode of The Life Scientific (BBC, R4), in which Professor Sir Andre Geim (AG) described his career.

Like all episodes of this podcast there is much to be learned from listening to experienced researchers as they reflect on their personal and scientific journeys. This episode seemed to resonate with some of the themes that are recurrent in conversations I have with PDRAs and ECRs, whether in 1-2-1 coaching conversation, or in groups. It inspired some coaching enquiries that might be useful to anyone contemplating their future, and which seemed particularly relevant to researchers thinking about what to do at the end of their current research contract or Fellowship.

The importance of sense of belonging came up in AG’s early career narrative. Early on in his life he lived in Russia, having a family name that identified his German heritage. It made it difficult for him to gain entrance to university. He eventually succeeded, much later in life finding out that this was through the work of a hidden benefactor whose merit-based ethos and ingenuity allowed them to ensure that AG’s application bypassed the powerful culturally biased filters present in the application system.

Academic research is a rich and diverse community where a sense of belonging is influenced by the independence and individuality that both contribute to the culture in academia. To some extent ‘each person is an island’ in academia? Belonging may be less of an issue than in some other communities, as everyone belongs by virtue of their intellectual curiosity and drive, right? While not necessarily wrong this does not deal with the challenge arising from a lack of appreciation, between one individual and another, of what belonging means in that place and at that time. Something useful to reflect on then are enquiries like these.

What is my experience of belonging in this environment? How might this be different from those around me? What might be the consequences of those differences?’

There is another side to the belonging question that plays out in the career development conversation with PDRAs and ECRs and that is ‘if not here, where might I belong in the next step in my career?’ This comes up a lot for two reasons. Firstly, many researchers in academia have not had any professional experience outside of that sector, even though so many have worked in several locations, often dotted around the globe. Uncertainty will be part of any consideration of a career move into a new sector. Any increase in uncertainty tends to go hand in hand with a sense of discomfort which might be identified as anxiety, an anxiety that will typically encourage behaviours that resist change.

Secondly a challenge for PDRAs and ECRs is that the proportion of their population taking on full time academic posts in fairly small, meaning that for many a significant change will be part of their future, in which wondering ‘will I belong?’ may be an underlying concern in their change journey. One key to dealing with this is to have the self-awareness to understand their strengths and behaviour preferences at a level of detail that will support them knowing, as best they can, of which career choice will be the best fit for them now. A very real question is ‘what will I be happy doing on a daily basis?’

AG talked about his postgraduate years in terms of him doing work that was of ‘no interest to anyone apart from my supervisor’ while acknowledging that the skills developed at the time did serve him well. In many regards his PhD experience, like so many at this point in their careers, is one in which there is a dependence of researcher on their supervisor. The journey that follows is one that goes from dependence to independence, and the experience of most PDRAs and ECRs of the challenge of making this transition. In the majority of cases the transition is one of challenge while leading to a positive outcome. For a significant minority it is one that is far less positive, arising from behaviours of supervisors and principal investigators exploiting the dependency of their team, in support of enhancement of their own research profile. Challenges such as this are significant to all who experience them and recognised by the UK Government in their Research and Development People and Culture Strategy, which has two of its aims as ‘a positive, inclusive and respectful culture’ and ‘great leadership at all levels’ and aims to put ‘people at the heart of R&D’.

AG had his own experience of several PDRA positions before accepting his first full academic position. His was candid in saying he ‘accepted the first position offered’ to him which shows that the pressure to get a full-time position was as significant then as it is now. He talked about how he ‘settled into’ the greater security which supported the final stages of transition to independence. Part of this involved a willingness to try some less obvious experiments, something that was sufficiently important to him that he made time to do it throughout his research career. One early example was his exploration of the behaviour of various material in high magnetic fields. Starting with water and ending with frogs, with many other everyday objects in between, he showed in a strong magnetic field levitation was possible, at the point where the magnetic and gravitational forces where equal and opposite. The way AG describes it is that he had the equipment available and he thought ‘what if I put water in a strong magnetic field?’ and went ahead with an experiment before rationalising a reason not to do it.

This prompted my first coaching enquiry, to be applied your personal context:

What easy experiment can you do right now that might reward you with results you can act on?

This might be something you think about in terms of an upcoming decision, a personal or professional challenge you are experiencing, and/ or a career transition that you are considering. In fact, anything involving a change and/ or a level of uncertainty. The key is to identify experiments that you can do in your existing environment and with the resources that you have immediately available to you which, by the way, does not have to include a high field strength magnet!! In relation to career development Herminia Ibarra (I read about it in David Epstein’s book Range) talked about ‘which of my various possible selves should I start to explore right now? Rather than have a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly , adopting a strategy that is more ‘test-and-learn’ than ‘plan-and-implement’. I really like her phrase ‘flirting with our possible selves’ as a sense of what we are doing when taking up this experimental approach.

Anyway, what happened with AG as a result of these experiments was that he published his teams results along with a rationalisation of the observations in a paper called Of Flying Frogs and Levitrons (1997). This bought him to the attention Ig Nobel Prize committee who invited him to accept one of their awards. There was an interesting aside to this story about how his decision to accept was one based around him finding the right balance between exposure and vulnerability. His solution was to encourage a co-worker to accept the award alongside him, which they did in 2000.

Fast forward to the point where AG moved to Manchester. He described experiments that he was doing that required a highly polished, clean graphite surface. Early attempts to create the right sort of surface involved physical polishing of the surface until one researcher suggested that applying and then ripping off Scotch tape, left behind the required polished, clean surface. You can imagine the intensity of the inspection of scotch tape cleaned surface of the graphite, all eyes on that polished surface and minds rich with the possibilities of the experiments that might be carried out on it! Perhaps AG was part of that but in addition he was curious about what was being discarded. What was there to be curious about in relation to what remained stuck to the scotch tape? That enquiry, ultimately lead to the discovery of graphene, a form of carbon that is just one atom thick. For this discovery AG was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, 10 years after accepting the Ig Noble prize. His interest in what others considered to be discarded material prompted my second coaching enquiry:

What is it that you are currently discarding that might be worth looking at more closely?

You might want to change the word ‘discarding’ in this question to something that is more relevant to you as it might be that you simple don’t recognise that you are discarding anything. In that case think about ‘what is it that I choosing to focus on right now, and is there anything that I am ignoring that I might choose to focus on more?’ Whichever form of enquiry you favour there are benefits in widening our metaphorical field of vision, before choosing a different focus, or to return to our original focus with the confidence that it remains the right place to be for the time being.

Let’s go back to where graphene comes from. It’s simply a special form of graphite, the stuff we all know as being the business part of a pencil. No one would describe the graphite in a pencil as strong, yet graphene is very strong indeed. Most people have probably not thought about whether their pencil might conduct electricity but it does. Graphene is just a much better conductor. Anyone who has experienced the frustration of snapping the lead in a pencil at a crucial point when writing or drawing would most likely not think of graphite as strong. Graphene on the other hand is very strong indeed! You can’t imagine water passing through the lead in your pencil, yet graphene is permeable to water.

In short graphene has very different properties to graphite even though the only difference is that graphene is a single atom thick, where as graphite is effectively multiple layers of graphene. This prompted a third coaching enquiry based on the hidden properties we all might have, if only the right conditions came about for them to come into being:

What property do you have which might not be showing up just now because the conditions are not right for you? How might you create the right conditions?

It’s worth thinking about the superpower that you might not be sharing with the world right now. You might already do so and if you do you might notice that your thinking moves towards rationalising why you are choosing not to share it with the world, leading to a self-justification to stay as you are, perhaps until the world creates the right conditions for you!? What the second question encourages is to take responsibility for creating those conditions, or at least creating the conditions where the world might be able to create the right conditions.

There was something else that AG mentioned which resonated because of his choice of words. He was talking about being open to new possibilities and he said something about ‘being prepared to step sideways’ to have conversations with people outside your immediate area of activity as a means of opening up new and exciting avenues for exploration. What he was saying related to achieving interdependence, the ultimate quality that Stephen Covey attributed to highly effective people.

His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, plots a journey from dependence, to independence, and ultimately to interdependence which has particular resonance to academic career development, in particular the challenge of the transitions between these three ways of being.

The transition from dependence to independence looms large at the outset of an academic career and I referenced it earlier on. There are so many challenges during this time, one such being the mistake of confusing independence with isolation as you navigate from being told what to do towards being in charge of your own destiny. Covey talks about the habits of proactivity, knowing what you want to achieve and prioritising what matters as being the private victories necessary to achieve independence. Central to all of these is a deep level of self-awareness, something that is not always well developed during more dependent periods of our life.

Covey talks about how achieving independence is a necessary precursor to stepping up towards interdependence, which I am mapping to the ability to collaborate effectively. In the academic world this transition is challenging to some as independence can be a hard habit to shake, in the same way as dependence can be. Self-awareness is once again key in recognising the triggers that are being pulled when feeling the draw of dependence over independence, or of independence over interdependence. Progression will also depend on being aware of when we might be overusing independence to the extent of becoming isolated (the nature of that isolation being physical, emotional, intellectual, or combinations thereof); or overusing interdependence to the extent of losing the sense of our unique selves.

So much thinking prompted by listening to the lived experience of one researcher! I wonder what your responses are the enquiries shared here? To bring this to a close here is a graphic capturing the impact of coaching on early career researchers in themed areas that commonly come up in coaching conversations in this community. You can see just how beneficial coaching is across some diverse areas. If you are interested in finding out more about coaching in the researcher community please drop me a note via my website at or directly to


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