How can a coach help you through your PhD? Meet Dr Anna Hutchens from Postdoc Solutions, who coaches DHCRC scholarship students and postdocs, contributing to the ‘DHCRC advantage’ and supercharging our graduates’ research and career success.


Tell us about your background
I’ve spent nearly two decades in the university sector. My undergraduate and Honours studies were in international development studies and gender. I trained as a life coach and then pursued a PhD in Sociology. Subsequently, I worked as a research consultant on women’s economic empowerment in the Asia Pacific region and held two postdoc fellowships researching the international fair trade industry. I then moved from life as an early-career researcher, into research management and researcher development, where I coached and advised academic staff, and designed researcher development programs. This period led me to create Postdoc Solutions in 2016, which offers online courses and coaching.

How does your own experience and expertise help your coaching?
I faced professional challenges and an emotional rollercoaster in my early academic life. Yet experiencing isolation, pressure to perform and ambivalence about a research career only inspired me to better equip the next generation of researchers and research leaders. My years in research management together with my coaching skillset enabled me to help early career researchers to understand, navigate and capitalise on those organisational and bureaucratic frameworks and requirements that are often unclear and unspoken.

What does coaching involve?
Coaching involves regular conversations that focus on the person, not the coach. These meetings are intended to move the person towards action and greater self-awareness. People come to coaching when there is something in their personal or professional life that they want to change or experience differently. A coach helps them get clear on what that ‘something’ is, what’s stopping them from getting it, and works with them to identify ways that the person might move towards that goal. Through coaching, people reflect on personal behaviour and bring awareness to what they currently do and think, so they can take more conscious action on their circumstances. What distinguishes research coaching from executive or other types of coaching is that this underlying approach is then heavily contextualised by the University organisational context and the details, trajectories, pressures, and timelines of an academic ‘career’.

Can you give a specific example of ways that you help your students?
Practical strategies and awareness about time and attention management are a big focus for many students. I help some to sharpen funding or research pitches to be more compelling for a lay audience; find ways to improve grant applications and alternative avenues for research funding; give new perspectives and lateral thinking on solving workplace or personal challenges; and help sharpen priorities and manage expectations, sometimes through role-playing important conversations.

How is this different from the support that a PhD supervisor might provide?
Supervisors are critical and indispensable in a student’s academic development. They are often very busy and their primary task is helping to produce a PhD thesis, and ensuring the student’s research, methods and results are rigorous and correct. They make decisions about the student’s progress and the continuation of their candidature. A coach is interested in a much broader set of questions and concerns of the student – what they want to do post-PhD and what help they need to get there, the challenges they face as a student or managing their student life with another job or their personal circumstances. Coaching raises a person’s self-awareness and their ability to take action on the things they feel capable of changing. These conversations differ greatly from discussions with a PhD supervisor, which more often focus on theoretical frameworks to underpin research questions or methodological considerations for fieldwork or experiments.

What are the challenges PhD students face?
It can be very difficult to figure out how to not get lost in the sea of information available when corralling the vast material on a topic for a PhD, and cope with the resulting inner overwhelm and anxiety. There’s so much to read, learn, explore – so many rabbit-holes to go down, to develop a really deep understanding of the nature of a field. A work day can be challenging; with very little structure in place, you can do what you want, when you want. While that can be incredibly liberating and is unusual autonomy in the workplace, it does require that people have the self-discipline and ability to be able to produce consistently and sustainably.

How do you coach people doing specialised research in areas you aren’t familiar with?
The work we do together in coaching transcends disciplinary boundaries – and I steer students to take up discipline-specific issues with their supervisor, colleagues or University. Specifics aside, there are common ingredients to all kinds of research activity, from getting published, getting research funding, and managing your performance to career progression, managing projects and stakeholders, securing resources, office politics, and juggling time and competing priorities.