The When, Why, and How of Coaching for Scientists


One of the joys of a scientific career can be that our role is constantly changing. However, most of our training focuses on the practice of science: how to generate hypotheses, conduct experiments, and analyze data. Ideally, we also have some experience with scientific communication to generate manuscripts and presentations about our research. During training, our goals focus on the practice of research, and our mentors have worked with us to help generate plans to reach those goals. As we transition into new jobs after our degrees, new responsibilities pop up, and we’re often faced with choices about what we want to do and what we want our careers to look like. We may have new externally-imposed challenges like grant funding that we are unsure how to meet, or want to move into a new position but are unsure how to develop the skills to get there. It’s this gap that coaching is meant to help fill by identifying goals, creating a plan to meet those goals, and seeing them through. While coaching beyond sports and music is by no means a new idea (see Atul Gawande’s 2011 essay in The New Yorker), it’s not one we’re formally introduced to during scientific training; namely, the idea that someone can help us take our jobs, break them down into different components, and advise us on how we can do each of these components better. 

As we advance in our scientific careers, we have many opportunities to define and redefine what we want our jobs to look like. Leading a lab, running a research area at a company, or even creating our own business have many different forms that all lead to success. Identifying our values and goals is critical for finding our own form of success that can define later stage career paths. Perhaps we value guiding organizations, focusing on training the next generation, or want to move into new types of roles. Coaching can also play a critical role here by helping us talk through and identify our core values, clarifying why we are excited about one direction or another, formulating a plan to develop the new skills we need to tackle this new direction, and heading there. One of the most pressing skills that can suddenly occupy our goals as scientists is securing funding for ourselves and later our labs. Unlike scientific papers, which we are well-acquainted with as a written product, funding applications, how and why they’re structured a certain way, and their goal of exciting a reviewer and helping them advocate for us and our projects are not something we commonly encounter during training. In our post-PhD careers, these written products are now career life-or-death. This is a common topic many new faculty are interested in during coaching, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. My own experience is that after five years as an Assistant Professor at a major research university with teaching responsibilities and a medium-sized lab, I chose to move my lab to a small, independently funded research institute with small labs that partner together to work on larger projects. I knew I needed to change how I thought about managing my team during the move. However, it was coaching that helped me realize the most pressing priority was identifying what the most important values I wanted new lab members to have and how to communicate and screen for those values during interviews. 

Despite our careers moving from being on teams as trainees to leading them, this doesn’t mean that reaching our goals needs to be a solitary endeavor or can’t benefit from teamwork. Working with peers and a coach in a group can be a great way to talk through goals, normalize challenges, and create accountability for our plans. The National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity’s (NCFDD) Faculty Success Program (FSP) exemplifies this type of coaching. Their semester-long coaching groups have a curriculum designed to help early-stage faculty develop plans for how they need to be spending their time based on the needs of their job’s specific demands, regularly revisit goals, develop structures to make the skills to reach their goals a habit, and accountability with peers.  As we often transition from practicing science to writing about science as faculty, their program helps support developing new routines, boundaries, and goals to support this process. In addition, there are a number of private companies that offer coaching specifically for scientists or academics that can be tailored for your particular needs, be it funding, career changes, or growth of your leadership skills. 

While it can be a costly option, many institutions provide financial support for career development (you never know if you don’t ask, and it’s a great investment for institutions) to attend the program, subscribe to the NCFDD’s resources to help you follow their curriculum, or have their own alternative groups modeled after it. For example, the University of Delaware’s Faculty Achievement Program is modeled after the FSP, with group leaders participating in it or a similar program before leading their own groups that are nucleated around the time availability and needs of the program members. A former participant of both the FSP and UDel groups, Prof. Megan Killian (now at the University of Michigan), has led this program, as well as spearheaded the development of similar program at UMich and in the New PI Slack group. She stresses how important it is to establish the value of these programs for yourself and use them to get what you need out of the program at that time, be it support that you don’t have currently in your current program, or coaching to reach your goals. Her group from NPIS still meets every Monday and has seen her and her peers through tenure, institutional changes, and grant awards. As their careers have changed they still support one another through their evolving goals and learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. 

Many of us are drawn to scientific endeavors because of the ongoing challenge and opportunities for growth and change. Historically, how to approach career changes or challenges has been in the realm of the hidden curriculum, as members of historically dominant groups in science and medicine seem to naturally acquire these skills and advance their careers. We also talk openly about mentorship to help us learn and grow, which may make a mentor seem like a substitute for a coach. However, a mentor is someone who shares their experiences, while a coach is there to help us identify specific problems and shortcomings and build skills to move beyond them. This is not to say that mentors cannot coach, and indeed many team or lab leaders to coach their trainees and mentees, but it is not a given and our mentors may not have the specific expertise to help us move past our unique challenges. However, our mentors may have great tips on how they learned to tackle new roles and recommend coaches or programs to help in our own development. An increasing focus on seeing inherent leadership or career growth as learnable, attainable skills has underscored the utility of coaching to reach the next step in our own unique trajectory. These trajectories can involve moving between academic, industrial, or government roles or moving into administration as careers progress, and the chance to work with someone professionally on new skills for these positions can be invaluable. In addition, as many people are giving deep thought to what gives them the greatest satisfaction in their personal and professional lives, coaching can provide a framework for the professional side of this equation. Coaching is not everything (it’s not therapy!) but can be a powerful part of a scientist’s career toolbox to keep us at the top of our game. 

About the Author:

Allyson Sgro is a Group Leader in Computation and Theory and 4D Cellular Physiology at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus.