Accelerate your scientific career with a coach

Hey scientist, why don’t you have a professional career coach?

You’ve probably never thought you needed one. You’ve likely never heard another scientist rave about how a career coach for scientists transformed their professional life. Maybe you think you have a pretty good mentor and a strong support structure in your peers, family, and friends. Maybe. But CEOs, mid-level managers, and even freshly minted MBAs recognize the value of a professional career coach. I think you should too. Here’s why. 

A scientific career coach will prioritize you and help you focus on yourself amid the chaos of life.

A career coach for scientists can provide a wealth of experience

You can’t know what you don’t know, so you need someone with a lot of experience or knowledge to share it with you. Many scientists pride themselves on being able to solve their problems independently. Of course this is a great skill, but it’s seldom the fastest and most efficient method. The most successful people ask for help. As important, they find the right person to ask for help. Asking the right person the right questions can accelerate your career like nothing else. But who is the right person? What if you don’t know or don’t have a good relationship with that right person? A scientist career coach with a broad and deep set of experiences can help.

Your coach should have some direct experience in the types of jobs or industries that you have or want, if possible. Their experience will enable them to directly answer many of your questions. But remember that—in addition to their own personal experience—they coach other people like you. This enables them to aggregate and process an enormous amount of collective experience. They’ll be able to see and interpret the natural experiment of scientists’ professional life–spanning problems, approaches, and outcomes. By engaging a career coach for scientists, you can benefit greatly from this collective intelligence. 

Often your coach will help you indirectly by providing perspective or advice. The broader and more cross-sectional their experiences, the more perspective they can bring to the table. They should help you recognize the difference between things you can change and those you can’t. And maybe it doesn’t really matter anyways. For example, what if you don’t have a degree from a really top echelon university? You can’t change that now. Or maybe, you still have a chance to get an M.B.A. from Stanford or Wharton. But maybe it also makes absolutely no difference if you want to spend the rest of your career hands-on at the bench in R&D.

Your situation will be unique, but your scientist career coach should be able to provide perspective and advice tailored to you. It probably won’t be as simple as “do X, Y, and Z, then you will get promoted in 4.5 months”. Much like therapy, it will be a collaborative process. However, like therapy, it’s up to you to translate advice and insight into personal results.

A scientist career coach will help you structure your thoughts and efforts

Your coach should give you the tools and structured approach that empower you to act on your own behalf. (This is why the return on investment of professional coaching is so high: the dividends can continue to compound in perpetuity.) Even scientists have the tendency to think irrationally. (Read Thinking Fast and Slow by the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman before you try to deny this fact.) Scientists will hold onto their favorite hypotheses even as contradictory evidence accumulates. Scientists rarely consider how valuable their less technical skills can be outside of the lab, because they never saw these possibilities during their academic training. These (and many more) cognitive biases are innate characteristics of humans—even those fluent in the scientific method–and lead to poor decision making. Thankfully, you can be trained to make better decisions by recognizing and controlling these influences on your decision making process.

A coach will help you make better decisions by slowing down and considering a comprehensive, exhaustive set of factors–including cognitive biases. They’ll help you identify and vet your assumptions. A professional career coach will make you calculate probabilities of success and the magnitude of rewards. Maybe not actually in a spreadsheet or with pencil and paper, but you will employ a structured approach to evaluate the tradeoffs inherent in any decision. Lest you think that you don’t have many decisions to make, a scientist career coach should disabuse you of that notion.

You have the opportunity to decide not to show up in the lab tomorrow. The empowering realization that you have this complete agency will dramatically complicate your trade off calculations. However, it will expand your horizon of possibilities and help you make better, more intentional decisions. Rather than traverse this treacherous landscape in a random walk, a coach can guide you towards better outcomes, achieved more efficiently.  

A career coach for scientists can make a great mentor

You need an unbiased mentor who intimately understands you both personally and professionally. Who is able to give any advice, without considering how it impacts themselves. Who comprehends your deepest ambitions, free from the masks you wear in different parts of your life. That’s a pretty tall order. Let’s consider how your current mentors stack up.  

Your boss?

  • It’s unlikely that your boss would tell you that you’d make more money and advance faster if you left your company. 
  • They probably want to keep you on their team. 
  • You might not be comfortable dropping your work persona and revealing your deepest dreams to them. 
  • What happens when one of you switches jobs?

Your principal investigator or thesis advisor?

  • It may be in your PI’s best interest to keep you in their lab–pumping out results–regardless of your plans. 
  • They may be prejudiced against careers outside academia. 
  • Your relationship with them may already be strained.

A personal friend or family member?

  • Unless you’re surrounded by scientists, there will be some serious limitations to these advisors’ opinions. 
  • They might not even know another scientist, limiting their ability to understand your professional life. 
  • Their unconditional support and love for you will always infringe on their objectivity.

Despite their honest efforts, these individuals will have serious limitations and significant conflicts of interest. Of course each of these people can be a mentor, but even the whole group together likely won’t realize the full potential of a great mentor.

You need a single person that can objectively weigh both personal and professional considerations, assessing your best interest holistically. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in work, then lose track of your personal goals and relationships. Conversely, it’s important to devote time and energy towards your relationships and other interests. Striking that delicate balance where your whole self can flourish requires effort, honesty, and guidance. A professional career coach for scientists can be objective and may be one of only a few people that really intimately know you in both the personal and professional domains of your life. 

A mentor should balance consideration of both the professional and personal sides of the scientist's life. A career coach for scientists can fill that role.

A coach will drive accountability

A final, under-appreciated function of a career coach is driving accountability. If you treat your career goals like most people treat their New Year’s resolutions, you will limit your success. A coach can help you set yourself up for success and then hold you accountable to actually achieving those goals. 

Set the right goals

People tend to set overly ambitious, perhaps unrealistic goals and then inevitability fail to achieve them. A coach will help you set achievable goals. Again leveraging their accumulated experience, they’ll guide you through structured goal setting exercises. They’ll help you distill down your big goals (like getting promoted) into smaller, better defined goals that you actually have control over (like writing proposals for new initiatives and presenting to each of the key decision makers). 

Develop a clear plan

With better, well-defined goals, you can develop a defined plan with clear milestones and deliverables. The plan should be composed of numerous, small sub-goals, each associated with a clear deadline. A clear plan facilitates accountability, because it becomes clear when milestones are achieved on time or not. This finalized plan should be written and shared with someone. 

Execute your plan without excuses

A clear plan should enable you to simply execute. Do the clear steps you’ve already planned and you’ll achieve your goals. It’s that simple, right? Well, we all know from experience that life will creep in around the edges. You’ll get a cold. Work will get busier than expected. A challenging personal situation will arise. While these are all legitimate excuses, they are absolutely inevitable. It’s human nature to find these excuses and let them stand between you and your goals. External accountability will help. You show up to work everyday, stop at stop lights, and pay your taxes in large part due to the expectations of an external agent.

In addition to all their other roles, a scientist career coach can keep you motivated and accountable. The truth is: people value things they pay for more than those that are free. The act of paying a coach will ensure that you take their advice more seriously. So when you know that your paid coach is going to ask if you hit that milestone, you’re going to ensure that you hit that milestone–even if you had a cold. 

It’s really, really hard to hold yourself accountable, so get all the help you can. Increase the probability of succeeding by setting the right goals, planning diligently, and executing under the watchful eye of someone who will hold you accountable.

Call to action: get help, maybe even a career coach specifically for scientists

Achieving big, ambitious goals is really hard, so get all the help you can. Read everything you can find. Learn from courses. And talk to everyone you can. It’s a lot of work. A scientist career coach can help you succeed quicker and more efficiently. The faster you can achieve your goals and the more successes you accumulate, the higher you’ll climb. Don’t let a drop of your potential go to waste. Hire a coach to accelerate your career. 

I’d be honored to be your scientist career coach. If you’re interested, let’s get started! Book an introductory session.

P.S. All of the lessons of this article apply similarly to practices of lifelong learning and informational interviewing. These initiatives will be much easier and more productive if you have the right coaching.

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