Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mentoring vs. Coaching

The Centre for Development of Human Resources and Quality Management in Denmark is holding a conference to present the results of a PhD coaching project. The project, which involved PhD students from three universities, appears to have been a success. Specifically, they discovered that:

  • The participants got a lot out of the coaching.

  • The coaching did not get in the way of traditional academic supervision

  • Individual coaching works better than workshops.
  • My experience confirms these conclusions. But the theme of the conference appears to be captured in the question, "Do you necessarily have to go through a lot of suffering to get a PhD?" That question, and the fact that the coaching was found "not to disturb" academic supervision, got me thinking about what I do. In fact, it got me reconsidering.

    First, I do believe that "suffering" is an important part of research (in Danish, as Kierkegaard pointed out, suffering rhymes with science). Second, I've long noticed that "coaching" is often an inappropriate metaphor because outside of actual sports the "coach" is often not a master of the craft she coaches; rather she has a generalized ability to motivate others and help them get organized. (This, by the way, does not always mean she has an ability to get herself organized or get anything done herself.) Like me, she may not know very much about the area of scholarship that the PhD student is working in.

    Ideally, however, coaching should interfere with supervision. But this can only happen constructively if the supervisor and the coach are the same person. (I try very hard not to interfere with the relationship between the PhD student and the supervisor.) The role of supervision should include the task of inculcating sustainable work habits. Though many of the "tips" that people like Jonathan and I suggest have a kind of general applicability, we are bound to present them precisely in those very general terms.

    I'm only just beginning to think this through. (Though the question has been on my mind since I started this job.) Maybe the division of labour in doctoral training between coaching and supervising is not such a good thing in the long run. Maybe we need to go back to the integration of these two functions that is presumed in the master-apprentice relationship. Mentoring may ultimately be a better model than coaching.

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