Something that struck me when reflecting on my own PhD was that it literally took a village to pull the whole thing together. Yes, it had to be my own original piece of work, but at the same time, there were so many people along the way who played their part – my supervisory team, my fellow PhD students, my research participants, staff in the research office, my friends and family and I hope I gave them all proper credit in the acknowledgement!
When I look back on my post-PhD journey, especially the intensive job-hunting bit last year I mentioned in previous post, it similarly took a village to get to desired outcome and something that I found particularly valuable in that process was coaching. As I mentioned previously, whilst the interview invites kept coming, job offers didn’t and I kept growing increasingly despondent and quite worried about the future as well, given the impending end of my fixed-term contract. I had the support of friends, of my partner but I also knew that something needed to change in the way I approached interviews. I was leaving them frustrated and feeling like I didn’t get my message across, the message being – I am keen, I’m skilled, I’m employable. I was lucky to be able to access the careers services at the university but three mock interviews later I was still not really nailing the real ones and so I remembered yet another resource I could access, coaching. Given that I am one myself (in addition to my day job as project manager I work as part-time coach supporting people throughout their PhD journeys and beyond), maybe I should have come to this conclusion sooner, but it took me a while to realise I needed that bit of additional support. It also took me a while to justify the expense, especially given that I needed to be careful with money and being a trained coach myself, I felt that in theory I should have been able to perform some coaching on myself, which doesn’t quite work that way.
So it will probably be no surprise that I arrived at the idea of getting personal coaching with quite a bit of scepticism and “this is my last resort” attitude, not really hoping for much, maybe for a space to talk through my current predicament and pick up some tips and tools that I could use to tweak my interview performance. And yet, I got so much more in return. I started by googling around, looking at people’s websites and had a couple of initial free phone consultations just to see if their approach would work for me and whether we would “click”. I ended up working with two coaches, one who specialised in interview techniques and another one to get support on the emotional side of the process and build up some of my resilience.
The interview-specific coaching helped me with a number of things, the most important being how to interpret the job specification and translate it into possible questions. As in, if communication skills are mentioned, I could reasonably expect a question along the lines of “tell me about a time when you had to resolve a conflict” or “tell me about being a member of a team” and most importantly, how to structure my answers to those questions. I was aware of the STAR technique where you structure your answers by talking about Situation-Task-Action-Result but really struggled to apply it, the examples I could find online: “I increased the sales of widget x by 300 percent!” didn’t really fit the reality of my day job. I was working a project manager at a university where things didn’t happen that fast and weren’t perhaps as measurable and success was more along the lines of: “I held a meeting where a decision was finally taken, and it only took us three months to get there, yay!”. Working with a coach helped me tease out aspects of my experience that did make for good interview stories and helped me learn how to adapt these to different questions. I also learnt how to shape my stories so that I could hit the keywords that the interviewers were looking out for and how to make myself stand out.
And no, that didn’t immediately translate into interview success which is why I started working with the second coach to help me with the emotional fallout from what felt like continuous rejections. That work focused a lot on resilience and making sure I was able to use the interviews as learning experiences, pick myself up relatively quickly and be in good fighting shape to go to another one. After all, all I needed was one job offer and going to interviews was a necessary part of getting there. Funnily enough, the coach happened to be a fellow runner and so she was helping me reframe the job hunt from being something that felt never ending and hopeless to seeing the interviews as training runs in preparation for the big race i.e. the successful interview. She made me remember the personal qualities and strengths I did have and demonstrated through running. If I could run two marathons in a weekend, surely I could make it through yet another interview?
In theory, I could have done all that work myself or maybe by relying on resources that were available to me at no cost but I found that I did need that extra boost and don’t regret spending the money, it did pay off. At the same time, I would recommend coaching to anybody and want to point out that there are ways of getting it free – to start with, if there is a university close to you that has a postgraduate course in coaching and mentoring, it is very likely that the students will be looking for coachees to practice on as did I when I undertook my training. You might even have access to basic coaching training through your own workplace or have the opportunity to do so through voluntary work, the options are out there and are worth exploring.