Recommendation for a PhD coach for a chronically ill scientist
March 30, 2017 5:15 PM   Subscribe

I am at the part of my PhD where I need to analyse data and write. I am looking for a PhD coach who would be good at working with someone with a chronic illness. Goals of coaching are 1) Finish my PhD 2) Set myself up for a non-academic career.

Many coaches seem to have time management ideas and approaches that are not appropriate for someone who cannot get out of bed on many (unpredictable) days a month.

My supervisor is basically checked out of our relationship and, regardless, only really involves herself with her students' work after they have a paper draft to submit to a journal (and then takes months for her (very good) edits). I'm ok with writing, but managing a complex analysis, building models, and learning lots of new technical skills can leave me feeling overwhelmed, especially when I'm constantly interrupted by being really sick.

* meetings via video chat
* long term support (years)
* $100 CAD or less per meeting
* not laser focused on writing

* understand the nature of non-bench science PhDs
* familiar with Canadian universities/academia

I've followed Jennifer Polk for a long time and looked through her resources and done a bunch of googling, but haven't come up with much. I'm considering HappyPhD with Amber Jane Davis, but she's a bit expensive for me and Europe-focused.
posted by congen to Education (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is your advisor's JOB. If they are not able or willing to help you they need to delegate the task. Presumably they benefited from your assistantship and if needs be I'd go to the dean and pull the ADA card. Yes it'll be unpleasant but it's going to be unpleasant anyway and at least they'll be motivated to help you.

Failing that, go to your other committee members and ask for help on specific topics. Or fellow grad students for help, there must be some skills you can trade your peers for their help?
posted by fshgrl at 6:50 PM on March 30, 2017

The ADA card won't work in Canada. Agreed that this is your committee's job, broadly speaking, and your department's too -- if you've done your part. If health issues are keeping you from finishing you can take medical leave or if it's chronic gain reasonable accommodations (in the US) including more time to finish or support for transcription. The substantive feedback on your work that you're apparently not getting from your supervisor is something they should should provide, but it sounds possible that you're not giving them enough new work to engage with. Every PhD student needs chapter by chapter guidance, and the only time I've heard of demanding a complete draft before working further with someone (and I've done it) is when someone is long overdue and hasn't been producing in a very long time or keeps handing in the same low quality of work after many attempts to intervene and assist. Obviously that's without the mitigating factor of illness or disability. But you don't say how recent this condition is or whether you're way behind the usual timeline or have previously had substantive feeedback from your supervisor. So barring those conditions it's very unusal for an adviser to refuse to look at anything but a finished draft of all chapters (in the humanities and social sciences for sure). If this is in fact your supervisor's usual stance you first need to communicate with them that as a reasonable accommodation to your condition and in the interest of getting you done (which they should want too!) you need some more granular feedback on what you've got.

You write your supervisor off here rather quickly. It could be they're not doing their job or it could be you're not doing yours, and asking for the feedback you need.

What you want cannot be found in a dissertation "coach" (which is a business full of bullshit artists). Those folks can help you with the mechanics of your process. But unless they are recent grads in your field they cannot replace advising from your committee, who are the people who decide if it passes or not. So you need their input.

As someone who was a DGS for many years, by the way, this kind of thing is exactly why American departments have DGS's, and I dealt with issues like yours as a facilitator and mediator many many times. It was business as usual. I brokered disability accommodations and communicated with ineffective or absent advisers all the time. There must be someone equivalent in your departmental structure who is in charge of the mechanics of PhD programs.

ETA: "DGS" = "Director of Graduate Studies."
posted by spitbull at 7:09 PM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

I recently finished a science PhD, and in retrospect, my advisor was just busy and the squeaky wheels got the grease eventually - I could have been more proactive about asking for guidance and saved myself some frustration. YMMV.

Your draft papers can probably be crappier than you expect, just get something out. (My understanding is that your advisor is reviewing on a chapter by chapter / journal article basis, which is standard.)

Data analysis skills were something I slogged through mostly on my own after coursework, but I was able to check in with coauthors sometimes. Analyses continued to be hashed out after the first full drafts of the chapters (and after my diss was accepted...), it's okay if they're not perfect. Is there someone you can talk things out with, maybe another student, maybe a therapist? I found explaining why I was stuck / why my dataset was a pain in the ass / why I couldn't just do x helpful in clarifying what to do next, even if the person I talked to only vaguely knew what I was on about. I also found starting the day with 15 minutes of journalling similarly helpful for clarifying my problems enough to make them workable.

I looked at coaches a little for myself, and there was nobody with field-specific-enough experience that I thought they'd be worth it. I suspect this is a common problem - PhDs are supposed to be creating new knowledge and are highly specialized. A lot of what's hard is that nobody's done what you're doing before. A cursory search suggests that coaches who help people work around their chronic illnesses are a thing, maybe that would be a helpful angle to look from since time management/productivity tactics are similar across many disciplines?

Career stuff: look at job postings. Sign up for job alerts from companies and governments you might want to work for and from professional societies. Think broadly about how you can match your skills to job descriptions, and see if you can pick up lucrative skills you lack. Talk to alumni of the lab about what they're doing. Check out myIDP and see if you find it helpful.
posted by momus_window at 9:51 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

My wife does this for a living. In her day job, she's a researcher in health sciences who also supervises PhD students, and coaches & mentors students & early career researchers. In her other gig, she's a life coach who teaches mindfulness techniques, often to people with chronic illnesses.

I won't spam her contact details here, but memail me if you would like me to put you in touch.
posted by rd45 at 12:47 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

PhD student here, albeit one that hasn't gotten to the dissertation stage yet. Most universities have a counseling or disabled students' service that should be able to help you find what you need. Your university may have support groups for dissertations or students with a chronic illness and can work with your advisor to help you.
posted by actionpotential at 9:01 AM on March 31, 2017

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