Organise career coaching

If you would like to incorporate career coaching as part of Prosper at your institution, you may find this article to be a useful reference point.

We take a look at what career coaching is, why it is effective, how you could arrange it at your institution and provide a guidance document for coaches new to Prosper.

What do we mean by career coaching?

For Prosper, career coaching includes the following:

  • helping postdocs clarify what they want from their career
  • helping postdocs consider how this aligns to their life goals
  • prompting postdocs to set their own career development goals

Ideally, these discussions will be facilitated by a qualified career coach.

A career coach does not offer advice, counselling or mentoring to the postdocs.  

If the careers service at your institution offers advice for postdoctoral staff then linking up these careers’ advisors with your career coaches as part of your Prosper offering could be beneficial.  

Career coaching to support Prosper doesn’t necessarily need to be delivered by a dedicated career coach, we’ve created self-guided coaching resources that postdocs could work through. 

Why is career coaching important?

Career coaching allows postdocs the time and protected space to discuss and explore their career options.

A career coach will prompt postdocs to fully explore their own career options and set their own goals.  

The majority of postdocs in both of our pilot cohorts found the experience of career coaching very beneficial. The postdocs also found that supporting each other and seeing each other’s growth in group coaching sessions to be a positive experience. See our evaluation, blogs and testimonials for more detail.  

What does effective career coaching look like?

Benchmarks of an effective programme

  • A stable programme that is structured and has the backing of senior management.
  • Has an identified and appropriately trained person responsible for it.
  • A coaching approach which is non-directive, non-judgemental, constructive and proactive.
  • Informed by career and labour market information. The 'coach' or adviser and the programme need to provide good quality information about career options and the labour market. An informed adviser should provide support.
  • Addressing the needs of each postdoc: the coach actively challenges stereotypical thinking to expand aspirations.

  • There is no prejudice, either way, for careers within or beyond academia.
  • Programme addresses and coach is aware of special educational needs, vulnerability and protected characteristics
  • Safeguarding and legal compliance: understanding of coaching approach and ethics, registered with recognised ethical body, listing of any statutory guidance.
  • Accountability and quality: institutional policy about one-to-one work, conflict of interest, evaluation, internal coaches or adviser special considerations.
  • Evaluating the impact of coaching: build-in feedback, check-in and monitoring of coaches and advisers throughout the programme.

Arranging career coaching to support Prosper at your institution

There are three broad options:

1. Commission external career coaches

Has your Institution got pre-existing relationships with an external career coach/es? If so would they be appropriate? Could you approach them to support Prosper at your institution? 

If not, you may need to look for a supplier or commission or tender for one. For approximate costs see 'Identify potential running costs' section of how to choose your mode of delivery.

2. Recruit internal career coaches

Does your institution have an internal pool of staff trained as career coaches that could be approached for support? Special care is needed with internal coaches to ensure postdocs feel psychologically safe and there isn't a real or perceived conflict of interest.

3. Support postdocs to self-guide through career coaching resources

If you have limited resources, you can direct the postdocs to our self-guided career coaching materials.

Career coaches do not necessarily need to have worked with postdocs before to be able to effectively support Prosper. They just need to be aware of the challenges this staff group face. 

Career coaches briefing document for those new to Prosper

Here we provide a document for you to share with your career coach/es to aid them in supporting Prosper. You can amend it as you wish. You need to provide your career coach/es with details of your local provision for mental health and wellbeing for staff, there is a prompt for you to do this at the end of the document. 

Download the career coaches briefing document here

How we did it

We commissioned five external career coaches, via tender due to the expected costs and institutional guidelines. Applicants were shortlisted, interviewed and then appointed (all online). All career coaching was provided online. Not all five career coaches had worked with postdocs before, but all had experience with people in the Higher Education sector.  

As a project we set career coaching as a compulsory element of participating in a pilot cohort in our participant agreement . We also included career coach guidelines for coachees on our prototype portal so that the postdocs knew what to expect. These guidelines were agreed with all career coaches beforehand. 

As Prosper was co-created with postdocs, PIs and employers there wasn’t a rigidly fixed plan of the sessions and dates for the cohort in place when the coaches were appointed. The coaches were briefed as far as possible, and it was explained that the programme was a deliberate work in progress, into which their input was also desired. Each of our two pilot cohorts ran for a duration of 12 months. 

We paid each coach for 4 hours of their time, to familiarise themselves with the prototype Portal content as it stood in the first quarter of cohort 1.  

Each member of cohort 1 was allocated a total of 3.5 hours of 1:1 career coaching, plus 15 hours of group career coaching across the 12 months of the cohort. Postdocs were assigned to coaching groups with a broad aim to get groups of mixed discipline, gender and ethnicity as far as possible. No group coaching group exceeded 11 postdocs in size. Postdocs were assigned to the same career coach for both group and 1:1 coaching. 

The same five career coaches were used for cohort 2. Coaching group assignments for cohort 2 were made with a broad aim to get groups of mixed discipline, gender, ethnicity and institution as far as possible. Each member of cohort 2 had a total of 1 hour of 1:1 career coaching, plus 15 hours of group career coaching available to them across the 12 months of the cohort. For further details see the how to choose your mode of delivery, and how Prosper ran it's two pilot cohorts pages. 

Each career coach had a personal excel sheet of their assigned coachees, pre-populated with the number of 1:1 and group coaching sessions they were commissioned to deliver. These documents were stored securely on a dedicated Sharepoint site. The coaches each arranged by email (and input) the precise time/date of their sessions with their coachees. The coaches reported the attendance of their coachees to each session on their spreadsheet. The coaches raised an invoice quarterly. 

We held a meeting once a quarter (towards the end of each quarter) with all of the career coaches to discuss how it was going, raise any common challenges or comments and collect feedback from them. Each meeting was 90 minutes long, held online and we paid for their time to attend. All meeting time/dates for the year were booked in at the start of the year.  

All career coaches were asked to encourage the postdocs of each pilot cohort to keep a reflective journal to document their career development journey. Each postdoc had a personal folder accessible only by the individual postdoc, their career coach and the Prosper team. The reason Prosper wished to have access to these reflective journals was as another way to evaluate the postdocs mindset shift. Ultimately, a mixture of inconsistent uptake by cohort postdocs and the very time-consuming nature of analysing (and anonymising) these entries limited their utility to the project. A blog detailing the initial analysis of these self-reflections can be found here.

Career coaches were also invited to our end of cohort celebration events and invited to input their parting thoughts or best wishes for the outgoing cohort. We also found that our career coaches were well placed to be commissioned for specific sessions to the cohort on a range of topics due to their background and depth of understanding of the needs of postdocs. Some of these can be found in the Learning and Development section, for example in time management, building your confidence and starting a business and entrepreneurship.

We included the career coaches on our postdoc cohort mailing list so that they received all updates the postdocs did. We also encouraged the coaches to let us know if there were any issues that we needed to be aware of, or if any postdoc had got a new position. This last point was extremely important to our project for both the 0.1 FTE buy-out of postdoc time and our evaluation. Postdocs who got a new position during the 12 months of the pilot cohort were offered the option to remain on the cohort (in their own time if no longer a postdoc at any of our three partner institutions). We were pleasantly surprised that many of the postdocs did want to continue with the career coaching until the end of the cohort, even if they had moved onto another job.  

Associated resources

Recommendations

  • Do take time to consider how you group/assign your postdocs if you’re offering group coaching – do you want to mix them up or not? 
  • Do allow either coach/es or coachees to request to move coaching groups. 
  • Do make your expectations of the participants to attend career coaching sessions clear. 
  • Do ensure your cohort members can request reasonable adjustments if group coaching is not achievable or comfortable for them. 
  • Do consider making reasonable adjustments for participants who would find group coaching non-beneficial or distressing, such as (but not limited to) those with anxiety or individuals identifying as neurodivergent. 
  • Coaching doesn’t have to be offered for a duration of 12 months to be effective. Our coaches thought offering career coaching over four to six months would also be effective. 
  • Do consider the frequency of the coaching sessions, we had sessions two weeks apart near the start of the cohort, which then moved to a month apart. Session frequency is a balance between frequent enough to maintain momentum and a focus on career development versus insufficient time for participant self-reflection or exploration between sessions. 
  •  Do consider how you timetable sessions – do you get the coach to set dates/times that work for them and then the postdocs self-assign to groups based on this?
  • Do keep you career coach/es in the loop/make them feel included. If you’ve got more than one career coach, consider how you might like to support them meeting up to share practice. 
  • Don’t forget to share the details of staff support for mental health and wellbeing at your institution with your career coach/es.
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