Do I Need an Academic Success Coach?

Do I Need an Academic Success Coach?

Academic success coach points at a blackboard while reading from a book held in her other hand.

About Academic Success Coaches

What is an Academic Success Coach?

An academic success coach, or student success coach, is a professional who provides one-on-one support for students struggling with academic matters. Academic success coaches usually specialize in working with students of specific ages, seeking certain degrees, or working with specific conditions. For example, some academic coaches specialize in coaching high school students on a college track, others specialize in helping undergraduate students with learning or developmental disorders, like ADHD. I specialize in working with master’s and Ph.D. students who have gotten stuck and are struggling to finish their degrees.

How academic success coaches help students

Academic success coaches leverage their training and experience to help students identify the specific challenges they are facing, brainstorm solutions, and empower students to make changes in their lives to better support their academic achievements. This is done in an iterative process where the student makes manageable changes to their academic approach, which build on each other over time.

Student success coaching is client-focused

The exact approaches that coaches take vary based on our training and the characteristics and needs of our clients. The approaches that a student success coach working with high school students would take would be different than those I would use with a Ph.D. student who was struggling to complete their dissertation. That’s why coaches specialize in working with specific groups of students. We become very familiar with identifying and managing the challenges that our students most frequently face. We have experience in what does and doesn’t work for our different clients. We also have a good understanding of what are normal challenges students face at their level and what might require a higher level of intervention (e.g., psychological assessment and intervention for learning disorders, ADHD, etc.).

Even within a specific demographic, good academic success coaches will tailor their approaches to the specific needs of the student. Obviously, my recommendations to a student struggling with keeping on top of weekly assignments are going to differ from my recommendations for a student trying to navigate a difficult student-advisor relationship. Even challenges that on the surface appear to be similar may require different approaches for different students and a good academic success coach recognizes this and changes their strategy.

Academic Success Coaches in Graduate School

I’m going to focus now on graduate student success coaches because that’s my area of expertise. Graduate school is a different academic world and grad. students looking into coaching often have specific questions that I want to answer.

How is this different from an academic advisor or mentor?

Academic advisors and mentors are an invaluable part of graduate school. For master’s students, their role is to help navigate the particularities of their graduate program, provide advice on course selection, and – for programs that include thesis, internship, or practicums – guide students on the basics for completion of these larger requirements. For Ph.D. students (and similar professional degrees), the academic advisor provides similar support and may or may not serve as a research advisor for the student in completing their dissertation.

Let’s focus just on the academic advisor role for the moment. Students may luck out and have a phenomenal academic advisor who goes above and beyond the standard level of support like which classes to take, which forms need to be filled out, and where to direct the student if they have a problem. However, not all students get more than the bare minimum support. Professors are not hired for their advisement skills, rather they are selected based on their ability to bring funding and prestige to the university. If they happen to be exceptional advisors, that’s a bonus but not a requirement, and most students don’t get that level of support.

This is one place where academic success coaching comes in. Many talented students struggle in graduate school and need more support than just which course to take or what form to fill out. Most academic advisors can’t provide the individualized support that some students need. They don’t have the time or the skill.

This is where academic success coaching comes in. Students who feel overwhelmed with their coursework, are struggling with organizational issues, or are finding it hard to balance life responsibilities with academic ones may find limited assistance from their advisor but can get the kind of support and skills development they need from an academic coach. The level of personalized assistance is much higher.

How is an academic coach different from a research advisor?

Much of what I said about the quality of advisement for academic advisors hold for research advisors. Again, faculty are hired based on their research and funding ability. The quality of student mentorship is a distant second. While a research advisor should be providing more one-on-one support for students than an academic advisor, there’s no guarantee that they will take the time or have the skills needed to provide the best support for students. They may be able to help you formulate your research question or identify an analytic technique, but they are less likely to help you figure out how to manage time, prioritize tasks, work efficiently, or stop you from spending hours going down unnecessary research rabbit holes.

Do I need a coach?

Well, that depends on the formal and informal support you are already getting and if you’re still struggling beyond the normal struggle of hard academic work. If you are fortunate, then the answer is no. You’ve got all the support you need either directly through your advisor or through an informal network of mentors.

However, if you’re not getting enough support then a student success coach may be what you need. Signs that you might need an academic success coach include:

  • Falling behind in schoolwork
  • Problems with time management
  • Struggling to interpret vague or inconsistent feedback
  • Weak writing skills or facing writer’s block
  • Disorganization (anything from too many emails to not knowing how to organize all your journal articles)
  • Struggling with study skills and test anxiety
  • Procrastination
  • Difficulty prioritizing and being efficient
  • Having a disconnected or difficult advisor
Flow chart of whether you might want find an academic success coach helpful and whether a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist might be needed. The flowchart provides an illustration of the information in the text.

What about the mental and emotional struggles of being a graduate student?

This is a tricky question to answer. It depends on the types of mental and emotional struggles you’re talking about. For example, you might be feeling really overwhelmed and stressed out because you’re struggling to balance work and school. However, you might be feeling overwhelmed and stressed out because you’re struggling with depression or anxiety. We academic coaches work with academic challenges. Coaches are not therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists (although therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists can coach). We don’t treat mental illness.

If you told me that you were having problems with serious psychological distress or significant functional impairment, I’d advise you to contact a mental health treatment provider first because academic coaches don’t provide those services.

That being said, having a mental health problem doesn’t mean you can’t work with an academic coach. I’ve worked with many clients on academic matters of organization, time management, productivity, and motivation while they seek independent treatment for mental health. So, if you’re struggling to complete your schooling, consider seeking out an academic success coach to work with you and help you finish your degree.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!