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Tips and tools for career coaching

In this article we describe a few tips and tools supervisors can use for career coaching
© University of Groningen

Career coaching is increasingly recognised as an integral aspect of PhD supervision. This is backed up by an emerging body of academic studies into the effect of career coaching on PhD trajectories and on the graduates’ post-PhD career paths. In the area of PhD training and support, this development is manifest in the trend towards the increased professionalisation of career coaching for PhDs and their supervisors. At many universities, including the University of Groningen, courses are offered to support the PhD in their career choice.

Keep career goals in view throughout the PhD trajectory

In many cases, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely (SMART) career goals can provide focus for a PhD trajectory. In formulating these goals, it is of central importance to identify what motivates your individual PhD candidate and makes them enthusiastic. At times, their motivation may be different from yours. A clear next step can motivate candidates to frame the project as a stepping stone, and thus contribute to the timely completion of the project. A well-planned career strategy can inform specific areas of the project, such as networking strategy, publication strategy and outreach activities. This allows for career coaching to be broken down into manageable subtasks that can be proactively included in the regular supervision meetings. Such an approach can avoid ad hoc situations where a PhD candidate is suddenly overcome by a host of questions about their career path, which might inhibit their productivity and motivation.

A tailor-made supervision

Although your principal task is to guide your PhD candidate’s academic development, the way you guide your PhD candidate’s developing career awareness will directly affect your working relationship and your joint performance. Understanding your candidate’s career goals may help you identify key motivators, aid in communication and help in understanding possible challenges. However, it is important to clearly define your role.

Don’t instruct, coach!

It is key to remember that in particular on matters of career perspectives of the PhD candidate, your role is that of the coach, not instructor (you will learn more about this distinction in the second week of this course). It is also important to mention again that coaching conversations about career perspectives should be had throughout the trajectory, and not only at the end, as they will inform choices and options of the candidate all along.

In the previous steps, you have reflected on your ideas about career coaching and you have found out about resources at yours and other universities around the globe. Once you have identified your candidate’s career goals (with the help of information on post-PhD careers and your understanding of your candidate’s motives), you can direct them towards the available courses and workshops on offer at your organisation. An excellent resource in this sense is the website Academic Transfer, which gives an excellent view of the different career paths and contains tools for self-assessment. These will help the candidate work on their self-reflection, awareness of career paths, cv, online presence and networking skills. You can then further support their career development by connecting your candidate within your network.

Here are some questions that you might want to ask in your ongoing conversation with your PhD:

  • What kind of work environment do you prefer? (collaborative, solo, part of a team)?
  • Where would you like to have an impact in the future (policy, education, private enterprise, self-employed)?
  • Do you have some ideas about the sector where you would like to work?
  • With what audiences would you like to engage?
  • Do you have an idea about the sector where you would like to work?
  • Have you thought about research or project assignments at another academic institution that may line up a possible post-doc application?
  • Have you thought about outreach activities that may add experiences in societal impact to your CV? (This is indeed an aspect that is becoming increasingly important for national and international funding applications).
  • Have you thought about your publication/outreach activities in light of your career goals?
  • Are there ways in which I, as your supervisor, or my network can help you gain experiences to better inform your thinking about future careers – in the way of internship/exchanges/research stays?

Looking ahead in PhD career coaching.

Empirically informed career coaching for PhD’s is an emerging trend. Therefore, this is a great opportunity for you to show leadership among your peers. As in all areas of PhD coaching: be the supervisor you would have liked to have had!


  • Koier, E. and J. de Jonge (2018). The impact of a doctorate. The careers and job prospects of doctorate holders in the Netherlands. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut
  • Leysinger, C., A. Hasgall and A. Peneoasu (2020) Tracking the careers of doctorate holders. EUA-CDE Thematic Peer Group Report. Zürich. University of Zürich.
  • Mendoza Otero, J.N., N. Rizo Rabelo, H. Beltrán Alonso, and E. René Concepción Morales. (2021) La formación doctoral: estudio comparativo entre Europa y América. Universidad y Sociedad, Cienfuegos , v. 13, n. 4, p. 170-182
  • Spurk, D., S. Kauffeld, L. Barthauer and N.S.R. Heinemann, (2015) Fostering networking behavior, career planning and optimism, and subjective career success: An intervention study, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Volume 87.
© University of Groningen
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