Beyond Productivity Hacks and Time-Management Tricks

Last spring, when I wrote “Do You Really Need to Hire a Career Coach?,” it was intended for graduate students and new Ph.D.s on the job market who were facing a rising tide of paid coaching and consulting services aimed at academics. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time serving as a coach for folks who, you would think, wouldn’t need one — that is, for faculty members who aren’t looking to change professions.

So why would they seek professional coaching? In my role as director of faculty mentoring and coaching programs at Duke University, I’ve been working with academics — both on and off the tenure track — who want to succeed in their current role, rather than find a new one. They need help flourishing in place.

That need is especially heightened at a time of faculty disengagement and burnout following two years of pandemic crisis management. Faculty members can reap many benefits from coaching, but I routinely see two obstacles getting in the way: (1) They have numerous misconceptions about coaching and (2) they are unaware of what kind of help they need.

That lack of awareness may seem odd given that Ph.D.s tend to be whip-smart people. But too often, their vision of faculty success is narrowly tethered to a research agenda and a publication record. When they come to me for coaching (either through a group program I run, or through nomination for one-on-one coaching from their department chair), they often have a vague sense of being stuck or stalled in some way — whether in relation to their professional advancement, their performance (research, teaching, administrative work), or their motivation and satisfaction.

Many are quick to assume their problem is one of either knowledge (they don’t know all the rules, tricks, or hacks yet) or productivity (they aren’t working hard enough or “smart” enough). From their first year in a graduate program, academics absorb a simple message about success: Learn the rules (written and unwritten), stick to them, and work like mad. When problems arise, they naturally believe they haven’t followed “the formula” closely enough.

As much as we vaunt ingenuity and creativity in academe, the manner in which we train and acculturate professors does not reinforce those values. Nor does it foster qualities such as resourcefulness, adaptability, and resilience.

Coaching is an ideal structure for helping faculty members sort out their professional challenges, but this type of resource is neither visible nor freely accessible at most institutions. And even where it is available, faculty coaching programs tend to focus on one of two predictable channels:

  • Productivity and time-management advice for the many. The clear message: Faculty success looks like being a good worker bee, culminating in an ever-lengthier CV and an uncomplicated path to promotion.
  • Leadership training for a select few (those preparing to be department chairs, divisional deans, or center directors, for example). The clear message: Deeper introspection, the cultivation of self-awareness and explorations of identity (common themes in leadership coaching) happens only later, for the fortunate few, under the justification they’re being readied for administrative roles.

Coaching is not prescriptive. It’s not PowerPoints, online modules, or panels of experts holding forth (all of which have their place). Trained and credentialed coaches (of which I am one) don’t give advice or tell people what to do. Coaching is not therapy, either. It’s asking questions and listening and helping faculty members maximize their potential.

Not surprisingly, advice and quick tips are what many faculty members ask for during our initial coaching sessions. Some assume poor time management is the root of their problem, and want suggestions on how to deal with it. In my sessions, I have encountered all of the following:

  • Faculty members complaining of burnout, lethargy, disorientation, or malaise. They assume the solution is a matter of more discipline, a different writing schedule, or a set of productivity hacks such as Pomodoro timers and various accountability apps (such as Forest).
  • Academics who’ve gone to all the productivity workshops, tried everything, and still feel a lot of shame over how they “should” be working. They’ve tried all the hacks but haven’t been able to make any of them work.
  • Faculty members confronting deep identity issues. It becomes obvious, once we get past the first or second coaching session, that some faculty members are skirting uncomfortable questions about their professional purpose or identity. They might keep redirecting the conversation to the safer, more familiar territory of work habits and proclivities.

Don’t get me wrong. Time management and productivity are critical for faculty success, especially in competitive academic settings where it can feel shameful to show vulnerability or admit falling short on some standard of research activity and scholarly output. Some academics want to use coaching only to enhance their time management and productivity. As a coach, I respect those goals and find ways to help people meet them.

Often, however, there’s an underlying stumbling block, and it isn’t time management. Faculty members who don’t deal with the root of the problem will very likely remain stuck or will revert back to their unproductive work habits.

With the caveat that coaching is not therapy (and that some problems do require referral to a trained therapist), I offer the following examples from my meetings with faculty members (shared with their permission). All of these cases center around a classic time-management issue: the ability (or lack thereof) to say No to things.

  • A new faculty member told me she was overwhelmed with requests from students who wanted to work with her in some capacity. We could have discussed boundary-setting, or other old chestnuts about the importance of saying No. Instead, I asked her more about her research, which was truly novel and innovative. “Sounds like you are doing some badass scholarship,” I observed. “How does a badass scholar handle requests for her time?” As it turned out, there were several factors at play tethering her to her old identity as a graduate student. And this small but significant shift in self-perception seemed to help this faculty member grow into her new faculty identity in more ways than one.
  • Another faculty member talked at some length about her difficulty saying “no” to service requests. I finally asked who was making the requests, and the difficult ones all came from the same person. “What is this telling you about the relationship?” I asked. She asked for time to think about it, and reported significant progress at the next session. The requests, as it turned out, were from her program director, who also happened to be her mentor. She was able to initiate an open, collegial conversation with him, respectfully pointing out that his dual roles as both her director and mentor were generating mixed messages: She was simultaneously being urged to protect her time for scholarship, while also fielding his requests to take on multiple service responsibilities. The outcome was twofold: She had a more productive relationship with her colleague, and greater confidence in initiating potentially difficult conversations.
  • There are times when people can’t grow professionally until they say Yes to things. I recall one newly tenured faculty member who revealed deep ambivalence about agreeing to continue working on a highly interdisciplinary project — one for which this faculty member was not the lead or primary author. We talked a lot about this scholar’s pre-tenure identity as a “lone wolf” whose comfort zone was built around retaining full control over all aspects of a project. I asked what maintaining that control felt like at the moment, and the term we settled on was “frustrated mastery.” We discussed what it might take for this faculty member to shift roles — to move from a position of “frustrated mastery” to one of collaborative discovery. It’s a shift that will serve the academic well beyond this particular project.

No set of prescriptions or pithy advice could have adequately helped any of these faculty members. Their dilemmas — manifesting as time management or research-priority issues — are tied to more-complex challenges such as reframing personal and professional identity after significant career transitions (examples 1 and 2) and navigating messy relationships with colleagues, collaborators, and students (in all three cases).

So do all faculty members need to run out and find a coach?

That is not, in fact, what I am arguing. If you are intrigued by the process I outline here, you could first look into what types of coaching and mentoring services (if any) are available to academics on your campus. Internally financed coaching programs are not yet widespread across higher education, but they do exist. A good first step toward getting one at your institution might be to ask for it. As I am already a full-time salaried program director at Duke, faculty members are not charged for my coaching services.

And if your request is denied in these budget-constrained times, one option is to turn to your own mentoring network. Are there people already in your orbit who might serve some of the functions of a coach? That may sound like a tall order at first, but try asking yourself: Whom do I trust? Who listens more than they talk? Who asks me thought-provoking questions? Consider spending more time with those people.

Providing a professional coach for every faculty member may not be a sustainable or realistic solution. But most institutions encourage faculty members to have mentors, and to mentor colleagues in turn. Yet graduate programs rarely if ever teach Ph.D.s how to be good mentors. What would happen if more academics were trained to mentor like a coach? What if faculty mentors knew how to create a confidential space, build rapport, and listen more than they talked? What would it take for mentors to become more interested in empowering people to solve problems than in providing specific solutions or replicating their own career trajectories?

At a time of so much turmoil across higher education, it might be a sensible investment to offer coaching for professors at all stages of their careers, and not just those on the tenure track. This would be an investment not just in individual faculty members, but also a strategic way to enhance retention, build morale, and promote a culture of sustained learning and growth — of the kind that is not solely measured by rigid metrics of research productivity, teaching load, or service hours.