The desire to succeed has given rise to a new industry of coaching. Life coaches, business coaches, social media campaign coaches, and so on. The concept is simple; find someone who is an expert at what you want to do and pay them a fee to learn the secrets of their success. Have them review your unique situation and provide guidance on how to get from where you are to where you want to be. If you google “coaching” right now the top hits will not be those who work with sports teams, but rather those who offer to mentor amateurs with ideas. They promise to turn your passion into a product, complete with a book, speaking fees, and paid consulting. As I was surfing through the interwebs related to this topic, I realized that I could be making big money coaching students to get into graduate school. Someone even showed me the site of a former professor who quit to coach full time in the area of aspiring university faculty. Her templates for letters involved in applying for positions have become so widely used that she posted a disclaimer that you should not use her exact wording anymore unless you want your query letter to sound exactly like a dozen others the search committee would receive.
You cannot hire a coach; it’s free at college
Of course, I will never make money as a graduate school admission coach (although I’ve seen it tried). I will never make money because I already perform this valuable service for free. You see, in academics coaching is called having a faculty advisor, and it’s free. One hour of my time with a student can change their life, and I’m not being grandiose. Last week I had two student appointments. The first had a simple question and was not my advisee. He told me all about his goal of becoming surgeon, but when I got the details it was clear that he cannot pull that off (e.g., not even a premed student and many other problems). In an hour the conversation had drifted so far from where we started that the student looked shocked, but now he had an actionable plan and a vision for what was possible. When he left he said “well you’ve given me a lot to think about.” He had a broad smile I’ve seen before—the surprised but hopeful look of someone who was finally listened to and told the truth about their hopes and dreams. I encouraged him to return in a couple semesters to see how his new career direction was progressing. The other student was a student I’ve advised since her first year in college. I’ve met with her perhaps 5 times over 3 years. Now she is getting ready to apply to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology, and I believe she has a decent shot of winning a spot in one of these highly coveted programs. Her process would make a good blueprint for success for any student, and I didn’t do anything but give a couple suggestions. In 5 meetings there is no chance that I had any real impact on her as a person, the contents of her resume, or really anything about her. All I did was offer advice, which shows the power of insider information that should be the focus of coaching—I mean faculty advising.
A successful member of the faculty has insider information on how the university works, how graduate school admissions really happens, and what a student needs to do to get there. Students I have advised have gone on to become physicians, lawyers, psychologists (of many varieties), and successful business executives. I don’t really care what career people choose, but I care deeply that they get there. All of their success is due to their choices, hard work, and luck—all I did was provide whatever inside information I could share.
The biggest category of advice is sweeping away the mistaken ideas that result from misinformation, naiveté, and lack of experience. This was true for me when I was a college student. My first meeting with a professor mostly consisted of her telling me how wrong my understanding of the discipline was. It’s not always pretty. My daughter calls me “dream crusher.” But it’s true.
The second biggest category of advising advice is to do something. Once students agree that they cannot become an astronaut or that a 2.25 is too low a GPA for a PhD in theoretical physics, they are open to considering the menu of possibilities that are realistic. Dozens of students have followed through on my suggestions to do this or that. A volunteer research experience, an internship, or any one of a number of educational or professional experiences that result in progress toward their goals. Just do something, but let it be the right thing. Your success is not caused by me, but I have opinions on what to do and what not to do.
Did I say it was free?
I will never make money as a coach because what I do is part of my job as a professor, and because there’s not enough demand for this service. To be clear, I won’t advise just anyone. I advise people at my university or who I already know. But the demand is shockingly weak for this valuable service. Most students never talk to me. I certainly don’t go looking for business because I have work to do. However, there is a special class of student who aggressively seeks out faculty advising. They meet with their advisor fairly regularly (e.g., once a semester) and they listen to what they are told. If their advisor is a dud, they fire that advisor and get a new one. These are the students who succeed. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, because ambition and drive combined with insider information often results in great success. The coaching industry has monetized insider information and made millionaires of a handful of experts who can get your book published, build your successful webinar series, launch your new product, or establish your consulting business. The faculty advisor is very much like one of these experts from the coaching industry; they have the insider information and they want to share it with you.
Get a faculty advisor
I didn’t have a faculty advisor, or at least I can’t remember who it might have been. But I do remember the exact conversations with faculty that became the pivot points in my professional journey. Along the way I had a handful of people tell the truth, and I remember exactly what they said. I owe a lot to their insider information. Now that I’m in their role, telling students what they need to hear, I see how valuable it is to have an advisor. Only the best students are serious about prioritizing regular meetings with their advisor—and “best” is not measured in GPA but rather in school saavy. The first student I met with last week had a metaphor I stole; if you just let the river take your canoe anywhere it goes, you’ll end up somewhere. But if you paddle your canoe, you can go somewhere you want to be. That student was wise; he may not become a surgeon, but he’s on his way to something good.
That’s why this is a college hack; it’s a relatively easy step to take that pays off big. Some of you already know this. If you don’t, get an advisor.