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I’ve obtained my PhD in biology about 1.5 years ago. Just a few months ago, I learned that there is a coaching program, specifically designed for PhD students in the university where I did my PhD (UniFr, University of Fribourg, Switzerland 🇨🇭).

Let me rephrase this: I went through my whole PhD (almost 5 years) without knowing that there was a coaching program available for me, for free, in my very own university.

Problems of communication anyone?

Recently, as I passed through Fribourg, I met with the persons behind this coaching program to investigate what’s going on…

This blog post below is quite specific for Fribourg. If you’re a PhD student or a postdoc in Switzerland and you’re looking for Graduate Centers, Career Centers and Soft Skills Programs, have a look at my resource here listing such centers, associations and programs in the different Swiss universities 👍

 

Tame your PhD and Coaching for Advanced PhD students at the University of Fribourg (CH)

 

The Centre for Teaching and Learning of UniFr, better known as the Centre Did@cTIC, offers two coaching training depending on how far you are in the PhD. The first one called “Tame your PhD” is for students who are in the beginning to the middle of their thesis, it’s subtitled “how to develop as a PhD student.” The second one is for Advanced PhD students and is subtitled “let’s go finishing your dissertation together!” If you’re not sure where you are in your PhD, for example if you have no idea when you gonna be able to graduate, how I sometimes felt myself, feel free to contact Dr. Marie Lambert from the Centre Did@cTIC and you’ll see together which training might be best for you.

The coaching program is available in priority to Unifr PhD students whose PhD program is funded by swissuniversities (see more below), but Marie said that she never had to refuse anyone yet so feel free to apply no matter what. Also, the coach herself, Marie-Paule Haefliger, told me that she gets as many people from human sciences than “hard” sciences, meaning everyone’s welcome. Moreover, while most workshops offered by the Centre Did@cTIC are either in French or German, this coaching for PhD students is in English!!

What I find amazing in this program is that one will get both group sessions (8–12 people groups) and individual sessions which means getting professional coaching relevant to one’s specific situation!

I first learned about it as two friends of mine had the chance to benefit from it recently and as they both told me how much this coaching from Marie-Paule had helped them in their PhDs. Curious, I contacted Marie-Paule and we had a 4h chat! She has quite an impressive background and, from my point of view, Marie-Paule does seem like the perfect person to understand what PhD students are going through, to understand the challenges of today’s academic world and, therefore, to provide appropriate coaching.

For her master in Fribourg, Marie-Paule studied cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, and neuroscience. Today she is both a professional psychologist (certified Swiss Psychologist Federation) and a professional coach (member of Swiss Society for Coaching Psychology). Moreover, after her master she was offered a PhD student position in Fribourg in psychology. Unfortunately, her supervisor left for retirement and she ended up in quite a difficult situation. In the end, she had to start a new project with the taking-over supervisor and she is now close to the end of this second study. Despite her academic life challenges, she decided to pursue this other thing which passionates her: coaching. In particular, since over 5 years she’s been coaching people from the finance, the insurance, the hospital and the academic worlds. Interestingly, she says these are all highly hierarchical and competitive worlds. Oh, and Marie-Paule also develops Continuing Education Programs and teaches at UniDistance and is a mom. Yup, this is someone really busy and highly qualified and I still can’t believe that PhD students in Fribourg can get such coaching for free!

If you are asking yourself questions like how to clarify your goals, to stay focus, to keep your motivation up, to manage self-doubts, to find a work-life balance, to build a scientific and professional network, to prepare your defense, or if you’re just feeling overwhelmed by your PhD, this coaching is for you! Feel free to explore the Centre Did@cTIC website here and the details of these coaching training here and here. You’ll see that, on top of the coaching program, the Centre Did@cTIC offers a few other workshops for PhD students.

Here some highlights of the coaching program as reported in students’ testimonies: empathy, listening skills and sensibility from the coach; inputs to get going with the thesis; ideas on how to better manage discussions with the supervisor depending on one’s needs and goals.

Behind the scenes

This coaching program for PhD students in Fribourg started in 2014, one year after I started my PhD, but I never got to know about it until now that I’m done.

When I met with Marie Lambert from the Centre Did@cTIC which coordinates the program, I learned that it is not funded by UniFr but by a Swiss institution for higher education called swissuniversities. Indeed, swissuniversities offers to pay for such programs to help their initial development, hoping that universities will then take over and further develop (and finance) the program for themselves. At the moment, the Centre Did@cTIC staff is not sure whether the University of Fribourg will finance this program after 2020. However, they know that the rectorate is aware of such a program importance and is trying to find solutions to perpetuate it. Still I think that if you wanna get some coaching, better doing it now!

It appears to me that the Centre Did@cTIC started organizing this coaching program because swissuniversities offered them the money to do so, but, actually, support for PhD students is not explicitly part of their missions within UniFr. Indeed, if you’re in Fribourg you’ve probably heard of this Centre Did@cTIC as providing formation for teachers, like for professors, assistants or PhD students who have teaching duties. However, in addition to this important time-taking activity of training teachers, the Centre Did@cTIC is a research lab in educational science. Its head, Prof. Charlier, is a professor at UniFr, teaching a lot, having her own research, she also supervised and co-supervised many masters and PhD students. Also, I think that we all got stuck in our heads that the Centre Did@cTIC only provides the teaching formation and, consequently, we go over their emails too quickly.

Altogether I can understand why they’re having such a limited time for communicating broadly about this extra activity of coaching PhD students, and why their communication attempts are sometime unsuccessful. As a result, in 2018 only 26 PhD students from the whole University of Fribourg attended the coaching program

Nevertheless, I have great hopes for the future :)

Indeed, while I thought that there was not much going on in Fribourg and in Switzerland, I now got to meet such amazing people like Marie and Marie-Paule who are doing more than what they actually have time for to help PhD students. It might take some more time but I do believe that one day more coaching programs will be developed and that many more students would benefit from it. Moreover, there already are other programs which also provides great training for PhD students in Switzerland. In particular, while I missed the opportunity to benefit from Marie-Paule’s coaching, the CUSO transversal program simply saved my PhD and obviously I highly recommend it to everyone in western Switzerland!

A last important point which I would like to attract your attention to is Marie’s PhD thesis. Indeed, Dr. Marie Lambert completed her PhD in this Centre Did@cTIC under Prof. Charlier supervision in 2013. Marie studied the experience of PhD students at UniFr itself!! Based on her results, they published a 20-page long PDF entitled “conditions for a successful doctoral supervision” (available in French and German; an English version is on the way) and which was sent out to the whole UniFr research staff in 2015. I remember receiving it and reading it back then, in the middle of my PhD. After reading it again today, I can only recommend every PhD student and every supervisor to take the time to read it carefully. Today I can also see how much her results and recommendations are aligned with Sverdlik et al., 2018, a large international review about the factors influencing the doctoral experience and which I summarized in this previous blog post.

 

Thanks for reading this post today and thanks a lot to Marie and Marie-Paule for meeting with me and for the amazing jobs you are doing :)

If you’re in Fribourg, please make sure to share the information about this coaching program around you to help PhD students to benefit from it! And if you are supervising PhD students, have a look at their new workshop specifically designed to help supervisors help their students :)

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The thumbnail picture of this article is courtesy of my partner in life.