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Your dissertation coach: Your personal academic trainer

My joyful livelihood for three decades has been as a coach and editor for doctoral candidates in all aspects of their dissertations. So I warn you now—I am partisan. That said, here I’ll describe the (best) duties and functions of a coach, with the basic distinctions too about editing.

Some universities positively ban dissertation coaches and editors, some graze the subject with tacit acceptance, some sanction certain types of editing and not others (such as light or medium editing; see below), and others almost require them. Depending on students’ academic skills and confidence, they adhere to or ignore such strictures. The coach/editor shouldn’t be expected to write the little beauty but to guide students in organizing their thoughts and managing their lives so they can write. And be their cheerleader and ally.

As my client Ingrid put it, “I need a friend and more. I need someone who can keep me motivated, yet who understands, someone who can listen and advise me without preaching. I need a weekly assignment and explanations of the requirements I don’t understand. I need to be held accountable. I need help managing my time and my life.”  Ingrid needed a coach, who is very much like an academic personal trainer (with thanks to Jain, 2011).

Ingrid identified a plight of many dissertation writers. When you get to the stage of actually writing, few other people understand, much less want to listen to your academic gripes. Unless your significant other, friend, or relative has weathered the ordeals of doctoratehood, it’s probably unrealistic to expect them to understand. Partners especially may not realize the kind of time, energy, focus, and total preoccupation you need to (or should) devote to your dissertation. They may blurt out “I never see you anymore” or mumble under their breath, “I didn’t bargain for this.” Enter the coach.

What About My Chair?

A dissertation coach is very different from your university chair or advisor. Chairs are paid by the university to execute many duties and functions—teaching, publishing, committee memberships, enthusiastic-seeming appearances at the dean’s parties. He or she is grossly overburdened with such duties and students and can barely give you minimum attention.

You would be very unwise to try to enlist the chair to serve as your coach, with long phone calls, litanies of how you can’t manage your time, or incessant complaints about the obtuse literature or your partner. Your chair, after all, is there to critique your semi-finished work, not to help you get through all the obstacles to producing it.

What Does My Coach Do?

Your coach, on the other hand, is paid by you and is committed (or should be) to give you the time and attention you need. Dr. Wendy Carter-Veale (2012), an experienced dissertation coach and founder of the University of Maryland’s Dissertation House, explained well the functions:

In person or on the phone, they can discuss your project on an individual basis in absolute confidence, and also serve as a sounding board for stress relief. They can offer both emotional and academic support to help you complete important tasks, as well as provide the tools you need to achieve your goals, which enable you to accomplish more with less effort. . . . Their goal is to work in every possible way to help you write your dissertation, finish it, and get it published. (p. 38)

Your coach helps you manage your time for the dissertation, whether it’s great gobs during the day or squeezing it in nights and weekends. Your coach helps you bite off manageable tasks in realistic timeframes. And reminds you that it all takes a long time, most often much longer than we all estimate.

Your coach helps you choose an enticing topic that you care about, coaxes out your ideas, and prompts you to clarify them. Your coach asks you pointed questions (“Why do you want to do this study?” “What will it show/prove?” “How will it add to understanding of your topic?” “How excited are you about the topic?” “How will you collect your data?” “How feasible and efficient are your methods?”).  Your coach advises you to share your ideas with your chair and pay attention dutifully to the feedback.

Your coach empathizes when you agonize about your writing blocks and offers techniques to help (see my article in TAA Abstract, “How to Ease Into and Even Enjoy Your Dissertation Writing,” Sterne, 2016). One client, Janet, wrote me about a graphically metaphoric dream: “I saw something tightening around me head and hands.” I replied that her dream was wonderful: It held the remedy to her writing block. I told Janet, “If you can visualize that tightening, you can visualize a loosening of the grip around your head and hands.” She acted on my advice and within a few days was writing again.

Your coach should continue to question you on all the important aspects of the dissertation, assist you in planning your procedures, and consistently praise you for small and large triumphs (getting the library hours straight, receiving a letter of permission from your research site, obtaining IRB approval). Remember, though, that engaging a coach does not guarantee that miracle of first-draft blessing by the chair and committee. As we know, they may, and usually do, still find plenty to comment on.

Your coach can also help you with officially nondissertation matters, such as problems with family and friends.  Your coach listens empathically when you grouse about your withdrawn partner and may, with informal counseling, suggest special “dates” for reconnection. If you entered a relationship without informing your Other that one of your life goals was to achieve the doctorate, and you never bothered to tuck that little fact into the conversation when you suddenly blurted you had to  do research on the weekend instead of seeing the latest hit,  don’t be surprised at the upheaval.

When clients confide such matters to me, and if you are encountering them, I suggest several actions. At the first sign of trouble, allocate a specific time for confronting the issues. Don’t sweep them under the journals or hide behind your drafts. Encourage the expression of feelings and thoughts without interrupting. See how you can come to an understanding.

With clients, I always ask about the partner’s support and suggest ways to increase it. When Jeffrey started his dissertation, I recommended he sit down with his wife and share with her the kind of time and focus he would need to make decent progress. And then to ask for her cooperation. He told me they worked out several divisions of duties with kids and house so he could have more time.

Everything in your life does have to do with your dissertation progress.

A Coach’s Style and Experience

You want to engage a coach who is simpatico to your style, easy to understand, and welcomes your questions. Recommendations from your colleagues may be a first step. Then, interview the coach in person, by Skype, or by phone. Your level of comfort is absolutely paramount.

If you want a barking sergeant, make sure you don’t get a marshmallow. If you want a gentle mother-substitute, make sure you don’t get a football captain. You want a coach who has confidence, expertise, and wide experience with dissertation writers (and committees) at all stages. Humor helps too. I often use it with clients to make a point or give some advice (“Remember, Todd, you don’t want to bite off a topic that would take forty monks without tablets or TV breaks sixty years to complete”).

Is a Coach an Editor?

Coaches may or may not include editing in their services. I do because I see how many dissertation writers need it. I include editing too because, as many have told me, they learn from studying my editorial adjustments and questions.

Among faculty, it is a given, unfortunately, that few graduate students are prepared for scholarly writing. Van Aswegen (2007), a faculty member and editor at a technology university, published a horrendous list of student inadequacies that apply to many other-than-technology students (I’d rather not repeat the list). Van Aswegen (2007) also pointed out that “an unwritten assumption” among many chairs seems to be “that no aspects of writing and/or bibliographic citation fall within their bailiwick” (p. 1148). Chairs of my clients comment on the document in many ways. The attention ranges from extensive tracked-change revisions to a few comma insertions and the admonition to follow APA, with or without an editor.

Dissertation editors may also specialize in one or more types of editing. Here are the generally accepted levels:

  • Copyediting or light editing, often called “mechanics.” The editor corrects spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and similar issues.
  • Medium editing, also called standard or basic editing. This level includes all of the above as well as consistency of formatting and usage in accordance with your university handbook and required style manual. Consistency applies to chapter headings, spacing, acronyms, rules about numbers, all other style rules, agreement of table of contents with text headings, lists of tables and figures with their text titles, and correction of citations in the text and references, in accordance, again, with your style manual.
  • Substantive editing, sometimes called or including developmental editing. This type of editing requires the editor’s thoughts about and engagement with your subject. Actual revisions, repositioning, and suggestions to improve the work are made throughout. The editing decreases redundancy, confused points, and inappropriate tone and word use (in scholarly writing, for example, colloquialisms and popular jargon); and increases organization, clarity, focus, flow, and grace of expression.

All three levels include proofreading, in which the editor corrects typos and other small editorial errors. Note: Proofreading is not editing. If you ask for proofreading, you will get only minor corrections. Be sure to clarify if and what type of editing your coach does and what type(s) you need.

Using Your Coach

Your coach should encourage you forward, see you through to the final draft, shore you up for the defense, applaud your final deposit, and even, at your invitation, sit in those harsh seats watching you graduate.

Use your coach in all the ways you need. Your anxieties will shrink, you’ll get the reassurance and guidance you need, and you’ll make more progress more consistently. Your coach will help you through your dissertation journey almost with enjoyment and rejoice with you as you proudly display your doctoral diploma.


Carter-Veale, W. Y. (2012). PhD completion: If you can write a master’s thesis you can write a dissertation: Helpful hints for success in your academic career (Vol. 1). Phoenix, AZ:    Dr. Carter’s Educational Group.

Jain, R. (2011). Get it done: A coach’s guide to dissertation success. Gaithersburg, MD: Moonswept Press.

Sterne, N. (2016, January 20). How to Ease Into and Even Enjoy Your Dissertation Writing. Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Guest blog, Abstract.

Van Aswegen, E. S. (2007). Postgraduate supervision: The role of the (language) editor: Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Juvenal, Satire 6, 346–48) [Who will guard the guardians?]. South African Journal of Higher Education: Postgraduate Supervision 2007: Special Edition, 8, 21, 1142–54.

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

© 2016 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.