From Biologist to Life Coach

Brian Taylor

October 29, 2009

Few of us will have a classic eureka moment—bathtub and all—that provides the answer to years of career exploration, but Samantha Sutton did.

As a graduate student in synthetic biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she initially had a difficult time picturing herself as anything other than a scientist or engineer. Her desire to work as part of a team had already led her to consider nonacademic work, such as joining a biotech start-up. But one moment of epiphany radically changed her direction.

Oddly enough, the answer had been in front of her all along. Sutton had taken a "life coaching" course, which was designed to help students and staff members at MIT find their passions and actively design their lives. It was while working as a teaching assistant for that course that she realized that coaching itself was her passion.

Bolstered by that realization, Sutton made the leap from biologist to life coach shortly after finishing her Ph.D., and now specializes in helping people navigate similar professional and personal transitions. Her evolution from academic to life coach is instructive both for how she handled her own career change and how she advises others facing similar questions.

Question: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

Sutton: I majored in electrical engineering as an undergraduate, and while I enjoyed my classes and classmates, I felt that something was missing. In working on a summer internship with Michael Simpson at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I learned about the nascent field of synthetic biology. Its aim is to engineer organisms that perform functions of use to humans. I thought to myself, "Aha! That's what's missing—engineering with living beings. Perfect." So I went to graduate school to become a synthetic biologist.

Question: Why did you decide to leave academe?

Sutton: I decided to leave well before I decided to pursue life coaching. The largest factor in my decision was that I like working on teams with people who share a common goal, and everyone either succeeds or fails together. I enjoy helping cultivate the unique strengths of each person on a team, and figuring out how to weave those strengths together to get the job done. Different types of careers have different models of teamwork, and the model I liked the best was that of small start-up companies. So before I decided to join a life-coaching start-up company, I had my sights set on biotech start-up companies.

Question: How did you become a life coach?

Sutton: Seemingly small events can make such a huge difference in your life. The company I work with, the Handel Group, offers a life-coaching class at MIT to help undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and staff members design happier, more fulfilling lives. My adviser heard about the class and suggested it to his graduate students as something that might be of interest.

From the first day, I was hooked. I remember thinking to myself that this was the "real thing" for people who were serious about getting out of a rut and taking on their dreams. I took the course, served as a teaching assistant, and helped develop a curriculum so it could be taught at other institutions. About a year in, I started to think to myself, "Wow, these coaches have the best jobs ever. To be let in to someone's life like that, and then help them take on the big issues—that must be an amazing career." But I didn't really think it was an option for me. I was Scientist Samantha, and scientists don't become life coaches.

Then one day, I was sitting in a bathtub at a scientific conference in Austria, and I realized that personal development had actually been a consistent theme running throughout my life. Before graduate school, I taught English in rural Thailand, and had spent seven weeks meditating at a Buddhist monastery. At MIT, I had become a certified mediator. I had considered each of those passions to be random blips, but in that bathtub in Austria, I realized that they formed a pattern. I enjoy thinking about my own personal evolution, and helping that evolution in others. Maybe, I thought, Scientist Samantha could become Coach Samantha. So I approached the coaches at the Handel Group and told them of my realization, and they said "Of course. What took you so long?" I trained with the company while finishing up my Ph.D., and after graduation started working there as a coach.

Question: What exactly do you do as a life coach?

Sutton: Just as you might hire a personal trainer to help you set and achieve certain goals for your body, people hire me to help them set and achieve goals for their lives. I help my clients move past the excuses, justifications, and bad theories about "the way the world works" that keep them stuck in the same old rut. I work with my clients to keep their word to themselves, which means that if they say they will find a more fulfilling career, or set aside 30 minutes a day for themselves, or finish writing their book, or lose 20 pounds, or broach a difficult conversation with their boss, they do it.

Question: Were any of the skills you learned in graduate school useful in your work?

Sutton: So many. As graduate students, we learn much more than just protein biochemistry, cell biology, or whatever we study. First, I learned how to systematically solve puzzles: how to observe a phenomenon, dig deeper to gather information about it, stitch together a hypothesis, and then test it. That skill is useful in figuring out why a client is not moving forward in his or her career, marriage, or finances, even though they claim to want progress.

Second, I learned how to communicate my ideas clearly, with confidence and a strong backing. That is useful when telling someone something that they may not want to hear, such as, "You played a role in getting fired from your last job."

Finally, I learned how to effectively leverage my resources. In science, it is very hard to go it alone—I called on the expertise of others on a daily basis to help me brainstorm solutions to problems, or fill in gaps in my biology knowledge. Similarly, as a coach, I have to be entrepreneurial and continually seek counsel from others on how to build a flourishing coaching practice.

Question: What lessons have you had to learn or skills have you had to acquire in order to be successful as a life coach?

Sutton: First, I learned that we make our own opportunities. For much of my life, I saw myself as walking down a path, running into forks in the road, and choosing between the left fork or the right fork. Now I see it differently—I am not even on a road anymore, but a grassy meadow where I can go anywhere.

Second, I learned how to prioritize my time. I thought I had learned that pretty well in graduate school, but I kicked it up a notch once I started coaching. Several people have told me that if you are creating and scheming and taking on big things, you should have more to do than can ever be done. That is definitely the world I live in now, so I am constantly asking myself, "Is this the most important thing for me to be doing right now?" Everything is fun and exciting, so that no longer becomes a criterion for making decisions.

Third, I have learned how to sell myself to individuals. It was always easy to sell myself to anonymous fellowship committees, conference organizers, or grant agencies. I needed an extra boost of confidence and vision to sell myself to individuals, convincing them why they should hire me help them solve their problems.

Question: As a life coach, what advice would you give graduate students who feel stuck in their careers?

Sutton: Well, hiring a life coach would be a good start. Seriously, though, I would say that we don't really know what is, or is not, possible for us. Many of us spend our lives in the realm of what we think is "likely," but have no idea what else lies beyond, in the realm of "unlikely." I used to think that it was unlikely that I could make a respectable living as a coach, but I made a leap of faith into that world, and ended up seeing that "unlikely" and "likely" are really all in the mind.

There are so many ways you can use your skills in this world, and you are probably aware of only a fraction of them. The important thing is to start with a dream or vision of what you want to do. Never mind if it seems unlikely for X, Y, or Z reasons, or if it will close doors A, B, or C and disappoint D, E, or F. Visualize what it is you want, period. You can be smart enough and resourceful enough to make it happen, if you really want it.

If you think you don't know what makes you happy, then my response to you would be that you probably do know, but just aren't listening to yourself. Get out of your daily life and try out different activities, roles, and situations, and look for clues. Be a detective, and make it fun. If you devote the same amount of inquisitiveness, creativity, and confidence to your career puzzles as you do to your research as a graduate student, you'll end up in a great career.

Susan Basalla May is the author, with Maggie Debelius, of "'So What Are You Going to Do With That?': Finding Careers Outside Academia," released in 2007 in an updated edition by the University of Chicago Press.