Life-Long Learning with Dr. Fergus Connolly

Fergus Connolly, Ph.D. is a coach, teacher, mentor, author, speaker and student of success and resilience. Dr. Connolly  has worked with some of the world’s leading sports, military, and business teams including Verizon, the San Francisco 49ers, University of Michigan, Liverpool FC and multiple Special Forces units. Fergus has applied performance science with leading sports, military, and business teams.
He is the only coach to have full times roles in every major sport, including soccer (Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers), professional and college football (San Francisco 49s and University of Michigan), rugby (Welsh national team) and elite military units.

Dr. Connolly is the author of the bestselling book “Game Changer – The Art of Sports Science.” He is one of the world’s foremost human potential thought leaders and influencers.

Dr. Connolly is happy to share his personal story of success, authenticity, and the power of empathy among leaders.


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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Being different and figuring out your own process
  • Being clear about your why
  • Being adaptable — the most important dissertation skill
  • Being imperfect — and getting things done
  • Being comfortable with making mistakes — once
  • Being comfortable with your education — and giving back

In this episode…

What does life-long learning mean to you? How can your dissertation journey pay dividends in the years to come?

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Fergus Connolly and Dr. Russell Strickland get into your head!Since your are unique and special, Dr. Connolly figures that your approach to your dissertation should be, too. It’s all about being intentional, discovering your “why,” and then being true to that truth. But, as special as you are, you’re not perfect. Coming to terms with this fact early in the dissertation process is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your sanity…and your graduation.

According to Dr. Connolly, becoming a doctor is all about learning how to learn. It doesn’t mean you won’t continue to make mistakes…just don’t make the same mistakes twice!

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Dissertation Done, America’s #1 authority in dissertation completion for working professionals.

Founded by Dr. Russell Strickland, Dissertation Done serves people in two ways:

  1. If you’re struggling with your dissertation, getting ready to start your dissertation, or just plain wanting to get your dissertation done as soon as possible, go to and Let’s Get Your Dissertation Done
  2. If you’re busy living your Unconventional Life and have a message that you want to share, maybe you should join our Expand Your Authority Program to become a published author. Go to and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit to learn more about our other services and leave a message or call them at 888-80-DR-NOW (888-803-7669) to schedule your free 30 to 45-minute phone consultation.

Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript is here for your reading convenience. It was created by machines and may (a-hem) contain some errors. If you email us about these errors, the machines will undoubtedly find out. I hope they won’t get angry.


Intro [00:00:03] Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percent out there who earned their doctoral degrees and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique, and unconventional ways. Here’s your host, astrophysicist turned teacher, author, dissertation coach, and more, Dr. Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:28] Hello and welcome to An Unconventional Life, I’m your host, Dr. Russell Strickland, the founder and CEO of Dissertation Done. And I have with me today Dr. Fergus Connolly. Dr. Connolly is a high performance coach. He has worked with folks in business, in pro sports and other things. I’m very interested in sharing the story with you guys. Welcome, Dr. Connolly.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:00:49] Thank you very much for having me. I wish I wish I had met you many years ago when I was doing my own dissertation. I could have done with some help getting it done, getting it over the line.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:00] Well, I. I wish people didn’t keep telling me that. I wish they had met me when.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:01:05] Well, you can make a big difference to a lot of people.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:09] I appreciate that. Yeah. That reminds me to let you guys know that this episode today brought to you by Dissertation Done. So if you are a doctoral student, whether you are getting ready to approach the dissertation project, you are already in the midst of it. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re a little slow stalled or just plain stuck. Reach out to us at and we’ll talk to see if you might be a good fit for our Fast Track Your Dissertation coaching program and if maybe you’ve already earned your doctoral degree or you’re out there operating the expert space as a coach, counselor, consultant. The best place to or the best way to expand your authority and to bring potential customers, clients and patients to your door is by becoming a published author. And we help folks go from the blank page to a published book in less time than you thought you might need. And you can reach out to us at to find out more about that. So again, Dr. Connolly, welcome and thank you for joining me today.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:02:13] Thank you.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:02:14] So as I mentioned before, we began recording, one of the ways that we like to kind of begin this process of talking to folks is to find out really your back story. And for us, that kind of starts with what made you decide to pursue a doctoral degree. We’ve met lots of people that do fun and interesting things with amount of love to talk about that. But I want to find out what got you on this path in the first place.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:02:39] I guess there are lots of people who start out and have a clear idea what they want to do. I didn’t I my father was a woodworker and a construction studies teacher. And so at 16, 17 in Ireland, obviously, that’s where the accent comes from. But back in Ireland, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I thought, OK, I’ll go and do the same thing as as he was doing. But I, I started school a little bit earlier than, than others because we had moved long that it was bright. Actually it was probably the opposite. I had to work harder, but I had my degree finished. I just turned 21 and I felt that I had the opportunity to go and do a PhD. And I felt that was the best time for me back then to do it. And I knew it was going to be a challenge and it was going to be a journey. But I personally felt I wouldn’t have had the mindset to go back. And so when I heard about this thing called a Ph.D., which I didn’t really understand, but I like the idea of being able to. Do something on my own without it just being very structured and that excited me. So in order for me to do it, actually at the time I had to do a Masters for a top Masters course to transition from an education degree to an engineering degree and then do a PhD. And it was it was exciting. It was you know, I really enjoyed it. There were tough moments and I learned a lot doing it. And when I reflect back on it, it has I realize the benefit of doing it actually more now than I did at the time and certainly immediately afterwards as well. I didn’t realize the things that it had taught me.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:04:29] Yeah, well, I will tell you, the very first thing that you said was the fact that you were interested in you were you were kind of hooked by the fact that there was not so much structure that you were able to do what you wanted to do. And a lot of our folks look at that as a double edged sword. So, yes, you have flexibility, but then you have to figure everything out and no one is leading the process.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:04:53] No, that’s that’s a good point. And it’s not that you’re abandoned either, but that you have within it’s kind of like having, you know, the wild horse in the field. There’s there are boundaries within that. Then you get some you’ve got the latitude. And and that’s a very good point, because in order to get through it and, you know, different people who’ve been come across in my career who were in the middle of a Ph.D. and I always enjoy speaking to them about what they’re doing and they all go through the same struggles. And there’s almost like a moment there’s there is always a moment for everybody where it feels like you’ve got those 40 days, 40 nights in the wilderness and you’re completely stuck. It’s everybody doing it at some stage and sometimes just explaining to people, that’s OK, that’s going to come. Yeah, that’s important. So you need good mentors and you need good people around you who’ve been through the process to help you through.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:54] Two very, very important point. Number one, that’s that’s one of the reasons why I have this podcast is I want to make sure that that world students realize that you’re not the only one going through the struggles in this process. So many people will see what the output looks like, what those look like when they’re confident, after they graduate and they’ve gotten several months or a few years of experience under their belts. And it’s a very different situation. Feel different than you do as a student, but as a student, everybody hits those moments of struggle, whether they feel like they are the entire program or you’re just stuck somewhere for a little while. Everybody seems to hit those those moments of struggle. And so for so many of our students and so many folks that are listening to this podcast. You aren’t surrounded with the community of other students because our our folks are adults right there. They’re working in their careers. They’re taking care of their families, paying their mortgage. They’re not in a basement office somewhere with a bunch of graduate students seeing the struggles and seeing what it’s like to do the work. And so I really appreciate you mentioning that, because it’s it’s true in the more people they hear that from, the better.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:07:04] Yeah, it’s funny, I, I, I started working on doing my Ph.D. at the same time, so and it was on campus but not in the university. So I wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of graduate students. And I’ll be honest with you, if I was, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten it done because it actually suited me better not to be in and for for different reasons, I think. And so people who are not in that environment, there are some blessings as well. I know it can be difficult sometimes you feel you’re not you’re alone, but there are a lot of there are a lot of benefits. And the most important the key to it is to figuring out your process, what works for you. And that might be it’s going to be different for everybody. But first of all, acknowledging it’s OK to be different. It’s OK to figure out your schedule. And secondly, then knowing that it’s going to be varied and it’s going to be chaotic once you accept those things, which usually for some people that it’s too late for them. But once you accept those things, you know, you start to enjoy the chaos of it and the and the challenge of it.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:08:14] Or you might start to enojy the chaos…


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:08:17] Well, I think, yeah, they’re difficult moments, but, you know, I always stress to people that’s that’s the learning part. You know, if it was easy, if it was easy, you’re not going to get anything from it. And so you expect that there’s going to be difficult moments, but you just stop yourself and remind yourself, this is the good part. This is what I’m going to look back on and benefit from.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:08:40] And you mentioned I had mentioned earlier there were two things that you had said before. One about, you know, everybody hitting these moments of struggle. But then you also said that you have to have good mentors, good support structures. And then you said right after that you enjoyed working on it alone. How did those two concepts intersect for you?


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:09:01] I think what works well for me is being able to have and this is something I’ve learned over the years, not just doing a PhD, but other things as having good mentors who and we can talk about that in a minute. But having them that I can go and lean on and then go back and do my own work and take responsibility for it, then bring it forward again. And but not to be overly reliant on people because, you know, that’s that’s something you have to take responsibility for your own work. So understanding that. And so that’s, I think, the most important for me anyway. That’s what works well for me, is having good mentors that you can go to and present, you know, what you’re doing. And people who understand both the professional and personal challenges, you know, so they understand that there are times, you know, there’s a phrase in Ireland where, you know, a slap in the back is six inches from a kick in the ass. But like sometimes you need to sometimes you need to be clapped on the back. Sometimes you need to be slapped just to be motivated. And if you’ve got a good mentor, they know which which not what you want, but what you need at that moment in time and what they’re always there for you.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:10:22] And so when you said good mentor a little bit earlier, it sounded like there was a story there.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:10:27] You know, had you know, I want to be careful, but I had good you know, I had good supervisors, but I also had very good mentors outside in the university, people who had gone through it and people who knew what I was going through because, yes, you know, as a professional, they are into it and it sad, but there’s a lifestyle as well that you have to manage. And so if you know, if you’ve got kids or if you’re married or you’ve got relationships, it’s going to be tough. So you need people who can understand that as well and can help you. You know. You know, I remember there was you know, I was pushing myself quite hard. I remember one morning, I think breakfast was kind of Red Bull and a Snickers bar. And I remember one of my one of my mentors saying to me, hey, let’s go for coffee. We need to we need to have a talk here. This is, you know, you just pushing it a little bit too hard. You need to find balance. And that’s important that you’re good, like good people to see, not just in terms of words, but understand you have to come up with a good process and a good strategy to get through this in the long term.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:11:38] Yeah, and that’s that’s so important, I’ve mentioned on the podcast before one of our one of my early students, at Dissertation Done, she actually her project was on the types of support that adult doctoral students need to graduate. So folks who are completing their dissertation remotely away from the university community, what do they need? And you mentioned the idea of someone telling you what to do, the operational aspect, obviously, you need that. But you also need someone that’s thinking about you as not just a doctoral student, but as a person. There is an emotional rollercoaster that goes through this process of people doubting themselves and not thinking that they can’t do it. Imposter syndrome. Who am I to be here with all of these brilliant people that they might see around them? Or if they’re remote, they’re just kind of. Imagining what other people are doing. Most of us had a fairly easy time in school up until we got to a doctoral degree program, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have gotten to a doctoral degree program. But then we start to struggle and we think everybody else is out there doing just fine. And so emotionally, having someone to to kind of help check you through all of those ups and downs is really, really important as well. And that needs to be someone who’s been through the process. You can get emotional support from your family who doesn’t know anything about a doctoral degree process necessarily. But that’s not going to be enough. You also need someone who has been there who can give you that kind of salient support as well. Not just yet.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:13:10] Yeah, that’s that’s important. And, you know, there you know, I wish that I had also had somebody sat me down at the beginning and explained to me what some of the stages that I would go through, because there are some that they may not always be in the same order, but there will be times when you feel as though you’ve gone down a rabbit hole and you can’t see the light in. Somebody has to tell you, this is OK. This is you’re still on the right path. You’re also right about, you know you know, I remember being. It’s embarrassing to say, but being short with family and friends, you know, and basically saying, look, I mean, you you know, they were having sympathy for what I was doing. But again, I was countering with, well, you just don’t understand. Right. And, you know, and that’s difficult as well, because sometimes you just don’t have the energy to explain when you should and taking the time to be able to explain to them that, you know, it’s going to be tough. And what’s what is. The beauty and the difficulty of doing a dissertation or going on a journey as it is one of the longest undertakings you will take, you know, apart from marriage. But I mean, it’s a long, long journey. This isn’t like a you know, it’s not like a two week fad diet. Right. Is a long journey. And so it’s good to have somebody that you can sit down with, talk you through the steamy forward and others just prepare you for it so that when those moments come, you know that to expect them and you know that it’s not unusual and not something that’s very important.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:14:49] Yeah. And another thing, when you’re talking about how long the journey is, I mean, for a lot of students, it’s very, very long. And that’s what I do with students at Dissertation Done is I work with folks who want to get done quickly, not because they’re cheating or shortcutting the process, but because that’s their goal is to graduate and go on to do other things, some students. Their goal is to continue to research for the rest of their lives. And in that case, it’s really just a matter of what you call it when you’re a PhD student versus a postdoc versus a junior faculty member. And so they don’t care that one phase might take longer than the other. And that’s very common in academia. So if you are going to be in a position where your your goal is to graduate as soon as possible, make sure that your mentors are aware of that and that they are on board with that, you might get a mentor who will say that’s just not the way things are done. It has to take a long time or else. And and that might not be the best fit for you. So make sure that as you’re going through this journey, preparing for it, that you’re intentional about what your goals are, what outcomes you want to achieve.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:16:01] Yeah, that’s very important because, you know, I know that I had colleagues who were hellbent on getting it done as fast as necessary, let’s say, rather than possible, they wanted to get it done. But again, I would see their supervisors who didn’t. It made no difference to them personally. Even if funding ran out, it didn’t make. So the urgency wasn’t there. And that would have been a very helpful conversation to have early on to go and to at least have clarity. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t work with a supervisor like that, but you just you need to be able to acknowledge that or at least have that conversation and know that that’s what how they operate. I’ve got a good friend who’s struggling at this moment with that very same scenario where a supervisor who doesn’t have the same urgency as they do. And it’s tough. It’s very tough on them because they’re coming with a very diligent approach and it’s a challenge. And, you know, I think that’s an important conversation to have so that it’s not that you can’t do it, you can do it, but you need to have that authority and understand that you’re right.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:10] And just to be clear, with everybody that’s listening or watching, when I say as fast as reasonably possible, it’s still a long journey. I mean, for our students, a year is kind of the goal that we tend to shoot for. Some of them exceed that goal and they finish quicker. Many of them take a little bit longer. But that’s just a I think, a good benchmark, a good a good goal to shoot for. However, when you are, you know. If that is your priority, if that’s what you’re doing, I, I ask people always consider when you’re making a big change or taking a big step in life, what’s your why what’s the reason why you decided to do that? If your reason why is. Well, I need to get out of school so I can do this other thing, then make sure that strategically what you’re doing aligns with that. And part of that is the conversation you have with your your mentor. If if you had the opportunity to interview your mentors, you’re choosing your mentors, what you can do at many schools, then that should be part of the criteria that you use, not the best and most famous or whatever mentor, but the one who can help you with your goals, whatever they are, whether they’re getting done quickly or doing award winning research or anything in between.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:18:20] Yeah, and also, you know, life happens and your why might change life, so you might like it and that’s OK, that’s good. But again, like you said, knowing what your why is and when you’re clear about looking in order to do lots of things or in order to do anything, you have to there’s some element of sacrifice or there’s some element of self denial. But when you’re clear about your why, then you know, you know what you can what you want to choose not to do in order to get this done. And that that’s so important to have that clearly understood. And also when it comes to relationships and family, you know, explaining that to them as well, because then they understand then they can be supportive.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:02] Because I don’t know how many students I’ve talked to said my family just doesn’t understand this at all. I go to the family reunions, the barbecues, the picnics, whatever. And they’re like, why are you doing this? You’re 30 years old or you’re 40 years old or whatever. Why are you in school? And and the person you know. Well, you can get offended by that, quite honestly, I mean, if you’re not careful, you have to be able to to just have a reason that people can understand and that you can communicate to to other folks, whether your family, or professionally or whatever it might be.


Dr. Fergus Connolly [00:19:37] Yeah, you you need to know your wife, but you also need to have, you know, what’s the night like an elevator pitch. You need to have a one line that you can explain to people quickly. And if they want to know more, you can tell them more. But it does have to be able to expand. The other thing that I think is very helpful is having the conversation with a mentor early on so that they ask you all of the difficult, the challenging questions that you may not be aware of, because it’s not to dissuade you. It’s actually to reinforce your why so that you are clear about it. Because if you don’t ask those questions early on, you know, when the difficult moments come, you won’t have steam’s yourself for those. And just to reinforce that high enough priority.

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.