Two years ago, I found myself in a pickle: over 30 years old with a liberal arts degree and working at a fundraising job that was no longer challenging, I had tons of energy to strike out and do something new, but no clue what to focus on. Previously, I had been a writer, teacher, art model, bartender, arts administrator, medical research participant, and (briefly) convenience store clerk. I had started to want a “real” job, but with so many interests and such scattered experience—along with feeling too old to start at entry-level again—I had no idea how to untangle my thoughts and push forward.
Then a friend suggested I try career counseling. And it was a huge help.
I didn’t necessarily need another degree or a lesson in getting out and networking; what really did the trick for me was talking my history, ambitions, and thoughts through with a skilled listener who could help me clarify what was really important to me in my work, define my goals, locate the right resources, and devise an action plan.
If you’re struggling with career goal questions—from how to take your next step to where you want to be in 10 years—career counseling could be very helpful to you, too. It will pay, though, to do your homework and choose someone who’s right for you. If you rush in without your ducks in a row, career counseling can turn out to feel like a big waste of time and money.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you make that first appointment:
- Do I know what career counseling is and what it isn’t? Generally, a career counselor will help you identify your vocational strengths, interests, styles, and motivations, then sort through what career paths are most likely to satisfy your particular needs and desires. Most career counselors won’t (or shouldn’t!) headhunt for you, tell you what you should or shouldn’t be going for, or fine-tune your resume for every position you apply for. My counselor characterized her approach this way: “We’ll take a good look at who you are, then identify the jobs that match your personality.”
- What do I ultimately want to get from counseling? You don’t have to have every question planned out (and it’s likely you couldn’t—after all, you’re seeking help to get clarity!), but before you pick up the phone to talk with a counselor, make sure you think about what you’re basically trying to achieve: are you itching to make a shift within your current field, or do you want to make a sharp turn into entirely new territory? Looking for a quick fix, like a new job in the next six months, or to strategize about getting to where you want to be in five years? Do you want a hand with identifying your most indelible skills and strengths, or someone to help you solve your work-life balance quandaries? Jot some thoughts down and look at them for a few days; add, edit, or delete as your questions take shape. I found after careful thinking that what I really wanted was to find my professional calling after years of sampling from the buffet of Random Job Opportunities Worldwide. (What did I find that calling to be? Writing for Idealist Careers, of course!)
- How much, where, for how long, etc? Before you get carried away by the notion of a counselor magically fixing your job woes overnight, give some thought to the logistics involved. How much are you able or willing to pay a counselor? Many use an income-based sliding scale, but this is professional help, so—just like going to a good salon or top-notch dentist—expertise doesn’t usually come cheap. Consider, too, how far you’re willing to travel for appointments, how often you can fit them into your schedule, and overall how much time you can allot to the process (ie: there are no rules, but counseling can take months, so if you’re moving in six weeks, it might be rough to start working with a counselor in your current city and then have to part ways halfway through the process). Also, be realistic about how much time you have outside of appointments to dedicate to this project. Counselors often give “homework,” and you’ll want some dedicated quiet time between appointments to reflect on your conversations and prepare for your next meeting. My sessions with my counselor definitely stretched my budget, but by prioritizing my work with her and endeavoring to wring the most out of every session, I came away feeling it was worth every dollar.
- Can anyone I know recommend a counselor? Career counseling is a very personal exchange, so a recommendation from someone who knows you well is often a good way to find a good fit. A friend of mine suggested a counselor to me that she’d gone to before and liked. I’m sure my success with the same counselor had something to do with my friend and I being a lot alike! Try reaching out to your networks to see if anyone you know has a good (or bad) tale to tell about working with a counselor. If you come up dry, there are some very good resources available for finding counselors in your area: the National Career Development Association has an excellent Find a Counselor search page, and academic institutions often have relationships with local counselors and can help connect them with other people in the community; try the career center or career services department at a college or university in your area.
Once you feel on solid ground about your motivations, goals, and limits for career counseling, you can move on to contacting a few counselors and choosing one or two to try out. Stay tuned for our follow-up post “Questions to ask a career counselor (before giving them all your $$$)” for some tips on what to look for, what to ask, and how to decide.