With the exception of a few ineffectual sessions with an in-house therapist at my college following a bad breakup, I had no experience with the counseling process when I made my first appointment to see a career counselor earlier this year. I had heard the gamut about counseling, though: it's so helpful, it's a total crock, it changed my life, it's a waste of money. All I really knew was that I'd hit a wall with my own efforts to clarify my job goals, and seeking professional help seemed like a good next step.
When I first contacted my counselor, she suggested we speak on the phone for a few minutes to make sure it would be a good fit. I told her my central problem ("I'm interested in a lot of jobs and am having trouble narrowing down") and she laid out a path to clarity: we'd take stock of my strengths and preferences, then match them up with careers that would put them to best use. Sold!
My counselor spent the lion's share of our first 50-minute session taking a wide-ranging personal inventory of me. Questions went from "Did you go to a private high school?" to "What are your relationships with your siblings like?" By the end, I felt a little self-conscious from blabbing so much, but my counselor wanted to learn as much about me as possible. Toward the end of that first session, she asked what impressions I thought my parents' working lives had made on me. As I thought aloud about it, I found myself saying, "They gave me a sense that there were no limits, but also that there was little direction." After saying it, I realized that this one sentiment explained a lot about how I'd lived my life thus far. A good counselor can help draw you out and let you reveal for yourself factors and habits currently operating undercover.
Another benefit of this kind of personal reflection was being able to tease out the strongest themes in my personality, with the goal of matching them to career possibilities. My counselor gave me a post-first-session homework assignment called "Seven Stories." You jot down brief descriptions of 25 different times you can remember enjoying doing something, thinking you were doing it well, and feeling proud to do it. Not just one or two of those things; all three. Then you take the seven stories you like the most from the bunch and write a paragraph about each of them. The exercise takes time, but can quickly reveal some striking trends in personality. In my case, I immediately noticed themes of close personal relationships and a desire to help; in addition, my counselor picked up on the tactile nature of many of the stories, and on how most of the goals I reached came from me setting my own bars and reaching them.
After identifying themes like these, we moved on to more formal methods of personal data mining, including the Strong Interest Inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (for professional use only!). Using info from all these sources, we compiled a list of some of my strongest personality trends (artistic, extroverted, collaborative, intuitive), then dove into career matching. The Strong especially includes lots of cool matching tools, but there are other helpful sources available free to anyone online, including O*NET's Interest Profiler (created by the U.S. Department of Labor).
The total picture
Something I found at first frustrating but then comforting throughout career counseling was my counselor's contention that there are thousands of jobs any person can find satisfying, and by the same turn, there is no such thing as a job without drawbacks. So she emphasized that career search is not about finding the one magic title that will solve everything, it's about matching your interests and skills as much as possible to a line of work. Kind of like Dr. Phil's 80/20 rule.
In this vein, my counselor also appreciated that there's a lot to every job that's not in the description, but that affects its total scope tremendously. A doctor's bio blurb might indicate his academic degrees and areas of specialty, but it won't mention that it can be lonely running a private practice, that his office is a two-hour commute from his home, or that insurance paperwork takes up half his time. Another example comes from my counselor herself: she always enjoyed counseling, but it took her awhile of working with teens, then business school students, before she realized she would really feel most at home working with young professionals in the arts, which is her focus now. When searching for the right opportunity, pay attention to the kind of daily lifestyle (work environment, potential colleagues and peers, even seasonal changes, etc.) your work could entail.
A few notes on choosing a counselor
A trusted friend gave me the name of a counselor she'd seen and found helpful, and since my friend and I are a lot alike, I was confident that I'd see eye to eye with the person on at least some things; it turned out she was just the counselor for me. If you can't get a recommendation, make sure to scour potential counselors' websites for clues to their style, and ask for a ten-minute phone chat before you book your first appointment (if the counselor doesn't suggest it first) so you can get to know each other a tiny bit before starting. If you're not at ease with the person's demeanor, or you feel they're focused on different goals than you, take an initial pass and try someone else.
Career counseling can be expensive, no doubt about it. Frankly, I don't think I'd ever spent so much per hour on any activity, except perhaps flying. And it absolutely stretched my budget. But for me, it was worth every penny. I consider it a great investment in the future, ounce-of-prevention style: the new ideas and methodologies I learned have streamlined my thinking, and will save me time and headaches down the road.
Tell us about your experiences with career counseling!
By April Greene