8 Tips to Make the Most of Career Counseling

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michele Deaner, career assistance advisor, 354th Fighter Wing
(Photo by David Davies at www.flickr.com/photos/davies/)

I always get a kick out of watching those old "Star Trek" reruns in which the hyperemotional Dr. Leonard McCoy gets frustrated with the often-demanding Capt. James T. Kirk and finally blurts out, "Damn it, Jim! I'm a doctor, not a miracle worker!"

McCoy's declaration hits close to home in my work as a career counselor. We're not miracle workers, either. All we can do is help our clients to the best of our ability, given what those clients do (or don't do) during the counseling process.

If you're currently or considering working with a career counselor, how can you reap lasting benefits from the experience? There's no precise formula, but these tips will help make your voyage successful.

1. Think Participant, Not Recipient

If you take your car in for an oil change, you're in recipient mode. You show up, pay and then get out of the way while the technicians work.

When you work with a career counselor, you need to step into participant mode. You can't expect to just show up, pay and then get out of the way while the counselor does all the work. You're required to be an active member of the team; if you don't participate, your counseling experience will almost certainly end in disappointment.

2. Have Realistic Expectations

You may think career counselors have all the answers. They don't, but they can help you work toward finding your own answers. They simply can't pull them out of a box and hand them to you.

3. Be Honest, Especially with Yourself

It's easy to talk yourself into feeling, thinking or saying something that really isn't genuine. It happens daily in career counseling sessions as clients try to fight off a host of outside pressures (family, friends, teachers, society as a whole) to make their own decisions.

Career counseling sessions give you a safe place and time to express what you're really struggling with -- in your career and in the rest of your life, too. But you have to be completely honest if you're to have any hope of really working through your challenges.

4. Know What You Want to Accomplish

When I'm working with clients, I often hear them say things like, "I just want to gain focus," or, "I need to get some direction in my life." Such statements make sense, but as a counseling client, you need to work with your counselor to make your goals more specific.

5. Why?

Without goals:

  • It would be too easy for you and your counselor to simply talk and talk and talk without going anywhere.
  • You won't know when you're done with the counseling process.

So if your counselor doesn't bring it up (although most will), insist that the two of you develop a plan for your work together. What exactly will you be doing, and why? And how will you know when you're finished?

6. It's OK to Think, But Do as Well

Introspection -- thinking about your interests, skills, abilities, values, personality traits and goals -- is part of any sound career counseling process. But at some point, you need to take action, even if you don't have everything figured out.

Paralysis by analysis is real. Don't let it happen to you.

7. Be Open to Challenge

Most career counselors will offer you support and an empathetic ear, but the very best will also challenge you.

My graduate school adviser called this technique "carefrontation" -- confrontation done in a caring way. For example, when your career counselor challenges you by telling you you're saying one thing but doing another, he isn't trying to be annoying. He's simply trying to help you find your truth.

8. Be a Smart Consumer

It's possible that you and the counselor you choose won't click. That happens sometimes, and it's nobody's fault.

Your career counselor can't help you "to boldly go where no man has gone before," as Capt. Kirk and the "Star Trek" crew did. But they can help you explore your options and make informed career decisions if you're willing to be an equal and sincere participant.

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