Career Coaching: A Piece of the Puzzle

by Naomi Watkins with Melanie Steimle

I hired a career coach for the first time last fall as I was considering a major career change. And while I am still in the midst of figuring things out, I found my work with the coach to be incredibly valuable. Many have asked for information about career coaching or counseling. Melanie, a career counselor, provides many of the nuts and bolts about career coaching and counseling; I share a bit about my own personal process working with a career coach.

Why Might I Consider Hiring a Career Coach or Counselor?

I was at a juncture in my life where I was really unhappy in my current position, and I wanted to talk with someone who did not know me and who did not have preconceived ideas and expectations of me. I was also looking for someone to hold me accountable for completing tasks like conducting informational interviews and crafting a new résumé. Lastly, I wanted to meet with someone who had previously worked with individuals who had transitioned out academia—which is what I was considering.

However, your purposes and reasons for hiring a career coach or counselor may be very different. Perhaps you are looking for specifics about options that exist in your field, or you need an extra push or insight into your strengths and weaknesses, or you want help in defining your career goals and path. All of these reasons (and many more) are very valid reasons for hiring a career coach or counselor.

What is a Career Counselor versus a Career Coach?

In the career development world, there is sometimes a bit of a divide between career counselors and career coaches. Career counselors have a counseling degree and licensure and feel that they have a holistic focus. A counselor might lead you through exercises such as talking about what you liked to do for play as a child or have you map out the professions of your family members going back a few generations. She/he might administer formal or informal assessments to help you identify your strengths, values, and interests. Generally speaking, a counselor will help you focus on career development by helping you to know and understand yourself better. That’s not to say that she/he won’t have very practical suggestions, such as what to write in a cover letter or which job boards to utilize, but expect to talk about aspects of your life other than just your career or job search.

Job or career coaches are generally focused on helping you articulate and accomplish goals. They’ll work with you to develop a job search plan, improve your resume, and feel more comfortable with networking. Career coaches can have any variety of backgrounds. Some draw their experience from a number of years as a professional in a particular field; others have gone through a certification or training program. There isn’t one specific certification that is viewed as a guarantee of quality, but the Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF) certification from the National Career Development Association is one of the most well-known and reputable certifications. There are tons of coaching certification programs out there, so pretty much anyone willing to put in the time and money can get certified.

The best career professionals are the ones not hung up on the differences between counseling and coaching. Good career counselors will incorporate elements of coaching, while good coaches will take into account that there are a variety of factors that influence a person’s career decisions. (Obviously there are ethical issues in a non-licensed person acting as a counselor. A good coach knows when to refer someone to a licensed professional.)

What Should I Consider When Looking for a Career Coach or Counselor?

It probably sounds like counselors are a lot more legitimate than coaches, but it is really not the degree or certification program that determines the quality of the counselor or coach. Fit between you and the coach/counselor is probably most critical to your success. So it is important to look for a coach who has a specialty, maybe someone who specifically focuses on helping former or trained academics find careers outside of academia, for example, or a counselor who has worked with women who are on-ramping back to the workforce. A really good career coach or counselor should not be afraid to turn you away if your needs do not align with the coach’s strengths and areas of expertise.

Also, consider the credentials of the prospective coach or counselor and see what kinds of requirements the person had to meet in order to receive the certification and how those align with their specialties.

Determine your purposes for hiring a career coach or counselor and the type of approach that is important to you. Do you want a coach who solely focuses on your career development? Or do you want a coach who takes a more holistic view and considers how your career shapes the kind of life you want?

Where Do I Find a Career Coach or Counselor?

I found my career coach through a local meet up group of PhD holders who were not in academia. This career coach had conducted a seminar with this group, so I was introduced to her through this network. I also checked out her website and read articles she had written, organizations that endorsed her, and viewed an interview she had given on public radio.

Suggestions for Finding a Coach:

  • Professional organizations and networks are a good place to begin. Seek out referrals from people who have previously used a career coach or counselor.
  • The National Career Development Association (NCDA) is one of the main career development professional associations, and they have a Find a Counselor page on their website.
  • Good coaches also have networks with one another, so maybe start by contacting a recommended or highly rated coach and see if she/he has recommendations for someone that would suit your needs.
  • If you are affiliated with a college or university, most have a career centers where they may offer counseling or coaching, or they may be able to provide you with a referral.
  • LDS Employment Services could also be potentially helpful; Melanie used her local center right after grad school and found them helpful in some things, but the strengths of each employment center probably depend largely on the staff.
What Might I Expect from a Career Coach or Counselor?

The best coaches or counselors will not have you commit to paying for a series of meetings until you have had at least an initial consultation. Your experience with a career coach or counselor will depend on whom you select. However, I can share my experience. After I found the career coach’s website, I sent her a short email and was contacted by her assistant. The assistant and I had a short phone conversation about my background and objectives. She also outlined the process of working with the coach. This conversation led to a more in-depth phone conversation with the career coach. She shared with me her philosophies and provided more information about the process, her experience working with people like me, and her services and fees. Both of these conversations were free of charge.

Based on this phone conversation, we decided that we were both interested in continuing forward with the process, so she sent me a series of really in-depth questions to answer and some assessments to take. I completed these tasks prior to our initial in-person meeting.

When we met in-person, several things occurred. She asked me more questions based on my responses to first set of questions—and she really made me answer them. When I gave a lukewarm response or was purposefully vague, she pushed for more clarity and specificity. I had to face some tough questions and answers—many of which I had been avoiding for a while. We also did a couple of visualization exercises, had a discussion about my assessment results, and we crafted my personal vision statement together. This initial in-person session lasted two hours and cost me a flat fee. At the conclusion of our session, I determined that I was interested in future sessions. However, if I had wanted, that first meeting could have been my final meeting with her. We then decided on a game plan for three additional, one-hour meetings. In preparation for each of these meetings, I had tasks to accomplish beforehand. I found that these meetings held me accountable, that the coach really helped me view my specific strengths in new ways, and that she assisted me in better determining and refining my priorities.

In addition to in-person meetings, you might communicate with your coach via phone or email, either at your own initiative or at the coach’s invitation. Please be aware that your coach may charge for this. Good coaches understand that their time and expertise is valuable, and even though you may feel that your specific question does not require much time, these requests can really add up and require a lot of the coach’s energy and attention.

What Makes a Career Coaching Session Successful?

Of course the coach’s skill is important, but part of the success of the session depends on the client. Will you answer questions honestly? Are you open to exploring topics that may not seem to answer your immediate questions? Will you do the tasks that the coach assigns? During your initial consultation, have a frank discussion about your expectations. The coach should let you know whether or not your expectations are realistic and if she/he has the knowledge and skill set to meet your needs.

Also, keep in mind that there are thousands and thousands of jobs out there and industries are changing every day. An assessment or even a career coach can’t possibly give you “THE” answer of the one career or job that is right for you. A good career coach will help you better understand the kind of work that could be a good fit for you and teach you the tools and skills to conduct a successful job search.

Do You Think Career Coaching was Worth the Time and Expense?

I do. This investment was also the first time I had spent money on myself in this manner. Sure, I’ve spent plenty of money on stuff at Target for myself without thinking twice, but I very consciously determined that if I wanted to take my career seriously, I needed to make my career development a monetary priority, too. So while the best career coaches or counselors may be far from free, I also believe that you get what you pay for. An added bonus is that career coaching is tax deductible.

The career coach did not wave a magic wand or gaze into a crystal ball and say “This is the job for you!” (even though I sometimes wish this had happened!). Career coaching was a lot of (not easy) work, but it provided me with the tools, support, structure, and time to consider my career with focused intent and purpose. Instead of just landing my next job, the coach provided me with permission to really consider the type of life I wanted for myself and how my career could help shape that.

Your personal experience with a career coach or counselor will vary depending on your purposes and the professional you select, but the option is definitely one to consider if you’re looking for some more personalized direction and support.

One Comment on “Career Coaching: A Piece of the Puzzle

  1. Wow what an amazing story! The right mentor/career coach truly can make such a difference in anyone’s life.

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