This article, Career Counseling: Washington DC, was previously published in Washingtonjobs.com a subsidiary magazine of the Washington Post. It explores how to find a career counselor or career coach.

You feel that your work-life is not quite on track. You had a job you loved — but, over time it began to feel routine or mundane. Or perhaps you loved your job but it began to consume your entire life. And, you began to feel that there must be more to life than work, work, work! Or, maybe, you found yourself trapped in “golden handcuffs”, working in a less-than-interesting career for a more-than-interesting salary. Or, maybe you never felt that you had the ideal career. Maybe you were of the work-to-pay-the-bills, “remember, that’s why they call it work”, mentality.

Over time, however, you came to realize that you wanted more out of your job. You didn’t want a career, you wanted a “calling”. You’ve been thinking and talking about this for a while. You have asked the significant people in your life, and your friends, about it. You’ve consulted colleagues and mentors. But you still aren’t sure how to go about charting your career path. You want to explore it with someone who is knowledgeable and experienced, someone who can help you formulate and pursue a work-life plan.

You are considering seeking help from a career counselor or a career coach but how do you wade through the array of options to figure out what kind of counselor or coach might be most helpful? Washington DC might be arguably one of the most credential-oriented towns in the country, but how do you go about assessing whether a career coaches or career counselor’s qualifications and background are a good fit for your needs?

In choosing a career counselor, consider these four questions:

(1) How can you assess your own needs and expectations?

(2) How can review your prospective career counselor’s qualifications?

(3) How can you evaluate whether you should work individually or in a group?

(4) How can you decide what to pay?

Each will be addressed in turn.

(1) How do you assess your career counseling goals in choosing your career coach?

An important prerequisite to selecting a career counselor is to clarify your own career goals and needs. Yet, if you knew the exact nature of the help that you needed, you might not need to seek career coaching. It is the old “chicken and the egg” problem.

Before getting started, take the challenging step of writing a paragraph about the kind of help that you think that you need.

  1. Do you need help determining your career goals?
  2. Do you need help developing a strategy for pursuing your career goals?
  3. Do you need help overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving your career goals?
  • If so, what are these obstacles?
    • List the obstacles.
      • What prevents you from achieving your goals?
        • Is it not knowing your goal?
        • Is it not knowing enough people who have successfully achieved similar goals?
        • That is, are you seeking a network of people with similar professional goals who are at various stages of their own professional development?
        • Are you looking for help with specific aspects of work life such as salary negotiation or being more assertive with your boss?

After writing this paragraph, write a second paragraph. Describe your special talents and strengths.

  1. If you are uncertain as to your special skills — ask five friends to identify your five best talents.
  2. Then, write a paragraph describing how you will know if the career coaching has been successful.
    • What, specifically, will be different. Don’t just say something like, “I will have a lucrative job that I love”.
    • Detail the steps that you will need to take in order to identify and to achieve your career goal.
      • That is, describe something of the process that you hope will take place to lead you to this goal.

This step is crucial for two reasons. First, many people seeking career counselors or coaches, understandably, expect or wish for magical or instantaneous solutions to problems that they have persisted for many years. They may seek career coaching with the thought that after attending 3-4 sessions, their long-standing difficulties will be resolved.  And, they may be disappointed when their difficulties do not magically remit, immediately.

While a short-term focus may be very appropriate and realistic for a new or a relatively situational difficulty, long-standing struggles may yield only to a more persistent effort. Thus, this kind of personal inventory will help you to clarify your expectations, your strengths, and it will help you to assess whether your time-table and expectations for career coaching are realistic.

The second benefit of this step is that your self-inventory will help you clarify the nature of the career coaching that you require. For example, the array of professionals who offer career coaching includes, persons with MBA’s, masters in information technology, published authors, masters in counseling, psychologists, social workers, psychoanalysts and numerous other backgrounds. Each offers something unique.

Career counseling: Washington DC: How do you decide what sort of help you need?

If you know that you want to pursue training to become an internet administrator and your career goal is to figure out how to network in that world, you might consider seeking career coaching from someone with special expertise in that area. If you want to write, than you might seek out a career coach who is a well-published, author.  If you are considering medical school, you might find someone with expertise in guiding people toward that goal. Similarly, if despite economic success, you have never enjoyed your work, you might consider working with someone who might help you begin to become more aware of your likes and dislikes, such as a psychologist, a psychoanalyst or a mental health professional who specializes in career or work-life concerns.

What if you find it impossible to write these paragraphs?

Difficulty writing these paragraphs is a “diagnostic” sign that you should seriously consider a psychoanalytically-informed, career assessment. This type of assessment is described in detail in the August 2000 issue of Washingtonjobs.com and in the Washington Business Journal. For career counselors and coaches, it’s more comprehensively described in Career Convergence the magazine of the National Association of Career Development.

It can be helpful in clarifying what gets in the way of you identifying the sort of career help that you need.

(2) How do you review your prospective career counselor’s qualifications?

After you define your career goals and needs,  how do you go about selecting a career coach or career counselor?

This is especially challenging when one considers that the titles “career counselor” or “career coach” are not regulated by state law in most states. This means that anyone can legally hang out a shingle and call themselves a career coach or career counselor. Yes. Anyone. So how do you assess whether your prospective counselor has the requisite skills to be helpful to you. For what sort of expertise are you looking? Do you want someone with expertise in information technology? Publishing? .coms? Or, do you feel that your career struggles are more related to difficulties with self-esteem, conflicts about success, self-doubt or others struggles that you do not fully understand?

In any case, you obtain information your prospective career counselor’s credentials. Anyone who you are considering should be willing to describe and document their background.

The National Career Development Association (NCDA) provides a list of people who have met to qualifications to be Master Career Counselors (MCC). Here’s their national list of Master Career Counselors.

Unless you need highly specialized, career-specific, expertise, you should seriously consider seeking out someone who is both a Master Career Counselor (MCC) AND a licensed, psychologist, social worker, counselor or some type of helping professional; these individuals may specialize in career counseling or career coaching AND have expertise in psychotherapy and mental health. An advantage to working with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in career coaching is that they have broad-based training in understanding human behavior. Often, they are trained to understand and to address roadblocks to change. Moreover, they are trained in, and expected to adhere to, the ethical and professionals standards of their discipline. They are well trained listeners. Finally, if they feel that they lack the requisite skills to help you, they can do an assessment and refer you to someone whose skills match your needs.

Licensed professionals will be able to document their credentials. Another alternative is to seek out someone with an MBA or a business background, again, this depends on how you define your needs. Another possibility is to seek someone with field-specific expertise (i.e. if your goal is to publish, someone in publishing).

Finally, there are a plethora of “career coaching” programs. They are still in their infancy and consequently, less is known about them. The important thing to remember about unlicensed professionals is that they may not be prepared to deal with psychological and emotional concerns. And, while some will be very skilled with niche-specific expertise, others will have few or no credentials at all.

(3) How do you consider whether you should work individually or in a group?

When you contact your potential career counselor, you should consider whether you should work individually or in a group. Individual consultation, which is often a good place to start, can afford you the opportunity to focus very specifically on your unique issues. However, real benefit can be derived from working in a group and sharing the wisdom of the group. Often group members provide helpful suggestions, ideas and support to each other. Beyond these benefits, groups are often cost-effective. Ask your career coach if they lead groups.

(4) The cost of career counseling

People working in the career counseling arena, with individuals, vary greatly with respect to the fees that they charge. Some charge a per session rate for a 45 minute session while others charge a per program rate (which can cost several thousand dollars). Beyond this, one should be a bit wary of anyone who asks you to make a financial commitment to a long-term program. Ideally, the career coach will charge you only for those sessions that you schedule. I do not recommend seeing any career counselor or career coach who requires that you sign on for an entire program. An exception to this rule seems to me to be participating in a time-limited group. Career counselors who lead groups need to ensure that the group is viable. Therefore, they often require “tuition” at the outset. This seems quite legitimate to me.

Other than that, my bias is to urge people to pay a per session rate. In this way, you can re-evaluate the benefits as you progress. I know that Dick Bolles, the author of, “What Color is your Parachute”, shares this view. To be fair, I do know some reputable people who charge by the program. The problem is: I don’t know how to tell you to differentiate between them and those who are less than scrupulous. Consequently, it seems to me that paying per session, or for a few sessions, as you go is the most prudent course.

In sum, career coaching can be enormously useful. Taking a few preparatory steps can improve your results exponentially.

Career counseling: Washington DC

Those interested in consultation regarding career counseling or psychotherapy are welcome to call me: 301.656.9650. To streamline things, leave your name and number and the time that it is best to reach you.

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