30 Tips for New Career Counselors

By Maureen Nelson


As new counselors begin their journey in the field of career development, this exciting process can produce a mixture of both positive and negative emotions. It can often be challenging to balance the demands of a new job or practice, while also trying to remember and apply the knowledge and skills developed in graduate school. But seeking support, advice, and consultation from other career counselors can make the journey much more comfortable and enjoyable.

On that note, this article grew out of a school assignment -- a reflection paper on my experiences as a career counseling intern. As I thought about the things that were hardest for me during the nine months I spent at theJohn F. Kennedy University Career Center, I realized that much of my learning was universal, insights and pointers that I wanted to share with other career development professionals. The result was the following list of reminders that both new and seasoned career counselors may wish to keep in mind:


  1. Learn the system. Unless you're in private practice, you're always going to be working within someone else's system.
  2. You will feel like you are doing better when you have all your best resources at your fingertips.
  3. You can still do a lot for people even if you have no resources at all.
  4. It's amazing how much help you can provide to a person in a 15-minute drop-in slot (such as a resume review before a job fair).


  1. Everyone carries around pain; some people let it hold them back and some don't, but everyone has been hurt in one way or another (personally and/or professionally). Some people are afraid of rejection, others are afraid of instability, for example. Our job as counselors is to help our clients process their pain and manage their fears, so they can be empowered to follow their dreams.
  2. When you have an insight about your client, try to help the client come to the same realization by asking them open-ended questions rather than just blurting out what you think. Asking questions can also be a good strategy when you are not sure where to go next.
  3. Many of the people you see in career counseling are there because they are inexperienced, they don't know where to start, or they have barriers that are holding them back. Generally, individuals who are moving forward successfully on their own are not as likely to seek out career counseling (or if they do show up in our offices, they will present a very different set of needs and concerns than the client with barriers).
  4. Use self-disclosure judiciously; make sure it will really help the client.
  5. Listen before you speak and do more listening than speaking. When you give your clients space to talk, things will come out; they will tell you their story and you will get clues about how to help them find their solution.
  6. One of the best things you can do as a counselor is to provide a safe space in which clients can do their work, an environment free of agendas or judgment. We must recognize when to refer our clients to personal counseling - when the nature of their concerns is outside our professional scope.
  7. Give permission to clients to reclaim their values and to achieve work/life balance, i.e. for mid-life career changers who are redirecting their lives, and/or for college students who are just beginning to lay the foundation for their career.
  8. A great number of people will come into counseling saying that they want resume help, when they really need so much more than that. They just might not know how to say it, or they might not even know it themselves.
  9. You will naturally like some clients more than others, and some you will never seem to click with. You can still help both.
  10. Know when to refer a client to a therapist; it is okay to suggest putting aside career work until personal issues are worked through.
  11. You will learn a lot from your clients. About everything.


  1. Don't be afraid to refer clients to colleagues whom you think would be a better fit; colleagues will refer clients to you.
  2. Consult with colleagues when it makes sense, to learn about resources or for their particular expertise. This experience will enrich your practice by learning from your peers. Don't underestimate how important fellow counselors are not only for support but for future career opportunities.
  3. Always maintain the confidentiality of your clients unless they give you permission to disclose. Even if you have permission, disclose as little as possible.
  4. Sharing resources with your colleagues will give you a reputation as a team player. Don't hoard information unless you're working on a book. There's plenty to go around.

Self Development

  1. Engage in professional self-development; join associations, attend conferences, take classes and workshops.
  2. Develop a niche. Or several.
  3. Labor market trends will be reflected in your clientele or their issues: occupational growth or decline, workforce demographics, business trends, etc. Read enough business news to be aware of trends.
  4. Learn about HR, particularly regarding hiring practices. Cultivate friendships with HR people or join associations so you have expertise to tap.
  5. Learn about creative assessments; they can be a valuable tool for tapping into intuition.
  6. Recognize that there are four generations in the workplace now. Learn about all of them and what motivates them.
  7. Keep up with technology: blogs, YouTube, online networking, RSS feeds, podcasts. You don't have to use them all, but at least know what they are and how your clients might use them.
  8. Constantly update your resources in order to expand your practice; in so doing, you will be ready for different kinds of clients with varying needs and issues.
  9. Don't be afraid to market yourself. Being a career counselor will make you popular at social gatherings. Almost everyone has something in their work life they would like to change.
  10. Resume writing is an excellent skill to have: a combination of writing, graphic design, marketing and psychology. If you're bad at, get good. If you're good at, get better. If you hate it, farm it out.
  11. Take care of yourself. You can't give anything if you're empty yourself. Counseling can take a lot out of a person. Try not to play the "wounded healer" too much. Have fun and practice regular self-care!


Maureen Nelson just finished her internship at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, CA, and will graduate in December 2007, when she will look for a position in higher education or the corporate world. She can be reached at mpn@dorsey.org

Printer-Friendly Version