Your palms are sweaty and your stomach is doing backflips. Friends and family, particularly your mother, give you their best advice while staring at you with pity and anxiety. If you are a student having a hard time deciding which university to attend or what program to take, this is probably your uncomfortable reality.
For some, the idea of choosing between university, college and a plethora of different career paths can seem insurmountably daunting. Many will choose a school or a major they end up hating. According to Statistics Canada, about 21 percent of students will choose to drop out and not graduate
If any of this sounds familiar, a career counselor could be exactly what you need to get the ball rolling in the right direction. However, their services can be time-consuming and, in some cases, quite expensive. So what is the best way to determine if career counseling is right for you?
See also: How to find the perfect career counselor
Lynda Prior, a career counselor based in Guelph, Ont., deals primarily with students in their last year of high school or first year of university. She says many career-related problems begin in high school.
“Most high-school guidance counselors are not properly informed or resourced to provide detailed university and college information to the thousands of students for whom they are responsible,” says Prior. But she says the real firefighting begins when a first-year student realizes that they’re in the wrong program and need a plan B.
“At this point they’re already down $15,000,” she says. “They don’t have the resources available to them, they don’t have the experience, and their sphere of influence is limited by the tremendously influential family unit, which is often biased.”
How To Escape ‘Helicopter Parents’
Prior cites the example of a young woman who attended two different universities in two different science programs and was already $20,000 in debt.
“After I tested her, the results indicated music in a huge way. Her dad’s immediate response was, “You’re not Avril Lavigne’,” she says. “But once we did all the technical assessments, everybody thought, ‘Wow! This must be it.’ Off she went to Fanshawe College in London into their music program and did amazingly well.”
A similar sentiment is echoed by Jeanette Hung, coordinator of career services at Dalhousie University in Halifax who also worked part-time as a private career counselor for about five years. She calls this phenomenon “helicopter parenting”.
“For many students, their parents are the major issue standing in the way of their happiness,” says Hung. However, she says the reasons why students seek help vary, and their anxiety levels are all through the roof.
“Many students say they know what career they want but don’t think they’re smart enough to do it. Or, they know that they’re gifted and can do just about anything they want, but can’t figure out what that is,” says Hung. “Other students come to university after doing great in high school and think they want to become a physician and medical school is their goal. They find out that they may be in the top, but they’re only top average.”
Philip Lemieux, a counselor at McGill University, says a broad-based approach is the best way to get the student thinking about their career and their future.
“If you’re going to counsel someone on their career, you’re definitely going to be looking at personal issues, and vice versa,” says Lemieux.
Everyone Loves Free Stuff
Most universities have an extensive counseling centre where all students can make appointments for free or low-cost career counseling services. Usually two tests, the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator test and the Strong Interest Inventory test, are administered and analyzed for a small fee. Then the counselor will sit down with you and discuss the variety of fields, specialties and careers that could fit well with your interests, your strengths and your personality.
For high-school students or those who are no longer in university, a list of nationally certified counselors is available on the Canadian Counseling Association’s website. Other than the fact that fees are collected at the end of each session, most university-based counselors say students receive the same types of services with them as you would at a private counselor.
This is almost entirely true, according to Prior. About 10 years ago, according to her, universities realized they would start losing students, and their revenue, unless they offered career counseling services.
“Most students drop out before they seek help, or perhaps they‘re not getting adequate help at the university level,” she says. “If the student wants to change degrees, then they’ll let them, but their first priority is to hold on to that student’s money.”
However, back at McGill, Lemieux says he will sometimes recommend to students that some time off is actually their best option while they decide what their next steps will be.
“To me, as long as that student appears to be thinking clearly, they know they’re not enjoying what they’re doing and it seems pointless to continue, then it makes perfect sense to stop,” he says. “Of course there’s a lot of concern about that, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence showing that they come back.”
Hung says that in her experience, the only difference between private and university-based career counseling was that at the end of the hour, in private counseling, she had to take the student’s money.
“I would often ask people, at the end of the hour, if they thought it was money well spent. I sometimes would count the money and say, ‘Did we earn this today?’ Sometimes they would say yes and sometimes they would say no,” says Hung. “But that is more dependant on what they do, not what I do.”
Don’t Get Scammed
All three agree that career counselors need to meet certain criteria in order to practice.
At the very least, according to Hung, every counselor needs a background in counseling, psychology or social work with course content on career development theory and career counseling strategies. They should also have completed supervised practice of at least 2,000 hours and be nationally certified and provincially registered.
This isn’t always the case, however. She says there are many career coaches with high school education and good personal career experience but no formal training. She recommends these “coaches” be avoided.
“The public is not well protected, so it’s very important to be very careful about the qualifications to whom you are about to place your trust, and your future,” she says. “That person needs to have had supervised training and needs the minimum qualifications for administering and interpreting tests.”
Prior, who graduated from the Queens University executive program in human resources and finance and ran her own placement agency for 12 years, says life and career experience on the part of the counselor is another important element to watch for.
“There’s the good the bad and the ugly in any occupation, but I would want someone who was very experienced, someone who has at least 10 years of life and career experience under their belt,” she says.
The assessments are scientific and set the agenda for the counseling, says Prior, but interpretation and guidance are equally important in order to help the student understand each of the 132 occupations on the Strong Interest Inventory test.
“I can talk about every single one of those careers and know what I’m talking about,” she says bluntly. “High school guidance counselors can’t do that.”
No Quick Fix
If there is any consensus when it comes to career counseling, it is that there is no quick fix to an educational or career crisis.
“Some people come in, with one 45-minute appointment, and say that by the end of the appointment they need to know what they’re going to do with their lives,” says Hung. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Lemieux says that any career counselor who offers a plug-in formula to solve your career conundrums probably won’t help much.
“It can be frustrating because there can be a little bit of hope from the client’s perspective that they can just come in, punch in some numbers and then know what they should do with their lives,” he says. The best kind of career counseling will teach you about asking yourself meaningful questions in an effort to understand yourself and what may be important to you, he says.
“We’re teaching a process that the students will apply, hopefully, throughout their lives. Because a career decision is not something you make once in university, it’s a process that you take with you throughout your career,” he says. “You just need to remind yourself to do it every now and then.”