What Is Career Counseling?

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated June 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Job or career counseling is a way to discover a new and rewarding career path and consider if your career options match your personal goals.

You might have been asked as a child about your dream career, and if you've always been drawn to helping others, a therapist career may be a fulfilling and rewarding path to pursue. At the time, you might have answered this question with confidence. However, it could be challenging or emotional to revisit this topic as an adult. If you're ready for a career change, or if you are starting a new career search, you may feel pressure to find a career that fits all your dreams, pays well, offers benefits, and gives you a sense of contribution and fulfillment. Finding this career may be possible, but it can be overwhelming to make a decision. In these cases, you could benefit from reaching out to a career counselor for guidance before changing careers.

Are you considering a career change?

What is a career counselor?

A career counselor may help you find success in the next stage of your professional life. A career counselor, also called a vocational counselor or vocational guide, can offer professional guidance on career exploration and decisions. They often help clients through career counseling sessions designed to uncover which careers suit their unique skills, qualifications, preferences, values, and lifestyles. 

Career counseling might involve one on one conversations, career testing, personal examinations, and interviewing processes to understand clients' needs. Whether you're considering a new career change or want to discuss your current career with an unbiased, compassionate professional, career counseling may benefit your working life. 

What to expect from career counseling

A career counselor’s role is to help you recognize how and why you make confident decisions regarding your career. They are often trained to meet clients where they are, physically and emotionally to help determine next steps for their career. Some workplaces, employers, colleges, high schools, and middle schools offer career counseling programs so people can seek out professional counseling while training for future or current careers in a variety of industries. 

During career counseling sessions, the counselor might not provide answers or tell you how to proceed. Instead, they may guide you through an honest self-assessment and prompt you to explore your career options based on your interests. A career counselor may ask you to honestly answer questions about your skills, work-life balance desires, and salary expectations. If you're unsure, let your counselor know; they can help you discover available career options based on your education, skill set, and personality type.

Understanding your strengths through career counseling

When you reach out to a career counselor, they may talk to you about your career desires, career history, education, and strengths. Some career counselors are trained in strengths-based counseling, which originated in positive psychology and emphasizes a person's full potential in professional and personal settings. 

A career counselor can develop a general picture of your character strengths by meeting with you regularly. They may also use strength measurement tools or career aptitude tests to help you embrace and celebrate your most positive qualities. Career aptitude tests are often helpful for people making a complete career change, or students looking for a first career, as they might offer insight into a person's potential to acquire specific skills in professional roles. The results of these career assessments can inform a person's professional and personal plans. 

Four categories for career counseling:

In addition to strength-based career assessments, a career counselor is often trained in career development theories, which fall into four categories:

  • Trait Factor Theory: Matching individuals’ personal traits to specific careers.
  • Psychological Theory: Matching personality types to a person's work environment.
  • Social Cognitive Theory: Highlighting self-efficacy and a person's belief in their ability to prepare for and achieve a particular career goal. 
  • Developmental Theory: Considering how our self-concepts develop as we age and change our career paths. 

By applying these career theories, career counselors may help clients reflect on their strengths and why they chose, succeeded in, or faced challenges in various careers. These career theories can be used to frame your traits and further discuss the results of strength assessments. 

Guiding your career development

For many career counselors, a client's strengths are the starting point of their counseling work. Career counselors know that a career needs to offer more than a high pay range, and they often work with people who recognize that their current career doesn't align with their fundamental strengths, temperament, or goals. By considering these major factors a career counselor may help find a career or industry that fits a client’s strengths.

For example, a person might graduate with a teaching degree only to realize that they lack passion or teaching skills. If the career itself is not a match, a career counselor could help you identify positive areas. For instance, perhaps you love planning the curriculum for your students as a teacher or giving presentations as a software engineer. These are examples of transferable skills that may predict your success in other careers.

Whatever your strengths, a career counselor's goal is often to help you identify careers that play into your best qualities. In some cases, strength assessments and career aptitude tests can uncover strengths or potential skills you'd not previously identified. This identification may open doors to unique career paths and additional training. 


Identifying growth opportunities

Regardless of strengths, professional success, or education, each person might identify areas for growth as they work to find a career. Understanding these areas can be one part of the process in career counseling. Not every career may be a perfect fit, which isn't necessarily a negative. Understanding this may help clients narrow down their lists of potential careers. When working with a career counselor, reflect honestly about your perceived weaknesses and challenges to work toward a career that suits you and makes you feel content. 

Like a strengths report test, a career counselor may use an assessment tool to help you identify potential areas for improvement. An example is the "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) Assessment," which can be used by companies and individuals. On a personal level, a SWOT analysis may be a valuable developmental exercise for evaluating career goals in the context of strengths and weaknesses. 

Whether you're discussing strengths or weaknesses with a career counselor, practice honesty and self-compassion. For example, discussing family obligations or work-based insecurities with a career counselor may be relevant, as these could both influence your past and future career decisions.

From the perspective of a strengths-based counselor, perceived weaknesses can represent opportunities to learn, grow, and potentially pick up new skills experience, and career certifications. For example, some people may be counseled to utilize continuing education opportunities. While clients may view weaknesses as "failures," career counselors may challenge you to reframe past career hiccups as points of growth, which can be used to identify a more prosperous and fulfilling career. 

Accepting feedback 

Career counseling may not be able to give you all the answers or structure your life for you. The career counselor’s role is to provide honest, compassionate, and insightful feedback based on your conversations and career assessments. Each counselor has their own style and strengths. For this reason, it may take some time to adjust to how they offer career advice or describe the results of your career and personality assessments. 

Some conversations may allow you to break down preconceived notions about your strengths, obstacles, and professional trajectory. A career counselor's goal may not be to frustrate or upset you but to provide customized, accurate, and empowering career information resources so that you can explore your career prospects. If you're concerned, ask questions and open the discussion. 

To maximize the benefit of career counseling, try to establish a foundation of trust, honesty, and active listening. As you have certain expectations of your counselor, they might hope for you to enter sessions with an open mind and curiosity for new opportunities. You may establish expectations about your work together from the beginning, identify career possibilities, and address more logistical career concerns like resumes and cover letters

A career counselor may also identify nearby career openings, internship opportunities, and community resources for career training. These career recommendations may be tailored to you, so try to consider their suggestions with an open mind and willingness. If a suggestion doesn't resonate, express your disinterest. Whether you're listening to or providing feedback, honesty can be a supportive ingredient in effective career counseling.  

The difference between counseling and coaching

Some people use the terms "career counselor" and "career coach" interchangeably. While both professionals provide career services, career coaches and career counselors have different educational backgrounds and areas of focus. 

Career counselors

A career counselor is a licensed mental health professional with a master's or doctoral degree. They focus on building a therapeutic relationship with clients and use core counseling techniques to address career-related questions. Some US states require specific licensure for career counseling. To become certified, career counselors often have to pass certain exams and fulfill specific experience and education requirements.

Career coaches

A career coach may have an advanced degree but often have a career coaching certification. They focus on identifying solutions, plans of action, and career insights for clients. Career coaching may be more outcome-oriented than traditional career counseling. They cannot offer mental health advice or treatment if they are not licensed to provide counseling. 

Deciding on a counselor

If you’re trying to decide between career counseling, career coaching, or another form of career support, establishing a list of goals or a pros and cons chart may help you find the right professional for you. For example, do you want someone to:

  • Help you write a strong resume? 
  • Offer emotional support as you work through a significant career decision? 
  • Provide career information about labor statistics, salaries, and requirements?

Depending on their approach and training, career coaches and career counselors work with clients on some of these services in addition to others. Ultimately, when choosing a career specialist, ask about their background, credentials, philosophy, and the services they offer before scheduling your first session.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Are you considering a career change?

Career counseling options

Career counseling services may be beneficial if you're facing a career change or feel stuck in your present career. Career counseling for college students is beneficial for starting on the right career path and may be available to alumni for free or at a reduced cost. However, the logistics of traveling to meet a career counselor in person can be overwhelming and may be enough to prevent people from seeking support. In these cases, you can find many career counselors online. Online services often allow ease for clients looking to integrate career counseling into their busy work lives. Studies have found that it is especially effective for young professionals that feel more comfortable with internet-based communication.  

Studies suggest that online career counseling can be as effective as in-person sessions. In a recent study of online career counseling for unemployed young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, the participants increased their scores for career adaptability and resilience at the completion of the study. A growing body of studies indicates the value of online career counseling for new and established professionals.  

If you're interested in trying career counseling online, you can reach out to a professional through a platform like BetterHelp, which offers a growing database of over 30,000 licensed counselors providing support in various areas. Upon signing up, indicating you're interested in career counseling can help you to find a career counselor and get matched to a fitting professional for your concerns. 

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Career counseling is a type of therapy often used to help professionals and individuals find support in choosing a career, making changes at a current job, or learning more about professional skills and areas for growth. If you’d like to learn more about how a career counselor could help you, consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and information on their processes. 

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