Many people imagine that a "counseling session" takes place while one lies on a couch and a counselor asks deep, probing questions. They imagine returning week after week to analyze their personal problems in depth.

While this stereotypic picture of counseling is true for some types of counseling relationships, it is an unlikely scenario in career counseling. And although you may find a couch in a career counselor's office, but it is likely to be covered with newspapers, computer software manuals, or dust. You are more likely to find a table for reviewing resumes and cover letters, a computer for demonstrating Web resources, and a comfy chair to sit in while discussing the personal matters influencing your career choices.

The career counseling process consists of a number of stages. The exact number and definitions of these stages varies depending upon the counselor's philosophical orientation, but many would agree upon the following generalizations.

Step One: Self-Assessment

Self-assessment is the process of learning about yourself. This sounds easy, but how do you do it? Well, if you were to ask me what I think you should do--I'd ask you to offer a definition of yourself. You might, for example, define yourself as a molecular biologist, a parent, an international student, an introvert, and/or confused. That definition provides a starting point, but you'll often need more to make an informed decision about the future of your career. Who else are you? What are your dreams, values, personality traits, aptitudes, skills, and goals? Career counselors help individuals learn more about themselves by using a variety of techniques.

One common method is the use of assessment instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Strong Interest Inventory, a values or skills card sort, or informal checklists surveying a topic such as work environment. Other methods counselors might use include discussing your dreams, telling stories, or interviews that allow you to clarify your life roles or address personal issues influencing your career path.

Step Two: Exploring the World of Work

Graduate school teaches us how to be a research scientist. But what if that is not your career goal? To be fair, some graduate programs have increased their curricular options to allow students to explore other career paths. And the number of institutions that offer career services to their scientists increases yearly, but it remains the individual's responsibility to learn about the career choices available. A career counselor may guide you in learning about the world of work by introducing you to occupational information or teaching you networking and informational interviewing skills, among other things. Although some of this exploration may begin in the counselor's office, job seekers must do the majority of exploration outside of the counseling setting.

Step Three: Narrowing and Evaluating Career Choices

At this stage you will integrate the information you've learned about yourself and about the world of work. This can be a difficult step if you haven't fully explored your own interests and needs or the world of work, if you have difficulty with decision-making, or if you have numerous equally realistic and appealing options.

Career counselors may help you recognize how you are making decisions or offer training in decision-making. They also may clarify unrealized connections between pieces of information you've gathered. In addition, the counselor may simply listen as you talk about your struggles during this process.

Step Four: Conducting the Job Search

Job search assistance is one of the most common reasons people seek a career counselor. Frequently, they want to learn of job openings and how to write their resume. It is a rare case when someone enters a counselor's office and the counselor immediately provides information about the perfect job opening. Career counselors can, however, provide tips and resources for how to research specific companies or locate specific job openings, help the job seeker identify their networks, and utilize their networking skills to find openings or create positions. Career counselors may also offer training in interviewing skills and assist in preparing written application materials.

Frequently Asked Questions

? Will a career counselor write my resume? Generally, no. A career counselor may help you begin writing it, direct you to brochures, books, and other resume writing resources, or offer suggestions for revisions. Most will not write your resume for you.

? What are the differences among a career counselor, a consultant, a coach, and a trainer? Perhaps nothing; perhaps a lot. The selection of job title often reflects the individual's philosophy. It may reflect an industry standard, or it may reflect the individual's training for the position.

? Do career counselors really need me to talk about my personal stuff? Probably some; maybe a lot. This depends on why you are seeking assistance. For example, if you stop by a career center for a resume critique, you may discuss why you chose that particular career direction. If you are struggling to balance family and career, you may spend time talking about how your family influences your career decisions.

? How many times does a person typically meet individually with a career counselor? A typical range would be one to six times. Just as there are a large number of reasons one seeks out a career counselor, the process and the number of visits can easily exceed any estimate I could provide.

Although most people seek career counseling when they're looking for a job, some counselors also provide services that assist individuals in their current job. For example, they may help people frustrated by a boss or a lack of promotion. They may provide or direct these people to assertiveness or communication skills training. Not every counselor will provide the same services.

There are numerous places to find a career counselor, including your current place of study or employment, your alma mater, or your local community college. You also can check the yellow pages. It's important, however, to check out the credentials of the person offering their services and to be cautious of package deals. For further help finding a career counselor, you may want to review information provided by professional associations for counselors, such as the National Career Development Association or the National Board for Certified Counselors.

When first meeting with a career counselor, it is important to remember that counselors each have their own styles and strengths, as well as specific educational and technical backgrounds and knowledge about serving people like you. For example, a counselor at your alma mater might be the best resource for you if you need assistance in dealing with personal or family issues influencing the future of your career. Alternatively, a seminar at your workplace might serve your needs by helping you identify work environments that may be a better fit for you. These examples are generalizations, but the important thing to remember is that not every counselor will be the best counselor for every person. If you are seeking career counseling, then keep looking until you find a counselor that you feel can help YOU. Who knows, you may like the career counselor who has the well-used couch in their office!

You can send e-mail to Kathie at ksindt@jhu.edu