What Happened When I Hired An Online Career Counselor

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
I’m not the kind of person who thrives on the unknown, especially when it comes to my career. I like having a set plan in place that lets me clearly envision where I’ll be five, 10, even 15 years from now.

So you can imagine my discomfort when, about a year ago, I found myself questioning that carefully planned path. I had graduated college intending to spend an entire career in print magazines, but three years in, after seeing a number of layoffs in the industry — and then experiencing one of my own — I realized I needed to be more open-minded about my next steps and look beyond print. Make no mistake: What might sound spelled out and put-together now felt like a mini crisis at the time.

Multiple conversations with my parents ended the same way: My dad dropped not-so-subtle hints about me following him into medicine (thanks, but no thanks, dad), and my mom suggested I consult a career counselor. The latter seemed logical enough, but when was the last time you heard of anyone going to a career counselor? Do career counselors even exist anymore? If they did, I pictured talking to a woman with bad ‘80s hair and shoulder pads, à la Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.

It wasn’t until recently that I got my answers. Yes, career counselors exist. And no, they have neither shoulder pads nor bad ‘80s hair (at least not the ones I talked to). And it’s easier to access millennial-minded counselors thanks to recently launched programs from two of the biggest career sites, the Muse and Career Contessa, which are targeted toward young professionals. For the purposes of self-exploration and journalistic insight, I decided to give both a try to see if they’re worth your money and time. (Spoiler: They are.)

The Muse

The Service: Coach Connect

How it works: There are three services to choose from: a résumé review, a 30-minute career Q&A, and a job search strategy session. Each involves a phone or skype session with an expert and some sort of follow-up, such as an edited résumé or an action plan. You can pick an expert from one of three levels (mentor, coach, or master coach), with price being the distinguishing factor.

Cost: Depending on the service and coach level, prices range from $49 (a 30-minute career Q&A with a mentor) to $479 (a résumé review with a master coach).

My experience: I registered for a 30-minute career Q&A with Joy Lin, a mentor-level coach and career strategist who founded the coaching platform Quarter Life Joy. Lin immediately reached out via email to set up a time for our Google hangout — she’s based in L.A., while I’m in New York — and asked me to send her my résumé and fill out an intro form with questions ranging from “What’s your biggest obstacle or frustration right now in your work life?” to “Do you have a habit or ritual you do each day just for yourself?” She also suggested that I take two personality tests before our call, Myers-Briggs and the Workuno Strengths Test. For the record, they told me I’m ESFJ (extraverted, sensing, feeling, judgment) and a student, presenter, prioritizer, and initiator.

I felt a little nervous heading into my video call with Lin, but she immediately put me at ease, first describing her background and career path and then the structure of our call: I would talk about my past few jobs, then we would brainstorm my options moving forward and end with an action plan.

Thirty minutes isn’t a lot of time to cover your career, but Lin helped to focus our conversation, asking questions about what I enjoyed most in my past positions. Not all of her queries were easy to answer, but they did force me to dig deep and think about what I actually value in a job. Our chat felt like one that I might have with a good friend over coffee, but where a good friend would just nod along and agree with my frustrations, Lin was able to offer actionable advice. She emphasized my “student” strength, explaining that I would thrive in a startup environment or any place where I was busy and constantly learning.

Within 24 hours after our call, Lin emailed summary notes and specific exercises that I should do, including creating a list of non-negotiable characteristics for my next job and reaching out to people whose roles interested me to learn more.

I ended our session feeling not only more secure about my next steps but also reassured that I wasn’t alone in some of the questions I was raising.

Career Contessa

The Service: Hire an Expert

How it works: You browse a list of experts using filters for price, services offered (everything from personal branding development to salary negotiation), industry, and job function to narrow it down. After you’ve chosen an expert, you can request a session by uploading your résumé and selecting the service.

Cost: Depending on the expert’s rates, prices range from $85 to $150 per session.

My Experience:
I requested an hour-long session with Jaime Petkanics, a career consultant and founder of The Prepary, a job-search company. Since Petkanics is also located in New York, I opted to leave my laptop at home and meet her in person.

Even though I wasn’t required to submit as much information before our meeting as I was for my session with Lin, I felt like Petkanics offered just as much insight into my background. When I showed up, she had my LinkedIn page open and a copy of my résumé ready.

Our chat started similarly, with a brief introduction from Petkanics followed by my own description of my background. The hour went by quickly, but the extra 30 minutes was a definite bonus. We covered everything from changes I could make on my LinkedIn page (always include job descriptions) and résumé, to the best places to job hunt (Indeed is a winner), to appropriate ways to cold email someone. Where Lin had kept the focus on my broader career values, with Petkanics I felt like I was able to get into more specifics.

Anyone who has gone through a search of their own knows that it can feel like a deep, dark hole. Applications and emails go unanswered, and once you do get an interview, you might find out that the job wasn’t right for you all along, and it’s back to square one. Petkanics helped to raise my spirits. She gave me confidence that, despite any doubts I might have, my résumé was in good shape. Hearing a career counselor tell you that you are a strong candidate is exponentially more reassuring — and believable — than hearing the same sentiment from a friend or family member.

Should you book an online career counseling session? Absolutely. You don’t need to be in the middle of a career crisis to consult a counselor. Whether you want a professional opinion on your résumé or an expert’s take on how to deal with a tricky situation at work, these are people who have the skills to help give you more career confidence, no matter your dilemma.

While the cost of a single session isn’t cheap, when you consider that one meeting can help provide major career clarity, it’s obvious that the price tag is worth the sacrifice of three or four boutique fitness classes. However, with cost in mind, make sure you prepare for your session as much as your expert does. I went into each knowing what I wanted to focus on and get out of the meeting.

Ultimately, the responsibility for facing problems at work or figuring out where you want to go with your career lies with you. But getting some help along the way from a modern professional (read: cool hair, no shoulder pads) is a smart step in the right direction.

More from Work & Money