Becoming a Career Counselor

The weird faces I see when telling my current classmates I have a Ph.D. in pharmacology are quite entertaining. Most of them express disbelief. I think my decision to seek a master's degree in career counseling was less of a shock to scientists than to those I meet along my new occupational path.

My decision to "get out of science" was not a quick or an easy one. My last year of graduate school I was confident I wanted to get away from the lab bench eventually, but I was not sure what I wanted to do. At that time, I think the best piece of advice I received was to do an academic postdoc, because it would leave my options open. I spent 1 year as a postdoc at a major research institution while using the campus career center to explore my options.

I considered many possibilities, and during my investigation, I read an advertisement for a postdoctoral fellow at a small liberal arts college. Having graduated from a small liberal arts college myself, going back to teach at one had always been an idea in the back of my head and one I felt I should explore before jumping out of science. The position was a 100% research postdoctoral fellow position (no classroom teaching responsibilities) where I had a project in a National Science Foundation-funded laboratory with a lab technician and a slew of undergraduates pursuing independent projects and senior theses' research. It was here that I really had the chance to train and mentor undergraduate students, and I loved it. The one-on-one interaction and coaching I had with the students were fulfilling and rewarding. However, I learned how challenging it is to maintain an active, cutting-edge laboratory at a small college, and I found I lack the passion in research necessary to succeed at that task.

While learning that I was not cut out for a faculty position, I discovered a very important thing about myself--I love to encourage others to identify and pursue their dreams. With the help of career books, Internet research, self-assessment, and informational interviewing, the field of career counseling began to seem like a path for me to pursue. I already knew I enjoyed teaching students cover letter and résumé writing and networking skills; why not consider doing it as an occupation? The one disadvantage I uncovered was that in order to become a career counselor, I would need to go back to school. All counseling positions require a minimum of an M.A. in counseling or a related field. Although individuals do occasionally find positions in the counseling field without the degree, those positions are very scarce and there is little opportunity for advancement. I was not really sure I wanted to go back to school, but I decided to apply, knowing I would have several months to continue investigating other opportunities and decide.

Frankly, I did not investigate different graduate programs. I knew that if I went back to school, I would have to be close to my family to help make graduate school poverty bearable. My family lives in Maryland, and the University of Maryland had a career counseling master's degree program. I applied, was accepted, found a graduate assistantship, and here I am. I did not quite realize the uniqueness of the program when I applied. There are only a handful of graduate programs in career counseling across the United States, and the program at the University of Maryland is being eliminated. Because there are so few career counseling graduate programs, many enter the field by pursuing master's degrees in college student personnel or counseling.

A graduate counseling program includes coursework in counseling theories, assessment, and a required internship. So far, my classes have been manageable, although the demands are different from those of my previous science classes. Classes tend to require small projects, self-reflection papers, and exams. Many of the assignments require applying theory to case studies. In general, a different writing style from that in the sciences is expected, and I am still adjusting. It is a bit intimidating to be in classes with students who have undergraduate degrees in psychology and already know much of the information being taught, but I have found that my scientific training taught me valuable critical and analytical thinking skills that I am still using.

As an occupational field, career counseling is more than critiquing cover letters and résumés. It is also more than teaching interviewing, job-search, and networking skills or guiding an individual through self-assessment and choosing a career path. The field encompasses the entire area of career development. Career counselors help individuals recognize and acquire skills that they may need to advance or adapt in their current positions. When I started the program, I was set on the goal of working at a university career center where I would be particularly helpful to students in the biological sciences. I may still end up there, but right now I am investigating other options that I had not thought about before beginning my graduate program. In addition to the academic settings of universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical institutes, other places career counselors are employed include recruiting divisions of large companies, outplacement services, human resources departments, private practice, or federal, state, and county agencies.

I am only in the first semester of my graduate program in career counseling, but so far my transition has been awesome. My goal is to become a career counselor, but I am unsure what job I will hold in the future. Sure, it is occasionally scary, and I realize there may be times when I question my decision, but right now, I'm loving it!

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