Sep 11, 2020 | Should you consider working as a career advisor?

Some time ago I wrote about the bright sides of working as a career advisor in the blog post entitled “Affection.“ What a crazy ride this is! So many turns and unexpected events down the line, and so many interesting people with their unbelievable, unheard of stories on the way! Since I wrote that first blog post, I was very happy about my decision to embark on this journey.

But the reality is: no job is ever perfect. After my long and delightful honeymoon with career advisory, I can say that there are also several downsides to this job. Namely, this job can twist your stomach in many different ways. Let me list a few of them below.

HARD TO GET NOTICED

Working as a career advisor is one of the jobs that rely on your personal brand. In this type of job, it’s actually harder to get noticed than to produce a good, original product in the first place. You need to systematically build your recognition up to the point when your next clients will find you by themselves. In the landscape of “safety” versus “freedom” (as described in my recent post “Safety vs freedom: the landscape of post-PhD careers“), I would place this career path in the area reserved for freelancing:

Safety vs freedom: the landscape of post-PhD career tracks

However, building your expertise and developing your brand is not easy. One reason for this, is that the space of career advisory is already packed. In general, I find the fact that I’m not the only person occupied by working on careers for PhDs, a good thing. It would be a very lonely place otherwise. There are is a number of good, competent people working in this space. I listed some of them in my recent blog post, “All the online resources for PhDs in transition to industry.“ However, in career advisory, there are also lots of people who just smell “easy money” in it. Yes, people feel lost in the job market — so why not compile and rephrase twenty books you’ve read about this topic, tell people that they are awesome and valuable, and that they should just “follow their passion”? And then cash them for it? 

As a consequence, there are tons of these “career advisors” who take the simplest route to make people feel better for a while by repeating cliche statements about careers. Or, they launch tons of online initiatives such as YouTube channels and podcasts and induce a lot of buss around it. Yet, when you listen to the content, you cannot get over the impression that they are not interested in other people as much as they are interested in presenting themselves. If you talk to other people on a camera, it’s good to have a bit of the “Oprah factor” — some personality and empathy for others. Yet many people who do this, don’t even have these qualities, and instead, produce tons of dry material and buzz around it. 

What I mean is material that lacks any real insights, added value, valuable information, or sense of humor, and contains large amounts of pseudo-language instead — thousands of phrases such as “I’m so happy to contribute…,“ “Thank you so much for sharing,“ “I feel for you,“ etc. It’s so hard to get your message across among all this buzz!

HARD TO START 

The barriers to entry are indeed very low in this area — basically, you don’t need any license or university diploma to start working as a career advisor. Furthermore, there is the “first-mover advantage:” people who started a similar business five or ten years ago, now have much more recognition and impact in the field. …even if they don’t do any R&D, they don’t have any secret knowledge about the topic, and they mostly teach the common knowledge that you can find everywhere online.

Many people go for numbers: they trust “the hive mind”, and go with the biggest players in the field even if they have worse products than smaller players. Therefore, even if you have really interesting insights and original observations. And if you produce really valuable content, it’s still a long way to go before you get enough recognition to live off from what you do.

EVERYONE TELLS YOU THAT YOU ARE DOING A GREAT JOB BUT…

…doesn’t necessarily want to pay you for it. You can experience this phenomenon in many different forms. Unfortunately, in recent years, in many countries career advisory has become yet another way for universities to get more money from the government, and create more jobs for their own people. They get their salaries, and in exchange, they “organize courses” for PhDs, namely invite external professionals and independent coaches to give talks and workshops — for free fo course. After all, you give talks as a promotion of your services — makes sense, isn’t it?… 

To summarize, you pay your taxes to the government so that people working at the universities get their hefty salaries, and then they invite you to deliver the content for free so that they can justify their salaries. Which are paid from your taxes. Lovely.

At the moment, my approach to this issue is that, whenever I speak about my personal story during or after the PhD, and my personal motivations, I don’t charge for it. However, when I give a workshop that contains my original content— the practical knowledge about the job market that I acquired in the process of working on this subject, and the exercises that help the attendees navigate in the job market — I do charge (unless I propose the talk myself, but that’s a very rare occasion). Everyone in this space has their own approach, and I also fully understand the speakers who charge for every single public appearance regardless of the topic.

So, this pathological model is becoming more and more prevalent. If you are an external career advisor, then unfortunately, universities often perceive you as a potential competitor rather than a collaborator. Of course, I’m not speaking about every university I ever encountered — there are also research units which treat independent professionals and content creators ethically and respectfully. I’m just saying that I see this model more and more often, and that this trend really worries me.

Also, people often choose a “free” service from the university only because it’s free for them. They don’t recognize the added value of paying extra for quality. The difference between external career advisors and those hired by universities is exactly the same as the difference between private startup accelerators and accelerators at universities. Yes, you can go to university-based accelerators and get business consultancy equity-free… But how many successful corporations started there? Private accelerators work better for many reasons—people who work there went through the process by themselves, understand what business is all about, and have all the valuable contacts in hand. 

This is exactly why it’s worth to share the cake with them and give them a little piece of your company (usually, 5-10%) rather than seeking for equity-free advice. Business developers working in startup accelerators didn’t learn about business from textbooks; they learned it from practice and they are pros. Similarly, private career advisors know how to develop careers because they had to build careers “in the real world” all by themselves. They have broad understanding of the job market and useful contacts in industry. Yes, you can get a free advice at the university, but it’s still much better to invest a few hundred Euros in external, quality services to speed up the job search process. Every extra month spent as a jobless person effectively makes you lose ten times more.

IT’S VERY EASY TO GET ROBBED

It’s also very easy to get robbed while working in this space. There is almost no protection of Intellectual Property — if some other person in this space reads your book or attends your lecture, there is a danger that they will “get inspired” and start reproducing your ideas. Even the university career advisors can rob you! On a few occasions, it happened to me that career advisors working at universities wrote to me asking for the meeting. They expressed their interest in the workshops offered by my company. However, during the meeting, they were making notes only to tell me afterward that they thank me for my wonderful ideas because now they know better how to organize their own courses.

Paradoxically, the only way of protecting your ideas in this space is not to hide them from the crowd but rather, to do quite the opposite. Namely, to talk about it on social media and in public all the time — so that the audience encodes that it was your idea from the very start. Otherwise, you can be sure that your ideas will be — either voluntarily or involuntarily — adopted sooner or later. No one will be able to steal Simon Sinek’s idea of the golden circle, but only because he is very well known and vocal about his concept. So, to be safe, you need to present your ideas in public as often as you possibly can.

By the way, you can encounter all the aforementioned problems in pretty much any free profession in which you need to develop a personal brand: there is competition, it’s hard to protect your IP, and it’s hard to start. So I guess these issues are not specific to career advisory.

THINGS GET COMPLICATED

Your relations with people will get even more complicated from now on. Sometimes you are so physically tired with your job that you are in a bad need to hang out to a dinner with friends just to rest and chit chat. So you find a free evening and go — but after you finally sit down and rest, after 30 seconds everyone looks at you with THAT LOOK on their face and the conversation turns to jobs. 

And sometimes you feel like people invite you to a dinner on purpose. They know that 2-3 hours of good career advice is with much more than 10-20 Euro spent on cooking you a dinner. Sometimes, I come home after “a peaceful evening with friends” completely wasted. The same about dating — sometimes you go for a meeting that is supposed to be a date and it turns out that the guy is more interested in jobs than in you. For worse, once in a while a client will fall for you — not that strange given that all you do around them is listening to their stories and motivations, and supporting their career choices.

YOUR PRIVATE LIFE CAN MELT

Related to the previous point, your private life can shrink to zero… Since talking about life in general is so close to talking about careers, virtually every private conversation can naturally gravitate towards talking about jobs. This feels awesome at first, but can also be very tiresome in the long run.

Actually, recently I came up with my own way of dealing with the situation. When I go for lunch with friends and they start talking about jobs, I solve the problem in “the Room style.” Well, that works.

SSSH…

You can’t talk about your best projects in public. The main reason being: in career advisory, trust is very important. This is why the information shared at these sessions is confidential — especially if these are 1-1 sessions. The most colorful and accomplished people are also the most private. They just don’t people in their circles to talk about their private stories. For this reason, I can never talk about my most exciting projects in public or list them in my resume.

THE FLOOD OF REGRETS

When people start trusting you, they also start treating you as a sort of a priest. Namely, they tell you things that they would never tell even to their own spouse. For instance, they talk about all the regrets of their lives. And then, all of a sudden you learn that everyone has regrets. Even very successful people often believe that they made suboptimal choices in their careers — even though they reached the very top in their discipline. Sometimes it also goes in counterintuitive ways. Those who are at the top regret the most — they discover that they chose the wrong mountain to climb. Yet they can’t admit this in public as they are role models to others. To sum up, while working as a career advisor you’ll be flooded with plenty of sad stories. So many people regret pretty much all their professional lives and feel pitiful about the fact that they can’t turn back time!

DIFFERENT MINES — DIFFERENT DEPTHS

Every new person is like a new mine — which is very exciting. Every time, you are trying to figure out what are the real motivations, talents, strengths, and weaknesses of the other person. And you attempt to dig deep enough to uncover their Real Potential. But not every mine is the same deep. Some mines are full of gold and wonders, and you sigh when the meeting ends and you need to get back to the surface. Some other mines are shallow and empty. Or even worse: they contain a toxic gas.

The vast majority of people whom I encounter, give me great a great deal of inspiration and energy. However, once in a while I meet someone who leaves me with a deep feeling of sadness. Some people are just after very wrong things, and on their minds, their goals and values are tangled so badly that I have no chance to unfold such knots. And some people don’t have insight into themselves deep enough to communicate on the level that would allow them to build any career plan — so that I have no tangible material to work with. I’m goal-driven and when I meet a new person, I want to reach the target (namely to help them). And sometimes, people give me no chance to do so.

HEURISTICS

Career advisory is not rocket science. Although you have a reasonable answer to almost every question, once in a while you will get one question you just can’t answer. As I mentioned in a blog post from a few months ago, “The Nosedive,” the knowledge about job market is more of a street knowledge than textbook knowledge — and, the street tends to be noisy. Thus, you can’t give a 100% guarantee that the solutions that you propose will work out… Especially given how quickly the job market and people change, and how much you need to rely on heuristics. I feel responsible to give good-quality information, but I also don’t want to overpromise: heuristics increases the probability that you will succeed — but after all, every situation is different.

NO BAD DAYS AT THE OFFICE ALLOWED

In general, company owners are supposed to give a good example to others and have some external pressure to be successful. I described this phenomenon in my recent book, “What Is out There for Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks.” However, career advisory is a special case here. Since you advise others how to get their dream jobs, you are expected to live your dream and have a true blast at work every single day! Even though I recognize that my general job satisfaction is very high compared to what it used to be before, I have weaker days once in a while. Yet, you can’t let anyone notice, as this might easily get misinterpreted as lack of professional competency.

TELLING THE TRUTH? NOT COOL

You often need to tell people what they don’t want to hear. People often self-sabotage and cannot admit that they spent the last 10 or 15 years in the wrong type of career. They always try to find the logical explanation for the fact that they have spent their whole youth on doing something they don’t enjoy at all and are not talented for. They also don’t take it lightly when you tell them that they might miss certain values. 

For instance, when you tell them that they apparently have no genuine interests and no desire to conduct any type of projects, and they are only after finding a comfortable job with good working benefits, and as such, they have absolutely no value for employers — regardless of their academic titles. Some people cry or yell after chatting about careers with me, but what shall I do other than saying the things exactly as they are?

Some people also don’t take it lightly when you tell them that the job search process is probabilistic and there is no guarantee that the person reading your motivational letter is going to give you a thumb up, as this is to large extent dependent on their personal taste. They just don’t get the concept of probability and expect a formula. Not gonna happen.

SO YOU JUST TALK TO PEOPLE, RIGHT?

Many people believe that as a career advisor, you do nothing at all. You are just talking to people and get paid for it, right? Just asking them questions? Well, in reality, putting both my analytic mind and empathy to use the same time makes me burn so many calories that sometimes I walk away from my desk after a meeting with pain in all my muscles.

JUST ONE DRINK!

In you are not assertive enough, in career advisory, your alcohol consumption will get over the roof. As a matter of fact, many people only open up after having drinks. So, especially if you already had a drinking problem before, fasten your seatbelts because you are going for quite a ride. Even my genetically enhanced, double-engine bulletproof Polish stomach couldn’t handle this amount of booze.

So, in the end, I stopped drinking at all. High time for this — if I didn’t stop at that point, I would have become wreckage in a few years. The recent popularity of non-alcoholic wines and beers helped me in sticking to this decision. The non-alcoholic drinks far improved in quality over the past few years and were recently massively adopted by Dutch restaurants. Now, I can go out for drinks without a necessity to be the only person by the table who doesn’t have a glass next to their plate. What a bliss.

I WILL HAVE A GOOD SLEEP AFTER I’M DEAD

In this job, work is never finished. Yet you have a strong motivation to improve in every hour and every minute. As a result, you can work yourself to utter exhaustion. I don’t even remember when was the last time I slept for eight hours. A long time ago for sure. And will happen after the lockdown, when it’s time to travel and the opportunities to speak in public from the comfort of your own home are no longer there? I don’t even dare to think about this now.

WHAT IF YOU ARE NOT A NATIVE?

I’m of Polish origin. After many years of working in English, you still use some language peculiarities as a non-native. Unfortunately, some people can judge your competencies by that and trust you less, regardless of how professional and well-informed you are. Just use more bottleneck to add to the pot.

THE TOTAL RECALL

In career advisory, you need to develop a very good memory for people. I always had a good episodic memory: I remembered single events and sequences of events, who said what, and what was the reaction. I also had a good memory for facts such as numbers or dates. As an undergrad, I didn’t even note phone numbers from friends because I was automatically memorizing them after hearing the sequence of digits just once. I also had a relatively good spatial orientation: I could walk for two hours through the streets of a stranger city just once, and come back the same way without a mistake.

BUT, even though I’m a people person, I was never good with people’s faces or names. I was also messing professions and other personal data such as the city of residence or nationality. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, a lot of people got an offense when — after talking to them for half an hour at some conference or public event — I didn’t recognize their faces the next time I met them. Sometimes, someone was saying, “Hi!” and smiling to me in the street and I was freezing as I didn’t remember the circumstances around our first meeting. And I felt relief only after they explained to me why they had said, “Hi!” in the first place.

Should you consider working as a career advisor

Now, while working as a career advisor, I felt like this might become a serious weakness. So, I had to quickly come up with a system to start effectively remembering people, their names, their faces, and everything about their competencies, CVs, bios, interests, with every possible detail including their nightmares from childhood and the names of their cats. I still have a long way to go but I feel confident that at the moment, my memory for people is over average. And I no longer experience the faux-pas situations that I experienced in the past.

LEGALLY LIABLE

Unlike other professions like a priest or a lawyer, a career advisor is not legally protected with the confidentiality clause. Confidentiality clause means that whatever you hear from your client, you should keep to yourself — and if you do that, you will be fine no matter what kind of person your client is, and what they’ve done in their life. 

But if you are a career advisor and your client tells you that they have poisoned their boss to get a better job, you have to choose between your own rules (which tell me to stick to my promises and keep confidential about the client’s story no matter what) and the law. As a possible consequence, in case you are proven that you were informed about the crime and you didn’t tell the police, you will be charged, prosecuted, and placed in prison.

Not mentioning the fact that many people — either voluntarily or involuntarily — break NDA agreements. Namely, they tell you things about their jobs that are supposed to stay confidential, and they have no recognition of the fact they should skip certain aspects of their jobs to themselves. It’s hard to estimate how much all these broken NDAs are worth altogether, but when I think about this, I get a cold sweat. It might be hundreds of millions by now.

WORKING AS A CAREER ADVISOR?

Are you working as a career advisor? If so, what are your hardships in daily life? Please share with me 🙂 In this space, we all highly enjoy our jobs, yet quite clearly, this is not the easiest career to pursue!

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