Univ. Admin: Career Advising

Advise and coach a first-time client exploring a career change


Career development professionals work to support graduate students, postdocs and recent alumni with their career exploration and job search process.

Career advisors, counselors and coaches help clients identify resources to consult or actions to take that can inform next steps and decision making. A career development professional is not expected to be an expert in all fields. Rather, a career advisor helps clients navigate the career exploration and job search processes. Depending on the scope of a career professional’s job responsibilities and the size of their office, they may support clients in different ways such as one-on-one advising, creating resource guides or organizing and presenting workshops, panel discussions, networking events and more. Career advisors, counselors, and coaches may work in Career Centers, individual departments or Graduate School offices.

The Process

The process below includes information that is necessary to conduct and move through a career counseling session.

  1. Understanding needs of the client
  2. Setting expectations for the session and relationship
  3. Clarifying goals for the session
  4. Advising and coaching
  5. Establishing next steps for the client
  6. Writing up notes on the session

Note: A client is a term for an individual seeking support. In this context, a client does not pay directly for services and includes graduate students, postdocs, and alumni of a university.

The Exercise

Provide support to a client who seeks out your help. Read through the following scenario and identify how you would advise the client.

For this exercise, you are a career counselor and your client is a postdoctoral scholar.

Scenario: Alex is a postdoc at MidWestern University. He and his partner are both social science researchers and are getting married in the upcoming months. Getting married and the potential of children has brought on feelings of pressure to find a stable job to help provide for his family. On the one hand, he seems excited and very open to exploring new opportunities, but on the other hand, he seems to be seeking your approval.

Upon further conversation, Alex mentions just about every single job that a PhD could potentially hold—from research analyst to statistician all the way to consulting and everything in between. He “just knows that he can’t keep living on this postdoc salary anymore.” He also says he feels “burnt out” on his academic research and teaching and is ready for something new and that he and his partner have discussed moving to a large city on either coast where there are more opportunities.

Task 1: Goal Setting
Establish 1-2 goals for the session and list 5 questions you might ask Alex over the course of his first counseling session. An important component to career counseling is to shift focus away from the emotional towards concrete actions that give a client new information, experience or perspective. Where is Alex getting stuck? What can you accomplish in this first one hour session? What are some questions you can ask that establish an appropriate tone and move him in a productive direction? Think about ways you can prompt Alex.

Task 2: Email advising & sharing resources
After a few weeks, Alex sends an email that he has decided on a career direction and wants to explore careers in research and analysis. He can’t meet for a month, but wants to get started with online resources and connecting to professionals. How can you advise him in an email? Compose an email to Alex outlining three steps he can take in the next month before you meet again in person.

The Deliverable

The standard outcome of a career counseling session is helping the client to set goals to achieve both during the session and afterwards, as the individual takes next steps in their career exploration or job search process.

Read through the scenario above in “The Exercise”. Imagine that the information provided about Alex’s situation has emerged from the start of your conversation. For Task 1, build on what you know and identify 1-2 achievable goals for the session; then, list 5 questions you might ask over the course of an hour session working with Alex.

For Task 2, follow up with Alex in a 150-200 word email in response to his most recent correspondence.

Sample Deliverable #1

  1. Identify strengths and weaknesses of current work situation
  2. Clarify and underscore motivation(s) for change


  1. Tell me about yourself. How did you come to be a postdoc at MidWestern University? What did you enjoy most about the postdoc experience? What was your biggest obstacle?
  2. You mentioned that you feel “burnt out” on your research now. Are there times when you don’t feel that way? What do you like most about it? Teaching?
  3. What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working?
  4. Is there anyone you have met recently who, when telling you about their work, made you think, “Wow! That sounds really interesting. I think I’d really enjoy that”?
  5. What feels most difficult when thinking about shifting career paths?

Sample Deliverable #2

Dear Alex,

Thanks for your message. Congratulations on the work you have done to narrow your career focus to Research and Analysis. I’m glad you reached out to get help thinking about next steps even though we cannot meet in person. I would recommend that you begin learning more about the range of opportunities in the field. A few things you could do before we meet again.

1) Identify 3-4 people with whom you could conduct an informational interview. If you don’t know anyone in your immediate personal network, use LinkedIn and the MidWestern University’s Alumni Database to see if you can find people to reach out to.

2) Start learning about companies and organizations who employ people to do Research and/or Analysis. Make notes about the nature of the work, what interests you most about it, and the job titles of people who are doing work there that most interests you.

3) By extension, you might also run some very broad job searches on sites like HigherEdJobs.com or Glassdoor.com to get a sense of the kinds of jobs that most interest you and the skills desired.

Since you are still conducting research, you don’t need to limit the search geographically. Instead, gather as much information as you can about the jobs so you can start thinking about how your experience and knowledge aligns.

The last two exercises can also help you come up with topics to discuss and questions to ask during the informational interviews. Let me know if you have any questions, and do get in touch when you are able to meet again.



General resources to help you get going:


For this task:

  • Active listening
  • Discerning important information from unimportant information
  • Strategic thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Writing sills
  • Emotional intelligence

Needed in this career:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Empathy
  • Problem solving
  • Comfortable with resistance/conflict
  • Learning new things
  • Research skills

To view detailed lists of skills in job descriptions for policy careers, please see workforce data generated by Boston University’s BEST program.

Additional Responsibilities

A career advisor, counselor, or coach may also perform these activities:

You are viewing a job simulation. To get started, set up SMART Goals to perform this simulation in a reasonable timeline. If you have completed the task, fill out the Self-Reflection Sheet.

Simulation authors: Sarah Peterson, PhD, Chelsea Barbercheck, PhD, Thi Nguyen, PhD
Simulation vetted by professionals from public and private universities serving graduate students and postdocs