What happens in a career advising session?
A Research Study with 25 Career Advisors across the US

Context: I joined the Connected Experience (CoEx) Lab at the HCI Institute of Carnegie Mellon University as a research assistant under Dr. Maria Tomprou and Dr. Laura Dabbish. In a year-long research project, we studied the challenges of career seekers and career advisors, aiming to design a tool that would make their lives easier. 


The Problem with College Graduates' Career Search...

A lot of college graduates find it challenging to find a job they desire after their 4-year college education, sometimes even after a graduate degree. One potential reason is that students thought that their major would easily lead them to a job; however, the reality is that the process is not linear. How do students learn about their career preferences and how do they get there? Career advising plays an important role in the process. We want to understand how college career advising centers help students with their career exploration, identify challenges in career advising sessions, and suggest design ideas for improving their clients’ job search process.

Literature: The Planned Happenstance Theory...

In Planned Happenstance: Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities, Mitchel et. al (1999) mentioned that there is a common perception about the service of career counseling, that although hance plays an important role in everyone’s career, career counseling is perceived as a process designed to eliminate chance from career decision making. Written around twenty years ago, it is still quite relevant for today’s career seekers and career advisors in understand the domain of career counseling. The Planned Happenstance framework they proposed aimed to encourage counselors (advisors) to teach clients to engage in exploratory activities to discover unexpected career opportunities. 

In Job search and social cognitive theory: The role of career-relevant activities, Zikic & Saks (2008) sampled some employed and unemployed job seekers and found that job seekers who spent more time in career exploration, attended more training programs, and used more career resources reported higher job search clarity and job search self-efficacy, which predicted job search intensity eight months later. We would like to compare these findings from our research and offer suggestions in designing tools to help the clients of career counselors/advisors.  

My Main Research Questions

  1. How do career advisors work with their students to help students them find a job or make a career decision?

  2. How do career advisors navigate through their the career advising sessions?

  3. What are the main challenges in career advisors’ work and how they solve them?

  4. What are the tools (technical/non-technical) career advisors use in their work?


Semi-structured Interviews

Our team reached out to 100+ career advisors in the country via an email invitation and coordinated interview scheduling using emails. Up to this point, we have set up and conducted 24 interviews with career advisors across the country. We visited advisors who work in the Pittsburgh area face to face and those outside of the area via a video call or audio call. We started the interviews structured around the main questions listed in the column on the left, and prepared several prompt questions for each question to gain more in-depth information. One characteristics of semi-structured interviews is that the order of the questions might change based on the flow of an interview, and a question might be framed in a more specific fashion when the interviewee already touches upon the concept of what the interviewer wants to learn when responding to another question. As a result, the findings are sometimes not easily organized and needed to be inferred, which you will also be able to see in the findings section of the report.

interview questions


During the interviews, depending on each advisor’s availability, an interview would take from 25 up to 40 minutes. In order to increase efficiency, we decided to ask career advisors to answer a short survey (using Qualtrics) before an interview. In the survey, they will be asked to rank their daily tasks in order of frequencies. We created the list of tasks based on a CMU’s career advisor’s appointment types, which includes

1) mock interviews/interview skills
2) improving resume/cover letter/portfolio
3) build negotiation skills about job offers
4) build networking skills
5) career exploration strategies
6) first time meeting
7) internship search
8) job search


Except for job search skills (e.g., mock interviews, resumes, career fairs), career advisors need to help their clients with transitioning in their careers and help them create a personalized, sustainable career navigation plan. In the 25 interviews with university career advisors, profit and nonprofit career advisors, few of the advisors reported that they help clients with choosing majors (1), making decisions about career paths (23), and help with the process to get to their career goals (frequencies). To help clients with with career exploration (when clients are looking to understand what things/jobs they can have and careers they can get into based on their skills), they primarily use counseling techniques such as open-ended questions and journaling (3 career advisors), whereas others use some tools like LinkedIn and O*Net. 

Also, my advisor, Maria’ research has found that a 40% of posts by users who seek career advice in online communities are challenged with their career exploration and trajectories. We have observed similar findings in our interviews with career seekers, and from reports from the career advisors that seekers are often overwhelmed or under-informed (e.g. 60% of pre-med senior students do not know what to do after graduation). The majority of career seekers argue the burden to deal with a huge amount of opinions and options when trying to make a switch/figure out what they want to do. Through our research, we found that these challenges apply to people from several populations: ranging from all levels at Undergraduate students (traditional and non-traditional), graduate students, alumni, and low SES adults returning to the job care from the department of welfare and veterans (interviews with nonprofit career services).

While customer discovery is ongoing, we have started exploring ways that we can help career exploration and decision making. After compiling and analyzing the issues these stakeholders have, we worked on brainstorming several possible approaches for improving career exploration through technology. We have two goals: One is how we can have a user-friendly prototype of career exploration and second how we can promote exploration without overwhelming the client.

Tools used by career advisors

We collected 31 tools career advisors use in their work, including tests, websites, and activities they conduct with. Among these tools, the most mentioned technological ones are O*Net and LinkedIn, and non-technological ones the Strong Interest Inventory and Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). In the table below, online/technical tools that career advisors mentioned that they use are listed in the order of frequency. We can see that the tools used by advisors across US educational institutions cover quite a wide range. Among the 31 tools we collected, several are used more frequent than others, while some of them are only used by one of the two dozens of career advisors. 

(We are collecting more information on each of the tools and will categorize them in categories of functions and see what truly appeals to career advisors.)

Career advisors’ daily tasks

To understand career advisors needs and their challenges, we first compiled information on what they do at their jobs from the interviews. From the later-added Qualtrics survey on advisor’s rank of frequent tasks advising undergraduates and alumni, we learned that for undergraduate advisees, the most frequent (⅘ career advisors ranked it first) is “improving resume/cover letter.” From the interviews, frequent tasks mentioned by career advisors include helping students on their resumes/cover letters, as well as holding on-campus workshops on career exploration and networking. A lot of career advisors mentioned “one-on-one” with students, but different universities and different advisors do different things with different students during those sessions. Below is a chart where we list the tasks mentioned by career advisors in the order of frequency. 

During the interviews, career advisors told us that use assessments to evaluate students’ interest and skills when students are not sure about their career goals. Some career advisors ask students to complete the tasks and go over the results with them, while sometimes students request such assessment tests and career advisors give them access to taking them. Since assessments are such an integral part of students’ career exploration process working with their career advisors, it is important to look into their actual effectiveness.

Advisor’s Attitudes on Assessments and Tools

By understanding how career advisors use and perceive these assessment tools they use with their students, we can gain a better idea of what existing assessment tools are doing well on and not doing so well on so that we can offer design suggestions. Here are several quotes that stand out to us that help us understand the effectiveness of Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is one of the most frequently used tools based on our research. 

Career Advisor A who rated 4 out of 10 in terms of the helpfulness of the MBTI test:

“I don’t find that one [MBTI] useful. It doesn’t tell them [the students] what they want to hear. It won’t tell them what they can or cannot do, but just how they can do it.”

Career Advisor B who rated 2 out of 10 in terms of the helpfulness of the MBTI test:

“I philosophically [am] just not a big fan. I question the research that happened 50 years ago; I question whether they are relevant to different cultures, to the complexities, people’s identities.”

Career Advisors C who rated 2 out of 10 in terms of the helpfulness of the MBTI test: 

“A lot of advisors have been dependent on these tools [the MBTI test] working with students. There is a community in it. Certificates, businesses…”

Among 6 advisors who mentioned the MBTI test from the interviews, 3 of them did not find it useful (the other three said that it was difficult to give a number). Our main takeaway from this was asking that a once popular assessment tool, how much value does it still to the current job seekers? How does it imply the change of needs? 

Another most-mentioned tool from the interviews, LinkedIn, has been rated high on the spectrum. Below you will find an example of how a career advisor finds it extremely helpful in exploring career options with their students. 

Career Advisor D who rated “100” out of 10 in terms of the helpfulness of LinkedIn:

“LinkedIn is our favorite teaching tool. It’s an incredible information source with real life examples of different shapes and sizes of success. It’s affirming to look at what people have done, versus job descriptions that only look at occupational profiles that are not personal. It has provided transparency and paths that never existed before.”

Advising Process Journey Map

Based on the statements we collected in the interviews, we simplified the advising process into five stages: 1) get to know the students 2) explorations 3) action plans, 4) follow up, and 5) evaluate. This is important because we need to design a user flow for our tool, and this diagram could feed into it. 

Below are two career advisors we interviewed who represent two “extremes” regarding their advising styles. However, both approaches fit into the diagram.  

Case study 1: Casual advising style.
Advisor: Paul C at University of Washington, Seattle. 
What happens: The career services center does not use the MBTI. The center also does not have an agenda for the advising sessions. In Paul’s words, with his student in a session, it’s more like “a partner in a process."

Case study 2: More on the structured end.
Advisor: Claire C at University of Pittsburgh. 
What happens: Claire helps engineering student understand their interests and skills by 1) sharing links & platforms, and other job search resources; she 2) chat with students to answer their questions; last but not least, she 3) follow up and recap with emails. 

Challenges of Career Advisors with the Students

When we took a look at the challenges career advisors described in the interviews, we concluded that the following four to be the most emphasized: 

  1. Students need more emotional support in the process;

  2. Students think of careers as a “linear path” (certain major leads to (or guarantees) a job/career;

  3. Some students are resistant to change;

  4. Some students are skeptical of what the career services center can offer and whether the services can help them.

For our design, we would like to focus on challenge #2 and #3 -- a tool that helps students learn about their career paths by understanding that careers are not linear; and moreover, this tool will motivates students to make the move and change their behaviors to achieve better results. Overall, my suggestion for designing our tool is that it should help career seekers make use of career transparency through understanding of careers and motivation to act. 

My suggestion for designing our tool (in response to the challenges) is that it should help career seekers make use of career transparency through understanding of careers and motivation to act. 

  • The tool should provide the students with a supportive environment to explore

  • The tool should help students visualize career paths in a non-linear way

  • The tool should motivate students to act on necessary steps and bring change

  • The tool should enhance their understanding in the importance of career exploration

Next steps
As I am planning for user testings sessions with more career advisors, I was thinking about presenting the following four client profiles to each advisor, and ask them for what they will do to help each client, using the existing tools (and our prototype.)