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Need career coaching? Find your perfect professional fit

Deborah Nason, special to CNBC.com

Trying to navigate your career path can seem overwhelming, if not impossible, sometimes. Professional career advisors of different stripes are available to help you along that journey.

The National Career Development Association, a professional association serving more than 5,000 career advising professionals in the U.S. and abroad, recognizes two categories of professionals: counselors and specialists.

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A career counselor must hold a master's degree or higher in counseling and fulfill certain continuing education requirements.

A career specialist must have a bachelor's degree or higher in fields other than counseling, have completed the NCDA Career Development Facilitator Training Program and have one year of supervised career development experience. Specialists also must fulfill certain continuing education requirements.

Whom to work with depends on what you need.

What an expert can do for you*

A career counselor or career specialist can assist you in:

  • Learning more about yourself.
  • Gaining educational and occupational information.
  • Learning about decision-making and career planning.
  • Conducting a job search.
  • Applying to graduate or professional schools or apply for other training programs.
  • Coping with career challenges and transition issues.

Source: National Career Development Association
(*Note: See a longer, annotated list here.)

Different needs

"If you have a clear sense of direction and high energy regarding your career, you can work with career specialists," said Carol Vecchio, career counselor and founder of the Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal.

Specialists can help you with building career-related skills, such as résumés, job search, networking, career exploration, interviewing, salary negotiation and moving within a job, she added.

There are as many approaches to career counseling as there are in the mental health traditions.
David Reile
managing director of the Career Development Alliance and president-elect of NCDA

"If you're questioning your career path, with a low level of energy, it's wise to work with a master's-level career counselor," Vecchio said.

In that case, an extensive counseling background is important, according to Eleta Jones, Ph.D., a career counselor in private practice and a licensed professional counselor. "A client can be dealing with all sorts of issues — depression, learning disability, family concerns," she said. "All of these have an impact on career planning."

Threefold path

"There are as many approaches to career counseling as there are in the mental health traditions," said David Reile, Ph.D., managing director of the Career Development Alliance and president-elect of NCDA.

He lists three main approaches of career help (which are not mutually exclusive):

  1. Developmental: Looks at how clients' career and education histories shape their current situation and influence what they do next.
  2. Pragmatic: Addresses a specific need; for example, the client needs to find employment, so the focus is on the job search.
  3. Assessments: Career-related questionnaires and worksheets.

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Vecchio of the Centerpoint Institute adds an additional category she calls "life design."

"We take more of a holistic and transition-focused approach as we look at a client's life patterns, how they work with people, problems they can solve for an organization, etc.," she said.

Where to look, what to ask

The NCDA offers a searchable online database of its members, as does the National Board for Certified Counselors. In addition, Reile of the NCDA and the Career Development Alliance suggests asking university career centers for names of professionals who work with the public. Sometimes community colleges will work with a non-student, he said.

Private practitioner Jones offers a list of items to ask about, including:

  • Level of education.
  • Experience working with people in a similar situation (e.g., College student? Mid-career? Stuck/dissatisfied with career?)
  • Areas of expertise.
  • Knowledge of workplace trends and techniques.
  • Experience with the use of different tools and assessments.
  • Ongoing professional development.
  • Ability to work virtually and, if so, the states you are licensed in.

"It's important to get clear on the financial commitment," Jones said. "Ask if the services are packaged and can you terminate and pay for only the services rendered if it's not a good match."

Fees for career professionals vary by region, ranging from $75 to $200 per hour, usually with three to six visits, depending on services rendered, said Reile.

Know thyself

"You need to know what you're looking for," said Linda Kobylarz, a career management consultant with extensive experience in the career development field.

She offers some questions to consider:

  • What services do you want or need? "Some people need in-depth counseling because they need to rebuild resiliency or they're so conflicted with decision-making," Kobylarz said. "Others may have a simpler need."
  • What sort of setting do you want to have this interaction in? Private practice, university, workforce development center, in-house (offered by your company), teleconference?
  • How much can you afford?
  • What kind of relationship do you want?

"There's a real need for a range of different kinds of career services," said Vecchio of the Centerpoint Institute, summing up the landscape. "We can all help in different ways."

— By Deborah Nason, special to CNBC.com