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While giving a “Marketing Strategies for the Job Search” lecture in my and John Krumboltz’s “Career and Life Planning” course at Stanford University, one of our graduate students raised her hand. She explained that, having had three months of experience recruiting at a top management consulting firm, she had relevant insights for our mostly graduating seniors and graduate students. She continued: “First of all, don’t ever use an objective statement because everyone will make fun of you. That’s what we always did.”

Two weeks later, I attended a job search strategies panel of top employers of graduate students/postdocs in the Bay Area. Of the five panelists, three recommended an objective statement as a way to set candidates apart from the rest of the applicant pool.

Every day, we are bombarded with contradicting information from websites, mentors, and self-proclaimed field experts, espousing the best route to career success, usually in five (that’s the average, per my count) easy steps. Who is right? Who is wrong? And how do we know the difference?

It depends.

If you were to go to a conference of career professionals, hiring managers, recruiters, and seasoned mentors, there would not be as much, if any, discrepancy on the value of informational interviewing as there is with the question of objective statements. Almost all career experts in virtually all fields have agreed for at least the last decade that interviewing people in your anticipated career of choice to learn more about it helps with career decision-making. This consistency amid experts, over time, and field is one sign that the advice is worth considering.

To achieve consistent career advice, test it out through several channels, but also choose your interviewees and resources wisely. We often assign expertise too quickly, thinking that because someone has done the job, the information they give will be accurate.  Good advice must ultimately be true, not something presumed to be true based on a couple of personal experiences. Assess the breadth of expertise before interviewing someone, listening to anyone in your class or blindly following the instructions of someone on the latest career panel.  An expert will be able to tell you about overall trends in the field, not just their own experiences or the limited perspective from one organization. When experts do give advice about a specific organization, they will be able to reflect back the conversations and experiences they’ve had with colleagues as well as any relevant company resources; the advice won’t be entirely self-focused. Finally, s/he will ideally be able to speak from years of experience, not just a few months.

Trainees often ask me what an alumnus or other connection gets out of the mentoring relationship. Likewise, one may question the purpose of writing career advice articles, especially when career development is not someone's area of expertise. Reasons vary from empathizing and wanting to help you find your own way, to feeling compelled to simply share one's own story. In the latter case, walks down memory lane, though interesting, are not always useful without direction. Before seeking career advice from someone, or a career-related article, it helps to know what questions you want to have answered in the first place. If you are unclear of what you need, how will you know what questions to ask or how to apply what you have learned?  Use this information to seek advice that includes concrete steps to take throughout your journey, whether that is, "With whom should I speak as I explore options?” or “How can I best prime my résumé or C.V. in the application phase?”

In the career development process, few “absolutes” exist, so I am leery of those giving them. As we see from the example in the beginning, the objective statement is something that can sometimes be useful; the applicant must simply know when and how to use it. Good advice, then, is relevant to your situation. A good mentor will give you options based on what they’ve seen and help you come up with your own ideas for how to market yourself best – not simply tell you what you “should” do. 

In spite of the amount of preparation put forth, career decision-making remains a daunting process so being told what you “should” do seems comforting. But what do you do with conflicting directions from equally reputable sources? This is where the final trait of good advice comes in: it must be thoughtful. If the advice-giver does most of the talking in an interview, I question whether or not they listened closely enough to truly understand and empathize with your situation. If they do not ask you questions, or otherwise assess what you already know about careers of choice, or if they reduce their work to random, indeterminate recommendations, I wonder about the effectiveness of said advice. Finally, if advice is given without time for you to consider, respond and discuss multiple perspectives, I’m uncertain whether the giver has your best interests in mind in the first place.

In an age where advice is everywhere, solicited or otherwise, to whom do you listen? It depends on the consistency and concreteness of, and truth present in, the advice; relevance to your own situation; and the thoughtfulness of the giver. Ultimately, your career decisions are your own – advice merely guides you through the search and development process, propels you forward, and supports you. The only person whom can decide what you “should” do, however, is you.


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