Chinese university students turn to career counselling amidst confusion, anxiety

Most career counseling planners on social media are reported to not rely on a specific intermediary platform as a guarantee, but rather directly accept consultations requests in their personal capacity.


Students who are graduating seek jobs at a career fair in Neijiang, Sichuan province, on Dec 6, 2020. [Photo by ZHENG ZHIBO/FOR CHINA DAILY]

February 24, 2023

BEIJING – As the number of China’s college graduates hits a record 11.58 million in 2023 – an increase of 850,000 from last year – these new graduates, with confusion and anxiety about their future, are choosing to seek help from paid career counseling, Xinhua News Agency reported on Tuesday.

While trying to choose a career planner for herself, Zhang Yuan (pseudonym), a senior student from a university in Guangdong province, found that there wasn’t any unified industry standards for “career planning counseling”.

“Everyone seems to be newcomers to the industry, and the prices vary greatly, from about ten yuan to tens of thousands,” Zhang said.

Under the question of “Are there any reliable online career counseling services?” on Zhihu, a Quora-like Q&A and knowledge-sharing website, someone posted ”I want to do an online career planning consultation, but when I received the quote, it was about 9,000 yuan, which made me even more confused.”

Can paying for counseling help one find a suitable job?

For most college students, their career counseling “sources” are “recommendations” from social media, as “big data” is able to peek into users’ life.

Wang Feifei (pseudonym) happened to find such posts during last year’s autumn recruitment season. At that time, she was facing the “embarrassment” of having “no response to resume submissions, frequent rejections in initial interviews and even being unable to find internships.” When alone at night, she had doubts about her career choice.

After reading the headline “10 years of human resource management experience to help you clear up confusion over unemployment, as well as get a promotion and pay rise,” she immediately sent a private message to the blogger, asking for help.

According to the report, career planning consultants on social media are not all psychological counselors. Their resumes more often include keywords such as “senior human resource management, artificial intelligence senior engineer, 10 years of investment banking experience,” etc.

Services provided by them not only include strategic content such as career counseling and career planning, but also interview coaching and resume editing. Some career planning consultants also boast about having abundant industry resources.

Most career counseling planners on social media are reported to not rely on a specific intermediary platform as a guarantee, but rather directly accept consultations requests in their personal capacity. The prices vary according to the services provided.

A career counselor on one of the platforms provides counseling services with prices of 99 yuan, 399 yuan and 899 yuan. The 99 yuan service is for a 30-minute’s “micro-counseling” experience, while 399 yuan is the normal price for a 90-minute one-on-one counseling, and 899 yuan is the price for a long-term counseling, which includes three 90-minute one-on-one counseling sessions.

There are also some career planning consultants who price their services according to content. For example, “personality exploration plus career exploration” is 499 yuan, “specially for autumn recruitment plus position matching and interview guidance” is 600 yuan, and “industry analysis, market analysis plus personal interview strategy” is 900 yuan. At the same time, their promotional content includes “career planning counseling is suitable for those who are confused, anxious, low-paid, or burdened with debt in life and want to give themselves an opportunity.” They also mention that “countless numbers of our clients who switched careers have gone from a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan to a monthly salary of 8,000 yuan.”

After three communications with her consultant following a Self-Directed Search (SDS) by John Holland, Wang got a job offer from a foreign company. “From the moment I received the offer, I suddenly felt that I was no longer confused,” she said. The consultant and Wang discussed before and believed that Wang’s personality was “more compatible with the job she was offered.”

A graduating student searches for job opportunities at a job matching fair at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, March 16, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

Seeking for consultant while concerned about choosing wrong career path

To Zhang Yuan, the budget for searching for a “reliable” career planning consultant was 1,000 yuan. “As a student, I cannot afford a higher price,” he said.

Zhang’s undergraduate major was business administration. He originally planned to pursue a postgraduate degree before seeking a job, as he believed that a further study would provide him with richer professional knowledge and also offer him a “buffer period” to rethink his career.

However, he didn’t expect to contract COVID-19 on the second day of the postgraduate entrance examination. His condition was poor that day and he felt that his chances of being admitted were slim, which meant that the need to find a job was imminent. “I learned about the career experience related to my major more through my senior schoolmates, or the information on the internet,” Zhang said, admitting that he was not well-prepared for employment and wasn’t sure what career he was best suited for.

“I participated in debate competitions during winter and summer vacations and had no time for internships,” Zhang said. In his limited on-campus time, he devoted almost all of his free time to extracurricular activities. “For me, only by engaging in a career that I am interested in can I have the sustained motivation to continue the work,” he said, hoping that his future job will allow him to perform as passionately as he did in debate competitions.

“I hope the consultant can help me with a specific plan after my suitable career is determined. And I also want to know whether I really need a postgraduate degree through consultation,” he added. Currently, he has not decided whether he would take the postgraduate entrance examination again.

Li Wei (pseudonym) is junior student at a university in Dalian, studying ship engineering. He was supposed to do internships in shipyards during the first semester of his third year. However, both the area where Li’s school is located and his hometown were hit by waves of COVID-19 during that period. He had no choice but to stay at home and take online classes for a whole year, loosing the offline internship opportunity.

“I don’t have or understand true work experience is for my major,” Li Wei said. Without the internship opportunities, he is afraid of putting effort in the wrong path and going further away.

During the epidemic, online classes, staying at home and health check-ins became the norm for him. “It is difficult to freely enter and leave the campus, let alone offline internships,” Li said helplessly.

Not only is it impossible for him to participate in professional internships, but ordinary internship opportunities are also scarce. “The first question that hiring companies ask me during interviews is whether I can work offline,” Li said, who has sent out tons of resumes but has received little response. “My cousin had many internship opportunities when she was in college and experienced almost all the industries she was interested in. So, when she graduated from college, she had already determined her career path.”

Plagued in choice anxiety, he is now hoping that career planning counseling can provide him the right answer.

Students who are graduating talk with job recruiters at a career fair in Dongguan, Guangdong province, on July 11, 2020. [Photo by ZHENG ZHIBO/FOR CHINA DAILY]

More students choose off-campus consultants

Li Wei and Zhang Yuan both studied in universities that offer courses in career planning counseling. “Perhaps because we attend the ‘second batches’ of these universities, the content is somewhat perfunctory and of limited use,” Zhang said, adding that the teachers only teach “some principles,” while he needs personalized counseling services.

“My classmates who went for counseling said it wasn’t very effective,” Li said, indicating that he does not trust the quality of school psychological counselors. “Counselors outside the school have higher prices, which should mean they are more dedicated and serious.” In Li’s view, the current “employment anxiety” needs to be cleared immediately, otherwise, he won’t be able to “find the motivation to do other things.”

In the end, through a certain psychological counseling platform, Li made an appointment with a nationally licensed second-level psychological counselor who is skilled in career counseling. The fee is 500 yuan per meeting, and Li expects to have three consultations.

Unlike the psychological counseling sought by Li, Zhang Yuan said that the counseling he chose was career planning counseling. In Zhang’s view, career planning counseling services can not only help counselors form a clear, integrated, and appropriate self-concept and find the direction of their career, but can also help them integrate industry information, clarify their professional skills,and even make key career decisions. These are services that school psychological counselors cannot provide.

Zhang has his own criteria for screening career planning consultants. “The first step is to see if the counseling process they arrange for me is professional; the second is to see their service attitude especially if I still have doubts about certain issues, I want to see if they will provide ‘after-sales service’; the third is to see if the advice they provide for me is based on evidence and is the result of their investigation and data analysis,” he said.

For Zhang, when comparing using these three points, whether the consultant has a professional license or industry qualification is not that most important. “I think the services provided by consultants must be differentiated, and certification cannot measure the consultant’s level of expertise.”

But some people also choose to seek counseling on campus. In May 2022, Qi Ze, a graduate of a Beijing university, was struggling to choose between a high-paying but less enjoyable job at an internet giant and a lower-paying but “dream” job at an advertising company.

She chose to seek help from the school’s psychological counselor and, after five times of consecutive career planning counseling, Qi truly understood her own job requirements and her working abilities.

“During the counseling process, the counselor gradually guided me to truly find my interests, hobbies and career needs by asking questions,” Qi recalled. In the end, she chose the advertising company. “The advice given by the counselor was that career choices should be viewed from a long-term perspective” she said.

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