how to know if you’re getting good career advice

If you’re looking for advice on your job search and your career, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of advice out there. The problem is that some of it is pretty terrible. In fact, some career advice is so bad that it can actually harm your career! Complicating matters even more, some of this bad advice comes from sources who you might assume you can trust, like parents, friends and even campus career centers.

But there are ways to help figure out whether you’re getting good advice or not. Here are five questions to ask yourself before deciding how much weight to give any particular piece of input.

What kind of professional experience does the person have? Too often, people give advice freely on topics they don’t have first-hand insight on – and with something as high-stakes as job searching and managing your career, bad advice can do real damage. If you’re seeking advice on resumes or interviewing, for example, you want to hear from people who have significant experience hiring, not your friend who has never hired anyone. And you want that experience to be fairly recent, because conventions change over time. Speaking of which …

Does the person acknowledge that things have changed in recent years? If your source is adamant that you should use the tactics that worked for them 20 years ago – or, in some cases, even just 10 years ago – carefully see if they acknowledge things are different now. A classic example of this is the old advice to show initiative by showing up at a company in person and asking for a job, or to show persistence and enthusiasm by calling to try to schedule an interview. That may have worked a couple of decades ago, but now it annoys employers and will make you seem out of touch. If your advice source is giving you guidance that seems to revolve around “gumption” as a strategy, be very, very wary.

Has the person successfully managed his or her own career? You probably shouldn’t take career advice from someone who has a string of failed businesses or firing after firing (unless the advice is about what not to do). Similarly, be wary of advice coming from someone who always seems to be miserable at work or hasn’t been able to get the outcomes they want in their own career.

Does the person have an agenda that might impact their advice? For example, it’s common for parents to prioritize safety and risk management above all else when it comes to their kids. As a result, they might caution you against trying to negotiate for more money or more vacation time when you get a job offer because they’re afraid of you sticking your neck out, or they might urge you to stick to a traditional career path rather than taking on the risks of a career as a freelancer. The opposite of that can also happen, such as with parents who believe so strongly in your worth that they’re indignant that you’re not getting higher pay and the corner office when you’re just a couple of years out of school, and who advise you to demand more than what will be considered reasonable.

It’s not only parents who can have their own agenda. Your spouse has a vested interest in your career, and his or her advice might reflect that. And keep in mind that anyone who’s trying to sell you a career-related product, like resume-writing services or interviewing coaching, also has an agenda that might not be strictly aligned with your interests.

Can the person explain the reasons behind the advice? When it comes to career advice, be suspicious of people who just issue dictates like “gaps on your resume are always bad” or “never turn down work” without being able to explain the reasons why. There are lots of people who give advice simply by repeating maxims they’ve heard from others or read in (often outdated) career guides. You want to take advice from people who can explain the reasons for the advice, and who are able to apply it in a nuanced way to your particular situation. If they can’t modify it for your circumstances or explain their reasoning in a way that makes sense to you, be skeptical.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. My 2 Cents

    Your first piece of advice is spot on. My organization has many interns each year and I give them resume help before they leave. They are always frustrated because they never know who to trust about getting advice and I say “When someone is giving you resume advice, always ask yourself “Does this person hire people?” If not, then be very careful about the advice they give.”

    1. CC

      Also, “does this person hire people *in the industry I’m looking in*?”

      My dad was a store manager for many years, and did hire people. But… office work is different from retail work is different from food service is different from trades. His advice was not suitable for my situation.

  2. AMG

    And even with this, there will be some one-offs. Get advice from a few different reliable sources and make sure you have some matching approaches.

  3. AnotherHRPro

    It seems like anyone who has ever been hired feels like that they have good advice that should be followed. After all, they figure, if it worked for me it will work for you. This is so very untrue. In addition to Alison’s advice, consider what their field and industry they have experience with. Norms can be different for different fields. And frankly, a person never knows exactly why they got hired. The truth is they may have been hired in spite of (instead of because) of their “hiring tricks”.

    1. Bob

      “And frankly, a person never knows exactly why they got hired.”

      We just hired an intern for the summer. He might be shocked to know that we only got 3 candidates (surprising for a Fortune 500 company), the first one blew us off when we tried to schedule the interview and the second one was so clueless that we ended the interview early. So he was literally the only competent candidate that even applied. he probably thinks he nailed the interview. He did an OK interview (for someone who has literally never interviewed before) but in reality, the job was his or it would have been eliminated.

      1. Christopher Tracy

        Ha! I’m pretty sure something like that is how I got hired into the training program I was in almost three years ago at my current company. My interview with the hiring manager and her panel was dreadful. I remember thinking when I got called back for a second interview (well, technically a third and fourth interview since I sat through two panels the first time) with the hiring manager’s boss and that boss’s boss (the AVP and SVP respectively), “Man – the rest of the people who interviewed must have suck or there were only, like, two other people who applied.”

      2. Lizketeer

        I’ve never asked, but I’m pretty sure that’s how I got into my role. It was an internship and it led to a full-time position so all worked out in the end, but I’m still convinced that I had to be one of a very small number who applied based on the timing of everything

    2. Brett

      I was once picked for a year long research position (one of 5 out of 5,000) because one of the program directors liked that I used an extended metaphor in my statement of physical fitness for the position. Not my research portfolio, essays, application, recommendations, interviews… just based on how I wrote my 2 paragraph statement of physical fitness.
      Pretty sure, “Use an extended metaphor in your statement of physical fitness” would never get anyone hired or even picked for the same program :)

    3. Triangle Pose

      Such a good point! I try really hard not to give advice that is purely from my own limited personal experience because of this. For example, I got this role recently without a cover letter, but I would NEVER advise someone not to write one. I’ve been pointing job seekers here to AskaManager when they ask about cover letters.

  4. Jean

    – Has the person successfully managed his or her own career?
    – Can the person explain the reasons behind the advice?

    Great points because they dispel the mystery surrounding career management and job searches. Much of the bad career advice perpetuates the myth that getting hired is like being chosen by the fairy-tale prince: the only thing you can do to affect the outcome is repeat, “Please, please choose me!” inside your head.Sure, there’s an element of chance and a lot of the process is beyond your control, but that doesn’t mean that you have to abandon all of the other reasonable actions you would take before reaching a decision. You still get to size up the situation, think about what you want as well as what the hiring manager is seeking, ask questions, and consider the credibility of the information you find along the way.

    I wish I had heard these two points years ago when I was new to the work world and painfully lacking in self-confidence. Even if I was too intimidated to ask anyone to explain their suggestion (always stated _loudly_) to “just walk in their office and stand there until they hire you” I could have noticed whether the advice-giver was, say, a tranquil, intellectually curious professor with tenure or an unhappy striver who had held umpteen jobs in umpteen years (and each job change was always the other guy’s fault).

  5. hbc

    I don’t trust advice (career or otherwise) from people who have a one-size-fits-all approach. If they’re not using qualifiers like “in my industry” or “my experience is” or even “at all nine of my past employers”, then they’re not aware of the limitations of their own knowledge.

  6. Snazzy Hat

    Thank you thank you thank you! A few days ago I got in contact with a former teacher — I took her class 14 years ago — who knows a volunteer at a place where I’ve applied. She asked me to send my resume so she could forward it to the friend. She insists my two-page resume is way too long and can’t be more than a page, and my one-page cover letter is too long and should have a standard letter format and requires a name instead of “Dear Hiring Manager”, and I shouldn’t put a professional summary on my resume (especially one that indicates — in different words — I work very well alone), and I need to go to a career center…

    While I admit my resume might not be ideal, I don’t know how to shorten it without completely eliminating important things I did. No, my warehouse work has nothing to do with the office jobs I’m applying to, but the fact that I was training someone after I worked there only three months tells something about how well I picked up the tasks. Sure, this industry is different from the other offices I’ve worked in, but I did more at Teapots Of Chocolate than this job description requires.

    Man, I am trying really hard to deal with my lack of success. Bah.

  7. AFT123

    Anyone see that “advice” on LinkedIn lately about trying to stand out and be unique/outrageous? The example I”m thinking of was of a person who made their resume into a giant candy bar looking thing, with cheeky messaging on the wrapper about their qualifications. I was so sad to see how many people commented about how genius it was was and how everyone should have that kind of creativity and gumption. I knew Alison would give that one a hard eye-roll, as did I.

    1. really

      This sounds so much like a project my son did in fourth grade for a book report only it was a cereal box.

  8. Mickey Q

    This also applies to people wanting to give advice to new parents. How long has it been since they raised kids? How did their kids turn out? Do they even have kids? Etc.

        1. TychaBrahe

          When one of my cats was dying of FIP, my vet mentioned casually that one of his clients had used a marijuana tea to encourage her cat to eat when it was in the same position. This was twenty-five years ago, and I had no idea where I would have gotten marijuana at the time.

          Still, that would make for some awesome advice to new parents.

    1. Sarahnova

      And even then, they would do well to confine their advice merely to “this worked with MY kid”.

  9. Christopher Tracy

    The only person in my real life that I take career advice from is my former manager, the women who hired me into the training program I mentioned above. She’s only been at our company for 10 years and is already an AVP in our corporate office, and she hires every six or so months for her training program and has been doing this for almost the entire length of her tenure – she knows a thing or two about job searching, resumes, interviews, etc. In fact, she helped look over my resume when I started job searching last year and gave me some excellent scripts in what to say during interviews. I got two job offers because of her (and the advice I read here), so I know that if I ever do decide to leave our company altogether, she’ll be a very valuable sounding board.

  10. hayling

    “If your advice source is giving you guidance that seems to revolve around “gumption” as a strategy, be very, very wary.” Love this.

  11. Phyllis B

    I laughed at the “if any of the advice mentions showing gumption, be very wary. When I was starting my career, (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) that’s the kind of advice we were given. When my first career ended, that’s when the gimmicks were ruling. I never went either of those routes. Also, the “mission statement” was a biggie. That’s not the correct term, but the statement that says something like “I’m looking for a position with responsibilities that will help me grow.” Or some such twattle. Now I have three adult children who are in the career-seeking phase, and I have discovered Ask A Manager. I give advice (when asked) but usually I tell them to check out this site to get their answers because the advice here is so much better worded than anything I could give. In regards to “mission statement” I had one of their friends (who asked me to review his resume) I told him to delete that. He got indignant, and said his grandfather told him to ALWAYS include that. The problem was 1. His grand-father has been dead for years. And 2. He had begun his career like…..60 years ago? H e didn’t listen to me, but luckily my children do.

    1. Wendy Darling

      My dad kept trying to give me job search advice that conflicted with my personal experience and with stuff I read here. My dad last applied for a job in THE MID-SEVENTIES.

      I ignore him.

      1. Sterling Archer

        It’s not just my dad, it’s my ENTIRE FAMILY that gives me bad job search advice. My father’s is equally horrible (he recently suggested driving a school bus, even though I don’t have a CDL, don’t particularly like children who are not related to me, and DESPISE driving, and before that he suggested breeding rabbits… not making that up either), make no mistake about it, but my siblings keep suggesting applying for minimum wage jobs at supermarkets, that will in no way cover any expenses. After saying “No retail, no retail, no retail, no retail, no retail”, sister in law said “why don’t you apply at Wal Mart?”, to which I told her “I said no retail, and the first thing you said was Wal-Mart, so you’re not even listening to me”. The last suggestion they offered up was working for Metro North as a conductor. Not horrible in and of itself, but I wanted no part of working the bizarre hours. And when I said that, they said “So? What have you got to do?”.

        I’m starting to think they aren’t trying to help me at all. But they actually NEED ME to be in a terrible job, because it makes their failures some how lessened if they can point to me and say “at least I’m not Sterling”.

        1. Sterling Archer

          And they’re at it AGAIN!! I heard recently from two of them more “advice”. One was “why don’t you apply at Big Y? (super market chain) My son works at Big Y. You can get that job easy”. When I said that I need more than just weird, unpredictable hours at minimum wage it was met with “So? What have you got to do?”. And more recently I got “Auto-Zone is hiring”.

          What is it with these people and retail?? All they suggest is retail or WORSE. I’m worried that they’ll wear me down and I’ll take one of these horrible retail jobs at low pay, just to silence them.

  12. Don't be scared

    If you receive advice with an element of FEAR, you can safely ignore it. That includes fear of getting fired, fear of losing your reputation, fear of getting yelled at, fear of never finding a job again, fear of being anything else besides a pushover, and so on. For most jobs, you have nothing to fear other than fear itself. And I can promise you don’t have much to fear in one of the world’s best economies, especially if working 80 hours a week for $100k per year doesn’t appeal to you. If this isn’t you, you’re not likely to benefit from fear.

    Fear mostly benefits people with power over others. Many people with power over others (by *complete* coincidence, I’m sure) know how to ignite the flames of fear and know equally well how to fan them. Scared people are prone to bullying. Scared people benefit none other than those who scare them, and certainly not themselves. Bad apples among bosses, parents, teachers, and bad apples in the government would love it if you were scared, but you yourself certainly have nothing to gain.

    People who are scared (like I once was) need to remember their morals one hand and learn to be assertive and TAKE rather than doing nothing but asking nicely on the other. And if this leads to you being fired or leads to a relationship failure once or twice, SO BE IT. I promise, you won’t regret it.

    1. Alanna

      I disagree with this. I think that many people on the scariest part of the economy – people working minimum wage, or in the bottom rung of white collar jobs – have every right to their fear. Being unemployed, broke, and/or poor is legitimately frightening. Blaming individual people for not rising above a system stacked against them isn’t helpful.

      1. Snazzy Hat

        Oh yeah. If you’re in a work environment that makes a clear social distinction between employee levels — and I don’t mean a business hierarchy like dept head, supervisor, manager; I mean young vs old, temp vs full employee, part time vs full time — then fear will crop up in so many places. Will I be rejected from hire because the team doesn’t think I’m worthy to move from temp to full? If I ask a question that shows my ignorance, will my manager fire me because they can just bring on another temp who knows what she’s doing? Am I being treated like a kid due to my youthful looks even though I’m in my 30s? Why don’t I get invited to meetings?

  13. Jill

    I agree with Alanna. Not every work is armed with a solid degree ( or two or three), savings in the bank, the security of a life partner, and an attorney on speed dial. Working two minimum wage jobs that don’t provide benefits or sick days…working in an area with very limited employment options….being so poor that you can’t afford a car and have to rely on mass transit (which can suck in some places)…being overlooked because of age or disability or race…those are all reality.

    When you’re finding yourself, on a weekly basis, having to choose between gassing up the car or paying the electric bill, it’s a little hard to fight the power. Righting social injustice is not even in the same ballpark as identifying bad career advice.

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