Career Counselor Amanda Peters Connects people to resources and jobs

Amanda Peters has always been interested in learning about other people and making a positive impact on the world. After studying anthropology in college, her career took some twists and turns before she discovered the world of career counseling. Today, Amanda helps students at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard "find connections between the impact that they want to make, the skills and experiences that they bring from elsewhere from before they came here, and the skills and experiences they want to get or they are getting here at the school."

Amanda at age 3


Where she’s from: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, Master of Education in Counseling
Where she lives now: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Growing up she wanted to be: an archaeologist and professional singer
Now she’s: Career Counselor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard

What were you like growing up?

I grew up here in Cambridge, and was very into social justice, sports, and singing. I was a student at Longy School of Music, after auditioning through my high school. It turned out I was really bad at performing because I got super nervous, but I definitely enjoyed singing. I was on both the soccer and the tennis teams in high school. I wasn’t the best player, but I liked having the team.

A lot of my time was spent being part of different social activist groups in high school. This was during Apartheid in South Africa, and there was a boycott against Coke, because [they were economically supporting the apartheid system]. We tried to get more students involved in the Coke boycott at the high school and in Cambridge. I was also active in a group that looked to get condoms distributed at the high school [to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases].  

I was active in the Peace Club, and also ended up serving as one of two high school students on the Cambridge Peace Commission, which is a committee focused on different kinds of social justice activism for the community. I spent my summers working through a Peace-Commission-organized group to do different projects around the city.

I always did fine academically, but I really connected to things around people. I liked my classes in sociology, and enjoyed English and a class on anthropology that I took in my senior year at the public high school in Cambridge.

I knew that I probably wanted to major in anthropology. It brought together my interests in people and in cultures. I was always interested in other places.

Did you want to focus on that in college?

I knew going into school that I probably wanted to major in anthropology. It brought together my interests in people and in cultures. I was always interested in other places, and my parents have always exposed me to other cultures. Plus with this major you got to write and research and go other places. I wanted a school where I could study abroad pretty easily, and would be able to major in anthropology [eventually I did so, with a focus on South Asia].

Amanda as a senior in college

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do after college?

I was clueless. I didn't know what I wanted to do at all. I only applied to one job before I graduated from college, and I didn't get it.

I worked full time in retail after I graduated for six months, and at the same time I volunteered in an organization that I’d read about that was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I found out about that volunteer opportunity while at my college career center browsing the binders of job listings.

The organization did curriculum development on different cultures in the United States for teachers. I did related research as a volunteer, and then got hired by them to compile a bibliography of the research [both that done by me, and what was completed by other volunteers], and then to work with publications and provide administrative support.

Later, after another job, I moved to San Francisco with my boyfriend, my husband now, and worked at the San Francisco Bay Area Book Council. I was the main organizer on the Job Bank newsletter for publishing jobs. I really loved that work, and I started to think that I might want to be a career counselor.

When we moved back to Boston, I worked in retail. It turned out I loved retail. I applied to a buyer position, and I then became the assistant manager of the store. Then, Whole Foods hired me to use my former experience in books to be a book buyer and to be in their leadership-training program. I really loved that job. I liked selling, and working with customers, being in charge of numbers, and working with the vendors.

I had my son, and decided to go part time. I had to leave the management program and move into a different role. I wanted to move up at Whole Foods, but I could not do so in the way I’d originally planned. I decided I would get Whole Foods to let me interview people [applying for jobs], as I used to do in my old job. Usually just the heads of the store would interview people, and it took a while to convince people that someone who works on the floor and in accounting should be able to interview new applicants, but I eventually got the opportunity.

How did that help you transition to career counseling?

That’s how I built some of the knowledge about hiring that I ended up using to transition into my first career-counseling job. After a lot of networking, I got hired at Jewish Vocational Service to work with refugees and immigrants. It was a lot of education provision and job development, helping people get jobs. In many cases, we’re talking lower-skilled, less-educated refugees and political-asylee clients, plus long-term unemployed immigrants.

I realized that I didn't really know how to help a few of my clients at all. Those were the ones who were more highly educated and had been, in some cases, scientists, and architects, and heads of organizations in their country, but here, they were really, really stuck, and I had no idea how to help them.

What led you to get a Master of Education in counseling?

I started doing informational interviews and talking to people who were in interesting roles. One of the first people I talked to was my [now] current boss. When I was looking for people who were in career counseling, she was recommended to me, and I reached out, and we had a meeting. She talked to me about what people looked for in higher education career counseling roles and the kind of work she did, and it sounded great. I applied to grad school because I knew I couldn't get into higher ed without it, and that’s how I ended up going back to school.

For a career counselor in higher education, it is very hard to get in at all without a master’s degree and experience working in higher education. I knew that if I was going to go back to school, I wanted it to be a general enough program so if I decided I didn't want to do career counseling or I didn't want to work in higher ed down the line, I would still have a master’s degree that was useful. I wanted one with a built-in internship or time to do the internship, because I needed to get that higher ed experience at the same time. I did a general Master of Education in counseling, with a required internship.  

What did your program involve?

I went to school full time. It was a one-year program, so it was just eight classes, and it required a 14 to 19 hours a week internship. After a while, I also worked part time doing some research for a career counselor who was starting her own practice, and doing some writing for her. I was pretty busy. I had my son, and my husband worked evenings.

I’m so glad I did it. I chose an unpaid internship. We could have used the money at the time, but it gave me just what I wanted, which was the opportunity to gain experience in teaching at the same time. I did the internship at Northeastern, where I could be an assistant on a class. I got to learn the basics of career coaching, self-assessment, and so forth while in a general counseling program. It was great, and of course, those people are still my network, because now I’m a career counselor working in higher education.

Did that network help you get your first job out of grad school?

Higher education recruits on an as-needed basis. You can’t guarantee that the openings will be there when you are ready. My practicum supervisor had been at the Boston University School of Management, talking to them about potential internships. They said they were also hiring full-time, and [my supervisor] said, “I know someone who’s looking for a career counseling role.” I interviewed for that role. An interview for these types of jobs usually involves both a short presentation and a standard interview with behavioral questions, and sometimes you have to role-play what you would do in an appointment.

Most career counselors have a multipronged job. You’re meeting with people individually, but you’re also doing presentations, and, in many cases, you’re also doing some employer relations or event planning. At BU School of Management, they needed someone who could teach a course, and luckily, I had done some of that as a grad intern, and they needed someone who could do individual counseling and who was very organized, because there is a lot of organization.

A lot of my career switching has been because of people I’ve met and relationships I’ve built.

Were you able to continue to expand your professional network? Did that lead to other opportunities?

A lot of my career switching has been because of people I’ve met and relationships I’ve built. I’ve been very conscious about doing informational interviews. I spent time talking to people in different kinds of workplaces. I talked to an independent career coach, who I admired because I’d taken a class with him. I talked to other college and university-based coaches. I talked to someone in employer relations and someone in recruiting just to get more of a sense of what I wanted next. I also took some classes before I was at BU at the Harvard Extension School, where I met some great people as well. Through one of my connections, I was recruited to apply at MIT.

A friend of mine had ended up at MIT, and she said, “There’s going to be a great role open. You should apply.” So I applied at MIT, and got the job there. I worked with everyone from freshmen through Ph.D. students and experienced Master’s students. Most people don’t have a lot of non-academic work experience at MIT even if they’re a Ph.D. The students in the Systems Design and Management program had the most experience, and that was the most challenging group to work with, and I really liked that challenge.

I coordinated all of the workshops that we did as a department. Eventually, I wanted to spend more time with students and work more on topics that I actually care about. I’m all about social impact, and I’d always wanted to work at the Harvard Kennedy School, but it’s such a small department, it never occurred to me I would be ready.

One of my former MIT colleagues had come to work here [at the Kennedy School], and she said, we need someone to coach on energy and environment jobs, which I was trying to focus more on. She asked me to apply, and I did, and I got this job. I’m working for the person who first met with me for an informational meeting years before, and with the person who I worked with at MIT. It’s a very small team. I’m glad I switched, and I really like working with the complicated graduate students. 

How do you give people the help that they need when they have such diverse goals and experience?

Every single student here comes from a different background and has different interests. A lot of what we do is really listen to them, what they’re interested in, and help them find ways to find connections between the impact that they want to make, the skills and experiences that they bring from elsewhere from before they came here, and the skills and experiences they want to get or they are getting here at the school. We tie those things together with where they want to end up in the future and help them do research into what some of the areas might be that bring together that impact with a set of skills and expertise. Then, we focus on the job search process for the types of roles they are seeking.

How do you continue to develop professionally?

A few different ways. One, I learn a lot from my students. A lot of the students I work with have close to 10 years of work experience or more. Some of our students have as many as 30 years of work experience. They’re the experts in their topic area, and they tend to know more than I do. Topically, technology policy, urban development and policy, state and local government careers, energy and environment, and criminal justice are where I spend a lot of my time these days. There’s no way I can know as much as my students, but I need to know enough to be able to help them. Those are things that interest me, first of all, which is great. That’s why I took this job.

Two, a lot of my job is building relationships, and I learn a lot from other people around campus. We have a lot of think tanks on campus, centers and programs that do events. I can’t usually, unfortunately, attend all the events that interest me. I can talk to faculty members. I can talk to administrators, and I can read information that is posted on our website and the related news sites.

I’m a member of a professional association, the Career Counselors’ Consortium, and have been a member of that since I started at Jewish Vocational Service. It’s a fantastic networking and informational resource. I also attended a national conference of the National Career Development Association this year, NCDA, and that also was a great way to continue to learn about career counseling.

I try to always learn as much as I can, and that’s how I chose my committees to be involved in outside of work this year. I’m on the advisory committee for the Massachusetts Green Career Conference, which happened in October. Beforehand, we were figuring out ideas, and planning, and potential contacts, and I presented at the Conference on transitioning out of one job into another with a green focus.

What fills your time outside of work?

My family, of course. My son is very involved in skateboarding, so I attend a lot of skateboarding-related events. I also like to volunteer with related organizations, like the Charles River Conservancy, which helped create the skate park that’s now in Cambridge. They also do trash pickup and taking care of the Charles River, so I do that. I still like to exercise and sing and all the things I’ve always been interested in. I also like to take classes on various creativity topics.

talk to people who are doing jobs that interest you. learn as much as you can about their particular career, because then you’ll know which direction you want to go, and you’ll know the other questions you need to ask to meet the people that you need to know to get your next job.

How do you recommend that people explore areas that may be a fit for them as a future career?

I define the focus of everything that I love to do as connecting people to resources and jobs, ideally for greater social impact. Follow what you’re really interested in topically, because you’re going to want to keep reading about things to stay informed [to benefit your clients]. For me, that topic was green/environmental issues. I became involved when I worked at Whole Foods as part of the Green Team. At BU, I worked with a professor while he tried to create a certificate program on green issues. I ended up on his advisory board, even though it had nothing to do with my job, and I’ve stayed connected with him for the past 10 years.

I think continuous learning is important. I like learning from others, but also taking classes. I really love resources. I went back to school at Simmons School of Library Science when I was at BU, but I realized it was going to take me forever, and I could do a lot of what I wanted to do through my current job. I took a class in reference/research, a class in IT, and a class in management, and I’m really glad I did because I learned so much more about finding and unveiling resources, and I use that to this day.

The most important thing is to talk to people who are doing jobs that interest you and ask them for information, advice, and referrals to other people. Don't ask them for a job, but get known, and get to know them, and learn as much as you can about their particular career, because then you’ll know which direction you want to go, and you’ll know the other questions you need to ask to meet the people that you need to know to get your next job.

How does your life now compare to what you thought it might be when you were growing up?

I don’t think I really thought ahead enough to predict where I’d be now, because I was pretty sure I’d be an archaeologist who wrote books on the side and who sang professionally. [My current path is] different, but where it’s really connected is the anthropology part, because I think the study of people is my overall focus and getting to know people [is very important to me]. I always have loved learning new things and meeting with people and talking to people, and I discovered that I liked to perform. It’s just that I like to do it in a different way. I like to present. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.