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How to be an Agony Aunt (or Uncle)

August 10th, 2010

Dr Petra

agony aunt mug

I’ve been working as an ‘Agony Aunt’ (advice giver) in print, online and in broadcast media for the past eight years. I’ve written advice columns for magazines like Grazia, Beauty Zambia and Men’s Health; for websites like mykindaplace and mansized; and presented on radio programmes on national and regional stations in the UK and worldwide. I’ve also advised broadcasting organisations internationally on how to provide quality health advice to their audience. I currently answer reader problems in a weekly column for More! Magazine and answer questions at NHS Choices Talk. Before and during my time as an Agony Aunt I’ve researched the concept of media advice giving and the role of advisors. [Details of how I became an Agony Aunt plus list of related publications can be found at the end of this post].

Because of this work I’m frequently contacted by people who want to know how to become an Agony Aunt. In fact over recent months the number of requests for information about how to do this job has increased – it seems people wanting some extra income during the recession see it as a means to make a bit of extra cash.

So for all of you wanting to know about how to become an Agony Aunt/media advisor here’s the answers to the questions I’ve been asked. If anything isn’t clear do please let me know.

How can I get a job as an Agony Aunt?

This is the number one question I’m asked. There are three general routes in:
Journalist route – either through being on staff at a magazine where you’re required to answer problems, or through making a career as a columnist who answers people’s problems (such as Irma Kurtz or Deirdre Sanders). You may also be an established writer who crosses over into advice giving.
Celebrity route – in recent years celebrities such as Vanessa Feltz, Abbie Titmus, Jodie Marsh, Jordan (aka Katie Price) and Jeremy Kyle have fronted advice columns, some already have a link with advice giving in other media (radio or television) and extend this to print media (and vice versa). Others are offered a column on the basis of being well known.
Practitioner route
– psychologists, medics, and therapists who already have a practice in teaching, research or healthcare are picked to write columns based on the skills they have in their working lives. They may already have had some experience working in other areas of media.

What qualifications do you need?

It varies. Journalists have a background within media practice; some have undertaken specific training as a journalist. However there is no accredited course for being an advice giver and quite often the role of answering questions is given to reasonably junior staff. Some journalists have a team of people to help them answer the questions they get (on bigger publications) which can be as involved as actually finding answers to problems or stuffing envelopes to send out pre written standard answers/fact sheets. Celebrity advisors tend to have no formal qualifications for advice giving although there are some who are celebrity counsellors/therapists who have a formal qualification. It is worth noting not all celebrity Agony Aunts write their own columns, in many cases they are paid a retainer to front the column which staffers at the magazine write for them (although many magazines deny this practice is commonplace). Practitioners are often qualified in terms of certification in therapy, counselling, clinical practice (as a medic, psychologist or psychiatrist). However not all media advisors who are professionally qualified provide contemporary advice and some may struggle to give advice outside their area (for example a counsellor asked to give medical advice or vice versa). Usually practitioners who are not media trained are advised to undertake this before applying for a post as an Agony Aunt – it helps with the job but is not essential.

Can men write advice columns?

Yes, they can and do. As with women as advice givers the quality of advice given can vary. And it is more common for women to fulfil the role of Agony Aunts. However there are some excellent male advisors – such as Gary Wood and Cory Silverberg.

How much money can you make?

It can range from absolutely nothing to a three figure sum (in the case of some celebrity advisors). If you’re a journalist already employed to work for a magazine then you won’t be paid any extra for answering questions on the advice column. The exception is if you are a well known columnist working for a publication with a high circulation rate and an established and popular problem page (or similar for television or radio programme with popular advice slot), or if you are a celebrity. Freelancers are usually paid the standard rate for content. External contributors (professionals from health/psychology etc) can be paid per letter – sums can vary from £10 to £100. Usually you only answer a few letters per week, month or fortnight. So if you are lucky you might make between £500 to £1000 per month. Which sounds like a lot but in most cases you make a lot less than this. In fact the general trend among many publications is not to pay at all. Instead people are offered a column as a means of promoting their additional books/products/services. In a nutshell this is not a job to take on if you expect to make a lot of money. A minority of people make a living as an Agony Aunt or Uncle. Most people who do the job don’t make a lot of money. It’s also not a job that’s particularly secure (more on this in a bit).

Will it make you famous?

It varies. A few people have become very well known for being advice columnists, but the majority of advice givers don’t have a particularly high profile. It depends on where you are offering advice (a prime time television show or high circ newspaper would have more impact than a small, independent radio show). It also depends on whether you’re already famous, if you have an agent who can push you into the limelight, or are willing to do this yourself. Even then it’s no guarantee you’ll get famous. And if you’re only in the job for fame you may find this runs counter to your ability to give advice ethically – and may also lead your work to be subject to greater scrutiny by other professionals. So if you want to be famous, make sure you’re also highly skilled. (Unfortunately in the real world of media these two things often don’t go together, but since we’re talking good practice it’s worth aiming high).

What does the job involve?

Depending on where you are giving advice it will involve answering one or more questions in print, online or through broadcast media. In print you’ll usually have a selection of letters sent to you, on websites a similar format applies (unless you’re doing a live chat). Broadcast media can involve live advice giving sessions where callers ask for advice, or pre recorded programmes based on particular themes. A general overview of the role is summed up in this earlier post.

What skills do I need to do the job?

To be a competent advisor you’ll need to be an excellent communicator – either via text or verbally (or both). You’ll need to be aware of a wide range of social and health issues (from eating disorders to self harm, domestic violence to psychosexual problems, and the positive and negative challenges we may address throughout our lifespan). You’ll also need to be able to signpost people to a range of reputable agencies and organisations to help with their problems. Indeed you don’t spend much time telling people what they should do, but you are expected to tell people what their problems may be due to, and offer potential solutions, sources of help and how to access them. You’ll need to be up to date with current social and healthcare trends, which includes any political changes or shifts within the evidence base. You’ll need to undertake regular training (although most media outlets don’t check whether you are doing this) and that training needs to be contemporary and accurate. In most cases you will be provided with no training, supervision or support so you should seek to implement this informally or formally yourself. You will also need time – to familiarise yourself with evidence, to go on training courses, to be updated on current practice and to answer questions. Some questions can be done in a matter of minutes; others could take hours or even days to get right. You’ll need to be able to work to deadlines, be comfortable working in print or broadcast media and if appropriate take on additional campaigning/mentorship/patron roles.

This job won’t suit you if…
You are very judgemental. You will hear a range of problems from people and it is not your job to tell them what you think about them personally (although a minority of publications do use ‘outspoken’ advisors as their particular selling point). It is your job to ensure they deal with whatever their problems are appropriately. In most cases you won’t know whether they’ve acted on your advice, but you have to be able to live with the knowledge they may not listen to you at all. You are probably not the only person they are approaching for advice so all you can do is give accurate information and hope they act on it. You shouldn’t go into the job if you want to cure, fix or save people. Your role is to be a signpost to support services. Certainly you should not be mocking or belittling people who need help, or using advice columns to preach about right and wrong behaviour, or simply telling people what to do without telling them how to do it.

It’s not a job to undertake if you don’t like uncertainty – aside from not knowing what the outcomes of your advice are, or what you’ll be asked, it’s not a job that tends to last. And you can be dropped by the media very quickly and often quite nastily. I’ve experienced losing advice columns by magazines muttering something about restructuring and then you hear nothing more from them, or sometimes they simply drop your name from the masthead and your column from the magazine but don’t even bother to tell you. It’s not unusual for another advisor to be brought in when a new editor/producer takes over, or if the publication wants a particular agenda promoted, or if a celebrity is considered a better bet to generate sales. In short you can, and may often be, replaced. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how long you have worked somewhere. You will rarely be thanked by the media outlet you work for and will probably never hear thank yous from those you’re offering advice to. If you want a job that makes you feel indispensable it’s not going to give you this buzz. Finally you shouldn’t take the job on if you’re not willing to train and retrain, listen to feedback, and put yourself out of the picture. A good advisor does not use their column to talk about their own experience and nor should they talk about ideas that aren’t evidence based. Sadly we know this happens a lot, but again we’re discussing what advisors should be aiming for here so again it’s worth aiming high.

Do I get to pick what I answer?

It depends. For some magazines, websites and broadcast formats you get to pick what you answer. In some cases you answer all you are sent. In most cases you don’t have any say on what you are sent and may only see/hear a fraction of the questions people want help with. Media outlets tend to pick problems that fit within their particular agenda – which may be an overall focus on particular issues or tagged to a particular theme of the day/week etc. It is not unusual for letters to be edited so what you answer may not be exactly what appears in print or on air. Sometimes answers are restricted because the questions asked are not clear. If you can’t quite work out what the person is getting at unfortunately those letters tend to be dropped. In most cases media outlets get far more requests for help than they are able to deliver. That knowledge can be distressing for some advisors.

Can I offer specialist advice?

You can. Some advisors stick specifically to psychosexual advice, or healthcare. Others focus on particular age, sexuality or ethnic groups. It can help to be more specialist to ensure you work within your area of expertise and also checks you don’t step outside any professional boundaries. For example I don’t answer medical questions because I’m not a medic. Many questions don’t require any specific expertise but do need a good general awareness of considering problems and possible sources of action/help. Some media outlets have teams of advisors working for them or a variety of advisors with columns so you can pass on letters that fall outside your area of expertise to an appropriately qualified colleague.

Can I set up my own column?

Anyone can be an expert. You can set up your own blog or website offering advice. Some people do this for free, others as part of their therapy service, some charge for the advice they give. Obviously if you are offering advice as part of wider work (as a healthcare provider, therapist etc) then you must ensure any activities within advice giving adhere to current evidence based practice and fall under your codes of conduct and supervision. If you have no particular qualifications you still can offer advice, although it may be specific to your area of knowledge/experience. For example if you’ve been a foster parent to many children you might give tips on childcare. If you’re into bondage you might tell folk how to do this safely. If you’re a sex worker you might want to offer tips on sex and relationships based on your observations on clients. Advice giving doesn’t have to fit the standard ‘problem page’ format, but can focus around questions you answer. Again this approach could get you a reputation and help you get a regular column somewhere, but it’s not guaranteed. Whether or not you intend to charge for your services do remember that you can also be held liable if you give poor advice or information someone claims was harmful. So you need to consider insurance and supervision. Using advice giving to sell products or make money may work but we are becoming more aware of poor practice so those only intending to do this work for profit or scam should be aware they could be chased up.

What does being an advice columnist qualify me to do?

Pretty much what it says on the tin. The job involves offering advice. So you can extend that role into other media formats, and give talks about the work you do. If it’s an extension of your professional work you may also draw upon your advice giving experiences in teaching and training sessions you run. Writing an advice column does not make you medically qualified or give you any qualifications in counselling or therapy. You cannot claim such skills simply from writing a column nor charge for professional services on that basis. If you have been writing an advice column but want to be a therapist or healthcare practitioner you need to retrain in those professions.

How did you get to be an Agony Aunt?

I was fascinated by advice columns when I was a teen and used to read Jackie magazine’s ‘Cathy and Claire’ problem page (mostly under the desk during physics lessons). I used to imagine what advice I’d give if I were writing the column. I mentioned wanting to be an Agony Aunt when at university and was firmly told by my personal tutor such work was very competitive and I should forget about it. And that it was journalism (therefore not academic and ought to be avoided). During my PhD research part of my thesis focused on media advice giving on sex and relationships and I undertook several studies post doctorally assessing media sex coverage and relationships advice in the self help market. From 2000 I began writing to editors when I spotted poor sex and relationships advice in their magazines (I obviously had a lot more spare time then!). And in 2002 two editors (one from Men’s Health and one from the teen site mykindaplace both approached me in the same month and offered me an advice column). From this start I was offered different columns in different online and print publications, leading to offers to host advice shows through broadcast media.

I found the experience fascinating and from researching the media from the outside began more participatory research on the role of being an Agony Aunt and action research involving readers on issues such as self harm (for teen girls) and men’s sexual problems (with adult male readers). I have never applied for an advice giving role but have been head hunted for them. Not all have ended up in work. Quite often what I’m asked to do is judgemental or unethical or will be heavily edited to fit a ‘lite’ format – in which case I refuse. I’ve felt every job I’ve had, whether it’s only lasted a few weeks to several years has been a privilege. Not for the cachet of being in media, but for the trust expected of me by those who chose to share their worries and problems. I am currently working to have the job accepted as a recognised part of social and health care, a suitable area for in depth academic investigation, and an occupation with definite standards of good practice.

Where are Agony Aunt jobs advertised?

Usually via invitation or through journalism networks. Sometimes offers are sent out to agencies to find suitable candidates. Some people have got the role through having an agent who has approached publishers/broadcasters, while others have found a role after writing to editors/producers. Given the media is currently struggling financially there are very few openings for paid roles for advice givers and those that do become available tend to go to established experts, celebrities or existing staff.

That’s not to say you can’t consider the job, and you may find you do it informally helping out friends and colleagues. Remember the tradition of advice giving in media is really only an extension of the way real life communities operate – with particularly informed folk offering their ideas and support to others.

The Sexademic recently wrote an excellent related post on how to be a sex educator – which may also be useful if you’re considering an advisory career.

Related publications from my ‘Adventures of an Evidence Based Agony Aunt’ Project
‘A different picture of Africa’ A review of advice giving in the magazine Beauty Zambia
Example answers from Beauty Zambia (apologies the text is hard to read, but should give an idea about questions and replies) here and here.

‘I cut because it helps’ narratives of self injury in teenage girls co-written with Annie Auerbach this chapter uses discussions from young women talking about deliberate self harm generated within media advice giving formats. This became an online community initiative to share experiences and recommend good practice for teachers and health providers.

‘Advice for sex advisors: a guide for ‘agony aunts’, relationship therapists and sex educators who want to work with the media’
is a opinion piece published in the journal Sex Education.

Beware the sexperts
is an opinion piece I wrote for the Guardian based on the problem of using celebrity advisors to front columns.

The value of agony aunts
I wrote this when elements of the right wing media and legal changes suggested Agony Aunts could be censured for offering information to young people.

Whatever happened to Cathy and Claire? Sex advice and the role of the agony aunt this book chapter reflects on my time as an advisor working through problem pages aimed at young women and men and how the questions they ask have changed over time. It also highlights how we can use advice giving in the media to inform sex and relationships education.

‘Enough with tips and advice and thangs’ The experience of a critically reflexive, evidence-based Agony Aunt
in Feminist Media Studies. Again this paper draws upon my experiences and critically reflects on the sexualisation of the female advice giver and the poor quality of advice offered on sex topics.

Better Dicks Through Drugs. Although this is more about medicalisation of male sexual problems, this piece draws upon questions asked by men to a magazine problem page. An additional analysis of one year’s worth of male reader questions is available on request.

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