How to choose a career

I need to make a career decision. What should I do?

Maybe you’ve got a couple of options on the table and need to pick one, or maybe you’re still figuring out where to apply in the first place.

We know career decisions can be difficult: there’s so many options and so much information. To make matters worse, there are plenty of biases which reduce our ability decide rationally.

So how can you make the best possible decision given the information available? You can do better than just “going with your gut”.

After surveying the literature on the science of decision making,1 and coaching hundreds of people, this is the process we recommend. You can work through the article below, or use our interactive tool.


1. Focus on your next decision

Make sure you have a clear idea of exactly what decision you want to make. Are you choosing where to apply, between two specific offers, what medium-term options to focus on, or something else? When do you need to decide by? Being specific about the decision often makes it much easier.

Also note that this process is geared towards choosing between a a list of specific options. If you want to do big picture career planning, see our career plan page.


2. Write out your most important priorities

Once you’re clear about the next decision you need to make, write out your 4-7 most important priorities for the next step. Is it most important you improve your maths skills, live in Beijing, or work in global health? The factors you list will depend on your situation.

People usually focus on too narrow a set of goals. Writing out your list of factors will help to make sure that you don’t miss something important, but keep your list below about seven so that you don’t become unfocused.

Here are some factors from our framework which may be worth including in your list:

  • Impact – will this role make a difference?
  • Career capital – will this step help me to develop useful skills, connections and credentials that will (i) keep my options open (ii) help me get towards my vision?
  • Exploration value – will this step help me learn about the options available to me in the future?
  • Personal fit – what’s my chance of excelling at this job?
  • Job satisfaction – will I enjoy this job, and will it fit in with the rest of my life?

If you’re early in your career, we recommend focusing more on exploration value and career capital, whereas later on, focus more on impact. Career capital is where you factor in longer term plans – you’ll want to make sure that your next step gets you closer to your vision.

See a list of all the factors in our framework and a worksheet here.


3. Brainstorm options

People have a tendency to consider too few options, so take some time to put some new options on the table.

Here’s some ways to come up with new ideas. When brainstorming, don’t worry too much about whether the new options seem good or bad, we’ll assess that later.

  • Top careers – Check out our career quiz to make sure you haven’t missed anything especially promising that might be a good fit.
  • Ideal world – What would you do if money were no object? What is your dream job?
  • Ask your friends – Your friends may well know of jobs that would suit you, so it is worth asking around. This might also help you to identify…
  • Priorities – For each of the goals you listed in the previous step, what option might be especially helpful for fulfilling that priority?
  • Combinations – are there any ways your top options could be combined to get the best of both worlds? If so, list that as a separate option.
  • Elimination – if you couldn’t do your top three options, what would you do instead?


4. Rank your options

Now you’ve got your options on the table, put them in a rough order according to how well they satisfy the factors you wrote down at step two. Don’t worry too much about accuracy – we just want to get a rough idea at this stage to make it easier to do the next couple of steps.


5. List your key uncertainties

What are the most important pieces of information you could find out that might change you top ranked option? How could you disprove that it’s the best option?

Some of the most common questions are things like:

  • Would I enjoy this job?
  • Could I get this job?
  • Could I succeed in this job?

Or maybe your questions relate to impact:

  • How pressing is this cause?
  • How much influence would I really have?

Either way, try to focus on the most important areas where you’re most uncertain, being as specific as possible.


6. Go and investigate

Now go out and try to find the answers to these key questions. Often a little bit of work will yield a lot of useful information. Is there someone you could talk to? Is there something you could read? See our list of resources and career profiles. Is there a way you can test out an option through shadowing, volunteering or trial work? Trying things out is the most reliable way to work out what you enjoy and what you’re good at.

If you’re uncertain about what kinds of jobs you could get, it might well be worth just applying to lots of them and seeing what sort of response you get.

Not every decision in life deserves serious research, but career decisions do. Rather than speculating and getting wrapped up in your thoughts, use that time to find out about your key uncertainties.


7. Do your final assessment

When you’ve finished investigating, it’s time to make a decision.

Take your top two to five options, and score them from one to ten based on each of the factors from the second step. Explicitly writing out your priorities and assessing your options with reference to them should help you avoid getting misled by irrelevant factors. It also ensures that you’ve thought through each aspect of the decision. For each factor, ask yourself why you might be wrong – this is one of the most useful tips to reduce bias.

Now take a break, then rank your options. This isn’t a mathematical process, but an informed judgement call.

However, let’s also add together the scores for each option, and rank your options based on the scores. Look for differences between this ranking and your gut judgment. What’s causing the disagreement? Which method do you think is more trustworthy in this case?

If you want to go all out, and be as confident as possible you’ve made the right call, we’ve made a checklist of additional decision making techniques. Some other quick tips:

  • Attain distance by imagining what you’d advise a friend to do.
  • How do you expect to feel about this decision in 10 minutes, 10 months from now and 10 years from now?
  • Upside/downside analysis – what’s a realistic best case scenario, what’s a realistic worst case scenario, and how long will it take you to find out?
  • Premortem – Imagine that it’s two years in the future and this option was a complete failure. Why would this be the case? What could you have done differently?
  • Preparty – Imagine it’s two years in the future, and this option was way better than you expected. Why?

If you want to go more hardcore with predicting your chances of success in a field, here’s a guide.


8. Make your best guess, and then prepare to adapt

Once you’ve fully considered your priorities, your options and their pros and cons, it’s time to choose. If you’re lucky, one of your options will be clearly better than the others. Otherwise, the decision will be tough. Don’t be too hard on yourself: the aim is to make the best choice you can given the evidence available. If you’ve been through the process above then you have put yourself in the best possible situation to make your decision.

Finally, don’t forget, you’re probably only committing for the next few years at most. Building a career is a step-by-step process, not a one-off decision.

  1. Schedule in a time to review your career in six months or a year. We made a handy career review tool to make that easy.
  2. Set check-in points. Make a list of signs that would tell you you’re on the wrong path, and commit to reassessing if those occur. For example, publishing lots of papers in top journals is key to success in academic careers, so you could commit to reassessing the academic path if you don’t publish at least one paper in a top journal before the end of your PhD.

Case study: Jess

“80,000 Hours has nothing short of revolutionised the way I think about my career.”

Read Jess's story

Jess portrait photo

Notes and references

  1. Some of the sources we drew upon include the following, as well as those listed above:

    Ariely, Dan. Predictably irrational. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

    Arkes, Hal R., and Catherine Blumer. "The psychology of sunk cost." Organizational behavior and human decision processes 35.1 (1985): 124-140.

    Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. Random House, 2013.

    Hubbard, Douglas W. "How to measure anything." Finding the Value of "Intangibles" in Business (2007).

    Keeney, Ralph L., and Ralph L. Keeney. Value-focused thinking: A path to creative decisionmaking. Harvard University Press, 2009.

    Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011.

    Larrick, Richard P. "Broaden the decision frame to make effective decisions." Handbook of principles of organizational behavior (2009): 461-480.

    Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. "Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases." Science 185.4157 (1974): 1124-1131.