This page contains a step-by-step process to help you tie together all our other content and make your next career choice.
The standard approach
Many people think of choosing a career as a single decision, to be picked using a process that works something like this:1
- Reflect on your interests, personality, passions and preferences.
- Sift through all the career paths, looking for the one that’s the best match.
- Once you find the right match, pursue it no matter what, and you should end up successful and satisfied.
There are many problems with this approach. It’s difficult to work out where we’ll perform best just by thinking about it. Moreover, research shows that matching your career to your personality and interests isn’t a particularly good predictor of career success. And your interests, passions and skills will change more than you think – there is no single “perfect match” out there – and you can’t figure out what you’re going to do with your life in your twenties.
Our approach in outline
What do we suggest instead? We’ve surveyed the literature on the best practices in decision making,2 and tested our process through coaching hundreds of people. Based on this, we suggest the following.
Rather than trying to decide on your entire career, mainly focus on your next step but be guided by a broad vision of where you’d like to go in the next two to ten years. We think people usually worry too much about trying to figure out what they’ll do long-term, especially at the start of their career. Detailed long-term plans usually aren’t helpful, and might even be harmful because they make you less flexible. But that doesn’t mean you should have no plan at all. A broad idea of where you are going helps you to spot opportunities and stay motivated.
In terms of choosing your next step, the best way to do this is by working through the following steps and answering the associated questions. This process will help you to focus on the most important aspects of the decision and to avoid common decision-making errors.
1. Clarify the decision:
What precisely do you need to decide at this stage? Are you picking which companies to apply to before graduating, or are you choosing between job offers from two charities?
3. Brainstorm options:
What are all the options open to you at your next step? Which options might you have forgotten? Check our top careers and top strategies pages to make sure you haven’t missed any ideas.
4. Narrow down:
Which options best satisfy your goals? As much as possible, test out each path and actively try to reduce your key uncertainties, rather than just think about it. Then score each option from one to ten on how well it satisfies each goal. We provide a worksheet here.
5. Make your best guess:
After you’ve done your best to consider all the options and reduce your uncertainties; take the best option open to you.
6. Try again:
Be prepared to revise your plan in the next couple of years once you’ve learned more.
We now explain each step in more depth.
Our full step-by-step process
1. Define the decision
Set out the next one or two career decisions you want to make, setting out what needs to be decided now and what can be left until you have more information.
How to do it
Try to make your statement of the decision as precise as possible. When do you need to make the decision? Are you choosing what jobs to apply for, or what offers to take? Can you separate this decision out from other decisions you need to make?
Some examples of clearly defined decisions are: “Which organisations should I apply to within three months?”, “should I change my major next semester?”, and “should I accept an offer at Microsoft or Google?”
Why is it important?
If you are vague about what needs to be decided, it makes it harder to define your criteria and come up with options.
2. Define your goals
Set out the two to six most important priorities for this decision. For instance, you might want to build skills, live in a certain city or work on a certain cause.
How to do it?
Our framework provides a starting point. If you’re aiming to make a difference, look for the option that has the best combination of the following factors:
- Role impact – to what extent would this option allow you to make a difference immediately?
- Career capital – to what extent would this option enable you to build skills, connections and credentials which will allow you to keep your options open and have a big impact in the future?
- Personal fit – to what extent would you excel and be satisfied in this role?
- Exploration value – to what extent would this option help you to learn about your options so you can make better decisions in the future?
Generally, it is best to focus on exploration value at the start of your career, then career capital and finally role impact. Personal fit is important throughout. See more detail on questions you can use to assess each factor here.
You may also want to add in important personal priorities, such as living in a certain city or maintaining a good work-life balance. See our research on what matters for job satisfaction to get some ideas.
Finally, you will want to assess these factors, especially career capital, in the context of your medium-term career vision. For instance, if you want to found a non-profit within international development in the medium-term, then it will be more important to get experience in a developing country, undertake a Masters course and build up project management skills.
You can see more advice on how to plan for the future on our career plan page. It’s well worth spending some time reflecting on where you’d like to be longer-term, though if you are at the start of your career, it is also reasonable to spend a couple of years just exploring your options and building skills without much idea of where they might take you. Generally, the later you are in your career, the more important it becomes to have a plan.
Why is this important?
Setting out your goals can you help you to spot new options. It can also help you to avoid the common mistake of focussing on only one or two factors when there are many issues to consider. Overall, structuring your assessment is likely to lead you to make better career decisions.
3. Generate options
Set out all the options you could take as your next step.
How to do it
Start by listing all the options you already know, then use the following frameworks to discover new options and make sure that you haven’t missed any out.
- Top careers – Check out our top careers list to make sure you haven’t missed any options which we have found to be especially promising.
- 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…
- Open doors – Often your best options are the unique opportunities that happen to be available [due to your connections] (/2013/05/how-important-is-networking-for-career-success/). It is worth asking yourself what “open doors” you have: there may be a new role available working for an old boss or a friend who has starting a new company.
- Goals – For each of the goals you listed in the previous step, ask yourself whether there is another option you might have missed that would fulfil that goal. For instance, if you are keen to get experience in a particular industry, have you considered work experience and internship schemes?
- Vision – Are there any other options which would be particularly helpful for making your vision into reality? For instance, if you want to work in politics, consider how people tend to break into that field.
Why is it important?
People often tend to consider an overly narrow range of options.. Brainstorming and explicitly writing out all of your options can help you avoid missing a good one.
4. Narrowing down
Reduce your list to the three to six most promising options, put them in ranked order, and learn more about your key uncertainties.
How to do it
Narrowing down can be broken down into a number of stages:
- Make a first cut – Remove any options that are clearly worse than the others. Consider what your “deal breakers” are and remove anything that violates them: for example, would you hate this job or be terrible at it? The goal is to get down to the three to six most promising options for a more detailed assessment.
Consider how in-depth the analysis needs to be – If you won’t be making your final decision for months or years, then it will usually be better to focus on learning more about your options rather than analysing them. Also, when comparing different opportunities, it is often better to apply to all of them and see where you actually get offers before making the assessment.
Rank your options according to your goals – For each option, give it a score from one to ten on how well it fulfills each of your goals from stage (2). Then put your options in rank order, all things considered. You can use our worksheet and list of questions to help you do this. If you’re doing an in-depth analysis, see our assessment checklist. Don’t forget to question your gut, consider why you might be wrong, and speak about it with a friend.
List your key uncertainties – What facts could you learn that would change your ranking? Often, the key uncertainties are “would I enjoy this job?”, “would I be good at this job?”, and “can I get this job?”. They might also relate to impact, for instance “would I actually have any influence in this job?”, and “can I really make progress in this cause?”. Check whether you’re uncertain about what your goals should be, what your options are, or how to evaluate your options.
Try to resolve those uncertainties – For each key uncertainty, work out what you could do to reduce it, then if you have time, go do it! For instance, is there someone you could talk to, an internship you could take or something you could read?
Remake your ranking – Based on what you’ve learned, adjust your ranking of the options.
Why is it important?
This is a methodical assessment of the options available to you. It will help you to focus on the best options, and give you a method for deciding between them. Going through this process gives you the best chance of choosing the right option.
5. Make your best guess
Once you’ve gathered the information you can, it’s time to make a decision about what to do next.
If you’re lucky, then one of your options will be clearly better than the others. Otherwise, the decision probably requires a tough judgement call. Don’t be too hard on yourself: the aim is to make the most rational 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.
6. Prepare to try again
Career planning is a series of small tests which take you broadly in the direction you want to go, while allowing you to learn more along the way. Be aware of your key uncertainties, and be ready to revise your vision and best guess over the coming years as you learn more.
Case study: Jess Whittlestone
After Jess graduated, she knew she wanted to make a difference, but wasn’t sure how. Having studied Mathematics and Philosophy, her skills didn’t seem to fit typical social impact careers. She was considering studying for a PhD in the Philosophy of Mind, but was concerned that it wouldn’t enable her to have much impact.
In order to decide between her options, Jess used the procedure set out on this page:
1) Clarify the decision
Jess was looking to decide on the first step after university. Ultimately, the time limit was the deadline for deciding whether to take up an offer to study for the PhD.
2) State your goals
Since Jess was at the start of her career, she decided career capital that kept her options open was the most important factor, followed by immediate impact.
She thought personal fit and exploration value were less important in this case because she didn’t think her options would differ too much based on them.
3/4) Brainstorm options and narrow down
Jess had already undergone a period of exploration, talking to academics, and trying out internships both in the financial sector and with us at 80,000 Hours. She also talked to over twenty people about the choice and wrote out all the pros and cons of each possibility.
Eventually she narrowed down her options to two: study for the PhD or work at 80,000 Hours.
5) Make your best guess
She decided that although 80,000 Hours won on Immediate Impact, the PhD was better for career capital. She didn’t think there was a large difference based on Personal Fit and the PhD narrowly won on Exploration Value since she had already done an internship at 80,000 Hours. Overall, the PhD came out ahead.
6) Try again
We are happy to report that so far she is happy to stick with her choice, researching techniques to help people become better at changing their minds. She has also started a column on decision-making on cafe.com.
80,000 Hours has nothing short of revolutionised the way I think about my career.
If you’d like to run through this process with one of our career coaches, apply to our coaching process.
See all our research articles on decision tools.
Notes and references
- The number two bestselling guide was a book titled Career Fitness Program. The first step of its three step program was a “personal assessment.”
- The number three bestselling guide was Nicholas Lore’s Pathfinder, which “leads readers though the process of deciding exactly what they want to do for a living and finding a way to make it happen.”
- The book in the number five slot, Career Match, notes in its description that those “whose careers fit their passions and personalities” find them to be a “source of great satisfaction and success.”
1 Author Cal Newport calls this type of process the “the principle of introspection”, which he believes is widespread. He sums up some of the evidence that it’s widespread in this post:
Newport, Cal. Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do. . 2014-10-26. URL:http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/23/beyond-passion-the-science-of-loving-what-you-do/ Accessed: 2014-10-26. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6TcDdxqoV)
If you want to quickly assess how Americans think about the search for the “right” job, spend a few minutes browsing the career guide bestseller list at Amazon.com. For example, when I last checked…
2 The narrow down process (define options, assess value of the options, assess uncertainty, learn more if the value of information is high, act) is a simplified version of the decision making process recommended in “How to Measure Anything”, by Douglas Hubbard, LINK, Summary.
The overall process (define criteria, generate extra options, assess) is based on a simplified version of the process recommended by “Values Focused Thinking” by Ralph Keeney, LINK, Summary. It’s also very similar to the ‘GROW’ process that’s regarded as best practice within coaching (state goals, state the current reality, define options, plan the way forward). For instance, see
“Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach: Lessons from the Coaches’ Coach”; Downey, Myles; Texere Publishing; 3rd Revised edition edition (15 Nov 2003)
“Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose”; Whitmore, John; Nicholas Brealey Publishing; 4th Revised edition edition (14 May 2009)
The idea of having a vague vision and immediate plan, and prioritising testing, is based on our impression of best practice within entrepreneurship, which seems like one of the best analogies. We also reviewed the literature on decision making biases, and incorporated the main techniques we came across for reducing bias.