Chapter 4:

How to choose

How to make your next decision

If you’ve been working through our guide, you’ll already have seen what we say about what to look for in a job, what to prioritize at different stages of your career and some ideas for promising paths. Now how can you tie all this together and make your next career decision?

In a nutshell

To make the best possible career decision, go through the following steps:

  1. Focus mainly on your next decision, not the long-term.
  2. Write out your most important priorities for the decision.
  3. Brainstorm extra options. Most people consider too few.
  4. Rank your options.
  5. Write out your key uncertainties.
  6. Go and investigate your key uncertainties. Many people try to figure out their career from the armchair, when often it would be better to go and speak to people or try things.
  7. Do your final ranking. Assess your options based on your priorities, and ask yourself why you might be wrong. Don’t just go with your gut.
  8. Make your best guess.

Introduction

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 instinct”.

After surveying the literature on the science of decision making, and coaching hundreds of people, this is the process we recommend:

1. Focus on your next decision

Too many people come to us asking “what’s the right career for me?” as if it’s a single decision. But this isn’t going to work – your industry may not even exist in 40 years time! Indeed, if you’re near the start of your career, trying to decide everything right now could even be harmful, since it’ll narrow your focus.

Rather, the question to ask yourself is “what’s the next decision I need to make?”, and once you know this, just focus on making a good decision. This will make the process a lot easier. More importantly, a series of good decisions, with an eye on where you’d like to end up (your vision), will mean you build a good career over time.

2. Write out your most important priorities

Once you’re clear about the next decision you need to make, write out the three to six 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 six 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?
  • 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 top careers list 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…
  • Open doors – Often your best options are the unique opportunities that happen to be available due to your connections.
  • 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.

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?

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.

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)? Is there a way you can test out an option through shadowing, volunteering or trial work? Test your reasoning with other people – this can help you reduce bias.

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 gut judgement: there’s evidence that when you’re making a complex decision, the best process is to consider all the facts, then let your unconscious mind process them and make the final decision.

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.

8. Make your best guess

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.

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