Find the full career planning series here.
The most important sections in each article are marked with ★’s.
Goal this week
Now that you have some ideas for longer-term paths, you can assess your strategy for how you’ll get there — that is, what factors and rules of thumb you’ll use to assess what next career steps you should take.
By the end of this article, you will have determined your strategic focus — your rough guide to how to choose among next career steps at this stage in your career — as well as identified any other important strategic priorities to keep in mind.
★Factors for comparing your next career steps
By ‘next career steps’ we have in mind roles or education opportunities (like going to grad school) that you could take for the next few months or few years right in front of you. In other words, we are turning to what your next substantial career phase should be.
What factors should you use to compare your potential next steps?
Here’s a list of which factors typically matter. Below we’ll discuss how important each factor is at different stages of your career.
- Immediate impact potential — How much will the step help you contribute to solving a pressing problem (in expectation)? This depends on how pressing the problem is that it would allow you to address, the effectiveness of the intervention the next step helps you implement, how much leverage it gives you, and your personal fit for the role (also listed below).
- Specialist career capital potential — How much will the step advance you towards your best-guess longer-term paths?
- Transferable career capital potential — What opportunities will the step give you to gain transferable skills, impressive credentials, useful connections or otherwise invest in your self-development, which will put you in a generally better position to contribute to pressing problems? This also helps determine how good your backup options will be. We covered some key elements of transferable career capital in the last article.
- Personal fit — What are your chances of outsized success in the role? Relatedly, will you be sustainably motivated and happy, and does it match your strengths? The better your fit, the greater your expected impact and the career capital you will gain. (If you’re working with a community, also consider fit relative to other community members.)
- Information value — How much will you learn about yourself, the world, and your longer-term options, so as to help you uncover even better longer-term paths than your current top options (or further narrow them down)? The steps with the highest information value often involve trying out options that might be very good but about which you are very uncertain.
- Fit with other personal priorities — Will this next step fit with the priorities you clarified earlier, in Part 1 of this series (e.g. family life)?
We generated these factors by splitting out the framework for the value of a career we introduced in Part 1:
- Short-term impact — given by the immediate impact potential of the potential next step multiplied by your personal fit with it
- Contribution to long-term impact — given by the step’s potential for valuable career capital multiplied by your personal fit for it, and the step’s information value (i.e. the extent to which this next step might inform your future choices)
- Other personal values — any other personal priorities, plus again personal fit, since being skilled at your job is also good from a personal point of view
This means that if we were to turn the above factors into a formula, it would be something like:
★Pick a strategic focus
Which of the factors above should you focus the most on? This depends on your career stage, degree of uncertainty, and which problems you think are most pressing.
One way to boil down what factors to prioritise is to decide which of the following ‘strategic focuses’ is the best fit for you right now:
- Bet on one of your longer-term paths (with a backup plan): If you’ve found a promising longer-term path — whether a way of tackling a pressing problem, or a way of gaining transferable career capital — you consider taking a bet on that path. ‘Taking a bet’ usually means trying to advance as quickly in that path, usually by gaining whatever career capital is more crucial for success in it. Your longer-term paths should be ambitious, so there will be a good chance they don’t work out, which is why it’s important to have a backup plan — which we cover in Part 6 of this series.
- Exploration: If you’re not confident enough yet to take a bet on a particular longer-term path — which is more likely the case if you’re early career — instead plan to try out the most promising longer-term paths to learn more about which is best (in other words, focus on ‘information value’). Aim to try out your options in the right order so that you can try out several. Also consider options that will let you learn more about your worldview, which global problems are most pressing, your strengths, and the world in general.
- Career capital opportunism: If you’re really unsure about your longer-term plan and are early career, aim to find your best next step for transferable career capital, while you continue to research your longer-term paths on the side.
- Impact opportunism: If you’re later in your career and already have a lot of career capital, focus on using it to have an immediate impact (by looking for effective opportunities to use your career capital to solve pressing problems). This strategy can also make sense if you’re early in your career if you’re lucky enough to come across an unusually good opportunity for immediate impact. If so, you can take it and come back to your longer-term plan later.
If you’re in high school or early college, you’ll probably want to focus on exploring, as well as taking any promising career capital opportunities that come your way (often you can do both at once — like by taking an internship).
Before graduate school might be a particularly good opportunity to try something a bit different, because after graduate school it’s fairly easy to return to a traditional path — what we’ve called the ‘graduate reset’.
One common mistake that people who are uncertain about longer-term paths make is to take an option that when they reflect, they’re confident they don’t want in the longer term (e.g. doing an investment banking internship when you don’t want to work in finance). Often these seem like good ways of getting transferrable career capital, but aren’t the best opportunities available.
After exploring several paths, it usually becomes a bit clearer where to focus (though it varies by person). At that point, we’d encourage you to identify a best-guess role to aim towards in the longer term. Ideally, this is a role that might be an excellent fit and would have a big impact if it goes well.
Then your top priority becomes building the career capital that’s most useful in this role (e.g. knowledge of information security, relevant connections, marketing skills), so that you can advance as quickly as possible.
Within your longer-term options, the more uncertain you are about which problems and interventions are the most pressing, the more you’ll want to focus on something that builds transferable career capital rather than specialising to meet a particular need — though it can still be better to specialise if the rewards are great enough.
If you’re uncertain about which roles are best for you (rather than about which global problems are most pressing), then stay in explorer mode instead.
Later career (after age 35–50 depending on the field), you will have hopefully already built some valuable career capital. You can mainly focus on finding great opportunities to have an impact, using the career capital you’ve already built to contribute. For example, maybe you have management experience, and so could advise effective nonprofits (or start one). Or maybe you’re an academic, in which case you could turn your research towards the topics you think are the highest impact, or aim to advise governments on policies to which your research is relevant.
One other factor is how urgent you think it is to work on the most pressing problems. The greater the urgency, the more to focus on immediately having an impact (opportunism) and the less to focus on exploring and career capital.
Keep in mind you will always want to be doing a bit of each strategic focus — always exploring a bit, always keeping an eye out for opportunities that seem especially good — it’s just your emphasis that changes.
It can also make sense to focus on the above strategic focus options at different times — the ages we gave are just rough guides.
Which strategic focus is the best fit for your situation right now? Write it down on your template, along with why you chose it.
Optional further reading:
In this part of the career planning course, we discussed what factors are important for assessing your next career steps, and distilled four options for your strategic focus.
- Which of these strategic focuses seems like the best fit for your situation right now and why
This will help you determine what to do next.
Read next: Determine your best-guess next career step
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