Part 5: Determine your best-guess next career step
Find the full career planning series here.
The most important sections in each article are marked with ★’s.
Table of Contents
- 1 Goal this week
- 2 Two ways to generate ideas for next career steps
- 3 ★Work backward from your longer-term paths
- 4 ★Work forward from your current situation
- 5 Add options by getting creative
- 6 ★Narrow down your next steps and write down key uncertainties
- 7 You have your (provisional) Plan A
- 8 Recap
Goal this week
Now that you’ve clarified your longer-term options and career strategy, you can use them to find the best next career move for you. These will usually be jobs, though they could also be education, side projects, or self-study.
First you’ll generate a long list of promising next career steps. Then we’ll help you narrow down your options into a shortlist. You’ll make your final best-guess decisions in Part 7 of this series.
Two ways to generate ideas for next career steps
Even if you won’t be able to take a next career step for a while (maybe you need to stay in your current job for a while, or are still in school), it’s worth having one to work toward.
It’s also useful to get really concrete at this stage, because specific opportunities often vary so much within a path. For instance, even if career path A is better than path B on average, the best opportunities within B can be much better than many of the opportunities within A. While we’re keen for people to have longer-term plans, it’s often worth spending as much or even more time searching for concrete next steps, even if they don’t neatly fit into your longer-term plans.
The first broad method we want to introduce for coming up with potential next steps is to start with where you want to end up — your longer-term plan — and work backwards. The aim is to work out how to get towards your longer-term vision as efficiently as possible.
The second method is to start with your current situation and skills, and then to work forwards — to look for great opportunities right in front of you.
One nice thing about the second approach is that you can still build a great career over time by taking steps that put you in a generally better position, even if you don’t know how it’s all going to work out. This can be reassuring if you feel very unsure about your longer-term plans.
But we think the ‘working backward’ approach is more often overlooked, and can be very useful if you’ve been able to develop a rough guess at your best options for longer-term plans. So we’ll start there.
★Work backward from your longer-term paths
For this method, the key question is: For the shortlist of longer-term paths that you drew up in Part 3 of this series, which next steps would most accelerate you in them? (If you don’t have ideas for longer-term paths, or are pursuing the opportunism strategy discussed in the previous article, you can skip to the next section.)
Here are some questions to help you reflect:
- What career capital would most help you advance in your top longer-term paths? We try to assess this for some different career paths in our career reviews. Bear in mind that while doing something generally prestigious can work, more direct routes often get you more relevant career capital faster.
- One way to do the above is to look at the biographies of people who have succeeded in your longer-term paths, especially those who advanced unusually quickly, or from an unconventional background. What did they do? Can you map out the main routes into your top roles?
- What tests could you do that might let you eliminate each of your longer-term path ideas as a promising option? For instance, might you have a low-stakes way to try something for a couple of months? Should you enter one of the paths and see if you make it past the next hurdle (e.g. apply for graduate school to gain information about starting a research career)?
- If you could be well on your way to your ideal longer-term path in two years (or even right away), what would you need to do? Sometimes it’s possible to find shortcuts.
Do these prompts give you any ideas? Write them down in Section 5.1.1 of your template.
If you’ve chosen an ambitious longer-term goal, then you might also be very unsure how to get there. It’s still possible to generate good guesses here by doing the kind of research covered above, but can be difficult and time consuming. This is especially true if you’re aiming for something more unconventional that people haven’t written much about.
In that case, you might try doing a bit of research, but ultimately focus more on the second approach, which we’ll go into now.
An argument for directly pursuing longer-term paths
People often feel like they need to ‘build more skills’ before they can do something high impact, especially by taking a job like consulting, or working in large tech companies, or professional services. While that is sometimes the best next step, we think you should also consider aiming directly at your longer-term role — for example applying for an internship at an organisation you might want to eventually work for, or at a related organisation. This is because:
- You’ll gain career capital that’s highly relevant to at least one very promising way of having an impact in the long term. The best way to learn how to do something is generally to do it.
- It’ll usually be a reasonable way to gain some transferable career capital too, especially transferable career capital relevant to having an impact — such as meeting others interested in big global issues. In short, if you want to have a big impact, the best way to learn is often just to try.
- You’ll be testing out one of your top longer-term paths, gaining information value. (While if you work in professional services, but don’t want to do that long term, you’re not testing out an option you actually want.)
- You might have a significant impact in the coming years (whereas if you work somewhere purely to gain skills, you normally won’t).
- If you care about social impact, you’ll probably be more motivated in a path that feels more tied to your goals, which might make you more likely to succeed.
Of course, if you can find a great way to get transferable career capital, that could well be worth taking. Overall, we’d encourage you to consider both next steps that let you directly advance in high-impact longer-term paths, as well as next steps that let you gain generally useful skills.
★Work forward from your current situation
The second approach is to start with any opportunities immediately in front of you, generate lots of options, and then pick a great next step — even if you’re not sure where it’ll lead.
If you look at successful careers, they often involved a lot of working forward rather than backwards.
This is partly because the best longer-term roles are very unpredictable, and one way to deal with this is to take steps that let you learn, build skills, and contribute, and let a great career gradually emerge — rather than trying to plan it ahead of time.
It’s also likely partly because working backward requires having at least rough longer-term plans, which as you know if you’ve been working through this article, is a lot of work.
Working forward is also an important perspective because specific jobs often vary widely in how promising they are, even if they fit within a broad path.
For instance, you might think that biorisk policy is the best area for you to aim for in the longer term, but if you come across an unusually good opportunity in nuclear advocacy — say a job with an unusual amount of responsibility, or where you get to work with a great mentor — that could easily be worth taking. Not only does it let you have an immediate impact, it will likely give you good transferable career capital.
The process of pursuing specific jobs also gives you a lot of information. Opportunities often only emerge once you actively start looking. We often come across people agonising about whether one longer-term path is better than another, whereas if they’d simply made lots of applications, it would have become obvious which path to pursue, because one offer would have clearly stood out from the rest.
Finally, working forward gives more space for your intuitions. If you feel very excited about a next career step, it’s probably worth considering even if you don’t see how it fits into your longer-term plan. Your intuition might have picked up a positive feature of a next step, such as it being highly motivating for you, or giving you an opportunity to work with someone who’d inspire you. If you feel excited about an option, put it on your list and try to understand why.1
For all these reasons, it’s useful to work forward, and it can even be your main approach to career strategy. That said, (i) the ideal is to use both approaches to generate options and (ii) our impression is that most people work forward by default, even when they could work backward too, which we think neglects an important strategy (iii) working forward works best when you’re able to switch immediately, rather than looking for a job to start in 1+ years time.
Here are some ways to work forward to generate ideas for next steps. You don’t have to do all of them — perhaps pick 2–3 prompts that seem most promising, and write down your answers in Section 5.1.2 of your template.
- Check out the jobs listed on our job board — do any of them seem interesting? We think the board has many promising options, though bear in mind that many of the best jobs are never advertised, so it’s also important to do the following step.
- Speak to your friends, people working on interesting problems, and people you admire (e.g. professors or other mentors), and ask what opportunities they know about. The best opportunities are usually found through people you know.
- Look out for ‘open doors’: interesting opportunities you come across which might not be around in the future.
- See the list of jobs that are often good for career capital for people who want to enter our recommended careers on the key ideas page.
- What problems and options are you feeling excited about right now? What next steps might they suggest?
- Given the career capital you already have, how could you use it that would most help contribute to a pressing problem in the next few years? (This is especially relevant mid- and late-career). In Part 3 of this series, we covered some steps for clarifying your strengths and applying them. You could also consult this article for ideas of what to do with your existing experience.
- Is there something you could do that you think you’d be unusually good at, or that would let you achieve something particularly impactful or impressive? Just optimising for fit and impact often sets you up well in the long term.
- If you were just going to focus on learning as much as possible about what to do in the longer term, what would you do now? This could involve trying out something you don’t know much about, or making sure you have space for research and reflection, or spending time with people who have lots of ideas.
- If you’re working as part of a community, what does that community most need right now? How might you be able to help?
Add options by getting creative
Now that we have a starting point, here are some questions to give you even more ideas. Sometimes with a bit of creativity you can design a new option that is far better than what first came to mind.
- Elimination: If you couldn’t pursue any of your current ideas for next career steps, what would you do?
- Combination: Take your current list of next steps, and see if there’s any way to combine them to get the best of both worlds. E.g. if you’re considering starting a new project, but think it’s likely to not work, can you pursue it as a side project initially, and then go full time later? That will give you information value while minimising costs.
- Modification: Can you change any of your options to remove their downsides or make them even better? E.g. suppose you think working at a nonprofit would have a greater impact than working in a for-profit company, but would be worse for career capital. Is there a way to get more career capital in the nonprofit position (e.g. ask to work on a certain team or project, or do self-development on the side)?
Add any ideas this gave you to Section 5.1.3 of your template.
★Narrow down your next steps and write down key uncertainties
Now you have a long list of ideas, you can try to identify which next steps may be best based on your strategic focus and other factors.
Here’s a process we recommend for narrowing down your list of potential next steps:
Write out which factors you think are most important for comparing your next steps. We generally suggest considering the factors listed at the beginning of the previous article. You can also rank these factors depending on your choice of strategic focus.
Roughly rank your options based on your overall impression of which options seem best based on your factors.
Identify the key uncertainties in your ranking: What information could most easily change your ranking? For instance, finding out that you’d be accepted to a certain programme, or that you’d enjoy a certain kind of work. Focus most on uncertainties that change which options you rate most highly. We’ll come back to investigating these uncertainties in Part 7 of this series.
Write your best guess shortlist of next steps in Section 5.2.2 of your template, and add your uncertainties in Section 5.2.3.
Here are a few more optional tips on narrowing down:
More guidance on how to rank your options
You can repeat the same process we suggested in Part 3 for comparing longer-term paths to rank your next steps — in short:
- You can numerically score your short list based on your list of factors, and see which have the highest-scores.
- Consider upside and downside scenarios for each option.
- Try to predict your fit using the rules of thumb listed earlier, in Part 3.
In Part 7 of this series, we’ll cover how to investigate your uncertainties and reflect further on your career plans.
Probably eliminate options that might make things worse
When aiming to do good, it’s unfortunately easy to make things worse rather than better. We talk more about how it’s easy to accidentally make things worse here.
Any course of action involves some chance of negative outcomes. The point is not to avoid this risk altogether, and in some cases it may be justified to incur a downside risk if the potential upsides are high enough.
However, we think there are, normally, good practical reasons to eliminate options that credible parties think might pose significant downside risks (or not pursue them unless you can mitigate that risk).
- Having a significant negative impact often causes further indirect damage. For instance, it could harm your reputation, making it harder to do good in the future. You could even harm the reputation of the entire field (especially if it’s a smaller one), making it harder for others to contribute as well. Because of this, even major proponents of utilitarian ethics agree people generally shouldn’t do things that seem common sense bad in the name of the greater good.
- If you pursue an option that others think is harmful (even if you don’t think it is), you may be falling prey to the unilateralist’s curse. You’d also be failing to act collaboratively, which might make it harder to work with others in the future.
- If the harms might be very large but are hard to estimate, whether to proceed will depend on a speculative estimate. As a practical strategy, it may be better to try to avoid such estimates altogether. (Exposing yourself to uncertain positive ‘tails’ is good; the opposite is true for uncertain negative tails.)
We talk more about these risks in our article accidental harm. We also cover some additional reasons not to do harm for the greater good in our article Should you ever take a harmful job in order to do more good?
You can see some advice on mitigating these risks here. At the very least, if you want to pursue an option you think might have a risk of setting back the field you’re trying to advance, we’d suggest talking to several people in the field about your idea and taking their views seriously.
You have your (provisional) Plan A
Your top option on your shortlist is your best guess at what you should do next in your career. This is the first part of your ‘Plan A’ (we discuss your ‘B’ and ‘Z’ plans in Part 6).
The second part of your Plan A is a set of longer-term options drawn from the shortlist you created in Part 3 that fit with your top choice for your next career step.
If you don’t have any longer-term options that fit with your best-guess next career step, either use that as a reason to revisit your longer-term options list or your choice of top next step, or leave the second part of your Plan A blank (for example if you’re pursuing one of the ‘opportunism’ strategies discussed in the previous article).
Write down your Plan A in your template in Section 5.3.
Your Plan A is ‘provisional’ at this point because you’ll investigate your key uncertainties, and perhaps adjust your plans, in Part 7 of this series.
In this part of the career planning course, you brainstormed potential next career steps, created a shortlist, and made a best guess as to what to do as your Plan A.
- A long list of potential next career steps
- A rough ranking of these steps based on your strategic focus and other priorities
- A shortlist based on your ranking
- A Plan A — your best guess next career step and the longer-term options that are compatible with it
- Your key uncertainties about which next steps are best
Next we’ll tackle backup plans.
Read next: Plan to adapt
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Notes and references
- You shouldn’t blindly trust your intuitions either. They are likely easily swayed by irrelevant factors, or impulses you wouldn’t want to follow on reflection (e.g. the desire to be seen as high-status), which is why it’s important to try to understand them rather than merely follow them. Hopefully your intuition will also get more reliable over the course of your career as you have more opportunities to practice making choices and seeing how things turn out. It seems possible to develop ‘taste’ in identifying interesting problems, good people to work with, neglected but high-leverage opportunities, and so on.↩