How to Make a Careers Decision | The Careers Service How to Make a Careers Decision – Oxford University Careers Service
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Can't decide between your options?

If you’ve generated some career ideas – or alternative possibilities of what to do when you graduate, you may find it difficult to choose between them. Make sure first that you have thoroughly researched – or indeed got a bit of experience involving – your options.

One possibility at this point is not to decide. If you have three options, Charities/NGOs, Policy/Civil Service, Arts Management or Banking, Consultancy, Accountancy: consider applying to all three. We can call this a portfolio approach. Applying to 4 jobs in each of 3 sectors, spreads your bets, versus applying for 12 jobs in the same sector. Even within each sector, apply to a range, applying to 2 large firms and 2 small firms, is more sensible than applying to all 4 large firms at the same time. If you learn something during the process that would improve your applications, you can then apply to 2 more large firms 4 months later. No matter how much research you do, recruiters are clearer on what they need than you will ever be, so spread your bets, keep your options open. The most frustrating thing for the careers service is when a student comes to us and says they applied to 20 organisations in the same sector and had 20 rejections, they could probably have learned that the sector was not easy for them to get into from just 4 applications, but then they may have an insight that would improve their next 4 applications.

The caveat here is that it is very important to prove your enthusiasm for the company and sector, by your depth of research, and your detailed knowledge. Applying to 3 different sectors over the same period means proving your enthusiasm for 3 different things, it is important to be aware that the human brain can be uncomfortable with this type of inconsistency. So we would recommend to focus on one sector for a week or so, write your enthusiastic cover letters as if your life depends on getting into that sector. Then move to another sector do your research and write the next set of letters as if your life depends on getting into that sector. This way you will achieve the right level of intensity needed to break into the sector.

People who convince themselves that there is only one possible career, often find that the reality does not live up to their very high expectations. If you talk to people who are happy at work they often say they fell into it by accident. This approach of applying to a range of things is one way of maximising the possibility that the accident happens to you. We can overthink things, opening ourselves up to the possibility of chance and intuition guiding our choices has been a subject of academic study such as “planned happenstance theory” and “the chaos theory of careers”.

If you do need to narrow down your options and make some decisions the text below gives a few potential methods.

The D.E.C.I.D.E.S. model

This model is quite logical in its approach, and appeals to those wanting a clear process to work through. It uses the acronym ‘decides’ to take you through each step.

The acronym

  • D – define the problem (what problem are you trying to solve?)
  • E – establish a plan of action (how are you going to tackle your dilemma?)
  • C – clarify underlying values and interests (what factors underpin your decision?)
  • I – identify the key alternatives that you are deciding between (what are your options?)
  • D – discover the probable outcome of each alternative (what would be the result of taking each option?)
  • E – eliminate alternatives systematically (look at outcome against underlying values and interests, and eliminate)
  • S – start action (get applying!)

Check the outcome against what your heart is telling you, and explore further if doubts remain.

An example

Define problem

Not sure whether to apply for jobs in general management or whether to apply to become a Human Resources (Personnel) trainee. Interested in HR, but not sure if trying out some other management functions for a while before specialising would be a good idea.

Establish plan of action

I will tackle the problem by using the D.E.C.I.D.E.S model – and then talk about it with someone in HR via the Oxford Careers Network and my parents.

Clarify underlying values and interests

My main interest is in working in an environment where I can learn about how people think and behave. I’m interested in strategic level work, and in particular how you can get people to learn and develop. I am also interested in how businesses run more generally. I like the idea of managing people and helping others manage people.

Identify key alternatives

Either a general management position with opportunity to rotate around different management functions or applying for HR positions straight away. Alternatively, studying for a human relations postgraduate diploma or the professional personnel exams (CIPD).

Discover probable outcome of each

  • General management – Chance to look at different management functions, gain a good, all-round business understanding in my first year, possibly get a management qualification like the diploma in management studies, make sure it is HR I want to focus on, and then move into HR after one or two years.
  • HR management – Chance to get an in-depth understanding of HR management and see different sections within this function, get ahead in this function a bit quicker, and start building up expertise by getting my CIPD qualification. Some options to move into other areas in the organisation a bit later on in my career.
  • Postgraduate study – Make my applications more competitive in terms of getting into HR management or general management, possibly specialising too soon if HR not opted for afterwards. Give me more time to apply for jobs, but experience is often looked for as well.

Eliminate alternatives systematically

Using your underlying values and interests identified earlier, estimate how well each option meets them. Eliminate those which meet them less well.

Start action

Move on to the taking action stage.

Force-field analysis

This method may be most helpful to those who suspect that they are subject to competing emotional pressures, but have not yet analysed these pressures systematically.

  1. Write one of your options in the centre of the diagram.
  2. On the left-hand side write in all of the driving forces behind you choosing this option.
  3. Draw arrows of a size that intuitively reflect the pressure on you from this particular driving force.
  4. On the right-hand side note all the restraining forces behind you choosing this option.
  5. Draw arrows that reflect the strength of the restraining forces.
  6. Stand back and assess the diagram. Do the driving forces outweigh the restraining forces overall? Is there one driving or restraining force that dominates the decision? Can you influence any of the pressures on you? If so, which ones and how?
  7. Create a similar diagram for each option you have.
  8. Look at each option relative to the others.
  9. Make your decision, and check if the outcome feels right. If not, then re-evaluate your analysis.
Decision making grid

This is a very logical approach to making decisions, and will appeal to those who like to analyse factors as objectively as possible.

  1. List all of the relevant decision making factors.
  2. Give them a rating as to how important they are to your decision: 3 – important, 2 – quite important, 1 – less important.
  3. List your options.
  4. Multiply each rating by each factor’s weighting, according to how much the option fulfils the factor: 2 – almost ideal, 1 – quite good, 0 – not met at all.
  5. Total up the scores for each option.
  6. Check the grid for any factors or options that your instinct suggests you feel doubtful about, and re-calibrate if appropriate.
  7. Check your final result against your intuition – does the option suggested feel right? If not, why not?

Download an example to see how this works in practice.


This decision technique is ideal for those who like to follow their intuition and feelings about an option. It is quite difficult to run through, and can be ineffective if you do not immerse yourself in it. For those who create a complex visualisation of the option they are considering, it can create a powerful and instinctive reaction to move towards or away from that particular option.



Should I sign up for a Chartered Accountancy training contract with a large firm?


Imagine you have accepted the job. You are already employed by the firm, and you are taking part in an audit of a large IT consultancy organisation. Visualise what you are wearing, imagine how it feels to be dressed in these clothes. Where are you – in an office with others or on your own? What are the people whom you are working with like? Are they the same age as you? Are they older, younger? What equipment are you using – a lap-top? What are you doing? Are you talking to your team? Are you talking to the client? Are you gathering financial information about the company? How do you feel – excited, interested, bored? What do the documents in front of you look like? How are your colleagues talking to you? What are you planning for later – a night out or are you working late? Do you have to travel a long way home, or are you working close to where you live?

Spend some time developing a specific visual image of yourself in the job. Think very carefully afterwards about the picture you have built up. Is it based on firm facts or preconceptions about the role? You may need to check out the details with someone in the role at the moment. How did you feel? If you felt negative about the whole experience, try to pinpoint the source of the negativity. Is it just nerves about starting work, or is there a characteristic of the work that worries you? Talk this over with someone, such as a Careers Adviser, who can help you think objectively about these anxieties.

Barriers to decision making

There is a range of potential barriers that can prevent you from reaching a career decision. Below are some of the more common questions we are asked – see if any of them seem familiar to you at this point.

Common problems

What if I’m not 100% sure?

Remember that no decision is for ever: most Oxford graduates switch careers three or four times. Until you work in a job for a year or so, you are never going to have all the information you would like about an occupation. To some degree any decision requires a leap of faith based on what seems to be the right choice at the time. Talk to a Careers Adviser to feel more secure that you have done all you can to make a good choice.

What if I feel nervous about starting work?

The world is your oyster, the only possible stress is that you have too many options. If you start a job that you don’t like, you probably only have to give a months notice to leave. Calmness and confidence are attractive to recruiters, so reflect on the success in your academic career that brought you to Oxford, you are the one in ten who got in. People get on to graduate schemes throughout their twenties. You can try three or four things if you need to. Talk through your concerns with a Careers Adviser.

What if I feel applying for / taking this job is a bit risky?

If you are unsure you probably need to do more research and networking, if you are not sure how to do that talk to a Careers Adviser. If you haven’t had relevant work experience, you may wish to consider this or some shorter-term work shadowing. See our work experience pages for more advice.

I don’t feel confident enough to apply for / take on the job

Academic study does not necessarily prepare you to do a job, in most sectors learning is on-the-job. Relax, many have trodden the path you are on and all survived and thrived. Speak to a Careers Adviser about how you feel, — they can help you think it through and perhaps give you a well-deserved boost in confidence. Spend some time listing your positive qualities and abilities, and consciously ignore the negative feelings. If in serious doubt, then perhaps talk to someone in the job at the moment, and get some reassurance about the support on offer in your future job or organisation. There are few first jobs which expect you to hit the ground running. Every strength you now have started with a first attempt. Starting a career is like diving into a swimming pool. “I’m warm and dry, why would I want to get wet?”. Toes on the edge, point your fingers, deep breath, hold it, now jump…

But if I take this job, will my whole career go wrong?

No. Nothing in life is so dramatic. Fiona Bruce graduated from Oxford with a degree in Modern Languages, she did a year in Management Consultancy that she did not like, then a couple of years in Advertising which she liked more. She then met the producer of current events TV programme, Panorama, at a wedding and convinced him to allow her to be a researcher on the programme at the BBC. A few years later she was the most famous newsreader in the country, and now she is one of the top presenters on art history TV programs. To our knowledge she has never studied media, journalism or art history academically, so her academic study and first job have had almost no influence on her impressive career. The careers service is for life. The vast majority of alumni never need to contact the alumni careers adviser. Those that do, get the advice they need to make the changes they need. Just actively manage your career, if a job is not right, take action quickly, changing career in your twenties is relatively easy, but takes a little more effort later.

Will I be letting my parents down if I apply for / take this job?

The best outcome for you and the best outcome for your parents or significant other are not always the same thing. You have to live your work choice, so indulging someone else’s aspirations instead of your own can be hard work. If you need to talk to someone independent about it, and want some advice about actions you can take to make those closest to you feel better about your choice, then book in for a careers discussion.

Do I know enough about the job and what I want?

Most people find making a career choice difficult, because they don’t have enough information. They either need to explore the career in more depth through work experience or work shadowing, rather than just reading about it, or they need more self-knowledge about what they want, which can often be resolved in the same way.

I feel generally confused – how can I work out what to do?

Often just sitting down and talking things through with someone impartial is all it takes to bring some clarity to your thinking. Try friends and family, your tutor or a Careers Adviser.

This information was last updated on 10 October 2017.
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