How to Make a Careers Decision

The ideas outlined in this briefing can provide a structured approach and help you to examine an issue from more than one perspective. They can be applied to different scenarios, such as:

  • choosing between options for further study;
  • sifting a number of career options to decide which sectors, companies and roles seem most attractive to you;
  • making a final choice between two or more job offers, or the option to take a job or continue with further study.

Your goal is to make the best decision you can with the information available to you at the time. Often this means making a decision without all the information that you would like or need, but you can minimise this gap by looking after two key dimensions:

  • time frames: plan ahead and use your time wisely so that you are not pressured into a last-minute decision; and
  • seeking out essential information: use your research skills and curiosity, and ask for any essential information.

For example, you will have researched the company and role (or university and degree programme) when applying. Use events, visits to the organisation and interviews to ask questions. And, at the decision point, ask recruiters or admissions teams specific questions or for introductions to people doing the work (or course) who can share insights.

It can also be valuable to talk through your decision with someone you trust: family and friends, or speak with a Careers Adviser.

Review the tools below. Some are quite analytical whilst others tap into your intuition or emotional cues. You do not have to use them all, but applying more than one contrasting method can add clarity, help you uncover an important insight or belief that you may otherwise overlook, and identify and remove potential obstacles to making a sound decision.

Expand All

It's worth remembering that sometimes the decision you face includes the option not to decide [yet].

If you have used the suggestions in our advice on Generating Career Ideas and have been researching your options, it is quite possible that you will still have a number of career directions that interest you . For example, you might have narrowed your focus to three different sectors, such as Charities, Public Sector and/or Arts Management. At this point you might choose to make applications in all three sectors and use the application and interviewing process to gather more information on the role(s), organisation(s) and their working cultures to help make a decision in the future.

Applying to a variety of jobs and reaching across a portfolio of options offers a few other benefits.

  • Some sectors may prove more competitive to get into, so spreading 12 or 15 applications across 3 different sectors rather than all in a single sector may increase your ultimate chance of success.
  • Similarly, if you target a single sector you might segment that sector further and apply to a variety of firms (large, medium and small; high kudos and less visible; specialist, niche or new players; different locations) to increase you chance of success.
  • It is also likely that the quality of your applications will improve as you try out different approaches. Send out a few early applications to try-out your ideas and learn what does and what does not work for you. If your early applications are not successful you may want to pause to review, and perhaps set up a meeting with a careers adviser.

If you adopt a portfolio approach and are applying across a number of sectors, it is important to ensure that you do enough research into each sector so that you can show a sufficient depth of knowledge and focus in each individual application. For some people, it can be difficult to sustain 3 or more different 'core messages' at the same time, so it may be a good idea to focus on one sector for a week or so and then focus on a different sector. This should help you develop and demonstrate the right degree of focus and intensity for each sector and show genuine enthusiasm for each company in your applications.

Another risk of being too decisive - of narrowing your focus early or deciding that there is only one possible career choice for you - is that the reality may not live up to your [high] expectations. Even a very well researched career plan will have information gaps and you cannot plan for a 'personality clash' or 'the bad boss', which can sour even the best opportunity. Getting work experience with the organisation or team you want to join is probably the best way to minimise this specific risk, however, spreading your research and applications across more than one field will mean that you keep open more options. One result from this is that it you should find it easier to pivot to an alternative course if your main idea does not work out or turns out to be a bad match for you after all.

As an additional thought, bear in mind the considerable evidence from academic studies that 'being open to the possibility of chance' and 'the process of allowing intuition to guide our choices' are often a significant factor in successful career patterns. If you talk to a variety of people who are happy at work you will quite often hear them say that they "fell into it by accident". Many of these happy accidents, however, are probably a result of people creating their own 'luck':

  • by going through life exploring options and the possibilities;
  • of travelling with their head up, and their eyes and ears open; and
  • of being open and noticing when something catches their interest, and then acknowledging and responding positively to that insight.

This element of chance or luck in how people find fulfilling work is embedded in ideas such as "the chaos theory of careers" and "the planned happenstance theory".

This method can be helpful when someone suspects that they are facing competing emotional pressures but have not analysed those pressures systematically.

  1. Write one of your options in the centre of blank page.
  2. On the left-hand side, write in all of the positive, driving forces behind choosing this option.
  3. On the right-hand side, note all the negative, restraining forces that work against choosing this option.
  4. From each driving force and each restraining force, draw arrows pointing to the option, using the size and 'weight' of the arrow to suggest how strong each force is. Use your intuition when creating your arrows. 
  5. 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?
  6. Create similar diagrams for each option.
  7. Compare the diagrams for each option relative to the others to steer your choice.
  8. Make your decision, and check if the outcome feels right. If not, then re-evaluate your analysis.

DECIDES is an acronym that signposts a seven-step process, and will appeal to those wanting a clear process to work through.

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 Alumni Community 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 offered through the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).

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. Includes the chance to better understand the HR function in business and make sure it is the area 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. May include support to get my CIPD qualifications or a relevant Diploma/Masters. May provide options to move into other areas across 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 'action' stage. Deepen your research into companies and roles, analyse job descriptions and talk with people in these roles. Set up an early discussion with a Careers Adviser for impartial in-put and to explore which questions to ask, how to network effectively with alumni and ideas on how/where to develop appropriate skills.

This can be a logical approach to a make decision, and applies an analytical quantitative approach to support thinking. It is likely to will appeal to anyone comfortable with numbers.

See a worked example (with options scored 0, 1 or 2 only) in our Guide to Careers.

You start by creating a list of pros (and perhaps cons). You then apply a weighting system to reflect the relative importance of each factor in the mix. This encourages you to consider what the most important factors are, and reduces the risk that too much emphasis is given to less important factors.

  1. Set up a table with your options on one axis and all the relevant decision-making factors on a second axis.
  2. Weight each factor on how important it is to your decision: e.g. 3x - important, 2x - quite important, 1x - less important.
  3. Score each option according to how well it fulfils each of the decision-making factors. You can choose your own scale, and is it good to use the full scale when scoring options. A scale with an even number of options can reduce the tendency to cluster scores around the middle. For example, 3= fully meets requirement; 2= mostly meets requirement; 1= partially meets requirement; 0= does not meet requirements.
  4. Multiply out all the factors for each of the options, and add these products to make a total score for each option.
  5. Rank your options using the total scores.
  6. Check your final result against your intuition - does the option suggested feel right? If not, why not? 

If you are not comfortable with outcome, or your instinct suggests this might not be the right result, you might consider revising or re-calibrating the grid, perhaps adding new factors or adjusting the weighting system. Alternatively, you can use a different method to gain a fresh perspective, challenge your assumptions or identify what you are feeling unsure about, and/or to balance your judgement.

This approach can work very well for people who like to follow their intuition and feelings about an option, and/or who are very visual thinkers. It can take time and may be quite difficult to run through on your own, and you will need to immerse yourself in the process for it to be effective. For those who are able to create a complex visualisation of the option(s) they are considering, it can create a powerful and instinctive insight or 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. For example, that you are already employed by the firm. In the case that follows, we outline what this might mean for someone participating in an accountancy/audit process for a large IT consultancy organisation.

  • Visualise yourself and the surroundings:  Where are you - in an office with others or on your own? What you are wearing - imagine how you feel be dressed in these clothes? What equipment are you using - a lap-top?
  • Who are you working with, or are you working alone? What are the other people like? Are they the same age as you? Are they older, younger?
  • What is the actual work that are you doing? Are you talking to your team, and/or a client? Is it a formal 'business meeting' or something more relaxed or spontaneous? Are you gathering financial information about the company, or analysing date? 
  • 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 to so 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.

If you are struggling to make a well-considered decision it is possible that you do not have enough information about your options and more research is needed.

The overarching model promoted by the Careers Service is that you need to bring together both self-awareness about who you are and good research into the job-market.

  • Our guidance on Generating Career Ideas  can help you work through these stages.
  • Career Weaver, our web-based app, supports effective reflection about your work-related values and work preferences, your motivations, and your skills and strengths. 
  • Our Sector and Occupations briefings provide accessible information on some 50 different fields of work to kick-start your labour market research.
  • For insights into specific functions or roles, use the 400+ individual job profiles on graduate careers websites like Prospects and TargetJobs.  

Even if you have all the information you need, it can still be hard to decide because of the seeming importance of the choice, uncertainty around the future outcomes, and the risk(s) attached to making one choice (and shutting off other options). It can help to talk with someone you trust to share your thinking and seek additional in-put. Current students can book to see a Careers Adviser - and alumni within two of completion can also speak with an adviser during vacations.

Some of the barriers to decision making are considered below.

'I'm not 100% sure' and 'Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)'?

Choosing between options often means saying no an alternative, at least in the immediate future, and can be difficult. First, take time to acknowledge and be happy about your success in securing more than one attractive way forward. Then commit to making the best decisions that you can - that is the nature of decision-making. The tools outlined above can help you review the evidence that you have and feel more comfortable in managing any uncertainty.

To some degree every decision requires a leap of faith based on what seems to be the right choice at the time. No one can predict the future with certainty, even if they have already worked for the company, and realistically you can only expect to have all the information you would like after you have started and built some experience. Also, no decision is for ever, and it is possible to change direction if a particular choice stops working for you.

Talk to a Careers Adviser for an impartial reaction to your thinking. This can help you feel more secure that you have done all you can to make a good choice or highlight additional points to consider.

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

You can never eliminate all the risks. The tools outlined above provide ideas to help you examine options from different perspectives, identify and challenge your assumptions, set aside your fears and look more objectively at the issues to make the best decision you can at the time. 

You may not have enough information, and need to do more research. This can help you make the decision or build a stronger application. If you can, try to gain relevant work experience or work shadowing to experience the environment directly, or talk with more people who know the work or the company.  

If you are not sure how to do this, talk to a Careers Adviser and see our work experience pages and networking pages for more advice.

What if I feel nervous about starting work?

Starting something new will often carry with it a mix of anxiety and excitement: think back to how you felt as you started at Oxford and you may recognise this feeling.  Remind yourself that you made the best choice you could at the time, based on the information (and options) available to you. Try to move forward in a positive frame of mind to embrace the challenges and opportunities ahead of you.

What if I find that I don't like the work or the organisation I have joined after starting work?

Many graduates change jobs early in their career, and people continue to get on to graduate schemes throughout their twenties. Research published on the Prospect careers website (Early Careers Survey 2022) shows that 30-40% of graduates seek to change jobs in the first year following graduation and, that of these, 60% are looking to switch industries and nearly 50% are looking to do this to further their career. 

Sometimes things do not work out. If you find that you are in a job that you don't like it is OK to change direction, and even to stop! if your current work or workplace is unhealthy for you. You probably only have to give one month's notice to leave. 

Whether staying or stopping while you look for the next thing, try to stay positive. Reframe how you think about your current situation to identify and value what is good enough for now a (the people; what you are learning; income; living close to family or friends). Moreover, few jobs are so entirely all-consuming that there is no time to pursue other interests such as hobbies, second-jobs or a side hustle, or through voluntary or community activities, so it may well be possible to take the first-choice option AND continue to explore other interests, but try not to over-extend yourself and risk burn-out.

And beware of hindsight bias, which happens when the outcome of an action or decision is judged using information only available after the decision was taken. It can be a distorting lens which leads us wrongly to conflate the quality of the outcome with the quality of the decisionIt is very probably that you in fact made a good decision at the time, and consciously recalling "what I knew at the time” can help you both to learn from experience and stay positive about you ability to make good decisions now and in future.

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

Academic study does not necessarily prepare you to do a particular job and very few organisations will expect new graduates to arrive fully job ready.

Spend some time listing your positive qualities and abilities. Reflect on your successes and strengths, and remember how you have built these up - including the trips and stumbles on the way that will have been part of the learning journey. Acknowledge any negative feelings you have and consciously put them to one side as you start.

If you have been offered the job, be reassured that the organisation believes that you have what it takes and that you will learn and grow into the role. Expect that you will be learning on the job, and good organisations will ensure there is a plan to support you as you start through a combination of training, on-the-job experiential learning, and support from managers and mentors. At companies with established graduate programmes, many others will have trodden the path you are on, survived and thrived.

If you have specific questions or issues where you need more information, it can be worth talking to again with the HR team or someone who is in the job at the moment (and the HR team may be wiling to introduce you too). Ask your contact about their experiences when they started and the support offered by the organisation. Or 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.

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

No. Nothing in life is so dramatic. Firstly, you have a choice over whether to manage your career actively or to be a passenger. Secondly, as outlined above, changing career in your twenties is relatively easy and not uncommon. 

Well led companies will provide support for employees, and senior staff and managers have a role in supporting you and your development in the role. For example, you can anticipate regular performance reviews and opportunities to discuss your personal and professional development, and you can approach these as an opportunity to steer the ship. If you think that an internal move might work, seek advice and support internally through your managers or directly with the HR teams - the content of these conversations should be treated as personal and confidential.

If you are in a job and you feel it is not right for you, it will be best to act quickly. Ask for support and advice from your line manager if you can, or speak confidentially with someone in the HR team. Remember that you do always have the choice to stop doing something that feels wrong, or if you find the people and environment are too challenging (or even toxic), even if the decision to stop and walk away feels difficult or scary at the time.  

Lastly, it continues to be possible later in life to change direction and many people have a number of quite different careers in their lifetime - including every one of your Oxford University Careers Advisers. 

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.

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

It is you that is taking the job, and it is you that must live with and experience that choice each and every day. Making a choice based on someone else's expectations, hopes or aspirations instead of your own can be hard work, and can become a heavy burden.

It is possible that the best choice or outcome for you may conflict with the wishes of your parents, or cause tension with your partner/significant other where it challenges or conflicts with their aspirations or goals. You will need to work through these challenges.

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 it difficult to make a career choice, and it is made more difficult when they do not have enough information on the job or target organisation. This will require more and better research.

Use desk-based research as the foundation for your research rather than the endpoint. Start with the recruitment and admissions pages, but it is essential to look beyond the curated marketing messages. Researching companies online, using reputable news sources, information from professional bodies and appropriate use of social media and third party opinions for a fuller perspective.

The best realistic work preview comes from gaining relevant work experience, or work shadowing, where this is possible. Plan ahead and apply for relevant micro-internships and summer internships, or create your own projects and opportunities through networking and speculative applications. As part of this, talking with people currently working in the jobs (or courses) and organisations you are interested in will help you uncover answers to some of your most important questions. It will be most helpful to reach out to people with recent experience (0-3 years, say) as most will remember how they felt as they approached their career search, and be able to offer advice and tips about what helped them with their plans and decision, and applications! For example:

  • at the start of a new academic year, seek out finalist who have undertaken summer internships
  • visit our career fairs to speak with recent graduates who have just started (what are their first impressions?) or who have a year or two with their company
  • considering further study? Talk to post-graduate students in college on a course of DPhil close to your planned field of study to understand how they made their decisions and what options they hope the programme opens for them in the year(s) ahead.   

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

Start by reviewing our guidance on Developing Career Ideas. This will provide information, ideas and suggestions for how to move forwards.

As action takes over from inertia, you should find that your fear or confusion shifts to curiosity, discovery and we hope excitement as you begin to uncover ideas, questions and people that help you to become more focused and productive in your thinking.

For many people, just sitting down and talking things through with someone impartial is enough to bring some clarity and kick-start their thinking. Try friends and family, your tutor or a Careers Adviser.

CareerConnect EVENTS

Looking for more?

Check the CareerConnect platform for all our upcoming events and opportunities, book appointments, find jobs and internships, and more.

Login to CareerConnect