How to Make a Careers Decision

The tools 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.

Often you will need to make a decision without all the information that you would like or need. The aim is to make the best decision you can at the time, with the available information, so look after those two key dimensions:

  • be aware of the time frames and use whatever time you have wisely; plan ahead and take action early if you can so that you are not pressured into last-minute decision making; and
  • seek out the information you need reduce the information gap before you have to make the decision; use your research skills; talk with people who can help; ask for the information you need; and ask for help or advice if you are struggling to make progress on your own.

The ideas outlined in this briefing can help by providing a more structured approach and helping you to examine an issue from more than one perspective. Some of the tools are quite strongly analytical whilst others tap into your intuition or emotional cues. You do not have to use them all, but applying two or three contrasting methods to the same issue 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.

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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 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 ty-out your ideas and learn what does and what does not work for you - if these 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 can be a good idea to focus on one sector for a week or so before moving on to focus on a different sector. This can 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 that comes from being too decisive - of narrowing your focus early or deciding that there is only one possible career choice for you - is that the reality does 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. Work experience with the firm/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 allows you to keep open more options. One result from this is that it you should find it easier to pivot to an alternative course of action 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 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.

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 a seven-step process.

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 (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, with research into companies and roles, analysing job descriptions and talking 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 is a very logical approach to making decisions, and will appeal to those who like to analyse factors as objectively as possible. It's similar to creating a list of pros and cons, however, the use of a weighting system for individual factors helps counter the risk of placing too much emphasis on 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: 3 - important, 2 - quite important, 1 - less important.
  3. Score each option according to how well it fulfils each of the decision making factors: 2 - almost ideal, 1 - quite good, 0 - not met at all.
  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?

See how this looks in practice in the Guide to Careers.

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 may want to use second model for a different perspective which may help you understand what you are feeling unsure about or to balance your judgement.

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.

There are a range of potential barriers that may prevent you from reaching a career decision. 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.
  • Our new app, Career Weaver has been created to provide a language and variety of short exercises to support and direct effective reflection about you work-related skills and strengths, values and work preferences and motivations.
  • Our Sector and Occupations briefings provide accessible information on some 50 different fields of work and are a rich source of information to help kick-start your job-market research.

Remember that the Oxford Careers Service offers all alumni access throughout their working lives from the day of matriculation, so we are available to you whenever you choose to reach out or want to book an advice appointment.

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, and the most probably source of stress is that you have too many options. If you start a job that you don't like, you can change direction and probably only have to give one month's notice to leave. People get on to graduate schemes throughout their twenties, and you can try three or four things if you need to. Talk through your concerns with a Careers Adviser.

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.

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.

Also, remember that the Oxford Careers Service offers all throughout your working life.  Whilst the vast majority of alumni never need to contact the us, those that do get the advice and support they need to make the changes they want. Just actively manage your career; if a job is not right, take action quickly. Changing career in your twenties is relatively easy, and it continues to be possible later in life, although it may 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.

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