career research

How to Make Career Decisions: A Systematic Approach to Choosing a New Career Direction

When asked to state their long term career aspirations, most people have at best a vague idea of what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They are embarrassed to admit to this uncertainty. Those who know what they want generally focus on advancement, either within their function or to general management – straightforward. The issue most people struggle with is what they might do if they felt a desire to do something completely different. People at the beginning of their careers or faced with redundancy commonly face this dilemma. Career decisions are difficult because making them is like trying to decide whether you like an unfamiliar item of food without tasting it.

Career Decision Making Styles

There are two styles for making any decision that are relevant to understanding how to make career decisions. One style emphasizes gathering as much information as possible; the other prefers to try things out and see what works. The first style is based on planning and factual data; the second relies on feel, experience and experiment. The former is methodical, structured and well organized while the latter is haphazard, opportunistic and creative. The truth is that not many people have a career plan. They either accept jobs offered to them or apply for advertised jobs when they feel a need for a change. That is, even people who like to plan ahead get stuck in the opportunistic mode, much to their frustration.

Making Career Decisions Under Uncertainty

One way of approaching career decisions is to combine the best of the planning and experiential approaches. The starting point is to recognize how difficult it is to choose any course of action without any experience of what the outcome might be like. A good analogy is house hunting. When planning a house move, people make a list of criteria they want in a house before they start looking, but they may well change their criteria significantly after looking at a few houses. This is because a lot of decision making is based on discovery rather than prior rational analysis. It is only by getting the feel of a variety of houses that it becomes possible to choose a particular house.

An Organized Career Search

The key to making career decisions is to follow the house hunting example. Set out some criteria that define what you think you would like in a future role, then talk to people doing or managing such jobs, and revise your criteria according to what feels right. Organizational skills alone can’t help you make career decisions, but they are useful in making sure that you obtain meetings with a sufficient number and range of people in roles that seem attractive.

Career Market Research

You can do a certain amount of research by reading up on careers and industries, but the critical form of research is to talk to people who work in those industries and roles that appeal to you. In meetings with people in prospective roles, it is important to ask more than merely factual questions. It is essential to ask feeling questions as well to determine what people like about their roles, what it feels like to work in their field and what they don’t like about it.

Getting meetings with people who could hire you (managers, not HR people) kills two birds with one stone, but it is not easy. Being able to say you got someone’s name from a mutual acquaintance helps a lot. A little subtle flattery helps, such as saying you heard that this person would be the best person to talk to about a particular career direction. Just asking people how they got to where they are is a form of flattery that can get their attention. It is also important to stress that, at this stage, you are just doing some market research, not fishing for a job interview. A final critical step is to aim to get at least two names from everyone you meet.

Networking and Career Management

The secret of career management is to network regularly at all times, always asking people what they do and how they like it. This approach combines organization and experiential feel. Of course, the best experience is actually doing the job. Total certainty before making the leap is not possible. The best you can do is minimize risk by getting as much feel for a career direction as possible before deciding.

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