Streamlining the career choice process

 In career exploration, PhD/Postdoc Blog

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. […] I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” –The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

In past posts we have discussed the benefits of testing out different career paths and weighing up the options, but as fun as this exploration phase can be, there comes a time when we must commit to the next step in our careers. The array of possibilities can be exciting and also daunting; perhaps making us feel a little like the protagonist of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Social scientists have a term for this scenario, “overchoice.” In this post I outline a few tools that helped me in my career decisions that I hope you will find useful as well.

The problem of too much choice

row of several cereals

I can’t even decide on what cereal to eat Source:

Finishing your graduate education and deciding what to do next is difficult; there is no getting around it. Do you stay in the same country or move abroad to try something new? Do you move to a new lab? Change fields? If so, what area of research should you go into next? Should you start a business? Or become an educator? Or a policy-maker? The list goes on. Unless you find yourself in the enviable position of knowing exactly what you want to do next, the number of potential career paths can seem utterly overwhelming. This is “overchoice” and it occurs when there are too many options without any clear tradeoffs between them. Although this might typically be applied to situations like purchasing cereal at the supermarket, in the context of your career this scenario occurs because it can be difficult to directly compare all of the pros and cons of each of your prospective career paths. This can ultimately lead to confusion and indecision, or worse, decision avoidance that can pervade into other areas of your life. But rather than bury your head in the sand, here are a few tips to help you outsmart your own psychology.

Outsource your choice

As a diligent researcher, you will have undoubtedly looked into your options to try and make the best career decision possible. This might even include getting the inside track from network connections already in those jobs to get their views on the profession. If you are anything like me though, the more you studied your choices and the more people you spoke with, the less clear the decision became. This is when it pays to get an outside perspective on your decision, ideally from someone that knows you well. Asking for an outside opinion can be beneficial for two reasons: first, your friends aren’t emotionally invested in your career choice in the same way that you are. They should have no problem applying that cold Vulcan logic that we all love so much as scientists. Second, people don’t suffer from “decision fatigue” when it comes to making choices for someone else.  The more decisions you need to make – even little ones, like what font to use on your CV (Roboto. Obviously.) – the more your decision-making skills will suffer.

No friends, no problem

In lieu of asking someone else for advice, you can avoid decision fatigue and be more objective in your decision making by doing a little role-playing. You can avoid the cognitive drain that comes with making a tough choice by imagining that you are a friend giving yourself advice. Personally, I find this a little tough to imagine. However, another method that I came across is to imagine that you are posing the question to a wise old sage. What would this erudite career guru tell you to do? It is surprising how quickly the answer can come to you once you take an outside perspective.

Never underestimate a pen and paper

When I was deciding a career path for after my Ph.D., I was genuinely torn about what I wanted to do next. I spent time in the clinic shadowing medical doctors, I spent hours researching labs that I admired, I completed a higher education teaching course; and in one way or another all of these opportunities appealed to me. When I explained my dilemma to my girlfriend, she told me to sit down, draw out a mind map of my priorities, and write a pros and cons list. I can honestly say that I hadn’t made a mind map since I was about eight years old, but the simple act of transferring those ideas to paper helped crystalize the notion that I wanted to carry on doing research (at least for the time being).

Actually taking time to really reflect on what is important to you can be just as important as the decision itself. Keep in mind, “the only thing constant is change”, so understanding your priorities and aligning your career choices to meet those needs at a given time is critical to maintaining a happy and healthy relationship with your work.

If all else fails, there’s always the good old fashioned coin toss!

Keen for more career ramblings? Follow me on twitter @SciMJHarris. To keep up with the rest of the BEST team, follow @NIHBEST.

Image copyright Jim Champion (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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  • Laura Daniel

    If you don’t have a friend to help you out Strength Finder 2.0 is a good read. You can also try myIDP by Science Careers [].

    myIDP provides 1)Exercises to help you examine your skills, interests, and values, 2) A list of 20 scientific career paths with a prediction of which ones best fit your skills and interests, 3)
    A tool for setting strategic goals for the coming year, with optional reminders to keep you on track, and 4) Articles and resources to guide you through the process

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