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Career decision making

You and the career decision-making process

Did you know that most people spend much more time deciding which car to buy than choosing a career? Why do they spend so little time on such an important task? Because career decision making is hard work!

Perhaps you have avoided thinking about this decision for other reasons. You may feel that the start of your career is far in the future. Maybe you have bypassed the process and are pursuing a career that fulfills family expectations. Perhaps you assume that you will be happy working in a well-known field like teaching, engineering, or medicine and see no reason to research the myriad of other possible occupations. Or perhaps you just don’t know how the decision-making process works or where to begin.    

If you delay the decision-making process you may find yourself:

  • In a career that doesn't fit with your values, interests, personal attributes, and skills
  • Completing a degree that you have no interest in
  • Feeling your work lacks meaning or challenge
  • Suffering from boredom or burnout
  • Feeling caught between life and work values

Thoughtful decision making paves the way to a satisfying career choice. The more focused you are, the less onerous the process will be. The decision-making process can be used for making many types of career-related choices, including:

  • Which training/educational program to pursue
  • Which occupational field to enter
  • Which paid/volunteer experience would be most satisfying
  • Whether to change occupations and/or fields
  • Whether to start a small business

Steps to career decision making

The five steps to career decision making are:

  1. Create a vision
  2. Make an initial decision
  3. Set a goal
  4. Develop an action plan
  5. Take action

The process of career decision making is not linear, so you may find yourself working through the steps simultaneously or completing one or more steps at a later date.

Create a Vision => Make a Decision => Set a Goal => Develop an Action Plan => Take Action

Time for career decision making

The career decision-making process can be overwhelming, so it is helpful to determine how much time you will spend and when (e.g., mornings, evenings). Review how you spend your time to determine what activities you might put on hold, de-emphasize, or change in order to create more time for this process (e.g., evaluate the importance of current commitments such as committee/volunteer work, learn to say "no" to requests that may cause more stress than benefit, or ask others to help with household tasks).

There are no definite timelines to follow in the process of career decision making: you may work through it quickly; it may take you six months or a year. Think about your circumstances and set a realistic deadline for yourself. Recording your deadline will help you ensure that it is realized.

Since making a good decision is so important, completing both the "Self assessment" and "Occupational research" modules is critical. If you have completed these two modules, you are well prepared to proceed with the career decision-making process

Step 1: Create a vision

Proactive decision making begins with a clear vision of what you want your personal and professional life to look like. To be successful in visualizing your future, you need to have a strong desire to achieve your goals. Although it is important to be realistic in what you ultimately envision yourself doing, it is more helpful at this point in the process not to limit yourself to what you consider to be “reality”; instead, let your vision or dream grow. Beware of thoughts that might limit your choices. For example, though it is necessary to consider the effect of your choices on those you love and care about; placing too much emphasis on others’ needs may prevent you from identifying and following a truly rewarding career path. Your goal for now should be to take an honest look at yourself and your needs for the future.  

Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • If you were guaranteed to be successful and to earn a good living, what type of work would you do?
    1. Where would you live?
    2. What kind of environment would you want?
  • What would your work and personal relationships be like?
  • What kind of lifestyle would you have?

Once you have created a vision that clearly and accurately reflects your desired future, consider reality and the potential barriers to achieving your goal. In the “Self assessment” module, culture, disability, family, gender, and sexual orientation were introduced as potential influencing factors in the career decision-making process. You may wish to review the implications of these factors now. Other factors that merit consideration include:

  • Fear (e.g., of failure, of success and what it will bring, of rejection, of commitment, of change, of the unknown)
  • Self-confidence level
  • Finances and socio-economic status
  • Geographic location (e.g., are jobs relating to your vision typically located in an undesirable or inaccessible location?)

Be careful not to let one perceived barrier undermine your whole vision, however. Think about ways you might overcome such a barrier and attain your goal. It is usually possible to achieve at least a piece of the vision.

A word about risk taking

Every action or decision comes with a certain element of risk; however, so does taking no action. It is important to be realistic about the level of risk you are willing to take: you may wish you were more adventurous (or less so!), but you will likely not move toward your goal if you are not honest with yourself regarding your risk tolerance. At the same time, analyze any fears you experience: are risks real or imagined? Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What is the worst that can happen if I pursue this path?
    1. How likely is it that something negative will happen?
    2. How could I resolve this problem if it did occur?
    3. Can I prevent this from happening? How?
  • What is the best that can happen if I pursue this path?
    1. What steps can I take to ensure that the best happens?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking this risk?
  • What are the short- and long-term consequences of the decision to me and to significant others?

Understand that fear is natural and might be part of the decision-making process. To move forward, you need to acknowledge your fears. If you tackle them one-by-one and look at them realistically, they will often become less onerous. Ultimately, however, it is also important to listen to what your inner voice or “gut” is telling you: if, after you have undergone this process, a possible action doesn’t feel right, you likely shouldn't do it. 

If you believe that you’ve taken all the necessary steps and you still feel uncomfortable with your vision or are still not able to take a step forward, there may be other reasons for your inaction. If you find yourself in this situation, you may benefit from meeting with a career professional. For University of Waterloo students and alumni, Career Exploration & Decision Making appointments may be booked through the Centre for Career Action website.

Narrowing your choices

After putting your vision through a reality check and facing your fears, determine which if any of the occupations you have identified fit with that vision. By making this comparison for each occupational option, you may find that you can shorten your list. You can then take a more structured approach to assessing your target occupations. The next section will guide you through this process.

Step 2: Make an initial decision

There are a number of ways to assess occupational alternatives. You might prioritize them according to how closely they match your overall goal. Or you might compare them in terms of advantages, disadvantages, and potential outcomes. Pay attention to your feelings about each alternative: are you sensing excitement? disenchantment?  Though it is important to be logical in the career decision-making process, your gut reaction to an occupation is also important.

After you have made a tentative choice, it's time to set a goal and begin to achieve it.

Step 3: Set a goal

Effective goal setting allows you to take control of your life. Your attitude is the most important predictor of success in achieving goals. Positive and negative thoughts can affect your level of accomplishment: you are likely to achieve only what you believe you can. A goal is simply a more precise statement of a decision reached in the previous step.

To ensure that you achieve your goal, it should meet the following criteria:

  • Specific: a goal is specific when you know exactly what is to be achieved and accomplished
  • Measurable: measurable goals are quantifiable (e.g., numbers, dollars, percentages)
  • Achievable: an achievable goal is within your reach (perhaps a stretch) based on your skills and level of motivation
  • Realistic: a realistic goal is one for which you have the resources (e.g., time for training, money for education, support from significant others)
  • Time specific: a time-specific goal is finite; it has a deadline (e.g., "by June 30, 2XXX" is much more specific than "soon")

For example, a decision to work in human resources might lead to the following goal statement: "attain a management-level position leading to corporate training in the technology sector within the next five years."

Step 4: Develop an action plan

To realize your specific occupational goal, you will need to make and follow a strategy or action plan. Write it down! There is ample evidence that those who devise and record a concrete plan for reaching a goal are much more likely to attain it.

To reach your goal, you will need to identify the action plan steps, or short-term goals, that will help you attain it.

To develop your action plan steps, refer to your occupational research: the more information you have gathered, the more informed you will be as to what is required to reach your occupational goal. It will also be helpful to be mindful of any potential barriers you identified earlier in the process, as well as your ideas about how to overcome them.

Once you have devised your action plan, you should construct a detailed plan for taking each step. The plan for the first steps should be as thorough and specific as possible (apply the S.M.A.R.T. principles again). For example, “increase my overall average to B+ by the end of this term” is better than “achieve higher grades.”

As you consider steps that reach farther into the future, you will find it more difficult to create specific plans: situations (and you) may change. Provide as much detail as you can, but be prepared to be flexible, realizing that you may need to adjust your plan several times before you reach your occupational goal.

Step 5: Take action

Refer to your plan often: Are you on track? Is some fine-tuning required? Do the action plan steps you have identified still make sense? Has the goal changed at all? Do you lack information or support? If the basic goal remains the same and the process seems to be on track, add more detail to the steps as they become more imminent. If new information or obstacles have emerged, you may need to make some minor to moderate changes. If the goal has changed, you will need to make major revisions to the action plan.  

As you take action, you may begin to experience difficulty in moving towards your goal. Sometimes people put so much emphasis on a career decision that they become immobilized with fear or uncertainty. If you find yourself in this situation, you may merely need to give yourself a push; however, if you find that you are really "stuck," you may benefit from consulting a career professional. 

Celebrate accomplishments and milestones. Be kind to yourself: pursue activities you enjoy and surround yourself with supportive people. Replace self-limiting assumptions and irrational beliefs with positive thoughts and statements. Welcome mistakes: they can enrich your life experience and enhance your learning. And you can use what you learn to revise your current plan and improve future career decisions.

Don’t forget the big picture: sometimes, some of the intermediate steps may be less enjoyable and more challenging than you might like; however, if you keep in mind where the steps are leading, you will be more likely to continue moving towards the achievement of your vision.