How to Decide What to Do Next

You may doubt you'll even get one job offer, let alone several, but the process can surprise you, and you should be prepared for making informed decisions, writes Jake Livengood.

April 18, 2016

The job offer: a glimmer of hope in the middle of a long, frustrating process. Job searching is unevenly paced. Bad things, such as rejection letters, can happen in bunches. However, good things can happen at once as well, such as multiple job offers or opportunities.

Students often doubt they will get even one job offer, let alone more than one to choose from. However, the process can move quickly, so it’s important to have good information to make an informed decision for a positive outcome and future. That can especially be the case when you have to face two career options. That could be two job offers, a full-time job offer and a postdoc, or a job and a return to further education.

Out of necessity comes new ideas. My wife, Jennifer, was job searching just over a year ago after being downsized as an instructional designer at a private educational publishing company. (Given that “Carpe Careers” is often geared toward Ph.D.s, I think it is noteworthy to mention that she has her Ph.D. and has transitioned from a tenure-track faculty role.) She was interviewing for instructional design and technology positions, and I developed an Excel file to weigh various factors in her career choice. This file is like an enhanced pros/cons list and provides a weighted view for each factor related to career choice. It also provides a holistic perspective with a total “score” at the end for each option. (Sheet one of the file is a blank offer comparison for you to use. Sheet two is an example that my wife completed during her job search process.)

I have also provided this file to the students with whom I work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who are trying to decide between two career choices or next steps. Both undergrads and Ph.D. students have used it, and you can adapt it to your specific needs and situation. So, let’s dig into the details.

Determine what is important to you. This step will help you know the factors to weigh in the Excel file. To do this process thoroughly, you must identify the values you hold about a future workplace and position. This list could include anything related to you. Desire a position with a fun challenge? Include that in the list. Have a two-body problem? Put it on there. For my wife (and for many others), her list included (not in order of importance):

  • Which type of work would I still enjoy doing in a year? In three years? In five years?
  • Which work schedule would be better?
  • Which place would provide a better work-life balance/blend?
  • For which type of work would I say, "I really enjoy this," versus "I can do this but meh"?
  • Which organization would you be most proud to say you work at?
  • Which position would allow you to grow most professionally?
  • Which position would allow you to try new things?
  • Which position would provide the greatest fun challenge?
  • Which position fits you best culturally?
  • Which position would allow you to be healthiest?
  • Which position provides the most security?
  • Which opportunity would provide the most flexibility regarding work schedule?
  • Which position has a better commute?
  • If a snowstorm were to come, would you be able to work from home? Take the day off?
  • Which has a better retirement? Which has a better retirement match?
  • Are the organization and/or department financially stable?

If you are unsure of the specific work values that influence your decision, I recommend taking an inventory to become more informed. Also, your campus career center may have activities that help explore this area of self-assessment, such as a values card sort.

Add the factors that are most important to you to the first column in the Excel file under “Areas of Importance.” That will provide the framework for your decision making and your next steps. Your list could be short or long depending on what is important to you. However, it is noteworthy to mention that there are advantages to keeping the list longer: you can always rate factors at a lower level of importance, and a longer list could be more thorough and informative.

Review each factor. In looking at each factor, place a one by the option that is the best choice. (The rules of this game are flexible, and you can have a tie for each option. If that is the case, just remember to put a one in both options.) Next, fill in the importance of this factor. For the importance column, rate each factor on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the most important. (This is not a forced rank list compared to the other factors, so many factors can have a 10 if that is how you feel.) The attached Excel file is already set up with formulas. You can just change the areas of importance to your preferences and responses. Each option will have a total score at the bottom.

Explore themes and conclusions. Going into the process of filling out the Excel file, my wife thought the two options would be close in total score. But after completing it, she was surprised that one clear option seemed to be the favorite. Some of the questions you can ask yourself during this process, the answers of which can be very informative about your decision, include:

  • What did I learn from doing this process?
  • Was I surprised by the results?
  • What factors were reinforced as important?
  • Were any factors surprisingly not important?

How you go about making decisions is a related variable in this process. A widely cited decision-making inventory, for example, is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. One of the four dichotomies of this inventory is that of making decisions. On one end of the spectrum is making decisions based on facts, logic and data; it is labeled “thinking.” On the other end is making decisions based on emotions, gut instinct or feel; that is labeled “feeling.” It is noteworthy that even the most critical and thinking-based students with whom I have worked may gather lots of data and information but ultimately come to a conclusion based on a gut instinct.

If you are struggling with this big life decision of your next career step, I also encourage you to talk with other people and bounce ideas off them. Gather numerous perspectives before making a decision by talking with trusted connections, including your colleagues, adviser, campus career center officials and family members.

I wish you the best in making these tough choices!


Jake Livengood is assistant director of Graduate Student Career Services at MIT Global Education & Career Development Career Services. He has worked in career services since 2005 at a variety of institutions. He is also a communications instructor at Brandeis University.


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