Evidence-based suggestions for improving your career.
Updated: Sep 29
Are you deciding on a new career path, or reflecting on your current career and where it's headed? Sometimes we make career decisions based on guesses or gut feeling, and we’re actually lacking important information about whether a specific career path or job opportunity is right for us. With that in mind, we’ve combed through 80,000 Hours' new career guide to pull out some of the information that’s most valuable when making decisions about your career.
Since most of use spend a large part of our lives working, it’s really important that we enjoy what we do, and that it helps improve society. 80,000 Hours is a charitable organization that helps motivated individuals achieve these goals using evidence-based research and expert advice. We’re big fans of their mission, and have previously covered their research on improving your performance at work. 80,000 Hours’ newly updated career guide provides a thorough analysis of career options and considerations, including what maximizing your impact really means, what career paths have the greatest impact, and which strategies are most effective for choosing a career.
We’ve condensed the most relevant information for you in this blog post, but we also recommend that you check out the new career guide for yourself, especially if you’re interested in having a positive impact with your career. Read on to learn about the 5 principles that may provide valuable insight into your career, whether you’re just starting out or have been on your current path for some time.
Note that what follows is written in our own words, and includes some of our own opinions, so may deviate slightly from the advice 80,000 Hours gives. We also want to emphasize that some of this advice (e.g. exploring unpaid or low compensation opportunities) only applies if you are in a financially stable situation, and have a realistic plan you can fall back on.
Principle 1: Reduce Uncertainties
Often we think we like the idea of a particular career, but when we join a specific organization we realize it’s not how we imagined - we didn’t actually know much about the day-to-day experience of the job. For instance, we might like the concept of being a biologist, without realizing that it will involve years of doing manual work in a lab (e.g., pipetting liquids from one container to another). Other times, we might have several opportunities available to us, but we’re unsure about which path to take - will a particular role limit the kinds of jobs we can get in the future? Remember that when you hear about a job, you often are hearing about it from the company offering it, meaning that they have an incentive to make it sound appealing.
Check out these tips from 80,000 Hours on how to resolve job uncertainties:
If you haven’t already, identify specific opportunities in the career path you’re interested in, rather than considering vague job titles. For instance, you could explore whether you want to be a “backend engineer at Google” rather than if you want to be a “programmer”, because it’s much easier to answer questions about a particular career when you have concrete opportunities to examine.
Speak to someone already on that career path to get answers to your questions. Was the work what they expected? How do they see their career evolving in the future? What surprised them when they started the job?
Volunteer, complete an internship, or do a work trial in the career you’re uncertain about. Note how it matches your expectations. Is this something you could do for the long term? Very often people find that jobs are not what they anticipated them to be.
Read more about how to reduce uncertainties in your career here.
Principle 2: Investigate Fit
80,000 Hours defines having a good “personal fit” for a job as being more productive over a long period in that role than the average person doing the job would be. This isn’t realistic for everybody, but understanding your own personal preferences is essential for finding a job or career path that you’re a) able to do well, and b) makes you feel fulfilled. Perhaps you love making your own schedule, or maybe you really need the structure of a regular work week to keep you happy. Do you thrive in a highly social environment, or would you rather have a job that requires spending a lot of time alone?
To find out whether you’re a good fit for a job, consider the following questions:
Look objectively at your track record in similar jobs; which of your previous roles have been a good fit for you? What was it about them that you liked so much? What sort of work do you tend to excel at, and which sorts of work do you tend to find more difficult than other people do?
Ask experts to assess your chance of being good at a job; do you know anyone who works in the area you’re interested in? What kind of person do they think suits this career?
Carry out small experiments to gain more information; can you start a side project in this area to see whether you’re suited to it, or shadow someone doing the job you’re interested in?
Read more about investigating your personal fit for a job here.
Principle 3: Consider Health
Whether your career is your one true passion in life, or it’s something you just do to pay the bills, it’s essential to make sure your job doesn’t negatively impact your physical and mental health. It might be that long hours and an inconvenient commute make it difficult for you to maintain personal relationships or an exercise routine. Alternately, you might push yourself in unhealthy ways to succeed at a job, especially if there is a culture of overworking, or unrealistic deadlines. As well as being bad for your health, frequent burnout means that you won’t be able to perform to the best of your abilities, and achieve the things that were probably forcing you to work so hard in the first place.
Understand your own personal needs with these tips:
Consider your track record of good and bad health. What has previously put it under strain? It could be lack of sleep, anxieties over money, or not having supportive coworkers. It’s important to take mental health as seriously as physical health, as mental health challenges can be just as detrimental to our lives as challenges in physical health.
Consult friends and health professionals on how to balance commitments to good health with a productive work life. Can you make sure to set aside time to recover from a long work week, or invest in a chair with good back support if you’re going to spend most of your day sitting at a desk? Might your boss give you permission to work at home on Fridays?
Ask those already on the career path you’re considering, or who work in the organizations you’re interested in, what the attitude in their workplace is to work-life balance; are people able to speak openly about their needs, and encouraged to take time out if necessary? Keep in mind that the person in charge of hiring may be incentivized to make the work environment sound good. Asking former employees for their opinion, or reading honest workplace reviews on glassdoor.com, can be a way to reduce this bias.
Read more about taking care of your health in the workplace here.
Principle 4: Understand Career Capital
“Career capital” refers to the skills, connections, and credentials that help you excel in your field, and ideally make a lasting positive contribution. Many career paths have a specific set of hoops that you’re expected to jump through - completing a degree, securing an internship or professional training opportunity, working for a number of years in a particular position - but others are much more flexible, and require general skills, like an ability to problem-solve under pressure. You might be equipped to go into more careers than you realize, or perhaps you need to expand your skill-set in a specific direction to increase your options.
How can you find out what kind of career capital would be most valuable to you?
Read about which skills and credentials are most important for the career path you’re interested in, and make a plan to develop the most essential ones that you currently lack. For instance, you could consider taking online classes, or do your own side projects to practice those skills. If you’re not yet ready to choose a career path, research which skills will be easily transferable between jobs (this is particularly sensible approach for those early on in their careers). For instance, writing skills, and skills using common business software like Microsoft Excel, might come in handy in many jobs.
Research individuals who have excelled in their careers; how did they do it? Did they have a particular quality or resource that made them stand out?
Consider your strengths and weaknesses in a professional context. Do you need to work on management skills? Or perhaps you need more practice at public-speaking. What could you do to make yourself more desirable for a role?
Read more about understanding your career capital here.
Principle 5: Evaluate Impact
We believe more people should consider the way their work impacts the world. This doesn’t always mean working directly in, for example, global charities or cutting-edge scientific research. It could mean working for a company that simply makes a valuable product that improves peoples’ lives, or working somewhere where you’re able to have a lot of positive influence, or donating a portion of your income to highly effective charities (also known as "earning to give").
To find out which impactful careers are most suited to you, check out these tips:
Use resources like 80,000 Hours to find out which career paths have the most impact in your field of expertise, or your existing skill set. You can check out their ‘priority paths’ here.
Examine the output of the organizations and career paths you’re interested in. If you want to work directly on interventions that aim to enact positive change, check whether these interventions are effective and have a strong record of success. Unfortunately, it's pretty common that organizations which have branding around "helping the world" aren't really aiming to do so when you dig into the details.
Speak to people who work in the career path you’re interested in - how much impact do they believe they’re having? Do they believe they could be doing more somewhere else?
Read more about evaluating the impact of your career here.
In summary, information is incredibly valuable, and it’s important to gather as much as possible on the career path you’re considering. You can do this by getting specific: speaking to experts in the field, examining your own preferences and needs, and trying and testing low-cost opportunities in relevant organizations. Based on all the information you’ve gathered, you will hopefully be able to identify several realistic career paths (and a back-up plan if things don’t work out).
Did you consider the above information when you made a decision about your career? It’s never too late to evaluate your options and see how your life (and your work!) could be improved. Make sure to check out the full career guide on the 80,000 Hours' website for a lot more information.