How to Avoid the Career Choice Decision Trap


College graduation brings mixed emotions of both excitement and fear. There’s the excitement of accomplishment accompanied by the fear of the unknown and stepping into a shaky labor market.

Unfortunately, the fear factor this year is going to be particularly high. Recent studies show that 1 out 2 recent college graduates are unable to find a job, so newly-minted grads are going to be scrambling to figure out what to do in this job market.  But how students prepare for and execute their job hunt makes a long-lasting impact.

Recent research presented at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) annual conference shows what new job seekers should be doing to better their career pursuits during this turbulent economy. According to a study lead by Jason Dahling, associate professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey, your decision making style has a lot to do with career choice satisfaction.

When it comes to decision making, there are two basic approaches: satisficing and maximizing. Satisficers tend to jump at the first option that meets their minimum set criteria for what they want, whereas maximizers tend to be more exhaustive in their search, availing themselves of as many options as possible before making a decision.

According to Dahling, the challenge with maximizers’ decision-making style is that “people are limited in their ability to rationally evaluate all options and identify the single best outcome.” Maximizers will try to evaluate every option that meets their criteria and then make a choice, which can be time consuming and frustrating. Just think if you decided to go out for Italian for dinner and decided to walk by every Italian restaurant in Little Italy before making your choice—you’re going to get very hungry.

Even though they spend more time exploring options , maximizers tend to be less satisfied with their final choice. So, what you have are individuals spending more time and effort only to gain lesser returns. It’s that whole idea of “the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence.

When you have too many options at the outset, you may be left playing the “what if” game. This kind of thinking isn’t productive-- or even healthy--for that matter. Attempting to identify that single, ideal career opportunity can cause more harm than good. As Dahling puts it, ”you don’t want to choke on your own decision making.”

In order to be weary of this decision-making trap, you may want to consider the following:

Keep in real. The job market is tough, which means finding your ideal opportunity won’t be easy; you need to understand the reality of what is available and adjust your expectations accordingly. The more realistic you are with your expectations, the more likely that you will be satisfied with your choice.

Be decisive. Set some time parameters around your decision making. The longer the decision-making process takes, the more anxiety provoking it can be. At the same time, it may also be helpful to understand that being decisive doesn’t mean being bound by that decision--career decisions are not final, and you can transition later in your career. In today’s environment changing careers isn’t unusual, and is certainly not frowned upon like it used to be.

Own your decisions. Dahling recommends focusing on the positive benefits of your job choices instead of any perceived missed opportunities from other alternatives. Focus on the positive and continue forward thinking.

Good decision making comes down to knowing yourself, knowing what you want  and going for it. When it comes to making the career choice that’s right for you, pay attention to your decision making style and be sure not to let it get in the way of making the right choice.

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook