The process of researching possible career paths can be confusing, and lacking a clear idea of which options are on the table only makes it more so. A good place to start is to figure out the scope of your search. What are all the career options that could be relevant for you? And what options might not be feasible to even consider?
The scope of your career search is the range of plausible career options you’ll look further into. When considering it, it’s a good idea to not only think about specific roles or organizations, but also about general job characteristics or types.
For instance, maybe your scope is limited to jobs within a specific location. Or maybe, you will only consider nontechnical roles or careers within the social sciences. You might also limit your scope to a specific cause area, focusing on jobs that work on a particular issue like climate change or mental health. Once you have an understanding of the scope in terms of general characteristics, it becomes much easier to search for specific roles within it.
At this stage, we’re not necessarily looking for the best option – and it’s likely that some possibilities will turn out to be better than others. Instead, we want to avoid ruling out any plausible options before fully exploring them. If an option has a small but not insignificant chance of being the option we’ll eventually choose, we’ll mark it as ‘within the scope’ for now and move on with it to the next phase. Then, we’ll start making assessments and comparisons between them.
Pushing the limits & exploring possibilities
There’s a wide range of ways to do good through a career, but people tend to think of a very narrow scope of possibility – determined by the people they know, their current path, their previous experience, etc. The inertia of a career trajectory also plays a role in this, leading people to continue down a path without ever slowing down to figure out if it’s the best option for their goals.
Before prioritizing and comparing specific options, we’d encourage you to widen your scope. Most people are capable of success in far more career paths than they realize, and when people do make a change (even if they’re unsure of it) things tend to turn out pretty well.
Some brainstorming questions to ask yourself might be:
- What are all your possible options for doing good with your career or for gaining career capital to do more good in the future?
- What would career options look like across different sectors – for example, private, government, nonprofit, or academia?
- What are some interesting options that you haven’t seriously considered because you don’t know if you’d be any good at it?
- Can you think of a specific cause area or issue that you don’t currently know much about but might want to further investigate?
One way to help brainstorm a wider range of possibilities is to find people with experience or skills similar to yours (whether colleagues, friends, or fellow students) on LinkedIn and see if their career has taken a direction you didn’t expect. It may be helpful to expose yourself to the range of ways that you could use your skill set or it could be worth reaching out to chat more about how they got into their job.
By starting out with a diverse range of options, you could find something extremely promising that you wouldn’t have initially considered. And while the cost of looking into a different path can be very low (via reading about it, asking people who are involved, etc.), the potential increase in impact could be quite high.
What’s in my scope?
Obviously, the options that seem appealing or impactful are within your scope. It’s more difficult to determine whether a less desirable option is irrelevant and out of scope, or if it’s a less promising option within scope that will require more research. Below are a few different ways of asking what’s in your scope – feel free to use whichever one of them works for you (or all of them, if you’d like).
What’s the chance this could be a good option?
When thinking through your possibilities, it’s helpful to have some sense of whether or not a particular possibility could turn out to be your best choice. For instance, if you’d only be somewhat surprised if an option turns out to be your best one, let’s keep it in the scope for now. Even a small chance (say, 1 in 20) of finding a better option for your next career step is still pretty valuable. However, if you’d be utterly shocked if an option would be the best for you and think something has clearly gone wrong, it’s probably out of scope.
Can you imagine a best case scenario in which you’d consider an option – even if you don’t expect it to be the best choice?
To stretch your scope a bit, try thinking optimistically about your deal breakers. Maybe you currently think that relocation would shift an option out of your scope. But imagine the best job offer you could realistically think of requires you to move. This imaginary offer would be very good on every other parameter (but not ridiculously so). It would have a larger impact than you could have locally, it would better fit your lifestyle, would have higher compensation, etc. Would you consider it? If the answer is yes, then it can be worth remaining open to similar opportunities and not ruling them out just yet. Of course, if the answer is no and you could never relocate for the best possible job offer, it’s fair to have a hard boundary on this factor and take it out of your scope.
Will you still have some good options if your first choices don’t work out?
It’s good to have a broad enough range that, even if your top options don’t work out, you still have some alternatives. Let’s say, for example, that you’re very set on making an impact in reducing animal suffering, so you need to ask yourself whether a job that impacts human health is within your scope. You can imagine a process where you’ve gone through every promising option in the animal welfare space and none of them work out. Some are a bad fit for various reasons, some you get rejected from, etc. The only thing left on your list are jobs in global health. What would you do now? If your answer is, I’ll look into these options and find the least bad one – then it might be within your scope. If your answer is, there must have been some mistake, I need to go back to the start and look more thoroughly – then it’s more likely that these options aren’t relevant.
Keeping these questions in mind, we can make some decisions about our scope and figure out what we might want to include.
Step 1: Find examples of specific options
Try to think of 3-5 examples of potential options. If you’re currently looking for a job, then those could be examples of specific jobs (real or imagined) that are potentially relevant. If you’re just considering careers to pursue at some point down the line, then try thinking of examples of general career paths. Try to make sure your examples are varied in as many ways as possible. To help illustrate the process, let’s follow a fictional example.
Lucía studied English literature. As she nears the end of her undergraduate degree, she wants to find a career path that will allow her to do as much good as possible. The first, obvious option Lucía can think of is continuing an academic career in literature. This would be a great fit for her personally, but she’s very unsure about whether there’s a potential for real impact on the world. Another option would be changing fields and continuing her studies in one of several fields she might be suited for: philosophy, policy, etc. If she did switch to public policy, she could potentially envision herself in some sort of government position. This sounds promising, but Lucía doesn’t know enough about the specific roles and options. Outside of academia, she could try to establish a writing career (either as a journalist or author) and influence people through her writing, but she’s unsure whether she has what it takes to succeed in this path. The last relevant option Lucía can think of is to do some sort of communications work for a nonprofit, but this doesn’t sound too interesting at the moment.
Step 2: Work through considerations
Now that you’ve thought of a few concrete options, we can see if they align with the considerations you find important in your search. Start by thinking what are absolute dealbreakers for you (that would make an option irrelevant to consider further) and what are extremely important wants (that would make an option seem especially promising). Again, we’re not looking to find the best jobs; rather, we want to outline the areas that are irrelevant so we can put them aside and move on. A few common examples of relevant considerations:
Role, needed skill-set, seniority
Are you set on a specific role or is there flexibility? Would you potentially take a less senior role in order to eventually have more impact? Is there a chance you’ll be accepted to a more senior role that you are aiming for and achieve much more? If you are completely sure you’re unfit for a role, it might also be out of scope.
Later, we’ll look for the highest impact opportunities within our scope. For now, areas that don’t have any potential to make an impact can be set aside. Is there a chance that this path could have a great opportunity for impact? Or, is there a chance that this path could provide career capital that prepares you to make a bigger impact in the future?
How long a commute is so long that you’d need to move? Can you and would you potentially move cities/countries for a great opportunity to do good at a job you love? Are you comfortable working remotely? Do you require or strongly prefer a remote job?
Many people have lifestyle needs that aren’t flexible: Taking care of family, needing job security, limitations or disabilities that constrain your options, etc. Options that contradict your needs can be set out of your scope.
Think of what is the minimum compensation that would allow you to live a comfortable enough life to be able to focus on making an impact.
Other important considerations
Your list of considerations doesn’t have to be limited to the factors mentioned above. Figure out if there are other crucial factors that make some roles impossible for you – for example:
- Are there types of work you find boring enough that you know you’ll burn out very quickly?
- Are you so dedicated to work in a particular cause area that you wouldn’t consider roles working on other problems?
- Are there cultural or religious reasons that steer you away from specific career paths?
Lucía considers what important constraints she has on her career options: She’s married but doesn’t have kids and is able to move. For a great opportunity, her partner would move with her for a few years at least.
She feels quite strongly that her skills are in the humanities, but remain very flexible. She doesn’t think she would be well suited for a career relying heavily on hard sciences or engineering skills, but might be a fit for almost anything else. She’s unsure of how suited she is for many roles, but that is an uncertainty she’ll think about later. At this point in her life, she has very little constraints on lifestyle and compensation.
Thinking of other important considerations, she realizes that she’s only able to be effective on projects that allow her to work in relative peace and quiet for periods of time. She considers whether this is a hard constraint, and concludes she has enough experiences in varied work environments to be confident in this: Without the ability to work in peace, she can’t do effective work.
Step 3: Review, Make Corrections and Summarize
Hopefully, by sorting through your thoughts on different considerations, you can reach a general understanding of the possibilities in your scope. Last, we’ll review to see if there’s anything important we missed.
First, try to think of examples of roles that are definitely out of scope for you and see if you understand why. If something feels irrelevant for you, but you’re not sure why, then it might warrant a little more thought. It could be relevant (and your gut reaction is misleading) or irrelevant (and you need to improve your understanding of the factors important to you).
Then, try to differentiate between what is actually in your scope and what you’d like to think (perhaps unrealistically) is in your scope. Do you enjoy the idea that you could’ve been an influential writer but have never actually enjoyed writing? Do you not want to take a more junior role than your current one but would actually consider it if the right opportunity arose? Try to think of the decisions you would actually make rather than those that you enjoy thinking about making.
Lucía has a good understanding of her scope: a career path in humanities or soft sciences with a role that allows her periods of quiet work. Thinking on this from many angles, she tries to brainstorm any other options that she may want to investigate in more detail.
First, she wonders if some sort of management position could be a good option. Her initial instinct is that she’s not suited for leading others or telling them what to do. However, upon talking to some people who know her skills, she realizes this assumption may have more to do with her perception of management than her actual capabilities. Perhaps she could approach management in a different way, and maybe it doesn’t require the sort of overly confident or extroverted personality that she had thought. Not wanting to limit herself, she decides this option is within her scope. It may not be a great option for her, but it’s certainly not impossible.
Lucía then sits down with a friend who suggests logistics. She hadn’t really thought about this sort of work, but after talking through it, it seems that there are areas where logistics can have an incredible impact. She asks herself about a best case scenario – imagining an exciting company and a great position. Still, she thinks about the day to day work of the role and doesn’t believe she’d last a month. For now, this is out of scope.
Do it yourself!
If you’re following along with the guide and currently have a decision to make, this would be a good point to set your scope.
- Write down a wide range of possibilities. These could be specific jobs that you might be suited for, general fields, or broad career paths. This should include any relevant option you can think of – even if it doesn’t seem like you’ll end up choosing it.
- Decide what factors and considerations would make something in or out of of your scope. These can be things like location, compensation, the particular cause or problem you want to work on, the day-to-day tasks. Do your possible options fit within these considerations? Can you decipher which possibilities are irrelevant?
- Review your scope to see if there’s something you missed. Are there other possible options that you didn’t initially think of? Are there any other considerations that would change whether or not you consider an option?