It's frustrating trying to figure out the job market for scientists. It is always in dramatic change, on a precipitous decline or on a fast uphill growth spike. Sometimes it seems like both at the same time.

Today, sorry to say, the science job market is a sharp drop off a cliff--but I can guarantee you that tomorrow it will be somewhere else entirely. That's why I always recommend staying focused on the plan and not worrying too much about what the market will be like when your curriculum vitae lands on the desks of hiring managers and human resources personnel. A well-thought-out, smoothly implemented career plan will put you in the best possible shape when you arrive at the job market's door, ready and willing to be employed. In the worst case, you'll have an extended job search and be forced to decide on one offer at a time. In the best case--in a better job market--you'll have multiple offers to compare and contrast.

That's why this month's Tooling Up column is about deciding which job to take--or whether to accept the one you've been offered.

Understanding the decision process

Whether you land multiple, simultaneous job offers or put out a lot of effort to land just one, your decision needs to be researched more carefully than day-to-day decisions. Regrettably, many people don't change their formula--or even attempt to understand the process--when faced with decisions with life-altering consequences, such as which job to accept.

Many people will choose the one with the best salary or decline an offer if the salary is lower than they've heard others are getting. Another convenient shortcut might be taking a new job because it is at the most prestigious company. Most experts agree that it is not a good idea to take such shortcuts.

J. Edward Russo is a co-author of one of my favorite personal-development books, Decision Traps. He believes that understanding your decision process and avoiding shortcuts are the cornerstones of successful decision management. "You've got to beware the easy decision," Russo says in a personal interview. "It might be okay to take a shortcut if you're trying to decide which peanut butter to buy, but in the area of career decisions, shortcuts are dangerous. Your career choices are of such importance that you must construct a decision frame that contains criteria that matter to you. It's an immensely personal process."

In their book, Russo and co-author Paul J. H. Schoemaker go into great detail about this decision "frame." The idea is to provide some structure for the way you look at your decision and your choice of options.

A matter of emotions

Think of your decision as a window that you are looking through. The frame around that window is constructed of personal issues that matter most and, to a certain extent, emotions. The problem with allowing emotions free rein is that they can so easily rule out over facts. In my practice as an executive recruiter, I often see candidates--who have been trained for 8 years or more to take an analytical approach--making important decisions purely on emotion.

"Personal values dominate," Russo says, "but you have to have realistic facts to make the right decision. How quickly will you be promoted? How well will your new boss mentor you? What is the real value of this mentoring? It's all very personal. And it certainly has emotion attached. Your job in making a decision is to work as much from facts as you can."

Russo believes talking to a friend or a relative can be a valuable part of the process. "Talk with someone you are close to and tell them about your assumptions. Perhaps your college roommate or a sibling would be a good sounding board," Russo advises. "If in your research you've come up with some insights based on negative feedback from people who have worked at that company before, don't distort the evidence. Too many times I've heard people say, 'Well, that won't happen to me,' and later it does. Instead, talk it up with a close friend and let them hear why you believe this problem wouldn't affect you." Russo believes, and I concur, that listening to yourself trying to convince someone provides a great filter for your evidence.

Comparison factors

We all have methods for making choices, but we start with the same basic problem: To make any decision, you have to know what your comparison factors are and then be able to prioritize them. Here are some of the factors that most people include when deciding whether to take a job:

  • Salary and benefits
  • Prestige of company
  • Position title
  • Job security
  • Potential for advancement
  • Long-term financial incentives: stock options, retirement
  • Cost-of-living differences
  • Quality-of-life issues: childcare, access to arts, commute time
  • Proximity to family
  • Relationship with new boss
  • Challenging and stimulating work

You'll want to improve the list by adding the special factors that matter most to you. The next step is to prioritize--but prioritizing a list in which everything is a priority can be exhausting. The best way to approach this is with a variation of the "pair comparisons" method.

A consultant friend, Jim Lewis, teaches a course on project management. One gem from his course is a grid I now use to decipher my feelings about any important decision. Although the example I'm about to show illustrates comparing job offers, you can apply the same formula to any decision that requires ranking priorities.

Getting prioritized

Once you've established your list of priorities, place them on a matrix in the same order on the left and across the top (see the decision grid chart). Your job is to go through each item on the list, from top to bottom, and compare them item by item. If Salary is more important than Relationship with new boss, than give the item a 1. If it is less important, place a 0 in the same spot. Put a zero on the diagonals.

When you're done, add the points across each column to find out how they rank. If you end with a tie or two, you'll have to make a judgment call. But this process will certainly help you frame your decision with the right priorities in mind!

Your final choice may include some emotions

"When you are researching the data you'll need for your decision, make certain that you search for disconfirming evidence," Russo says. "This is tough to do because many people have developed a leaning toward a particular decision. If you are excited and anxious about the prospects for a new job, it's hard to think about what could go wrong. It's best, though, to really dig." Russo tells me that he counsels his graduate students to talk with people who have worked at the company before, as well as current employees in other departments and those who hold other types of positions with the firm.

"Don't ask them the canned questions that will solicit the company-line response. Instead, talk with them about their real feelings about the company culture--why they took the job that they are in and how they have progressed since joining up. You'll find much interesting information in the way that people answer questions like, 'Tell me where you think you'll be next year at this time,' " Russo suggests.

Any good decision is an informed decision. If you research what is really important to you in the choice and combine it with a fair and impartial review of the facts, you'll be in good shape. And if you get totally stuck on two equal choices, then--and only then--allow emotions out to cut the deck.

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.

10.1126/science.caredit.a0700154