Updated: May 7
This article is for those looking for their first "real" job. For those already in their career, please check out our article: Mr. or Ms. Right - Developing Future Leaders
Getting a great first job is all about forward momentum, energy, and action. This is the success mindset. Successful people work at learning and preparing. This includes calmness and persistence. But the essential success driver is action! Be courageous in putting plans into action. Take a 'test and learn' approach to life. Consider life through a 'perpetual beta' lens.
If you are near the end of your formal education, you are likely faced with a big decision! You should wonder: "How should I move forward with a good, career-fulfilling job?" This article provides a process and tools to make a confident first-job decision. These processes and tools are helpful for a lifetime of good decisions!
For more background on putting career plans into action, please see the article: Success Pillars - a life journey foundation.
Table of Contents
Your first job
The ten steps to the best job decision
Resources - Definitive Choice
Appendix - Starter new job criteria
About the author: Jeff Hulett is a behavioral economist and a decision scientist. Jeff is a personal finance professor at James Madison University. Jeff is an executive with the Definitive Companies. Definitive helps people and organizations make the best decisions using time-tested and patented technology. Our solutions are developed from the research-informed behavioral sciences and decision sciences. Jeff holds advanced degrees in finance, mathematics, and economics. Jeff previously held leadership positions with KPMG, IBM, Citibank, and Wells Fargo.
This article is all about ACTION and moving forward. Let's face it, there are so many career guide resources out there. Your high school or college has them. Most colleges now have a "Student Success Center" or similar department wholly dedicated to successful student transition into the workforce. That is great, all the educational resources provide information to help you decide. You absolutely should make use of these resources! But learning about companies and jobs is only part of the process.
We are different. This article is different. We are all about action. We provide the critical glue between the educational information and the decision. We provide a decision process to help you make confident decisions and take confidence-inspired action!
Steve Jobs was the founder and first CEO of Apple. Today, Apple is one of the most successful companies in history. But Jobs did not start that way. As Mr. Jobs remarks,
"I had no idea about what I wanted to do with my life."
That is ok, most people do not. The idea is to move forward. Take action. Try something new, then as the U.S. Marine's motto says:
"Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome"
The essential step in the career decision process, is, well.... surround yourself with a great decision process.
Most people focus on gathering decision information. There is an odd but all too common belief:
"If I just gather enough information, the best decision will just happen."
This belief is just wrong. We believe gathering information is important but NOT first. Order of operations is critical. You should start with a great decision process. It helps to understand the context in which a great job decision is made before seeking job decision information. This old saying is on point:
"You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees!"
Starting with understanding the decision "forest" is very helpful before digging into individual job "trees." You do not want to waste your time on trees belonging to the wrong forest! In today's world, there is simply too much data. Most data is noisy. A small subset of that data may be curated into helpful decision information. That is why the decision process is essential. It helps you separate the decision signal from the noise. We show you how to be the captain of your own decision process!
Your first job
The reality is, your first job is just the beginning. You will very likely have a second job, a third job, etc. In fact, people regularly change jobs. Our economy depends on a flexible, mobile workforce. New inventions, products, services, and solutions start all the time. The average life of companies has steadily fallen over time.
Deciding on your first job is not as critical as having a decision process to manage your lifetime series of jobs. The good news is, the decision process we share works great not only for your first job but as a way to make a lifetime of job change decisions. Your investment in a good career decision process will pay throughout your life!
Your first job decision framework
This article is focused on the decision process, but we will provide resources along the way to properly inform the process. Like we said earlier, your high school or college almost certainly has great job and career information. Our hunt is to help you use this fabulous information to make a great decision!
For those in college, check out our article, Diamonds In The Rough – A perspective on making high-impact college hires. This provides a view from the recruiters' perspective. This is taken from the experiences of a Big 4 firm college recruiting partner.
The ten steps to the best job decision
Assess your criteria
Step 1: The first step is building your personal criteria preferences. Think of criteria as your "what is important to you about your job" preferences. We emphasize "your" because the process starts with your unique criteria. Not someone else's. Since you are new to the job market, your current state is the anticipated criteria for your first job. In the following resource section, the link to a smartphone app is provided. This app is perfect for this exercise. First, complete an exercise of defining the criteria. In the appendix, we provide some starter criteria and resources. You may add or subtract criteria as appropriate. This is where learning is important. Make these criteria real to you. The resources provided will help you get it started!
Step 2: Next, is the essential step of weighing the criteria. The behavioral sciences teach us that people naturally struggle when weighing criteria. As such, using a helpful tool like the app is critical! Now that you have identified and defined the criteria, this step prompts you to complete a series of pairwise comparisons. People are naturally accurate at making binary comparisons, so the app leads you through a criteria weighting process geared toward your natural strengths! The good news is, the app remembers your criteria and prepares it to help you make the best decision. More on this next!
Step 3: You may be thinking - "Hey, I have never done this before, how do I know if my criteria weights are good enough?" Well, very likely they are. But we also think it is important to include others on your decision team! This could be Mom, Dad, or anyone else you trust. Feedback is a gift and a good decision process enables others to provide suggestions. The app enables you to "Invite Others" to provide feedback. If you include their email, they will be invited to load the app. They can then weigh the criteria separately. You will be given a report that compares your criteria weights to others! It will help you have a smart, confident discussion about why they feel that way. This is especially important when your decision team weighs some criteria differently. You can use their feedback to update your perspective or not. It is totally up to you - you are the captain!
Evaluate your alternatives
Step 4: Now you are ready to consider different job alternatives. Use the app to consider and track potential job alternatives. [i] Many colleges use Handshake as a job or internship posting resource. Your high school also has resources. In the case of your job alternative selection resources, filter on jobs you believe meet your criteria. It is good to build a portfolio of potential job alternatives. Score each alternative on the app. While this is only a preliminary score, it is a good starting point to rank order your job alternative portfolio. Start applying from the top of the list! These are the job opportunities that provide the most benefits. Compensation is important, but that will come later. The job application will ask for a resume. Your high school or college provides great resume-building resources. Websites like Indeed have resume information.
Step 5: You will be invited to interview for some jobs and not for others. That is ok, the idea is to build a portfolio of multiple job interview alternatives. Since this is your first job, you need to do some interview practice. Your college "Student Success Center" or high school is a great resource for interviewing tips and practice. Websites like "Indeed" or "Handshake" have educational information. Remember, interviewing is a two-way street. The employer is trying to learn about you and you need to learn about the employer and position. Follow your high school or college resources to prepare for a great interview. By the way, it is a good idea to start with a "friendly" interview to get some practice. The more interviews you do, the more comfortable you will become. Your weighted criteria provide for your suggested interview questions. For example, if "mobile work flexibility" is important to you, it will show at the top of your criteria model. In this example, be sure to ask the employer about their "Work From Anywhere" or "Hybrid" work options.
Step 6: Immediately following each interview, you should have a self-debrief session. This is essential! Your impressions are fresh immediately following the interview. If you try to remember later that day or after a series of interviews, you will forget or confuse the memories. Think of your app as your little decision concierge. Immediately following the interview, return to the job alternative you added in step 4. UPDATE your alternative impressions. You learned so much. Now is the time to capture that learning.
Step 7: In some cases, you will be offered positions from your portfolio of job alternatives. Sometimes you will be passed over for other candidates. That is ok! Having a portfolio of alternatives gives you options! At this point, the companies will offer you compensation like a salary and a benefits package. The app has an input for "costs." This is the section where you input your annual salary and the annual value of benefits (retirement, medical insurance, education, etc)
Identify the best decision
Step 8: The app now provides a "cost-benefit report" that compares:
Each company's total benefit criteria, and
The job's total compensation
This report provides the CONFIDENCE that the highest benefit, highest compensation job is the best decision for you!
This example shows that some decisions are tradeoffs between compensation and work benefits. The goal is to pick a job alternative with the highest benefits and comp. This is found in the upper right corner of the graph.
We show the gray line as the "indifference curve" between your comp and work benefits. In this example, the decision is between the Boutique or the Startup job opportunities. Any additional opportunities would need to be to the upper right of the curve to be considered a better alternative.
Negotiate, Close, and Prepare for your next job
Step 9: Negotiation is a confidence game. The app provides the confidence to win the game! Let's say you have 3 alternatives that are "in the neighborhood" of being the best job decision. They are close enough that it is worth negotiating. Notice Brand y in the last graphic. It is in the neighborhood of the Boutique and Startup opportunities. Perhaps Brand y could give you more salary to make it the best alternative. Or, perhaps there is a benefit they could change. What if "mobile work flexibility" is your top criterion and Brand y is good EXCEPT they require you to be in the office? Negotiate with them to provide a hybrid schedule with more mobile work time. All they can do is say no! Negotiation is not always for compensation. Being clear about "what is import to you" and building a set of BATNAs are negotiation essentials. As we discuss in our BATNA article [ii], employers will respect you for advocating for yourself. If you are willing to advocate for yourself, you will likely be good at advocating for your new firm!
Step 10: Accept the best job and congratulations. You have made a confidence-inspiring decision! You should feel GREAT about it. Sure, you may be nervous stepping into a new job, but that is ok. You followed a great decision process. The best news is, now you have invested in a great decision process for the rest of your career. Your criteria and criteria weights likely change over time. You can use the app to update "what is important to you" as you evolve. This is part of the perpetual beta mindset. This is only the beginning, your next job is already waiting for you! The app will help you know when the time is right to pull the job change trigger. Please see our article Is it time for a job change? The science of “know when to hold 'em and know when to fold.'em." to start preparing for your next job.
A job change building block: In our article, Changing Our Mind, we use a bucket and rock analogy for your work criteria and weighting. As long as you have more green rocks than red rocks, it suggests a job's pros outweigh the cons. This idea will help you know when it is time to consider a job change! We discuss managing your job's performance reviews and knowing when to change jobs in the article: Is it time for a job change? The science of “know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."
So, let's get it started! You now have a decision process to help you move forward with your career. This process uses evidence-based research from the decision sciences, behavioral economics, and behavioral psychology. More important, our app is easy to use and works in concert with other job information resources.
Remember, the best job decision starts with the best decision process! You've got this!
Resources - Definitive Choice
Definitive Choice is a smartphone app. It provides a straightforward user experience and is backed by time-tested decision science algorithms. It uses a proprietary "Decision 6™" approach that organizes the criteria (what is important to you?) and alternatives (what are the choices?) in a series of bite-size ranking decisions. Since it is on your smartphone, you can use it while you are doing the research. It is like having a decision expert in your pocket. The results dashboard provides a rank-ordered list of "best choices," tailored to your preferences. Apps like this enable decision-makers to configure their own choice architecture.
Also, Definitive Choice comes pre-loaded with many templates. You will want to customize your own criteria, but the preloaded templates provide a nice starting point. For the current state or premortem alternatives, Definitive Choice will help you determine, track, and weigh your job criteria. It will also help you apply the criteria to different job alternatives. This will help you negotiate the best outcome. It will give you confidence when it is time for a change.
Other job change resources may be found in our College and Career journey, including:
Hulett, Negotiating success and building your BATNA, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
Hulett, They kept asking about what I wanted to do with my life, but what if I don't know? - Part 1, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
Appendix - Starter new job criteria
Criteria benefit categories
For the app, next is the “starter” criteria categories to consider. You may certainly add or subtract criteria. It is important to clearly define these categories in advance of your pairwise weighting evaluation. When going through the pairwise evaluation process, remember to isolate the comparison of only two categories at a time. In each pairwise comparison, all you are trying to do is answer the question by moving the slider: “How much more or less is criterion A important to me than criterion B.” Do not overthink it! Your ability to compare two criteria has been proven to be very accurate. Over time, your understanding and weighting of the criteria will likely change. Periodically, it is a good idea to validate your job criteria.
Company history – this relates more to risk. Does the company have staying power?
Company values – this is for alignment with you. Do you feel the company’s core values align with yours? We explore the importance of values alignment in our article: They kept asking about what I wanted to do with my life!
Job Location – This has changed with “Work From Anywhere” expectations generated during the pandemic. Is the work location flexibility aligned with your needs? We explore "Work From Anywhere" questions in our article: Our pandemic-impacted work environment and the surprising effect of the default work setting
Working hours – This is code for “Work-life balance.” Do you have a need for time outside of work?
Opportunities for growth – Do you expect to learn and expand your skill and abilities toolbox? Is there a promotion upside? Does this industry align with high-growth industries? We explore high-growth industry resources in our article: They kept asking about what I wanted to do with my life!
Colleagues – Do you like those with whom you will be working? You will be spending time with them, so this is important.
In the app, pay is an independent variable. Think of your compensation as an opportunity cost. You will enter the total compensation value, both salary and benefits:
Salary – this is your regular take-home pay plus expected bonuses
Benefits – Health insurance, retirement, PTO, education reimbursement, etc. Benefits can be tricky to value. Just do your best to estimate.
For additional criteria suggestions, please see:
Editors, 13 Things To Consider When Looking for a Job, Indeed, 2023
[i] We discuss the importance of developing proper attitudes and behaviors when it comes to deciding between job alternatives. We provide resources to help you curate your job decision and to build lifetime wealth.
Hulett, They kept asking about what I wanted to do with my life, but what if I don't know?, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
[ii] Hulett, Negotiating success and building your BATNA, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
Additional citations may be found in the following article:
Hulett, Changing Our Mind, The Curiosity Vine, 2021