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What Makes a Job Great?

Is high pay the most important part of a job?

Key points

  • All too often, job seekers focus on salary and neglect the other aspects of a job and working life.
  • A balance between pay, opportunities for advancement, and a positive work environment are key.
  • Before you take a job, ask yourself these questions about the position and the organization.

I have worked in higher education for five decades and I know what many young graduates entering the job market are looking for – a high-paying job that allows enough free time for recreation and family. The lure of high pay, however, often drives them to go into professions that are lucrative but time-demanding. As a result, they get compensated well, but their personal and family lives suffer, as well as, in many cases, their career trajectory.

Top high-paying jobs for young professionals include jobs in finance, high-tech companies, sales, and healthcare. All of these jobs tend to have six-figure starting salaries, but the time demands are excessive as is the pressure to perform. These are stressful careers to pursue.

A Better Way to Think About Your Career

A job seeker should look beyond salary and consider factors that industrial-organizational psychologists have determined to be important elements of a great job:

  • Work-Life Balance. At my college, many students focus on high-paying careers, such as investment banking or consulting. Although these professions pay well, they are high-pressure, with long working hours, and a steep hierarchy where advancement may be difficult. The biggest complaints I hear: There is virtually no time for family and friends, and the long work hours lead to stress and poor health habits (fast food diets and little exercise). Yet, coming out of the work-at-home pandemic, workers today have learned the value of having a good balance between time at work and time at play. Ask these questions:
    • Am I willing to exchange my social and family life, for long hours at work with higher pay?
    • What would I miss if I take a demanding job that monopolizes my time?
  • Opportunity for Advancement. Many high-paying jobs give a person little chance of moving up in the company. When considering a job, it is important to take a “long-lens” view of your career.
    • Where do you want to go in the future? What are your career aspirations for five, 10, or 20 years? Does this job allow you to advance?
    • Will your job offer the opportunity to broaden and sharpen your skillset? Will your employer encourage you to get advanced education, and, perhaps, pay for your personal development?
  • Autonomy. Research suggests that having control over your job and career is very important to job engagement and satisfaction.
    • Do you have the flexibility to take time off for personal reasons (family emergency; personal illness or stress), or does time off imperil your employment and job success?
    • Do you have control over how you perform your job, what you do and when or are you micro-managed?
  • Positive Work Culture. Many high-paying jobs (and many jobs, in general) have competitive, “dog-eat-dog” cultures where employees are pitted against one another to succeed. Moreover, there may be little support from management. A positive and supportive work culture, where employees are truly valued can be as important, or more important, as high-pay.
    • Do colleagues support one another? Is there a sense of collaboration? Does the organization demonstrate that it cares about employees?
    • Do managers support and mentor staff, or are they only focused on the bottom line?
    • Is the culture inclusive, where employees are valued for their differences and are people treated equitably?
    • Does the company have a good reputation? Are they valued for the products and services they provide? Do they have an ethical track record? Are they known for doing the right thing, or is the company known for committing ethical violations?

As many job-seekers realize all too late, choosing a job primarily because of high pay or prestige is not enough. You need to consider the company culture, the quality of management, and the organization’s overall reputation for being a great place to work.


Autonomy Raises Productivity: An Experiment Measuring Neurophysiology. Frontiers in Psychology

Riggio, R.E., & Johnson, S.K. (2022). Introduction to industrial/organizational psychology. Routledge.

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