Smiling African American female student sitting on the floor on her laptop with a speech bubble next to her that says, "how do I create a career plan?"

If you are just starting out in your career or transitioning to something new, having the right plan can help you achieve your goals. The right plan can help you identify long-term objectives, explore potential career paths, and make informed decisions. It can also help you stay focused and motivated, even when faced with obstacles or setbacks along the way. If you want to build a rewarding and fulfilling career, investing the time and effort to create a thoughtful career plan is definitely worth it.

You’re probably familiar with the famous quote from Ben Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” It’s one of my favorites, and it’s fitting for nearly all aspects of life. Taking the founding father’s advice, let’s instead focus on what it takes to succeed!

In this article, I’ll explain the steps to creating a career plan and provide tips to help you achieve your professional goals. Let’s start at the beginning!

Why craft a career plan?

Develop clear goals

A dream without a plan is just that: a dream. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend thinking about your ideal career; without a solid action plan to bring it to life, your chances of achieving it are slim. Knowing what you want to achieve will allow you to focus on the right opportunities and tasks.

A career plan will help you identify concrete, intentional goals that will increase your likelihood of landing your dream job.

Make more strategic decisions

The path to achieving your career goals will be long and winding, filled with hundreds of small decisions that contribute to the bigger picture. You’ll be faced with countless questions, like: What part-time job should you apply for? How should you spend your free time? Who should you network with? Having a structured plan will make those decisions much easier. 

A career plan also helps you make better choices about major life decisions like which job to pursue or which city to live in. It’ll help you carefully evaluate your options and weigh the pros and cons rather than just making a choice arbitrarily, leading to happiness in the long run. 

Become a stronger job candidate

A byproduct of making and following a career plan is that you’ll inevitably end up with a resume that’s highly relevant to the position you want. This makes you a stronger candidate in the eyes of hiring managers and can help you land a job faster than if you had less relevant credentials. 

My recruiting team welcomes the chance to work with job seekers who have a clear sense of professional direction – as candidates, they always perform much better in an interview than those who are unsure about where they want to end up. Having a strong sense of what you want to accomplish will make it easier for others to help you.

Utilize resume writing services, such as BeamJobs, to help position your experience and skills to help you stand out and land your dream job!

Steps to take when creating a career plan

1. Assess yourself

If your career plan were a recipe, the first ingredient would be you. What do you enjoy doing? What are your strongest skills? Your career goals lie at the intersection of these answers. 

Here’s an exercise that can help you find the crossover between your skills and interests. Make a list with two columns. On the left, list things you like, including hobbies and topics you enjoy learning about just for fun. On the right, list your strengths–things you’re good at, from math to making brownies. 

Next, create as many hypothetical jobs as you can by pairing one item from the left column with one item from the right column. 

If you love the beach and you’re great at working with people, one possible job could be running an oceanside recreation company. If you have a passion for studying the universe and you’re a star in the science department, becoming an astrochemist could be a potential option. 

Don’t worry too much about how “realistic” the jobs seem. Just come up with as many as you can. The idea is to get your wheels spinning about the paths available to you, many of which you might not have considered before. I bet you’ll be surprised by some of the interesting options that come to mind. 

The wonderful news is that there are thousands upon thousands of careers to choose from. Instead of being overwhelmed by all of them, following these steps will help you identify the options that best suit your strengths and interests. 

2. Gather information

From the long list of hypothetical jobs you created, select the handful that appeal most to you. Then, conduct research to learn more about them. 

Start by typing the job title into Google or browsing our library of career guides. Here are some pieces of information to look for:

  • Companies that hire for this type of job
  • Level of competition and demand
  • Average salary
  • Work environment
  • Typical hours
  • Education required
  • Related experience, certifications, or prerequisites
  • Projected career growth
  • Advancement opportunities

In addition to doing your own research, you might find it helpful to set up some informational interviews to learn more from someone who’s actually held the job you want. If you’re in school, you can also speak with a guidance counselor or visit the career resource center. 

Based on what you find out, narrow down your list to your top choice. This is the job to zero in on with your career plan. 

3. Plot action items

Thanks to the research you’ve already completed, you should have a general idea of what it takes to get your chosen job, like the degree or years of experience required. Use this information to map out the individual steps to fulfilling those requirements. 

For example, let’s say you dream of becoming an executive chef – a hot career right now due to the popularity of FX hit, The Bear! This job typically requires a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and a minimum of five years of experience in a commercial kitchen. 

Some action items you can come up with based on these criteria are:

  • Research and apply to culinary arts programs
  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree
  • Get a job as a line cook
  • Become a sous chef
  • Research and apply for executive chef jobs

4. Set a timeline

Outlining specific action items is a great strategy for achieving your goals, but another component is required to bring it all together: a timeline. Some of your action items probably need to happen in a particular order, while others can be done concurrently. 

Based on your ideal timing and how long you expect each action item to take, lay out a series of deadlines for your list. Here’s an example:

January – February 2022: Research culinary arts programs

March – April 2022: Apply to schools

May 2022: Coordinate admission/registration details, get line cook job

August 2022: Begin classes, work nights/weekends

May 2024: Get promoted to sous chef

May 2026: Expected graduation, research, and apply for executive chef job openings

And there you have it: your career plan. 

As you can see, this is a very basic outline with lots of wiggle room between now and the end goal. There’s more definition around short-term goals, which will help you take action immediately while leaving plenty of room for adjustment and refinement as you make progress toward the long-term goals. 

5. Revisit at regular intervals

Creating a career plan isn’t a one-time occurrence. As you cross things off the list, you’ll need to add additional action items and deadlines to keep things moving along. 

For this reason, it’s important to check in on and update your career plan regularly. Every six months is a good benchmark. If you’re in college, the start of a new semester presents the perfect opportunity to revisit your plan and adjust it as needed. Consider not only your career goals but also changes in your life and external factors like technological trends and economic shifts. 

Setting actionable, timelined goals that are specific to your desired career will help keep your dream job in your sights and make the strategic moves necessary to obtain it. 

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn