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How to Set Career Goals

notebook with the word goals written at the top next to a cup of coffee and a keyboard

It’s an old adage that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. In your career, being prepared is necessary to capitalize on the professional opportunities that cross your path. But what exactly does it mean to “prepare” for career advancement, and how do you do it? Setting goals is the first step. 

We’ll explain why setting goals for your career is so important and outline the steps to prepare to take advantage of the next great opportunity that comes your way–or create it for yourself.

What are career goals?

Career goals answer the question “where do you see yourself in 5/10/20 years?” When you imagine the perfect job, what comes to mind? The answer will be different for every person. 

Career goals can be narrow or broad, precise or general. Here are some things that career goals might cover:

  • A specific job you want to hold
  • A type of work you want to be doing
  • A salary you want to make
  • A level of leadership you want to reach
  • A certification or title you want to attain
  • Achievements you’d like to accomplish

Career goals create a destination to map your career toward, which will help you make important professional decisions and choose which opportunities to pursue. 

Why are career goals important?

Without a clear destination in mind, it’s hard to determine the next best step to take in your career. Should you apply for a new job? Ask for a promotion at your existing company? Go back to school? Setting career goals helps you visualize where you want to be in the future so that when you’re faced with a professional decision, you can ask yourself what choice will help you move closer to your goal. 

In addition to helping you head in the right direction, setting career goals offers personal benefits that will help you no matter what job you’re in. Goal-setting has been linked with higher motivation, confidence, autonomy, and self-esteem, all desirable qualities in a job candidate. 

Finally, setting career goals can help keep you motivated during times of boredom, disengagement, or uncertainty. It’s rare to find a person who loves their job 100% of the time; most of us struggle to find motivation at one point or another. Clear goals will remind you what you’re working toward, which can give you a greater sense of job satisfaction even when there’s no immediate payoff. 

What are some good career goals?

Your career goals are highly personal, so what they look like is entirely up to you. However, the most effective goals have a few common qualities.

Specific

Goals are more powerful when they’re well-defined. Aim for concrete objectives like “get promoted to shift supervisor” instead of “get a better job” or “increase earnings by 20%” instead of “make more money.”

Measurable

Instead of working toward immeasurable outcomes, set career goals that are easily quantifiable. When you ask yourself “did I achieve it yet?”, the answer should be a clear-cut yes or no. 

Timely

Procrastinators know all too well that some things will only get done if they’re accompanied by a hard and fast deadline. Instead of leaving the timeline up to chance, give your goals a target completion date. This will not only help you act with a sense of urgency, but help you break down larger goals into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Step-by-step instructions for creating goals

1. Envision your future

The first step in setting career goals is to get an idea of where you want to go. You might be absolutely certain of the exact job you want, but that’s not the case for everyone, and that’s okay. You don’t need to know every detail of what success will look like in order to set useful goals. You just need an idea of the big picture. 

When you think about your ideal job, what kind of environment is it in? What is the work like? What types of people do you interact with? What level of responsibility do you hold? How do others in your field perceive you? 

The answers to all these questions can be transformed into goals. For example, if you know you want to work with children but aren’t sure of the ideal job, one of your goals might be to brainstorm 10 possible positions and learn more about them. 

If you’re looking for clarity, a free online career assessment tool can help point you in the right direction. You can also learn about hundreds of different positions in our career library

2. Talk to people about the job you want

Successful people are an invaluable resource for learning about career paths and progression in your desired field. You can meet with these individuals by setting up an informational interview and picking their brain. If you have a personal connection to someone in the role you want, ask if you can shadow them on the job for a day. 

Though there’s no single path toward achieving a goal, talking with others who’ve done it before you will give you a great idea of the proper steps to take and people to connect with along the way, they can also point out things you haven’t thought of and give you insider intel that will help you refine your goals even further. 

3. Consult with a career coach

Sometimes it’s helpful to get perspective from someone outside your professional orbit. A career coach is an unbiased third party who can examine your career with a fresh set of eyes and give you objective advice. You’ll benefit from their expertise and the collective knowledge gained from dozens or even hundreds of other clients’ experience. 

On the flip side, someone who knows you personally can also offer highly relevant advice. A mentor can give you professional guidance based on your specific situation while also helping you build your network.

Related: Reasons to have a career mentor

4. Make a plan

By this point you should have a good amount of information on the career you want and what it takes to be successful in it. Use this to map out an action plan containing both short- and long-term goals. 

Short-term goals are things to work on in the next 6 to 12 months, while long-term goals will take anywhere from one to several years. The long-term items will likely need to be broken down into smaller, more manageable steps. 

So, let’s see what that might look like. 

Let’s say your career goal is to become an attorney practicing family law. Long-term goals might be things like going to law school, passing the bar and getting a job at a respected firm. Short term goals might be things like researching law schools, studying for the LSAT and identifying family lawyers you want to meet with for informational interviews. 

Set dedicated times when you’ll check in on your progress and revisit your goals, since it’s natural for career objectives to shift over time. Checking in with yourself and/or your career coach every 6 months to a year is a good benchmark. 

Setting clear career goals that have a deadline will help you make more intentional professional decisions and stay motivated to keep working at it, even when your goal is several years down the road.