Career Planning: Definition, Examples, and How To

FT Contributor
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Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” This is the perfect analogy for career planning.

There’s nothing wrong with having lofty goals and dreams. In fact, finding your passions is a critical — though not exclusive — step in a fulfilling life. However, once you’ve set your sights on a career goal or objective, you must build that foundation under it. You can do this through career planning.

What Is Career Planning?

In its essence, proper career planning is the process of mapping out steps you must take to have a successful and fulfilling career.

While this definition may be simple, turning it into a reality takes a bit more work. You should plot a course of action thoughtfully and with care for the details. Proper career planning requires identifying your interests and skills, creating a route of action for your career, and then beginning to move in the right direction.

If, for example, you know you like music, simply desiring to become a famous musician is a surefire way to fail. On the other hand, if you take stock of your interests and personal preferences, play in a band, help someone record an album, and learn about sound mixing, you can find out more about the potential career options available to you.

Gaining experience in the music world can ultimately show you that, for instance, working as a studio musician is the best way to fulfill your goals and earn an income. This, in turn, gives you a road map to follow as you begin your career.

Why Is Career Planning Important?

Changing jobs is normal. However, a job change can set you back on your career path. If you do this more than once, you may find yourself spinning your wheels as others around you remain focused and find success.

Career planning is a good way to avoid wasting time and effort in unnecessary areas of the work world. If, for instance, you want to become a software engineer, spending time working as an assistant in a benefits consulting firm may pay the bills but it isn’t going to get you closer to your ultimate goals.

Avoiding wasted time isn’t the only benefit that comes with mapping out your career. Career planning also:

  • Allows you to understand all of your options.
  • Helps increase your productivity.
  • Gives you a sense of purpose and motivation.
  • Enables you to develop as an individual.
  • Helps you build a professional network in the right industry.
  • Provides job satisfaction even when you don’t love the specific position you’re in.
  • Helps you become an authority and source of knowledge in your industry.

Career Planning Process

The career planning process can be broken down into five stages. However, keep in mind that these are simply guidelines. Each individual career plan is different and should be tailored to your unique personality, interests, and circumstances.

Stages of Career Development

The five stages of career development are:

  1. Self-assessment: Career planning starts with yourself. Begin by carefully examining your own situation. Consider your natural strengths and skills, how you work, and what your passions are. Take into account logistical items as well, such as your lifestyle preferences and financial needs both now and in the future.
  2. Research: Once you’ve completed your introspection, it’s time to turn outward. Begin to research jobs available in the fields and industries that line up with your talents, passions, and interests. As you research, consider each job’s qualifications and required skills. Try to differentiate between positions that are good entry points and positions that serve as modes of advancement within an industry or company.
  3. Experimentation: Once you’ve gathered your research, it’s time to get your feet wet. Look for low-commitment opportunities to experience different jobs within your field of interest. Internships and part-time jobs are classic options. Externships are another great source of experience, as are on-campus roles similar to workplace positions you’re interested in. The goal is to see what it takes to do different jobs in order to understand where to focus your efforts.
  4. Job searching: At this point, you’ve assessed your skills and passions, researched potential career options, and experimented with jobs you’re interested in. Now the decision-making process begins in earnest. As you sort through your career research data, you must weigh things like compensation versus job satisfaction (i.e. can you work a job you love for less money?), willingness to relocate, work-life balance, and your ability to adapt to a job that may change over time. Once you’ve pinpointed the position you want, begin applying. Identify prospective employers and open positions, utilize your professional network, perfect your resume, master the art of writing cover letters for each position, and prepare for interviews.
  5. Accepting an offer: Once you receive a job offer you like, the final step is to accept the position. This isn’t the end of your career planning, but it does wrap up the first phase. It marks a milestone as you transition from a process of discovery to one of implementing your research, knowledge, and career ambitions in the workplace over the long term. From your first entry-level position, you can begin to build your career through promotions and job changes that will better your career prospects over time.

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