The Ultimate Guide to Setting Career Goals

FT Contributor
A graphic of a clipboard labeled "career," while listing career goals such as "advancement potential," "making a difference," and "enjoyable work."
Reading Time: 4 minutes

For many people, it’s enough to graduate with a degree and work in a career for the rest of their lives. For other people, that’s not the case. Many people aren’t satisfied with one career trajectory — instead, they want to make pivots in their career to keep themselves engaged.

It’s not always about being interested in your job, though. Many choose to change jobs throughout their lives because there is a better opportunity, or one that pays more money, or one that is in a better location to raise a family. Regardless of your reasoning, setting career goals is of paramount importance.

Having your career goals laid out can help you stay on track throughout your life. Knowing what you want out of a job will allow you to stay aware of the opportunities that are out there. Having career goals can also give you a better idea of the skills you should be working on and the experiences you should be seeking to learn those skills.

Here, we’ll discuss what professional goals are and why you should have them. Learn more about setting your career goals and what you can do to achieve them throughout the course of your career.

What Are Professional Goals?

Career goals are advancement milestones you want to reach in your career. When setting professional goals, you choose checkpoints that will allow you to climb the ladder in your professional career.

Your professional goals might be tied to earning money, but a paycheck should not be your primary goal. Instead, set goals that relate to new skills you want to learn or a company you want to work for. These goals will, of course, allow you to make money, but you’ll achieve other things such as work-life balance or overall job satisfaction. After all, there is more to life than a paycheck.

Career Goals Examples

If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to setting career goals of your own, here are a few examples:

  1. Increasing your professional knowledge: Perhaps you want to learn more about a particular aspect of your job so that you can advance in your overall career. You might make your career goal “to learn more about marketing” and then take classes on that subject in order to increase your knowledge.
  2. Working your way up: For instance, if you work for a family business and want to own and operate it someday, you’ll need to work your way up by gaining an understanding of every aspect of the company. Doing so will allow you to better run the company in the future.
  3. Working a particular schedule: If your career goal is to work four 10-hour days a week, you’ll need to start looking for companies that operate that way. From there, you’ll be able to assess the positions they might be hiring for in the future, which will ultimately determine the skills and experience you’ll need in order to apply there.  
  4. Achieving work-life balance: Perhaps your career goal is to have the flexibility to work from home at your own leisure. This desire to have work-life balance will determine the types of careers you apply for and the kinds of terms you’ll need an employer to meet should they offer you a position.

Why Is It Important to Have Career Goals?

Unfortunately for many individuals, a job is something they have to do to earn a paycheck and get by. For other more fortunate people, a job is something that pushes them and challenges them to do better every day.

There are a number of reasons it’s important to set career goals for yourself. For starters, setting goals allows you to lay out an action plan for your career. This helps you stay on track and maintain an idea of which step is coming next.

Setting career goals also helps you laser-focus your energy into doing things that are beneficial for your career. You’re less likely to waste time doing things if they won’t benefit your career goals or don’t fit into the goals you’ve outlined for yourself. Well-defined career goals may even give you a good reason to turn down a promotion when it doesn’t fit your long-term plan.

Finally, setting career goals allows you to create a sense of accountability for yourself. Nothing feels better than setting a goal and working hard to achieve it.

How to Set Career Goals

Setting goals can be challenging, but you don’t have to make it difficult. There are goals that are realistic and there are those that are not. When it comes to setting your own career goals, you want to make sure you are setting yourself up for success. To do that, you should always make sure you’re setting SMART goals. SMART goals are:

  • Specific: The goals should be well-defined and clearly relate to your ultimate career goal. For example, hunting for a new job is not specific. Instead, it should be something more clear, like, “Hunting for a new job in the engineering industry.”
  • Measurable: To determine the success of a goal and whether you’ve reached it or not, the goal needs to be measurable. For instance, obtaining a master’s degree in marketing is a measurable goal because at the end of it you’ll have earned a degree.
  • Attainable: A goal should be possible for you to achieve one way or the other.
  • Relevant: A goal should tie back to your overall career goals and plans.  
  • Timely: Setting a time frame for a goal creates a sense of urgency and persuades you to achieve it.

Goal Adviser Tips

Regardless of whether your goals are short-term or long-term, there are a variety of things you can do to help yourself achieve those goals.

  • Write your goals down: Whether it’s a hand-written list or a digital document, keeping track of your goals will help ensure you’re not skipping a step or missing anything. It will also allow you to keep track of your progress.
  • Identify timeframes: Assigning each of your goals a timeframe helps ensure you actually achieve them and not ignore them.
  • Clearly define success: What, when, and how you achieve success will look differently depending on what your goals are, but it’s important to define what success will look like once you’ve reached your goal so that you know you’ve made it.
  • Ask for help: No one can do it all on their own. If you feel like you need to, don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends, family, and mentors. Networking could be the push you need to advance to the next step in achieving your goals.
  • Stay positive: You may not reach your goals within the timeframe you set or the method you thought you would use, but with a positive outlook, you’ll be able to reach the goals you want to reach. Celebrate wins big and small to keep yourself motivated throughout your career.

If you want to advance in your career, it’s important to set career goals. Doing so will ensure you get where you want to be.

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