While many professionals have a vision for their careers, few take the time to develop a set of career goals necessary for achieving it. A career goal shapes one’s professional trajectory five to 10 years down the road, an example of which could be securing a senior job title or making a positive impact in a community.
Career goals are like rungs of a ladder needed to reach one’s professional aspirations. Take Aneasha Meade as an example. One of her career goals was to become an account executive in three years. She figured she’d start as a sales development representative, find a mentor, expand her skill set through workshops and gather the necessary experience before ultimately landing the role. But during a performance review, her manager said she’d never make it as an account executive.
Rather than let her manager shape her career, Meade developed career goals that gave her the confidence to cast aside any doubts and continue moving forward in pursuit of her dream. Meade stayed the course and eventually became an AE for the HR platform Justworks.
“Some people could take that as discouragement and make them go into their shell and not push forward,” Meade said. “For me, I’m the opposite. That’s where I really amped up my goal of finding a mentor.”
What Are Career Goals?
If you want to chart a path to career success, you need career goals. But it’s not always clear where to start or what the goal should entail.
Career Goals Definition
Career goals are long-term targets that define what you want to accomplish in your profession. They can include external targets like a job title or earning a specific salary, or be based on an internal motivation, like making a difference in the world. The best goals map out what you want to achieve in five or 10 years and guide you as you advance in your career.
Career goals are typically long-term targets that define what you want to accomplish in your profession, be it securing a job title, starting your own company or reaching a specific salary figure. It’s not what you want to achieve in one year to three years, but closer to five to 10 years down the road.
What Does an Effective Career Goal Look Like?
As cited in the book Motivation: Theory and Research, psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham discovered that the most impactful goals are ones that are both specific and challenging. For example, if you work as an entry-level marketer, a specific and challenging goal might be to become the head of a marketing team in 10 years.
By contrast, when a person sets an easy or vague goal like “do my best,” there isn’t a tangible benchmark to reach. It can mean anything, and people give themselves the benefit of the doubt when evaluating their performance. This leads to less motivation and lower levels of achievement.
Where Do Career Goals Come From?
So, how do you figure out what to set your professional sights on when you’re just starting out? It’s a quandary two business professors explored in their study on goal setting in the career management process.
The study revealed that, when a person has a psychosocial mentor — meaning someone they can go to for emotional support as they embark on their career — they feel a greater sense of belonging in their profession. When that happens, people become more familiar with success indicators within their profession, which helps them set more meaningful goals.
“By having a mentor where you become friends with them, the student starts to identify with the profession that they’re studying,” said Maria Kraimer, co-author of the study and a professor in human resource management at Rutgers University. “Through that development of professional identification, you start to hold the same values of that professional group. And you’ll start to develop goals that fit with that professional group.”
Still, the process of setting a career goal isn’t easy. It requires research and careful planning to map out the steps you need to take to reach your target. Doing so, however, can have a lasting impact on your career.
Why Setting Career Goals Matters
Setting career goals comes with a number or benefits:
Higher Chance of Professional Success
A career goal gives you a North Star to follow. It puts any setbacks and accomplishments into context, and allows you to see the bigger picture of your career. As a result, career goals play a crucial role in one’s professional success.
“We have found from research that goal setting does help predict career success,” Kraimer said. “People who set career goals tend to have higher salaries and more promotions, and are more satisfied with their careers.”
More Intentional and Informed Decisions
Setting a career goal encourages you to take control of your career, rather than letting your manager make decisions for you. Goal setting also requires you to think about what you like and don’t like doing, what skills you need to acquire and how to develop those skills. In this way, it can help with not just advancing your career but also combating burnout, said Wendy Saccuzzo, head of hiring services for Tech Ladies, a company that helps women in tech find jobs and advance their careers.
“If you’re stuck doing things all day long that aren’t energizing to you, it’s hard to feel good about the work you’re doing,” Saccuzzo said. “We’re motivated to do a good job most of the time, but once we lose that motivation because we’re doing work we don’t like, nothing is going to change unless we take control of it ourselves.”
Having a clear and actionable goal also makes you more resilient when things don’t go your way. When the manager of Meade, whom we met in the introduction, told her she’d never make it as an account executive, she relied on her goal plan to keep her focused on her first step of finding a mentor.
“If there’s a setback, I always have [a] clear idea of, ‘This is what I need to do to pick things back up,’” Meade said.
Measurable Progress and Increased Motivation
The real power of career goal setting is its ability to break down large goals into smaller steps that make your progress more evident.
“If you can imagine where you start your career is at the bottom of the hill and at the top of the hill is your ultimate career goal,” said Lindsey Greco, an Oklahoma State University management professor and co-author of the above study. “As long as people are making progress, they tend to be pretty happy about things.”
How to Set Career Goals
Setting a career goal is a personal process that requires self-awareness, research and careful planning. While each person’s goal will look different, there are some common steps you can follow to set yourself up for success.
4 Steps to Setting Career Goals
- Shape your goals around your own definition of success.
- Choose the right method for you to create your goal plan.
- Break down your long-term goal into manageable steps.
- Track your progress as you work toward your career goal.
1. Shape Your Goals Around Your Own Definition of Success
To set an effective and fulfilling career goal, you have to first ask yourself, “What does success look like to you?” said Oliver Rolfe, author of two life and wellness books and founder of the financial executive search firm Spartan International Group. The worst thing you can do is set a career goal based on a company career development chart without reflecting on whether that’s what you really want.
“Success can mean financial success, it can mean promotions, it can mean positions of power or achievements. There are so many different facets you can bring into it,” Rolfe said. “Understanding what success means to you is probably one of the most important things you can do before setting goals.”
Whatever your definition of success is, it’s important to make sure your goals are clear, specific and measurable, Greco said. If success is being in a role you can give back, define what that means. If it’s to do a job you love, define the qualities in a job that make you feel happy and then take the time to reflect on your enjoyment each year.
“As long as you measure yourself against that goal, then it’s still actionable because you’re thinking about it,’” Greco said. “Is it important for you that you’re really happy [at work]? If it is, then changing your situation [when you’re unhappy].”
Don’t be afraid to set your sights high, either. As Locke and Latham found, you’re more likely to raise your level of performance to the difficulty of the goal. Just make sure it’s realistic. While falling short may sting, don’t let it override your other accomplishments, Greco said.
“You might set a really lofty goal for yourself and if you’re not making progress or didn’t get the promotion, it can lead to depression or affect your well-being,” Greco added. “One important thing to think about there is that people aren’t great at interpreting why they didn’t reach their goal. One reason you might not have reached a goal is because it was too lofty, but you worked really hard and you actually accomplished a lot. And that’s OK.”
2. Choose the Right Method for You to Create Your Goal Plan
Once you identify your overarching career goal, it’s important to write it down and map out the steps you need to take to achieve it. To make your goal effective, be sure it includes the five elements outlined by Locke and Latham in Motivation: Theory and Research:
- Clarity: The objective should be specific and easy to understand.
- Challenge: It needs to be difficult to achieve while still remaining attainable.
- Commitment: It needs to be meaningful to the individual.
- Feedback: It needs to include some form of measurement that can give the person feedback on their goal progress.
- Task complexity: The tasks to achieve the goal should not be overwhelming.
With those characteristics in mind, there are a number of methodologies you can use as a blueprint for achieving your goal.
4 Career Goal-Setting Methodologies to Know
- SMART goals
- OKR goals
- One-word goals
- Career road mapping
SMART Goals: The acronym stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. This strategy requires breaking down your long-term goal into smaller short-term goals with specific actions you can take to achieve them. Within each shorter-term goal, you’ll assess how you plan to measure your progress and when you plan to achieve it.
OKR Goals: This acronym stands for objectives and key results. Start by breaking down your overarching goal into specific objectives. Then, list the actions you can take to get there and the key results or metrics you’ll be tracking to evaluate your progress.
One-Word Goals: This strategy is about distilling your goal down to a single word like “bold” or “visibility.” The method simplifies your goal and makes it easier to sustain your focus on it over a long period of time. Every task you take on should be working toward that single word. It may help to pair this strategy with the OKR method, letting your word shape the direction of your objectives and key results.
Career Roadmapping: This process, developed by Saccuzzo, takes a value-based approach to goal setting, starting with identifying what you find empowering or enjoyable at work and making that your goal. Write three tasks that are energizing and three that are depleting, along with steps you can take to do more energizing work, all on a single page. You can refer to this page to reflect on your current position and identify actions you can take to keep working toward your goal.
However you plan, make sure you take the time to write the goal down on paper. People who write out their goals are 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to achieve it than those who let it sit in their head, according to a study from Mark Murphy, founder of the leadership training company Leadership IQ.
3. Break Down Your Long-term Goal Into Manageable Steps
Start with your long-term goal and work backward. If you set a target to become a CTO in 10 years, think about what hard and soft skills you need to succeed in that role, what experience you must have and what kind of company you want to lead. Then identify where you need to be in five years to reach your goal. From there, think through what you need to accomplish in three years. Each long-term goal is generally made up of smaller tasks that help you reach the larger target.
Since careers can take winding paths, though, don’t lock yourself into one specific job or target. Instead, give yourself options for success.
“Set out four or five different roles or companies that you think would be great for yourself to be in, and recognize that you could get to one of those or you might not get into any of them and that’s OK. Something else might come up,” said Stephanie Lovell, head of marketing for job recruiting website Hirect. “It’s about being really flexible.”
4. Track Your Progress as You Work Toward Your Career Goal
It’s not enough to always be thinking about your goal. You also need to take the time to track your progress and hold yourself accountable. For short-term goals, tracking progress can be as simple as checking boxes when you complete the tasks you laid out in your plan. For your long-term career goal, Lovell recommends reviewing it every six months.
During that time, reflect on where you’re progressing toward your long-term goal and where you’re falling short. If you’re missing deadlines for your micro-goals, ask yourself why. Is it because you’re missing an important skill? Is the job no longer the right fit for you? It may be that the goal you set out isn’t realistic or perhaps your perspective has changed.
“It’s in those six-month check-ins — being really open and flexible to making updates, making changes and checking in to see where you’re at,” Lovell said. “Don’t allow yourself to slide on things. Make sure you are progressing and you are learning but allowing yourself the room to be flexible.”
15 Career Goal Examples
While choosing a career goal is a personal exercise in deciphering what’s most important to you and your life, it can still be difficult to know what to aim for.
To help you get started, we rounded up a few common career goal examples below.
Career Goal Examples
- Securing a job title
- Working for a prestigious company
- Earning a specific salary
- Making an impact
- Gaining career satisfaction
1. Securing a Job Title
This goal focuses on climbing up the career ladder to a more senior position. Before setting this goal, research the target role’s day-to-day responsibilities and make sure it resonates with you. From there, reach out to a mentor or people in those positions. What skills, certifications and experiences did they need to reach that position? These questions will help you chart specific steps to make this goal attainable.
2. Working for a Prestigious Company
If working at a big-name company is meaningful to you, it’s important to research different companies and industries. Identify what you’re passionate about, what you like about those companies and where you might best fit in. Then reach out to people who work there or review their LinkedIn profiles to see what paths they took to reach that job.
3. Earning a Specific Salary
This objective is most effective when paired with other goals. Whether it’s more freedom to travel or an early retirement, having another objective in mind will make the money you earn more meaningful. To set an effective financial target, review the salaries of people in your field and the experience level required to earn that amount. It may also help to hone your negotiation skills so you can push for higher salaries as you navigate the job market.
4. Making an Impact
Identify what impact you want to make. Do you want to influence other people’s career paths? Play a crucial role in the development of a game-changing technology? Give back to the community? From there, list how you plan to measure your impact. This could be volunteering once a week or feeling a sense of satisfaction in your company’s product.
5. Gaining Career Satisfaction
This type of goal can be nebulous, but it’s still possible to make it specific and measurable. Start with reflecting on your current situation. Are you happy? What aspects of your job do you find satisfying? What tasks can you do to make yourself happier? Every six months, hold yourself accountable to those tasks and assess your situation.
6. Mastering a Technology
As workplaces adapt to the digital age, it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest technologies. If there’s a tool or platform you’re struggling with, you can sign up for workshops and online courses to sharpen your abilities. Be sure to take advantage of any resources at your disposal, including company learning stipends.
7. Improving Your Communication Skills
Giving a speech can be one of the most difficult tasks many professionals face. To strengthen your communication skills, volunteer in your workplace to lead team meetings or presentations. Once you feel confident, you can offer to give talks at conferences, informational sessions and other events that place you and your company in the spotlight.
8. Developing a Cover Letter Template
While you’ll need to tailor your cover letter to specific positions, a template can serve as a nice starting-off point. Take the time to review the one or two most recent jobs you’ve occupied. What are some accomplishments you’re proud of? What soft skills have you developed along the way? Make sure you not only articulate your responsibilities but also how you made a positive impact on your company’s performance.
9. Expanding Your Network
It helps to start out networking with people you already know, like your coworkers. However, you can also reach out to industry leaders and other professionals through LinkedIn or another online format. In your message, explain why you want to connect with someone and why their background caught your attention.
10. Finding a Mentor
If you’re looking to take the next step in your career, a mentor can be a major difference-maker. Define why you want a mentor and what you need help accomplishing. Then, find someone who specializes in your area of interest. While professionals often find mentors in their workplaces, you may also meet a potential mentor at a networking event, workshop or fun activity related to your passions and career goals.
11. Becoming a Mentor
Perhaps you’ve mastered your field and are ready to pass on your knowledge to a younger professional. Letting your company leadership know is the easiest way to get connected with newer employees eager to learn. You can also become a mentor by taking on a teacher role or volunteering at a non-profit in your spare time.
12. Earning a Degree
Those wanting to pursue their master’s, Ph.D. or another degree must make sure they’re in a solid position to do so. Assess whether a degree can further your career advancement or open more career opportunities. Check to see if your company covers the cost of tuition or if a university has any scholarships available.
13. Entering a New Industry
Breaking into a new industry can be a lengthy process, especially if you’re making a career change later in life. If you don’t know anyone in the field, reach out to professionals on LinkedIn and request informational interviews. Make sure you understand what skills and experience is needed to become successful in a specific sector. Then, research internship, freelance or entry-level opportunities to kickstart your new career.
14. Achieving Better Work-Life Balance
To aim for better work-life balance, take a moment to identify what you want to prioritize and what you’ve actually been prioritizing. Are you working long hours and sacrificing sleep? Do you feel isolated from your friends outside of work? Talk with your manager, set work boundaries and take other steps to adjust your work situation and make sure you have time for the things that matter most to you.
15. Retiring by Age 55
Retiring in your 50s might sound ambitious, but the goal feels more doable when you break it down. Plan to set aside a percentage of your paycheck for your 401K or savings account. You can also set a goal of saving a certain amount each month and year, allowing your savings to accumulate over time.
Don’t Set Your Career Goals in Stone
Career goals are rarely straightforward. It’s impossible to predict every step needed to reach your end target. You may not reach the goal you set in the timeline you established. While that can be frustrating, don’t let it discourage you.
Think about why that goal didn’t work out. It could be that you were too ambitious, and you need to readjust the timeline. It could be a sign that you’re not getting the skills and development you need in your current role, and it’s time to set a goal to look for a new job. Or, it could be a sign that a goal is no longer of interest to you.
Give yourself the freedom to explore opportunities outside of your plan. Meade, for instance, accepted a temporary business development representative manager role just to see if she’d like it. It wasn’t in her plan to become an account executive, but the experience did confirm her commitment to become one. Lovell, meanwhile, started out as an executive producer for commercials before realizing she enjoyed working in marketing and managing people. Today, she’s the head of marketing at Hirect.
There are a lot of different paths to a happy and successful career. Your career goal is simply meant to help get you there.