A long-term career goal is a milestone that someone spends years or even decades working toward. An example of a long-term goal within the professional world may include moving up to a managerial role, breaking into a new industry or earning a higher salary. Regardless of the specific benchmark, long-term career goals help people articulate what they want out of their careers and can influence what career paths they explore.
What Is a Long-Term Career Goal?
If you have trouble pinning down your long-term career goals, don’t worry — you’re in good company. Ravs Kaur, who became chief technology officer at Uplevel in 2019, once struggled to imagine what her future career would look like.
“When people would ask me early on in my career where I want to be in five years, I never had a great answer,” Kaur said.
Indeed, most people aren’t accustomed to setting long-term career goals with the sort of reflection and intentionality the exercise often requires. Some try to do it on a yearly basis as part of their performance review cycles. But that can be tough to do — sometimes trying to imagine where you’ll be five years in the future can feel too abstract.
Long-term career goals don’t have to be set in stone though. They are flexible and can change based on new jobs and experiences. The purpose of setting long-term goals is primarily to help guide employees’ short-term plans to be realistic and reflect the work experiences they really want to pursue.
Why It’s Important to Set Long-Term Career Goals
Long-term goals can fulfill a range of personal and professional needs. They provide a sense of direction, helping someone narrow down their focus to specific benchmarks they can strive for and attain. Professionals often gain more motivation by creating long-term career goals — and receive a boost of self-esteem once they achieve them.
Benefits of Long-Term Career Goals
- Stronger sense of direction.
- Improved motivation and self-esteem.
- Expanded skill sets.
- Greater desire to explore different roles and career paths.
Setting long-term goals can also give employees a chance to learn critical skills. In the fast-paced tech industry, for instance, long-term goals can motivate employees to stay on top of new technologies in order to earn a high-level technical position in the future. Employers also benefit from having a motivated employee base.
While reflecting on long-term goals works wonders for professionals of all backgrounds, it can have a lasting impact on those who are navigating the early years of their careers.
Use Long-Term Goals Early in Your Career to Explore Your Options
It’s normal to struggle with creating a five-year plan — especially if you’re just starting out. People earlier in their careers naturally have a tougher time because they don’t yet know what they like or even what types of work are possible.
It’s easy to set your next long-term career goal as simply reaching the next rung in the corporate ladder, but that can be a mistake. Long-term goal setting is an opportunity to think deeply about what you actually want from your career.
“Early on in my career, I used to think of my goals as very much a vertical ladder,” Kaur said. “My short-term and long-term goals were, ‘I need to climb this corporate ladder, I need to get to senior, I need to get to principal’ — and it was very much influenced by the requirements of that next level.”
“Over time, I’ve started thinking of my career as more of a skills belt, as opposed to a vertical ladder.”
Eventually, Kaur realized that taking her blinders off and getting a broader view before pursuing specific long-term goals could be beneficial. So while holding a role as a tester at her company’s software engineering team, Kaur dabbled in UX design and product management. She deepened her technical software testing skills and also sampled other types of work to see what she enjoyed.
“Over time, I’ve started thinking of my career as more of a skills belt, as opposed to a vertical ladder,” Kaur said. “I focus more now on just getting different experiences and learning new skills.”
This investigatory period is important. Trying out different roles and responsibilities can help people understand their strengths and weaknesses, and prevent them from pursuing long-term goals they later realize aren’t actually what they want.
“It’s a little bit like when you enter college and you don’t quite know which specialty to get into,” Kaur said. “You’re exposed to a lot of different things and find your activities. I feel like those early years also serve that purpose.”
Long-Term Career Goals Examples
Long-term career goals can take many different forms. The best long-term goals always take into account an individual’s ambitions and interests in the current moment and use that to build forward into the future. That’s not to say long-term goals should be stagnant — they should change and reflect new aspirations as employees grow.
One example of a long-term goal is to achieve a certain job title in the future. Thinking about the kind of role you’d like to pursue in the future can help guide you when deciding what skills you should learn, because different skills are needed for highly technical roles, say, when compared with managerial roles.
Another example of a long-term goal is finding a job at a specific type of work environment you’d enjoy. Some software developers, for example, like to work on small teams in fast-paced environments, while others crave the formal support structures and training available at larger companies. Those preferences can dictate whether developers should work at startups or big organizations, and can even influence the type of industry employees join. Individuals setting long-term goals are able to make choices that set themselves up for working in those environments in the future.
Here are some long-term goal examples to inspire you:
- Move from a technical to a non-technical role (or the reverse).
- Work within a specific industry or sector.
- Move into a leadership position.
- Work with a specific technology that excites you.
- Work at a small startup (or a large corporation).
- Aim for a job that has work of interest to you.
- Find a role that allows for mentorship opportunities.
How to Set Long-Term Career Goals
Coming up with long-term career goals can be an extensive process, sometimes one that requires a little soul-searching. Professionals should begin by asking themselves what they want to achieve in their careers and how they want to go about it. While there are plenty of frameworks for goal setting, a popular option is the SMART goals strategy:
Setting long-term goals involves more than brainstorming ideas in a lonely room. Many professionals often turn to more experienced workers for advice on how to get started with long-term career goals. From envisioning one’s retired self to leveraging professional connections, these strategies encourage people to take advantage of both self-reflection and their support systems when planning long-term goals.
How to Set Long-Term Career Goals
- Learn from other people's long-term goals.
- Develop a long-term vision and work backwards.
- Figure out the 'why' of long-term goals.
- Discuss long-term career goals with your manager.
- Use different methods to stay motivated and complete long-term goals.
Investigate People’s Long-Term Goals and Career Paths
Another way to expand your horizons is by doing research into other people’s career paths.
Kyle Elliott, a software development career coach based in San Francisco, said researching other people’s career paths can spark ideas for those who don’t yet have any definite long-term career goals. Elliott tells his clients to look up people with jobs that seem interesting, and consider the paths they took to get there.
“That doesn’t mean you have to follow it,” he said. “But it can give you a blueprint, an idea of how they got there.”
Real career paths can give insight into the diversity of people’s experiences. Developers, for instance, can gain inspiration by looking at people’s job titles, the companies they work for, and also the types of projects they worked on and certifications they have collected.
Perhaps pursuing similar projects or certifications would be helpful for broadening or deepening your learning. Activities such as volunteer work can build leadership skills and ongoing education can stretch and enhance your understanding of an industry, and allow you to contribute in new ways at your company.
Cast a Long-Term Vision and Work Backwards
Elliott uses an interesting exercise when discussing long-term goals with clients. Instead of asking them to think five or even ten years into the future, he tells them to imagine themselves well into retirement. How would that version of themselves think back on their life?
“Let’s imagine your 80-year-old self is on the phone,” Elliott said. “What advice is she giving you now? What does her life look like? How do we get there?”
This technique helps his clients consider whether the long-term career goals they are currently pursuing feel worthwhile. For those who pull long hours in pursuit of a focused set of long-term goals, the exercise can help them step back and evaluate whether those long-term goals still make sense for them.
“Let’s imagine your 80-year-old self is on the phone. What advice is she giving you now?”
It’s a holistic way of thinking about long-term career goals, not just as ends unto themselves, but as useful tools that can help you build a meaningful and satisfying life.
The exercise can help people consider what they don’t want from their careers as well. Whether you prefer working on close-knit teams or for specific industries, factoring your preferences into long-term goals can affect whether you get to do that.
Taking this view of long-term career goals promotes balance. It gives people a chance to think about how their jobs affect other areas, such as their families and their health. Are there any negative impacts on their lives from their careers? And how would that affect that 80-year-old self?
Figure Out the ‘Why’ of Your Long-Term Goals
One of the most important things Elliott emphasizes to his clients about long-term career goals is to always dig into the “why.” What’s the real reason they are pursuing their long-term goals in the first place?
“People often just have this idea of what they should be doing next, because that’s what career chronology looks like, when often that’s not what everyone wants or needs,” Elliott said.
Kaur has seen this often when software developers talk to her about their desire to move into management roles.
“A lot of times, people just think that is the only way to grow in their careers,” Kaur said. “That there isn’t another technical option. That’s not true, for the record.”
Talk to Your Manager About Long-Term Career Goals
Sometimes, the long-term goals you set don’t seem possible to achieve at your current company. In those cases, it’s best to talk to your managers about your long-term career goals because chances are they might be able to support you in ways you may not have considered, Elliott said.
Companies like to keep good employees because it’s costly to recruit and train new hires. They are often willing to work with employees and help them develop new skills.
“And I think oftentimes employees forget that their boss is also an employee who has their own goals,” Elliott said. “Their boss is a human who will often be on board with it.”
Companies might allow employees to take time to work on passion projects or attend classes. Employees can also look for opportunities to grow outside of the office, such as volunteering or extracurriculars.
Kaur said an employee’s current company is actually the best place to try new things and experiment with different types of career paths. The employee is already familiar with the company and the business, so compared with starting fresh, working in a new role at a familiar place can help employees bring value to their employer faster.
Employ Different Methods to Motivate Yourself to Complete Long-Term Goals
One of the most difficult aspects of long-term goal setting is that it’s hard to stay motivated over long periods of time. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re making progress toward your long-term career goals at all.
Kaur said the trick is to make long-term career goals as specific as possible. She brought up an example of long-term goal setting in her personal life, when she wanted to develop a deeper bond with her children. But setting that as a long-term goal is vague, because it’s hard to determine what constitutes a “deeper bond.” Instead, Kaur made the long-term goal measurable by basing it on the types of conversations they had.
“A potential measurement was how many times they would come to me with a problem or challenge, as opposed to me probing,” she said.
It can also help to break big long-term goals into smaller ones. A technique that worked for Elliott’s clients was crafting long-term goals so they fit into two-week sprints, and only tackling the ones that can be accomplished within that time.
Elliott also encourages clients to take stock of all their long-term goals and figure out which ones are dependent on others. Starting with easier ones can be a good technique to gain momentum, but first tackling the ones that other long-term goals are dependent on is a good strategy as well.
It can also be helpful to talk to others about long-term career goals. Mentors and colleagues can check in every once in a while to help with accountability and make sure things are still on track.
Elliott said it’s important to celebrate reaching long-term goals successfully as well. Apart from enjoying the sense of accomplishment, it can also be a good barometer to gauge whether your long-term goals are still right for you. If you’ve achieved something but don’t feel any pride or satisfaction, it may be time to recalibrate.
“It’s so important to enjoy the ride,” Elliot said, “so you don’t get to 80 years old, and then you’re like, ‘What was the point of all this if I wasn’t having fun along the way?’”