How to Set Career Goals

businessman shakes hands
Setting specific, achievable goals provides direction and act as a measure of progress.

For a few very fortunate people, finding the right career is a matter of luck. But for the rest of us who don't wake up one day to our dream jobs, getting into the right career takes a little bit of planning. A major part of that planning involves establishing -- and working to achieve -- your career goals.

Did you know that average employed Americans spend more than half of their waking hours each day working [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]? This means that your career is likely to be a huge part of your life, let alone your time. Also, studies show that having obtainable objectives can lead to increased job satisfaction, better self-esteem and improved overall well-being [source: Helms]. With these facts in mind, devoting some time to planning your career path makes sense.


So what are career goals and why are they important? Career goals are simply the things you want to achieve in your career -- where you want to end up and how you want to get there. Objectives can be broad, such as, "I want to have a job I look forward to every day," or they can be specific, such as, "I want to teach eleventh-grade world history." But whether ambitions are specific or broad, certain or uncertain, identifying them is an important step in career planning.

In many ways, setting career goals is like consulting a map before a trip. Without a map, there's a good chance you'll get lost or spend a lot of time wandering about aimlessly. If your career is a destination, your goals are the map.

Remember how we just talked about broad and specific goals? The broad goals -- the ones that deal with your ambitions, interests, preferences, values and aptitudes -- are called conceptual goals. On the other hand, operational goals are the specific jobs and tasks you set for yourself -- the steps you'll take to achieve your conceptual goals [source: Greenhaus]. Think of conceptual goals as the destination and operational aims as the journey, and it's important to have both.

So where do you start? In most cases, setting career goals is an exercise in backward planning. Begin with where you want to go, and then work backward to where you are. In this article, we'll walk through the backward planning process of identifying your career aspirations and look at some ways to make sure you're constructing realistic targets for yourself.


Long-term Career Goals

As we just mentioned, creating objectives for your career involves working in reverse -- deciding where you want to go and then working backward to figure out the steps that will get you there. Why? To put it simply, it's hard to map a route without first knowing the destination.

To do this, start with your long-term goals, or things you hope to accomplish in the distant future -- say, in five years or more. Then, break these down into two parts: conceptual and operational. Remember, conceptual goals are broad and focus on your wants and needs, and operational ones are the steps you take to meet those wants and needs.


First, think about your long-term conceptual ambitions.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I enjoy doing?
  • What am I good at?
  • What characteristics of a job are important to me?

Use the answers to these questions to help develop your conceptual targets, which may look something like this:

  • I want to work from home to be closer to my kids.
  • I want a job in a creative profession.
  • I want to own my own business.

Once you have an idea of what type of things you like, want and are good at, use those as a starting point for thinking about long-term operational plans. Consider specifics about what types of jobs or roles would help you to achieve your conceptual targets. For example, if one of your conceptual goals is to work in a creative profession, an operational aim might be to become a graphic designer for an advertising company.

If you're already in a profession and are looking to advance your career, think about what specific position you would like to have. If you're a recent graduate looking for your first job, you might want to research jobs that support your long-term conceptual aspirations.

Let's say you're a recent college graduate and your long-term operational objective is to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. A career accomplishment like that takes many years and many intermediate steps along the way. That's why, in addition to having a long-term vision, it's important to think about the short term, as well. In the next section, we'll look at how short-term steps act as a ladder to reach your long-term aims.


Short-term Career Goals

Now that you've thought about where you want to be a few years down the line, it's time to shorten the scope and think about the things you should be doing now in order to achieve those long-term plans. These intermediate steps are your short-term goals, or things that can be achieved in a short period of time.

Just as you did with your long-term ambitions, you'll want to consider both conceptual and operational short-term aims. When deciding on conceptual short-term objectives, think about things you need and want that can be achieved in five years or fewer.


Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What skills do I need to have in order to achieve my long-term aspirations?
  • What knowledge do I need?
  • What industry should I focus my attention on?

Some examples of short-term conceptual goals include gaining more responsibility in a current position, furthering your education to make you more qualified for a position you want or even finding a source of money to pay for school. Remember, your short-term targets should support your long-term objectives, so you should constantly compare them to make sure they line up.

The last piece of this planning process is developing your short-term operational targets, which are the specific things that you can do in a short period of time that help you achieve not only your short term conceptual ambitions, but all of your long-term objectives as well. These types of goals might include applying to five different publishing companies for an entry-level position, taking a computer class to learn how to design a Web site or asking for an opportunity to lead a project at work. Your short-term operational plan includes the small steps you'll focus on day to day. It'll act as a benchmark for measuring your progress, help you to stay motivated as you accomplish it and go a long way toward helping you achieve your long-term career vision.

We've talked about the planning process -- what to think about first and what to focus on now -- but when it comes to actually naming your goals, how do you make sure they're realistic and that they work for you? On the next page we'll look at a few of the ways you can make sure your career objectives are realistic and, most importantly, achievable.


Setting Realistic Career Goals

When it comes to planning your future, "realistic" can mean many things. Essentially, setting realistic goals means selecting ones that you can actually achieve. We only have so much time, energy, interest and aptitude for developing our career paths, and if you haven't set realistic targets for yourself, you may feel discouraged. In order to keep your career vision realistic, consider the following questions:

  • Do you have the time to commit to the goals you've set for yourself?
  • Do you have the needed education or skill sets? If not, will you be able to learn these skills?
  • Do you have the resources available to meet your objectives?
  • Do the items on your list suit you as a person -- your personality and interests?
  • Do they fit the lifestyle you have or hope to have?
  • Do your goals complement one another? In other words, does achieving one goal conflict with your attempts to achieve another?
  • Is the market for your chosen career limited?
  • Are your ambitions achievable in the time frame you've set?

Another way to make sure your plans stay realistic is to share your ideas with trusted friends and family members. Ask for an honest assessment of your aspirations from the people who know you well. While it's true that you know yourself better than anyone, it's also helpful to have an outside perspective on such an important decision.


Don't ignore your strengths and weaknesses -- realistic self-assessment is important. Mapping a career path is both an exercise in self praise ("I am fantastic at math!"), and an exercise in humility ("I'm not a very good singer"). You can always learn and develop the skills needed for almost any job, but you shouldn't ignore your natural talents since those are, after all, what you do best.

You can start this planning process at any time. Whether you're a high school student trying to figure out whether or not to go to college, a recent college graduate looking to land your first job, a professional seeking to advance in an existing career or a person who wants to change careers, it's never too soon (or too late) to start planning. To find out more about goal-setting and career planning, the links on the next page will point you in the right direction.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Charts from the American Time Use Survey." United States Department of Labor. Feb. 23, 2010. (Aug. 18, 2010)
  • Greenhaus, Jeffrey H. et al."Career Management." SAGE. 2009.
  • Harvard Business School. "Setting Goals." Harvard Business School Publishing. 2009.
  • Helms, Jeffrey L. and Daniel T. Rogers. "Majoring in Psychology: Achieving Your Educational and Career Goals." John Wiley and Sons. 2010.
  • Parker-Pope, Tara. "Will Your Resolutions Last Until February?" Dec. 31, 2007. (Aug. 15, 2010)
  • Sahadi, Jeanne. "You may be paid more (or less) than you think." March 29, 2006. (Aug. 17, 2010)
  • Sample, Ian. "New year's resolutions doomed to failure, say psychologists." Dec. 28, 2009. (Aug. 15, 2010)
  • Schreuder, A.M.G. and M. Coetzee. "Careers: An Organizational Perspective." Juta and Company. 2006.
  • Singer, Thom. "Some Assembly Required: How to Make, Grow and Keep Your Business Relationships." New Year Publishing. 2010.