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College Success

How To Set Achievable Career Goals

01.20.2023 • 11 min read

Jennifer Rivera

Subject Matter Expert

Knowing how to set career goals can help you succeed in your profession. Learn what goals are, key characteristics, top tips, and the steps to set them up.

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In This Article

  1. What Is a Professional Career Goal?

  2. Importance of Setting Career Goals

  3. Types of Career Goals

  4. 6 Steps To Setting Up Career Goals

  5. 4 Tips To Succeed in Your Goals

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s what most people think of when considering their career goals.

While that question can inform your career goals, true success requires planning and goal setting.

A recent psychology study found that 62% of participants achieved their goals after writing them down and sharing them with others. They were more successful than participants who only mentally noted their goals. Taking small, purposeful steps toward your goals can make all the difference.

What Is a Professional Career Goal?

A career goal is an ambition or objective a person plans to achieve in their professional life.

Think of a professional career goal as a map. It gives you direction for where you want to go. Some people are afraid to set career goals because they might choose the wrong one. But remember, you can always change direction. That’s where career goals can help.

Here are top characteristics your career goals should include.

Both Short-Term and Long-Term Goals

You should have both short-term and long-term goals. Long-term goals are roughly 10 years out.

These will get closer to your overall career goal. Short-term goals should be looking forward 1-3 years. These will keep you focused and give you “mile markers” along the path. Make sure you have at least one long-term goal and at least two short-term goals.

SMART Goals

SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.

Specific

Specific goals are clear and concise, providing direction and focus. It’s clear about what exactly will be achieved.

For example, one career goal may be to “get hired.” But is that specific enough? If you were hired as a barista by the local coffee shop, have you achieved your goal? Probably not, unless that was your specific goal.

The objective of “getting hired” isn’t specific enough. Is there a particular position you want? Is there a particular company you want to work for? A better example of a goal would be to “obtain a position as Director of Social Media at Target Corporate Headquarters.”

Measurable

Measurable goals have quantifiable objectives and metrics, allowing you to track your progress. This way you know when you have met them.

For example, maybe your goal is to earn a good salary. But what does that mean? It might mean earning at least $100,000 a year, or it might mean being able to comfortably put $1,000 a month away for retirement. Giving yourself a specific measurement will help you know if you’ve achieved your goal.

Achievable

Achievable goals are realistic yet challenging. You can realize them with the right resources and effort. This is crucial, especially with short-term goals.

If you are graduating college and have little to no experience, you aren’t going to be applying for a Vice President of Finance job.

Make sure you base your goal on your experience and education at the time, unless it is a long-term goal.

Relevant

The goal should be relevant and aligned with overall objectives. Don’t pull your goals out of thin air. You want them to apply to you and your situation. Do some research on the kinds of careers you are looking for. That will help you set clear goals you can achieve. What new job will fit what you want to do?

We will talk more about this in the steps to setting goals.

Timely

Timely goals have a defined timeline and deadline to motivate progress and ensure completion.

Put a deadline on your goals. If you are someone who shies away from deadlines, set smaller deadlines. The key is to make them achievable so that you can see your progress in moving toward your goal.

For example, a timely goal might be to “land 25 interviews in the next 3 months.” This goal has a clear timeline and deadline (3 months). You can track and monitor your progress.

Importance of Setting Career Goals

Making career goals helps you focus on what you want to achieve in your professional life. With a clear vision, you can make informed decisions about your future. You’ll make the most of your potential and reach your goals.

Here are 3 reasons why you should set career goals:

1. A Clear Plan

A plan provides a roadmap for achieving your goals and outlines the specific steps you need to take. Without a plan, it can be easy to lose sight of your goals or become overwhelmed by the tasks involved in achieving them.

You can anticipate potential challenges or obstacles and develop strategies to overcome them. This can increase your chances of success and help you avoid mistakes.

2. Focus

Goals provide direction. You can focus on the steps you need to take to achieve them. This can help you stay on track and avoid getting side-tracked or distracted by unrelated tasks or activities.

3. Motivation

Having a clear goal in mind can give you a sense of purpose and direction in your work. Purpose fuels motivation. Having goals for your professional life can help you stay engaged and persevere when things get tough.

Types of Career Goals

Having both short-term goals and long-term goals provides different types of motivation.

Short-term goals give you a sense of progress and more immediate success. Long-term goals provide direction and keep you focused over a longer period of time. Both are powerful. Both are beneficial.

Let’s take a look at 2 types of goals for the career world and some examples of each.

Short-Term Career Goals

These goals generally fall within a time period of less than 3 years. You will probably have several of these depending on where you are in your career path.

Here are some examples:

  • I will become Assistant Manager of Marketing at a firm in the city within the next 2 years.

  • I will attain an entry-level position at an art museum before I graduate.

  • I will obtain a position as a marine biologist at an aquarium by the summer of 2025.

Why are these good goals? First, they are all specific. You know exactly what kind of position you are looking for.

Second, they all are attainable. The assumption here is that for the first and third goals, you have some good experience behind you. The second goal is more interested in the “where” you work rather than the actual position, which is fine.

Third, they are time-bound. Each of these has a specific deadline. Note they are not for a specific day, but a limited range, which is also fine.

Long-Term Career Goals

Long-term goals are for a longer period, usually 5, 10, or even 20 years.

Here are some examples of some good long-term goals:

  • I will be Head Volcanologist for NASA 20 years from now.

  • I will attain the role of Chief Executive Officer for a Fortune 500 company in 10 years.

  • By 2030, I will have a position as a curator for the Smithsonian Art Museum.

Note that with both types of goals, all the examples have a specific time frame for a specific position. The organization is defined as well.

In some examples, there may not be an exact name for a particular organization, but the goal is narrowed down enough that you can measure the outcome.

Similarly, if you wanted to say a “leadership role” instead of “Chief Executive Officer,” that would leave you open to several skills while still having a clear vision of where you want to end up in your career.

6 Steps To Setting Up Career Goals

Now that you know some of the basics of career goals, let’s go through the best ways to set them and have a clear career plan.

1. Brainstorm

This is the time to really think about what you want. Start with long-term objectives. Think about 10 to 20 years in the future.

What do you enjoy doing? What do you not enjoy doing? What are some important things to you considering the career you will eventually have, or where you will eventually live?

Don’t forget to think about the types of companies you do and don’t want to work for. Once you have some ideas written down, move on to the next step.

2. Research People in the Profession

Let’s imagine you set your long-range goal for 20 years out. Is that too long or too short? Don’t guess. Do some research.

Look at LinkedIn pages to see what jobs professionals in the field have now. What jobs did they previously hold?

Also, pay attention to how long they have had each position. This kind of information will give you a good estimate of how long you need to plan to be in each position.

3. Set a Long-Term Goal

Once you’ve done some brainstorming, you should have a good idea about where you eventually want to end up. Now it’s time to set that goal.

Make sure you have clarity on what position you want, where you want to work, and when you will achieve this goal.

If you want to also toss in a location, that’s fine too. Don’t get paralyzed by this step. Remember, this is a significant amount of time in the future. If you change your mind later, that’s okay.

4. Set Your Short-Term Goals

Now that you’ve set a long-range goal, time to set some short-term ones. Look at the position you would need to obtain immediately before the one you want in your long-term goal.

How long do you have to be in that position before you can obtain your long-term goal? Set your short-term goal at that point, or maybe a year longer.

For example, if your future goal is to be the Director of Marketing at a particular organization in 15 years, your research may tell you a thing or two. For instance, having previous roles as a head of marketing, a manager, or even a former director would be ideal. Knowing this gives you something sooner to shoot for.

Set your short-term goal to “I will be a marketing manager at a medium-sized organization in 3 years.”

Continue to do this with your other short-term goals until you reach your long-term goal.

5. Look for Professional Development Needs Within Your Goals

To achieve some of your short-term goals in the near future, you may need to add to your skillset. That means you may need to add to your list of short-term goals.

You will need to develop specific skills, gain certifications, or maybe even degrees. Keep track of the timing and know your options.

One avenue for professional development is taking individual college courses related to your field. Degrees also prepare students for the workforce. For example, students can advance their careers with Golden Gate University’s Degrees+, which offers quality degrees plus job-ready certificates from top companies.

6. Revise Your Direction

What if you get to the end—or beginning—of your timeline, and it feels overwhelming. Don’t panic or give up. Career development is all about adjusting. Let’s look at some places to do that.

  • Are you thinking you need to get all of your skills outside of your job? Remember, there will be some on-the-job learning. You will gain skills and experience in each of your positions.

  • Are you planning out your necessary education and your work experience separately? Remember, you can go to school while you are working full time.

  • Are you unsure of what your research has turned up? Find someone with a job similar to the one right before your long-term goal, and interview them to see what it took them to get where they are.

  • Did you start that job or get an internship? Did you take a course in your field and change your mind? Again, don’t panic. At some point, you might decide you want to change your career goals. That’s okay! If you’re not sure what you want to do, use the Career Services office on campus. Try taking some free interest assessments or skills assessments.

4 Tips To Succeed in Your Goals

If you’ve finished setting up your timeline of targets to achieve, hooray! Now here are some tips to make sure you meet those goals.

1. Write out your goals and put them where you will see them every day

Keep your goals visible so you don’t forget about them. Make sure you have them in a space where you can see them. Make a point to look at them every day.

Write. Them. Down.

As mentioned in the study earlier, this is how participants increased their chances of achieving their goals.

2. Make mini-goals where required to keep you on track

Making mini-goals that are a month or a quarter in the future is a great idea. Big goals are easier to meet if you pay attention to the small steps it takes to get there.

3. Keep track of your achievements

Tracking achievements regularly increases the chance you will achieve those goals. Don’t just track the future. Track the past too. Also, have your accomplishments in a highly visible place where you can see them frequently and remind yourself how far you have come.

This will be especially helpful during challenging times when you feel like you aren’t making any progress.

4. Schedule a yearly checkup

Once a year, take a look at your goals. Are you on track? Is this still the path you want to be on? Make adjustments where necessary.

Career goals don’t have to be complicated. Think of it like The Game of Life. You keep moving forward, space by space.

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