Career Goals: Developing a Vision for Professional Growth

Set some goals and watch your career flourish.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

worker on mountain with flags setting career goals

We all have career aspirations. Some of these might be massive, long-term plans, others might be more immediate and easier to achieve. Nevertheless, career goals usually start with an idea or a vision. Making sense of your career vision is essential for you to be able to act on this and create meaningful and actionable steps to unleash your true potential.

This potential is usually shaped by your goals. While creating them requires a bit of planning and skill to be effective, it's definitely worth thinking about to help you in advancing your career. This article discusses the idea behind career goals — what they are, why they are important, some examples, and how you can act on your vision and ideas to put a plan and goals in place to shape your career direction.

What are career goals?

Career goals are a little different from business goals in that you are not working on activities that will improve the results at the organization you are working for. Instead, these should be focused on you, and how you can move your career forward. Typically, these ambitions are based on your competencies or career aspirations. Typical career goals will focus on things such as learning a new skill, learning a language, or taking on new on-the-job training or cross exposure. They might be focused on undertaking a training course, a qualification or a new certification.

Your goals might develop from feedback discussions, such as an appraisal, but they should be distinctly different conversations. Career goals can sometimes be called personal goals or be part of a professional development plan (PDP). Nevertheless, they always have a focus on professional behaviors, and therefore will not include more ‘personal’ goals, such as getting married or buying a house!

CareerAddict’s 2021 study, Pursuit of Viable Careers, Post-Covid (PDF), shows that 90–98% of test-takers were motivated by personal development, personal values and personal interests, compared to pre-Covid times. Now is the time to focus on your own personal ambitions, and we’ve put together these tips to help you do just that.

Examples of achievable career goals

There are many examples of career goals; which ones you choose will very much depend on what your career aspirations or development plans are. These can be split into short- and long-term goals, which we go into more below.

Short-term goals

Short-term goals are designed to be completed swiftly. While there is no definition as to how brief short term is, a short-term career goal should take no longer than a year to complete, although some might take only a few days to achieve. These goals might form part of a longer-term career goal strategy or direction, and therefore might be worked on together in order to achieve a longer-term plan. Here are some examples of short-term goals:

  • Re-writing or creating a CV. Taking time to revisit your CV is essential to keep your credentials up to date.
  • Applying for a new job. Applying for and attaining a new job can be a fast process if you’re well prepared.
  • Creating a personal website or a LinkedIn page. Setting up a LinkedIn page or basic website can be completed reasonably quickly and can add a lot to your reputation.
  • Enrolling on a training course. Training courses can be accessed through work, and you might be sent on them by your manager.
  • Creating a PDP document. As discussed later, this is a great way to track your career goals. Making a PDP doesn’t take long at all.
  • Undertaking some on-the-job training. On-the-job training is all about learning new skills at work, while you work.
  • Undertaking some work experience. Work experience might introduce you to a new department or field.
  • Creating a daily plan or time log. Daily planners can help you organize your time. You can find templates online.
  • Networking or meeting someone new for coffee. Individual networking interventions are a great way to begin building a strong collection of contacts.
  • Read a new book or article. Take some time to brush up on your knowledge, maybe on the commute to work.
  • Learn new technologies. This might be a longer-term goal, too, depending on the scope of the technology, but taking regular time to learn a new system can keep you employable and abreast of the rapidly changing world of work.
  • Source a career coach, mentor, or a buddy. Finding a coach, mentor or buddy can be quick, but make sure to choose carefully, as you’ll be working with this person for a long time.
  • Begin speaking in public. Public speaking skills take a long time to perfect, but it all begins with that first plunge into taking in front of an audience.
  • Begin reflective practice. Learning reflection skills is an easy and important area to develop.
  • Set a vision and direction for your career growth. Creating a vision provides you with the acorn from which all other goals can grow from.

Long-term goals

Long-term goals are aspirational and might require several steps or accomplishment of shorter-term goals to achieve. Consequently, longer-term goals might only be realized after a year or so of hard work. Here are some examples of such goals:

  • Starting a business. Maybe your ultimate goal is to go it alone and set up your own organization. It takes time, but it’s worth it!
  • Earning a new degree. Studying for a degree or going for a Master’s takes at least three years, but is a major accomplishment.
  • Earns a new qualification or accreditation. Qualifications or accreditations might be industry or role specific, and can add real firepower to your résumé.
  • Become ‘award winning’. Strive to win awards in your chosen field. This will really help you stand out from the crowd.
  • Become a mentor or coach. This might take a long time, but it’s a great way to impart knowledge onto other people and learn skills at the same time.
  • Learn a new language. Learning a new language — especially becoming fluent in it — can take years, but it can really add to your employability.
  • Get promoted. At times, being promoted can be swift, other times it can take a lot of hard work.
  • Change your career. Changing career must be planned and might take a few shorter-term goals to set the wheels in motion.
  • Build your online presence. Your online reputation doesn’t appear overnight. You must develop your reputation through reliable and consistent actions.
  • Build your personal brand. An effective and sustainable personal brand takes time to build.
  • Leverage and enhance your network. Networking is one thing, but cultivating and sustaining your contacts takes time and effort.
  • Write a book or launch a podcast. Writing a book or setting up a podcast is rewarding, but can take serious planning and lots of effort.

Why’s it important to set career goals?

Very often, it is all too easy to get swept up in setting targets that benefit our organizations and thinking about personal goals. Both are important, but it is assumed that career progression naturally happens as a by-product of experience and natural acquisition of skills. This is simply not the case. If you do avoid setting targets, you might still get promoted and gain experience, but it will probably happen slower than what is possible.

Setting career goals gives you a roadmap of how to successfully navigate your career. Goals also increase self-motivation, self-esteem and autonomy. If you do this well enough, they'll become the backbone of an incredibly structured career strategy that will ensure you are as successful as you possibly can be.

How to set career goals

There’s an art to setting effective career goals. This section takes you through how to set your goals effectively, beginning with a vision and ending with celebrating successes. Planning out goal-setting is just as important as having your goals written down.

1. Start with a vision or long-term plan

Take some time to reflect on what your ultimate aim would be. This is sometimes referred to as ‘beginning with the end in mind’. This might be your dream job, or your primary reason for being, such as running your own business. Craft this into a vision statement. Visions are aspirational future targets, often used by companies to set up a strategic road map for their next few years of operation. There is no reason individual people can’t have a vision either. Take your time to ensure your vision is truly representative of what you want. Commit it to paper and go from there.

2. Take a career assessment

Having a vision is very important, but sometimes it might need some padding out with strategic initiatives or concrete plans that will only be realized through your career targets. One way to understand what your career might need is by taking a career assessment or career aptitude tests. These tests will require you to answer questions about what you are looking for from a career and assess what you are doing well and what you might need to work on.

One such example is CareerHunter’s tests, which take your answers and propose careers and training which might be suited to who you are. This information can then be crafted into aspirations.

3. Take a personal SWOT analysis

Taking a personal SWOT analysis helps you to assess your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Reflecting on what you are good at, what you are weak at, and what might present as barriers or opportunities is a great way to understand which short-term career goals might be useful. Often, personal SWOTs are conducted alongside (or after) a performance appraisal. Information from your appraisal can also be used to set PDP goals.

4. Break down your goals

At this stage, you will hopefully have an idea of your career vision, and therefore your long-term career aims. It will be daunting to only set long-term targets, as you might be wondering how to find the motivation to start achieving them! Breaking down your long-term goals into short-term targets can dilute what you need to achieve and allow you to accomplish small feats on the way to big wins. Start by setting out your long-term goals and break these up into month-by-month steps that you can accomplish in the blink of an eye.

5. Use a PDP template and set out support and resources

As you set your goals, write them down into a professional development plan document. This plan — usually in table format — sets out the goal, and resources or support needed for you to achieve it. Writing out what you need for success in the goal will ensure that you can hit the ground running as soon as the goal is set. A PDP document can also be carried with you and displayed prominently so you will always have your career goals in front of you, as a reminder of what you need to achieve.

Our 2020 study, The Future of Work (PDF), shows that 93.2% of people are committed to pursuing new skills and taking on lifelong learning opportunities in order to reach the targets they've set for themselves. By using a PDP template, you can factor in different learning opportunities and training to help break down your goals and make them achievable.  

6. Make them SMART

The best goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound. As you write your career goals, keep these five things in mind, and ensure your goal reflects the SMART criteria. For example, a goal such as “Learn French” is a perfectly good career goal, but it’s not SMART. Instead, consider:

Begin to learn French by memorizing key phrases as outlined in stage one of Duolingo, and main verbs by December 2022”.

This goal is specific enough to be achieved, measurable because Duolingo will set the criteria, realistic as it’s challenging, but not impossible, and has a deadline, so it’s time bound. SMART goals provide greater direction and increase the likelihood of the goals being achieved.

7. Write down your goals

Write down your goals, either in a PDP document or anywhere you will see them, so you are always reminded of their importance. Consider visualizing your goals through images (for example, if you are aiming for a promotion, then draw yourself working in the role!). Writing and visualizing goals will motivate you to achieve them; if you can see the goals, you can’t avoid them!

8. Eat the frog

Eating the frog means to tackle the large and unpleasant tasks first. When looking at your list of short-term goals, get on and begin work on the largest and most difficult parts of the goals as a priority. Very often, this will be about getting started or making the first step to achieve the goal. Once you have begun, you have momentum and can just keep on going. Avoiding procrastination is a skill in itself, but working on this will drive your self-motivation and allow you to create some good habits that will help you in other areas of life.

9. Get a mentor or coach

Everyone needs a little support in achieving their goals. A mentor or coach will offer you advice and knowledge as you work through your list of goals. Mentors and coaches are similar, but mentors often provide more ongoing support and personal advice, alongside practical guidance.

Whoever you decide to enlist, ensure you choose the person carefully. Find a coach or mentor who has experience, and preferably has ‘been there and done that’ in terms of your career plan. Get to know them and establish a rapport. This way, you will be more accepting of their advice and feedback and tolerate it when they push and bug you to take your ambitions to the next level.

10. Celebrate success

Finally — and most importantly of all — celebrate when you achieve something. Even baby steps and daily accomplishments should be acknowledged. Certainly celebrate when you can tick off a short-term goal and have an absolute party when you reach a long-term one.

Celebration is so important. Others might celebrate with you — and if someone in your team reaches a goal, then you should recognize them too — but self-celebration, such as buying yourself a computer game you have been wanting all year or taking yourself off on holiday, is a great way to motivate yourself to reach your ambitions.

Final thoughts

We all have career aspirations. These are our hopes and dreams, what we yearn our career to be. What many people don’t have is a plan to ensure they have the best possible chance to reach these dreams. For this reason, setting career goals is vitally important.

Writing your goals down and planning out short-term targets to achieve long-term goals will give you the best possible chance of success. When writing career goals, begin with the end in mind, and follow a process to maximize your chances of attaining what you want. Put the effort into the planning of your career goals and success will surely follow.

Have you set yourself some short- and long-term goals? What do you do to celebrate achieving them? Let us know in the comments!

This is an updated version of an article originally published on 21 February 2017.