The Beginner’s Guide to Effective Career Planning

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Developing a good career plan is paramount to your professional success. Whether you’re just leaving school or have years of experience, knowing the key steps that will help you find your ideal path is vital.

Graduates and other professionals often end up bouncing from job to job while hoping the perfect position will fall in their laps. The most effective method of finding a career that suits your values and standards is to build and follow a well-thought-out plan.

To make a career plan that matches your aspirations, you need to take it step by step. If you want to learn everything you need to know about career planning read on.

An introduction to career planning

Finding the right career path isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone. There are a lucky few who know from day one what they want to do with their lives and how they’re going to get there. However, for the vast majority, it takes a little more work to plan their career.

Career planning, therefore, is about identifying which profession or industry you’d like to work in and creating an actionable plan to get where you want to be. This involves setting long and short-term goals that will help you get there and establishing the tasks and activities needed to achieve these goals.

A complete career plan aligns your interests, passions, skills, experience and studies with your professional objectives by breaking them down into actionable steps. By continuously building your career plan, you can strengthen your candidacy for a role as you will demonstrate your capabilities and skills. By having an effective career plan, you can determine where your interests and abilities lie. It will also give you an idea of what you need to work on in the near and distant future.

By having clear objectives in mind, you will make more informed decisions as you progress through your career.

The importance of career planning

The importance of career planning is reflected in the success of those who chose a path and followed a strategy to reach their end goals. When you go on a journey, you need to find the best route to your destination. The same is true if you are looking to be successful in finding the right career. Here are some factors to consider when it comes to the importance of career planning:

1. Gaining perspective

By taking an introspective look at where you are and moulding an idea of where you want to be, you’ll have a good frame of reference to make headway. Career planning will show you the resources you have available and those you still need to obtain. This knowledge will put you in a good place to make the next decision in your career.

2. Staying focused

Often, when we have a goal, we can get easily distracted. Building a career plan that combines your principles and professional objectives will help you keep your eye on the prize.

By checking back in and adapting your plan, you’ll be able to keep your mind focused on what is ultimately important to you and your career.

Other opportunities may likely arise in your pursuit for the ideal profession that could take you in a different direction. Priorities can change, and you may want to adjust your plan. But, if you have a well-developed career plan, you’ll be able to make decisions that will keep you on the right track.

3. Making real progress

The significance of career planning is seen in the progress you make. Any strategy for professional success includes a list of achievable career goals. These can either be related to the skills you need to learn, experiences you will gain in different areas or courses you will take. This approach allows you to measure and evaluate your progress by following the steps that will help you get closer to your ultimate goal.

Additionally, making progress will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed by the whole process. It could take years to reach where you want to be, but through continuous progress, climbing the ladder gets easier.

4. Improving work performance

Another reason why career planning is important is that it often helps people enhance their job performance and output. When we feel we are working towards a goal, it pushes us to be more productive. Similarly, when we see the results of our productivity, they, in turn, make us feel useful and valuable. If our accomplishments are beneficial for our employer and ourselves, in terms of career progression, then we are likely to keep at it and look for ways to get even better.

5. Achieving personal and professional development

A career is a part of who you are and can therefore impact your personal life, too. This doesn’t mean you will become your job, but rather that your job can also benefit other areas of your life.

As you develop professionally, you will gain soft skills and knowledge that will help you develop on a personal level too. To do so, you must first create a career plan that addresses the gaps you need to fill in. For example, a graduate will need to see what technical skills they are yet to learn before tapping into their field of interest.

Building your career plan

To truly comprehend what you want out of your career, you must assess your needs and preferences and compare them with what is available on the job market. Finally, by taking these factors into account, you’ll need to create a list of goals to help you achieve success in your desired area. This career planning process will then serve as your guide to decision-making and job applications in the future.

1. Start with self-evaluation

Firstly, you’ll need to take a closer look at yourself. This entails breaking down your interests, skills, experience, studies, certificates, and so on. You will need to create an inventory of yourself before getting started on your plan. This will help you identify your aptitudes, traits, likes, and dislikes and guide you towards the ideal career.

There are different tools available to help you carry out this initial assessment. Taking a career test would be a good place to start. Usually, these tests help you discover your main areas of interest and understand which areas you are best suited for.

For instance, our very own CareerHunter testing platform can help you discover your top skills and traits and show you how they match up to 250 popular career paths.

2. Explore your options

The next step in building your career plan should be exploring your main options. With your preliminary self-investigation complete, you can determine your career interests to set out the specific occupations you wish to pursue. The right career for you must include aspects that attract, entertain, and are important to you, to keep you engaged throughout your career journey.

By asking yourself the right questions and narrowing down your options, you’ll produce a much more concise and well-defined career plan, that incorporates your preferences.

3. Research the field

When you know where you want to focus your career on, it’s time to investigate the market and the job description. Each profession requires a different set of skills, knowledge and experience. To successfully take on roles in your preferred area of work, you’ll need to know what employers will expect of you and whether you can do the job.

You’ll need to identify the necessary qualifications, skills and abilities that are typically required. You can do this by researching the career you want to pursue and checking different companies’ requirements. Take a look at current vacancies, their job descriptions and specifications to gather the information you need.

It is also advisable to look at the job market and collect information on the specific industry. This will help you track emerging job trends (PDF) and be aware of any significant changes and developments to better prepare yourself.

4. Prioritise your actions

Before jumping onto any job that you think might take you closer to your goal, you will need to prioritise. This means putting what’s important to you in order. Once you’ve informed yourself of necessary career requirements, you need to decide what comes first.

You may find that you want to embark on further studies before you start or need to build up some experience in the field first. You should also assess each stage’s pros and cons to make sure that they align with your values.

This is where you should consider the varying aspects of each position, such as timetable, salary, benefits available, and so on. You need to make sure that what you ultimately choose to do still fits in with your priorities so that you can find good work-life balance.

5. Organise your plan

With your independent evaluation done, it is now time to organise your thoughts into a plan. At this stage, consider reaching out and getting advice from seasoned professionals within your field of interest. Conduct further research, too, so you have a well-shaped idea of where you need to go from here.

Use this information to draw up your plan: where you are now, what you have, what you need, where you want to be, what possible milestones you could aim for, and so on.

6. Set specific goals

Once you have researched and compiled all the information necessary, you can break your career plan into achievable steps and goals.

These steps should include:

  • Study plans and courses you could pursue
  • Companies that you could apply to.
  • Professional contacts that could help you get started

With each step, you should set different goals to help you progress and attain the building blocks required to achieve your career plans.

By establishing attainable objectives, you are essentially creating a career to-do list, making each step easier and quantifiable.

Career planning strategies

While it is essential to personalise your plan, there are a few effective career planning strategies that you should keep in mind.

1. Try SMART goal-setting

When you are creating your goals, it’s wise to use a specific method. One of the most widely recognised ones is the SMART goals method. This means setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals. This will help you stay on track and create a well-thought-out plan.

2. Carry out frequent assessments

A career plan is an ongoing process; it is not something that you do once and forget about later on. Your plan needs to be a living document that evolves with you. This is why you should regularly revisit your plan and re-assess it at different stages of your career.

You can do this by using SWOT analysis: strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. As you grow and attain further experience, you will be able to understand what new things you have gained and what you are yet to learn and upcoming opportunities and possible risks. Through frequent evaluations, you’ll be able to identify any possible issues within your career plan.

3. Allow some flexibility

As you progress in your career and your life, your priorities will likely change. Because of this, you must maintain a flexible approach. Your plan is simply a guide to help you stay focused and achieve your goals.

Your career plan should always reflect your ideal work-life balance and never go against what you feel is most important at the time.

4. Get advice

Do not be afraid to ask for help in your pursuit of success. People have very different ways of developing their careers. Seeking advice from a coach or career advisor could open your eyes to something new.

Read up on the news in your preferred industry by following professionals on social media and signing up to specialist magazines and blogs. You can also ask for feedback at your job from colleagues and supervisors who may pinpoint other areas that you can work on to get you to the next step.

Although a career may sometimes be likened to a race, those who sprint without first establishing a clear route, often find themselves lost.

Career planning is an effective way to help graduates and seasoned professionals find a clear path to success. The aim of having a coherent career plan is to aid in professional decision-making and to maintain focus and balance throughout your pursuit.

Do you have any questions about the process of career planning? Share them with us in the comments section below!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 13 February 2017.