Step-By-Step Guide to Setting Career Goals

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Your career choice has far-reaching implications for your happiness, health, and financial status. But many people aren't sure how to take charge of this process. As a result, they let chance factors such as a convenient job offer from a friend determine the focus of their career.

Although there are no guarantees, taking a deliberate approach to the career planning process can expose you to more options and increase the probability that you will find sustainable, and enjoyable, employment.

What Are Career Goals?

Your career goals are where you see yourself in your future career path. What would you like to be doing in 5 years or 10 years? What interests you? What would be your perfect career, and how can you achieve it? When you set goals, you decide the direction you'd like your career to move in and how you're going to get there.

How to Set Career Goals

The process for setting career goals in a thoughtful manner can be broken down into the following steps.

1. Self-Assessment

Taking stock of your interests, career values, skills, and personality traits can help you formulate your own criteria for a desirable career.

  • Consider a coach. Meeting with a career advisor or counselor at your school, college, or in your community can help you reflect on your background and identify the cornerstones for your future career.
  • Create a career profile. Review your academic and work history. Which courses, projects, jobs, internships, and volunteer roles were most satisfying and successful for you? Make a list of the activities that were most energizing, and where you had the greatest impact.
  • Determine your top skills. Ask yourself which skills enabled you to achieve that success. Then, consider which interests or values made the work meaningful or stimulating. Make a list of the strong skills that you also enjoyed using. Itemize any of your personality traits that made the activities feel natural for you.

Creating a comprehensive inventory like this is a solid foundation that you can use to hone in on what type of career fits your personal interests and professional strengths.

Self-Assessment Example

Jane, a recent graduate, struggled to visualize a career path that suited her. Jane reflected on her role as the social chair for her sorority and remembered that she coordinated some of the best parties, pledge activities, and fundraisers in the history of the organization. She really enjoyed leading a team of her peers, coming up with themes for events, organizing the logistics, and promoting the events.

As Jane conducted her self-assessment, she listed leadership skills, event planning, promotional ability, creativity, and detail orientation as key interests and skills in her personal profile. She also noted that her outgoing personality made her very comfortable in highly interactive roles. 

2. Brainstorm Career Options

  • Take a career quiz. There are many free online personality and career quizzes you can take to get ideas on what career would be a good fit for someone with your interests and qualifications.
  • Brainstorm options. Scanning resources that list a variety of career possibilities can help you come up with a list of options worth investigating. Try the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook for career profiles and data in a variety of fields, or use our lists of job titles to formulate possibilities.
  • Search online by keywords like "careers in health care," for example, or whatever field you are interested in. Try to identify 10 careers about which you are sufficiently curious to spend some time conducting further research.

Brain-Storming Example

John had no idea what fields might be of interest to him. He started looking at the Occupational Outlook Handbook and found himself gravitating towards healthcare careers. He searched the internet for top healthcare careers and found a bunch of sites listing options.

John drew off these lists to fill out seven of the 10 occupations on his brainstorming list: nurse practitioner, physician assistant, ultrasound technician, respiratory therapist, physical therapist, dental hygienist, occupational therapist, and nutritionist. John found that some sports careers also caught his eye. Since he wanted some diversity on his list, he also included sports marketing, sports reporter, and sports psychologist to broaden his options.

3. Research Your Top Career Choices

Once you have a tentative idea of some careers worth investigating, then you will need to research them in detail to further assess their suitability. Begin by reading about each of the fields on your brainstorm list.

  • Dig into career profiles. Try Googling each field like this: "career information physical therapist." You will find that professional groups provide excellent sources of career information. Review the requirements for entering the field and make sure that you are prepared to complete any training, certificate programs or educational degrees which are required.
  • Talk to people in the field. Conduct informational interviews with professionals in those occupations. Reach out to college alumni, contacts in your personal and social networks, and local professionals to schedule in-person or telephone consultations. (Here's how to get started with career networking.)
  • Narrow your selections. Keep notes regarding what you have learned during your research and match it up against the list of interests, skills, and values which you generated during your self-assessment phase. Make a list of options which are still worth considering.

4. Try Job Shadowing to Get an Insider Perspective

If a field still holds your interest after reading about it and speaking with professionals in that sector, try to schedule a job shadow to observe the work and sample the work environment. Spending time in the work environment can give you a sense of whether the role might be a good fit for you.

5. Consider an Internship or Volunteering

Internships aren’t just for new grads. If you want to gain work experience, connections, and insight into the job, an internship can be invaluable.

Not able to line up an internship in your field? Look into related volunteer work. You’ll build your resume and your network at the same time. You might even find your next job that way.

6. Start the Decision-Making Process

You should be prepared to make an informed decision at this point. List the pros and cons for each remaining option on a separate sheet of paper and weigh the choices. If you are still unsure, seek the assistance of a guidance counselor at your high school, a career counselor at your college, or a professional career coach.

Decision-Making Example

Sherry read every possible piece of information on physical therapy that she could find, and she was still excited about the field. Her mom had utilized a local physical therapist and made an introduction for an informational consultation. Sherry was fascinated by what the therapist and her colleagues shared about the field and believed it matched up well with her key criteria, a nurturing profession in healthcare that would draw upon her strong aptitude for biology and physics.

Sherry spoke with an admissions representative from a local PT program and reviewed the admissions and degree requirements. She was confident that she could successfully gain admission and complete the program. She spent two days shadowing the therapists at the clinic where she had conducted her informational interviews and saw nothing that diminished her interest. Finally, she volunteered at a local nursing home and helped with activities for some of the therapy patients. After all this, Sherry had a very clear sense of the nature of the work and was comfortable with setting a career goal to become a physical therapist.

Key Takeaways

Be Intentional About the Process Devote time to figuring out your professional goals, aptitudes, and preferences.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help Guidance counselors, career counselors, and career coaches can help you narrow your preferences.

Get On-the-Job Insight Consider informational interviews, job shadows, internships, and volunteer wor or a professional career counselor.