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Why You Need Career Goals and How to Set Them Effectively

By Publisher
| Last Updated January 3, 2022

Most of us want to be successful in our professional lives, but not all of us have a clear picture of what that means. Setting career goals is about determining where you want your work to take you and what steps are required to get to that point. By defining what you hope to achieve, you can focus your energy on actions that will help turn your vision into reality.

As you will see, there are countless examples of professional goals you may choose to set for yourself. But ultimately, your goals should be tailored to your own unique situation. That means putting in the time and effort to assess what's really most important to you. The information below will help you understand exactly what career goals are and why they're important. You'll learn about a series of practical steps you can follow to set effective goals that are meaningful and relevant to you. Plus, you'll get helpful advice on the best way to talk about your goals in a college essay, on a resume, during a job interview, or as part of a performance review.

What Are Career Goals?

Smiling young woman sitting at a desk and leaning back in her chair with her arms folded behind her headHere's a basic career goals definition: benchmarks that you aim to hit in your working life. While personal goals are things you hope to achieve outside of work (like losing weight or traveling to a place you've always wanted to see), professional goals represent how you want to advance along your chosen career path.

Different types of career goals can focus on different aspects of work, such as:

  • Productivity: Getting things done and generating results
  • Efficiency: Delivering results with minimal wasted time or energy
  • Education: Seeking out new knowledge within your field
  • Personal growth: Improving your soft skills, such as teamwork, organization, or communication

So, what is a career goal? It's a statement that defines a professional target you plan to meet in either the short or long term.

Short-term goals are things you can reasonably expect to accomplish within a few months; long-term goals are milestones you plan to hit a year or more down the road. Short-term career goal examples could include earning a professional certification or boosting quarterly sales. Long-term goal examples include getting promoted to a management position or starting your own business.

Why Do Career Goals Matter?

Young woman with dark curly hair and glasses smiling at the cameraSetting objectives can be very beneficial for your professional life. Check out three of the key reasons you should take the goal-setting process seriously:

  • Goals provide focus. Having defined targets helps you focus on where you want to go and how you're going to get there. That can keep you from moving forward aimlessly and taking on roles that don't bring you any closer to your ultimate career objectives. Without a goal, you may have no career direction. With a goal, you have something concrete to work toward and can concentrate on the steps that are necessary to achieve the outcome you want.
  • Goals motivate you. When you know what you're striving for, you're able to make better decisions about how to proceed and you're more likely to put energy into your efforts. Even if you experience a setback, you can draw inspiration from knowing that you have an end result in mind. By completing one small step at a time, you can take satisfaction in your overall progress. And that can encourage you to stay on track.
  • Goals make you accountable. By defining realistic and measurable goals, you take control of your professional future. You can prioritize what you want to achieve, decide how to allocate your time and energy, and set expectations for yourself. Rather than going through the motions with no real sense of purpose, you take responsibility for your own success.

Examples of Career Goals

If you're having trouble coming up with career goals, examples like the general ones below may inspire you. Perhaps you'd like to:

Smiling young man wearing a dark suit and standing in front of a glass building with his arms stretched out to the sides
  • Obtain your first job
  • Win an award
  • Take an online course to upgrade your skills
  • Learn a new tool
  • Improve collaboration within your team
  • Learn more about other departments
  • Expand your network
  • Become a more effective public speaker
  • Improve your time management skills
  • Identify new challenges within your role
  • Become a mentor
  • Research a competitor
  • Move into a leadership role
  • Grow your company's market share
  • Streamline a process within your department
  • Work from home or have an alternative schedule
  • Make $100,000 a year

How to Set Good Career Goals

A smiling man and woman wearing business attire high-fiving each other while sitting near a wall of windows and a staircaseAre you eager to establish some goals, but don't know where to start? The following tips can help you learn how to write a career goal statement:

1. Choose a goal that's meaningful to you.

Your career goals should reflect what success really means to you. After all, if you don't care about the destination, you won't put any effort into the journey. So don't select a goal based on what you think you should want or what others expect of you. Dig deep and think about what would truly light your fire.

What are your career aspirations? What do you hope to accomplish over the next three months? Where do you want to be a year from now? How about in five or 10 years?

Everyone's goals are different. One person may dream of leading a Fortune 500 company while someone else might long for a job that allows them to get home by 5:00 each day. Focus on what matters most to you.

2. Follow the SMART goal framework.

Many experts advocate using the SMART method of goal setting. The five tenets of SMART goals are:

  • Specific: The more precise and detailed your goal is, the more direction it will give you. A goal like, "I will be better at networking," is too vague. An example of a SMART goal is, "I will attend at least two industry-related networking events over the next year."
  • Measurable: Define how you will gauge your progress and determine success. Your goal should be quantifiable so that you can tell when you cross the finish line. For example, if your goal is to sell more real estate, you need to determine how much of an increase you're aiming for. Are three extra houses enough? Are you looking for a five-percent bump over the previous year?
  • Achievable or Attainable: A goal that's impossibly out of reach will frustrate you (and a goal that's too easy to reach won't motivate you). The idea is to stretch yourself and be challenged, but not to the point of absurdity. A realistic goal is one that you can reasonably expect to accomplish given the time and resources that are available to you.
  • Relevant: A career goal should be pertinent to your overall objective and move you closer to where you really want to be. So be sure to ask yourself why you want to achieve a particular goal. Does it align with your values and objectives? Will accomplishing it benefit you in some way?
  • Time-based: There must be a defined time period in which you will achieve your goal. If there's no deadline, there's no urgency. The point of establishing a timeline is to keep you motivated and on track. So, for instance, if you want to expand your freelance graphic design business, you might set a goal of landing three new clients within the next six months.

The best career goals are those that follow the SMART principles outlined above. Of course, what is achievable and relevant will depend on what knowledge and skills you have, what resources you can draw from, how much experience you've accumulated, and where you ultimately want to go. That said, here are a few examples of SMART goals for different occupations:

  • Registered nurse: I will update each patient's chart within 15 minutes of leaving the bedside so that I don't forget any details.
  • Accountant: I will earn my Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation within the next four years.
  • Kindergarten teacher: By the end of this school year, at least 80 percent of my students will reach the reading benchmark established by my district.
  • Writer: I will write 300 words every day so that I complete a 100,000-word crime novel within the next 12 months.
  • Software developer: By the end of this year, I will become familiar enough with continuous integration and continuous delivery to automate the building and deployment of my company's new software product.
  • Marketing specialist: By the time of our webinar next month, I will generate a 10-percent increase in the number of people who sign up by promoting it through our blog, email newsletter, and social media accounts.

3. Write it down.

If you're serious about reaching your goal, write it down. Even if you have a well-crafted objective, it's not enough to just carry it around in your head. Research has revealed that people are far more likely to achieve their goals if they write them down.

You write down your goals by putting pen to paper. The actual movement of your hand and the pen serves to encode the information in your brain and help you retain it for the long term. Plus, having your goals on paper lets you post them in a conspicuous place—like in your office or on your fridge—as a visual reminder of what you've resolved to do.

Remember to keep your language positive. Instead of a negative goal like, "Get out of this crappy job," try, "By the end of next month, I will identify a role that aligns with my interests, skills, and financial aspirations."

4. Make an action plan.

Once you've identified your goal, you need to break it down into smaller steps that will help you reach it. You need a map to get you from Point A to Point B. That might include getting additional education or training, seeking out internships or volunteer opportunities to gain experience, or connecting with people in your chosen industry.

For instance, if your goal is to build websites, you could resolve to learn more about a specific platform, such as Drupal. You may need to enroll in a training course or watch a series of video tutorials. You might also want to connect with other Drupal developers by checking out online forums and attending industry events.

Be sure to think about how you will overcome any challenges or roadblocks along the way. For example, do you have enough spare time to watch 10 hours of video tutorials? Can you process all of that information in one sitting? Maybe your action plan should specify that you will watch one hour of videos every Saturday for 10 weeks rather than take in all 10 hours at once.

5. Be flexible.

Remember that career goals evolve over time. The objectives you have when you're in your early 20s will likely be very different from the ones you have when you're in your 40s. It's important to track your progress and reassess your goals regularly. Be prepared to let go of any objectives that are no longer meaningful so that you can stay focused on what is most important to you.

How to Talk About Career Goals in a College Scholarship Essay

Young woman sitting at a desk in a room full of books and writing notes while smiling at an open laptopMany scholarship providers require you to write a career goals essay as part of your application. This is your chance to impress the selection committee with a concise and well-thought-out vision of your professional aspirations. The committee is looking to find out how investing in your training will benefit society in the long run. What makes you the best candidate for these funds?

Your essay should answer a few basic questions:

  • What are your long-term career goals?
  • What inspired you to choose that line of work?
  • How do you want to make a difference in the world?
  • How will a college education (and this scholarship in particular) help you do that?

You describe your career goals by crafting a few concise sentences that illustrate what you'd ultimately like to do and how the scholarship funds will enable you to fulfill your potential. Here's a simple example:

"My ultimate goal is to become a speech-language pathologist. My brother struggled with enunciation issues as a child, and I never forgot how frustrated and humiliated he would become when his teachers or peers could not understand him. I want to provide the tools and supports to help kids overcome their communication challenges. This scholarship would help me get the training I need to potentially have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of children."

It's important to understand that every scholarship application has different requirements for content, length, and format. Be sure to read (and follow) the directions carefully.

How to Talk About Career Goals in a Resume

Smiling young woman sitting in front of an open laptop in a room with many tables and chairsMost experts agree that including career goals and objectives on a resume is not generally a good idea. After all, if you're submitting a resume, your immediate career goal is to get the job, and the employer is well aware of that. Research has found that when hiring managers are reviewing resumes, they typically take no more than six seconds to decide if the applicant is a good fit for the position. You need to use that time to highlight the value you bring to the position, not restate what the hiring manager already knows.

However, if you're making a major career change, a short, well-written objective can be very useful. That's because if you have several years of experience in one industry but now wish to pivot into another, it won't be obvious why you want to make the switch. It might even look like your resume ended up in the pile by mistake. You can use an objective statement to clarify your professional goals and explain how they pertain to the new role.

Many people don't write strong enough career objectives. Examples like "To get a job in the hospitality industry" or "To work as a sales associate in a retail environment" are not very effective because they're too vague and they don't address how you meet the needs of the organization. Remember: A hiring manager wants to know how you can benefit the company, not the other way around.

So, for instance, if you spent 15 years as a journalist but your new career goal is to move into an advertising position, you might write something like: "Objective: To use my 15 years of experience as a media and communications professional to generate creative, results-driven advertising campaigns for XYZ Company."

How to Talk About Career Goals in a Job Interview

Young man wearing a white shirt and grey suit sitting in an office and smiling at a woman across a tableInterviewers who ask about your career goals are generally trying to gauge two things: 1) how much of a commitment you expect to make to the company (i.e., how long you plan to stay), and 2) how keen you are to improve and grow. After all, bringing new employees on board is an expensive process. Companies want to know that new hires are going to stick around for a while, take their roles seriously, and continue their professional development.

Unlike with a career objective on a resume, where the idea is to be as specific and detailed as possible in order to catch a potential employer's attention, a career goal discussion during a job interview should stay fairly general. You want to show that you are eager to take on the position but that you are equally excited for the chance to grow and move on to the next level when feasible.

Here are a few things you should NOT talk about during the interview:

  • Goals that can't be met at that particular company: A hiring manager doesn't want to hear that your ultimate aspiration is to leave. So, for instance, if your career ambitions are to work for Google but you are interviewing for a position with a small local IT firm, don't say anything to indicate that you see the job as just a stepping-stone to greater glory elsewhere.
  • Lofty, unrealistic goals: Focus on what's reasonable. If you're interviewing for an entry-level role, don't tell the hiring manager that you aim to be running the show in five years. You will come across as cocky, arrogant, and possibly delusional.
  • Goals related to salary, benefits, or perks: It's fine to set a goal of earning a certain amount of money; it's not OK to share that information in an interview. Instead, talk about goals that are built around the work you're aiming to produce and the value you're aiming to add to the organization.

In your answer, begin by talking about your short-term goals, then move to a broader discussion of your long-term aims. Briefly describe the steps you intend to take in order to reach your objectives. Remember to illustrate how achieving your goals will help the company; you should always relate your goals to the specific position you are interviewing for.

A "What are your long-range career goals?" or "Where do you see yourself in five years?" answer example might be something like:

"In the near future, my goal is to secure a network support position with a company such as this one so that I can apply my technical training and further enhance my communication and problem-solving abilities. Eventually, I'd like to grow into a role in systems administration. I'm currently completing network security certifications, and I'm excited about possibly getting involved in the mentorship program described on your website. It sounds like a terrific initiative."

How to Talk About Career Goals in a Performance Review

Two women facing each other in a white room, one holding a digital tablet and the other resting her hands in her lapA job performance review is a time to take stock of what you're doing well, what you need to improve upon, and how you should direct your energies going forward. Think of it as an opportunity to enlist your supervisor's help in setting objectives that support both your development and the overall corporate mission.

You need to be prepared to report your progress on your current set of goals. Give specific details about your accomplishments since your last review. Did you achieve what you set out to do? If so, what did you learn from the experience? How can you extend or build on those goals over the next year?

If you didn't hit your benchmarks, what prevented you from doing so? What can you change or do differently to get back on track? (Remember to focus on factors within your control rather than those that depend on the behavior of others.)

When it's time to set new goals, reflect on the types of achievements you hope to add to your resume in a year. How can you contribute to your organization's success? You may want to expand your role, broaden your skill set, or take on additional responsibilities.

Here are a few career goal examples for a performance review:

  • Reduce hold times for customer phone calls from six minutes to four minutes, on average, by the end of the summer.
  • Attend a training seminar on effective time management within the next four months.
  • Have at least one technical article accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal by the end of the year.
  • Process all travel reimbursement requests within five days of receipt.
  • Take the lead on at least two new projects by the next review.

Set Your Targets

Having clearly defined career goals is the first step in creating your ideal future. Once you know where you want to go, you need to think about how you're going to get there. Vocational schools and technical colleges offer a huge range of programs that can help you grow your skills and prepare for different career paths.