Quite often during either a job interview or the employee review process, candidates face the classic question: What are your career goals? Another version of this is: Where do you see yourself in one year? Five years? Ten years?
Your answer may affect how a hiring manager or your current boss sees you and your career path. You may think that giving an over-the-top answer such as, “I want to be the CEO!” will show your ambition, and it may elicit a smile, but it doesn’t show you’ve thought about how you’re planning to get to the top – if that’s really where you want to be. That’s why you need to be prepared to answer this question with detailed, realistic goals or SMART goals.
Below you will find the following:
- The answer to the question: What are career goals?
- How to write excellent career goals
- Using the SMART goal system
- Long-term career goals examples
- Short-term career goals examples
If you are prepared with true, realistic goals in your next interview, you will come off as thoughtful and about where you want your career to go and how you plan to get there.
What are career goals?
Simply put, career goals are skills or tasks you wish to complete in the future that may or may not lead to a lateral shift or promotion. Vague, dry professional goal statements such as “I want a raise” or “I want a promotion” tell your manager what you want; great professional goals tell the manager how you are going to learn new skills or take on new responsibilities that benefit your workplace.
You can take it a step further by identifying resources you may need to help you reach those goals.
How to set career goals
When you are asked what your goals at work are, your boss may be trying to suss out several different facts about you:
- How ambitious are you?
- What direction do you want to go in?
- Are you happy where you are?
- What new skills do you want to acquire that will benefit the group?
- Are you planning to leave?
Relate your goals in a way that they impart the information you want your boss to have about your plans. Let on that you are ambitious and someday want their job and maybe you will end up with a great mentor, but you may want to glide over your plan to move on from the company at the first opportunity, afterall, you don’t know when that might be or what the future will bring at your current position.
Start by considering your ultimate career goal. Do you want to be the CEO? Where are you now? What steps do you envision on the path to the top? Are you going through marketing? sales? IT? finance? The best career goals mark milestones along with concrete to-dos to get you there.
Be firm in your vision. If you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t be able to chart your course.
Make a skills list and an experience list
So you want to run the IT department some day. Excellent career goal! Make a checklist of the skills you need that you don’t have or haven’t demonstrated on the job. How will you acquire them? In what order?
Do the same for the experience you will need to add to your resume. Each of the items on those lists can now be written as a career goal.
Using the SMART goal system
You may be familiar with this method of creating goals. Some schools teach them to students and some employers use them as part of your performance review. This method helps develop career goals by requiring criteria to define them. SMART goals are:
- Specific: That means you need to say exactly what you want to achieve. A specific career goal example tells which class you are going to take to gain accounting skills, not just that you want to take an accounting class.
- Measurable: Obviously, if you’re taking a class, the measurement is its completion, but other work goals may be more amorphous. How will you know you have achieved this goal?
- Attainable: Is your goal realistic? Will you really be the CEO in the next five years?
- Relevant: So you want to learn photography. Amazing, but what does that have to do with your career? How does it help you take a step on your career path?
- Time-bound: When can you do this? How long will it take?
SMART goals benefit both your employer and you. They help you visualize your path, define the steps you need to take, measure your progress, and point out weaknesses you need to strengthen, according to MasterClass.
How do I describe my career goals?
Keep it streamlined. Choose one or two of your top-level goals and broadly explain how you will set about achieving them. Explain how your new skills or accomplishments will help your department or company and always be realistic.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. You know what goals are and you know the criteria to set them. Next, let’s look at some good examples of career goals.
Long-term career goal examples
A long-term career goal is one that will take you more than a year to complete. They may or may not answer where you see yourself in five years, but they definitely outline your vision for how you will reach your ultimate career goal.
Think along the lines of a nurse who wants to eventually supervise the cardiac care unit or a teacher who wants to run a school some day. They won’t get there overnight, but they need to start developing the skills, attributes and experience they will need to reach their loftiest career goals.
This is where you say: “I want to become sales manager of the IT department and here is a SMART goal to help me get there.”
Examples of work goals that fits this long-term career aspiration are:
I will complete two classes toward my MBA each semester beginning in the fall semester of 2023.
This goal is specific (two classes toward an MBA), measurable (are the classes complete?), attainable (two classes a semester may be a challenge for a full-time worker, but not out of reach), relevant (if you want to be a manager, an MBA may be a requirement), and time-bound (classes begin in the fall semester for 2023).
Here are other long-term career goals examples:
Long term-goal: I want to make a lateral move from the sales department to the marketing department.
SMART goal: I will write and distribute a weekly update blog to coordinate the message between sales and marketing with interviews and Q&As.
Long-term goal: I will grow my portfolio of clients to $20 million.
SMART goal: I will attend one networking event a week and gain at least one new client a month.
Long-term goal: I want to become a recognized expert in my field.
SMART goal: I will publish four articles a year in reputable industry journals.
Short-term career goal examples
We’ve looked at the long range, but there are intermediate steps to take to get there. Short-term goals are actions such as earning a certificate, improving listening skills, learning a new application, or expanding your career network. They all lead to an increase in your value as an employee and your desirability as a candidate for a new position.
Here are some great short-term career goals examples:
Short-term goal: I want to learn data analytics to expand my marketing knowledge.
SMART goal: I will earn a Google Data Analytics Certificate through Coursera within nine months.
Short-term goal: I want to become more comfortable speaking in groups.
SMART goal: I will volunteer to make at least one presentation to my group and at the corporate meeting within the next six months.
Short-term goal: I want to step-up my organizational skills.
SMART goal: I will spend the next few weeks investigating organizational apps, choose one and implement it by the end of the month.
Avoid negative language
Notice that the last short-term goal focuses on a shortcoming. Instead of saying, “I need to be more organized” or “I want to stop being late for meetings” the goal uses positive language to acknowledge an area ripe for improvement.
Tips to achieve your goals
Now that you’ve set your job goals and announced them to your boss, how can you stay on track to reaching them?
- Choose goals you’re passionate about. Choose goals that you want to work on, not goals you think will help you get ahead at work. Sure, SEO is an important skill, but if you aren’t interested in analytics, you’re going to have a hard time sticking with it.
- Keep your work goals close. Put a reminder on your calendar that pops up weekly, or daily if you think that will help. Or do it the old-fashioned way with a sticky note on your workspace.
- Find an accountability partner. Everyone at work has performance goals of some kind. Ask a colleague to hold you accountable and do the same for them. You may find inspiration (or competition) spurs you on. Plus, it’s a little tougher to slack off when you have to face a coworker to tell them you didn’t follow through.
- Assess your progress regularly. Are you keeping up with the certification class you promised you’d finish within six months? Did you write those communication messages to foster collaboration? Don’t beat yourself up if you fall behind. Recommit to your goals and get moving!
- Pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a moment to celebrate when you take steps toward achieving your goals.
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon wrote in his song “Beautiful Boy.”
That doesn’t mean you should stop planning or looking forward five or ten years into your career, but be flexible.
You’ll be setting work goals for most of your career. If you start working out of college, at age 22, your goals, both long- and short-term are likely to change over time. If you achieve your goals, you may choose to reach farther. If your priorities change, the market for chosen career shifts, or you simply decide you want to move in a different direction, your career goals will change as well.
When that shift happens, be honest with yourself and your boss. Stubbornly sticking to goals that don’t speak to you or fit into your life plan is likely to lead to work dissatisfaction and that definitely won’t help you get where you want to be.
The bottom line here: The longer-term the goal, the more likely you will want to (or have to) rethink it.
Career goals: the wrapup
Envision your career in the future. What sparks your passion? What do you want in your professional and personal life? Maybe you’ve known since you were in preschool that you wanted to be an actor. Maybe you discovered you’re great at money management while you were in business school. Maybe you’re still figuring it out.
In any of those cases, there are concrete steps you can take to get into the movies, increase your clients’ financial growth, or research an internship opportunity that may turn into the career for you.
Start big and work your way toward the specifics. Ask yourself not only what your goals are, but what skills you will need and how you can acquire them. Be brutally honest with yourself about your shortcomings (but keep it positive when you relate your goal to the hiring manager or your boss). Instead of beating yourself up, find ways to bolster them and even turn them into assets.
Write SMART goals and check to make sure you have hit all five points. Your HR department may require a certain number of goals so try to balance short-term and long-term goals. Be realistic about time constraints and the feasibility of achieving your goals within the timeframe you set out, especially if you have multiple goals. Failing to achieve your goals may have negative consequences at work.
Choose goals that align with your passions and vision. Above all, be true to yourself and honest about what you want and how you want to get there. Good luck reaching the C-suite (or the red carpet or wherever your heart desires)!
- Career goal statements can help you focus on your bigger picture plans and the steps needed to get there.
- Career goals can be categorized as long-, medium-, or short-term.
- The SMART method can help you create achievable goals that are neither too easy or overly ambitious.
- Be confident when presenting your career goals to an employer, but make sure to consider their needs as well.