Defined as a specific statement explaining what an individual wants to pursue throughout his or her career, a career goal is an essential part of the greater career development process. Career goals have been found to positively impact the salary and employment status of an individual three years after entry into the workforce (Abele & Spurk, 2009), which includes a positive effect on career satisfaction and hierarchical status.
Although career goals are primarily prevalent among first-time job seekers, nurturing them has also been found to have a positive effect on students’ tendency to make positive persistence decisions, resulting in greater school retention rates (Hull-Blanks et al., 2005). This development has led many to believe that having a career goal early on is also a factor for academic success.
Setting a career goal, however, is not a minor undertaking. In planning for career success, one must understand the forces that affect judgment and perceptions, which influence actions in the long run (Rabiu, 2013). A not so successful attempt at setting a career goal can result in poor career development decisions, which can create problems that can leave long-term effects on an individual’s career path.
In this article, we will take an in-depth look at what a career goal is, its role in career development, and how you can craft and manage one to increase your chances of career and/or academic success.
There are a number of career goals—job-related, school-related, value-related, etc.—each one influencing career outcomes. To ensure optimal results, one must construct a career goal to light the path of career development. It begins with the definition of what one seeks to accomplish and how to get there. But in order to start mapping out one’s career path, it is important to understand what a career goal is and how to effectively establish one first.
What is a career goal?
Fishbach and Ferguson (2007, p. 491) define goal as “a cognitive representation of a desired endpoint that impacts evaluations, emotions, and behaviors.” Brown (2002) further describes the goal as something that contains “important plans of action and encourages proactive behaviors on the part of individuals to meet milestones.”
In terms of career, goals not only pertain to long-term objectives, such as the ultimate professions or positions individuals intend to take, but also to the short-term ones or the milestones being set as they advance in their chosen profession. According to Sadowski & Schrager (2016), personal career goals should be represented by items an individual values from his/her “personal and unique perspective.” They further explained that personal career goals can either be “dreamy” or “practical,” depending on what is determined as ideal.
When it comes to the goal-setting process of students, particularly graduate students, Greco (2016, p. 4) argues that being able to identify with the profession “shapes the career goals of graduate students in professional programs.” Meanwhile, the process of professional identification is based on the four psychological motives—identity development, control, meaning, and belonging.
Practical Tips for Setting Up Career Goals
The key factor in accomplishing any goal set is to first have a clear vision of what an individual wants to try to achieve before taking action to reach it (UC Berkeley, n.d.). It is, however, important to remember that “there’s no blueprint or timetable for climbing the career ladder” (Doyle, 2020). The path toward the ultimate goal does not need to be a straight line as it includes milestones, such as jobs, timeline, etc., that might change along the way. Also, restarting and refocusing career goals is also not unusual and must not be considered as a sign of failure.
Two of the most important factors to consider when setting your goals is your goals must be reasonable and achievable. This, however, does not mean that you cannot dream big—you can as long as you set realistically feasible goals to accomplish it (Links International, 2019).
There are several helpful strategies when it comes to setting up career goals and working your way toward them. In corporate organizations, goal alignment is one of the driving forces behind achieving company-wide goals. This concept can also be applied to personal career goals, such as the following:
Aligning career goals with performance. Consistent performance improvement plays a significant role in advancing toward your goal. During performance reviews, pay attention to the areas you are struggling with and focus on improving them. Also, keep your performance improvement measurable; you can do this by creating benchmarks by which you can track your progress (Links International, 2019).
Aligning career goals with specific skills, interests, talents. Discovering careers that matches you best is easier when you have self-knowledge. Knowing your personality, skills, and interests can help you in your career decision-making process. This process not only involves identifying which areas you are good at but also determining if these areas interest you or not.
Aligning career goals with market/employment earning potentials. This stage can happen during academic years. According to Ng (2018), when it comes to academic learning, students have consistently taken the importance of employment and career into consideration. For example, if a student’s ultimate goal is to establish their own business, they can seek opportunities to expand their entrepreneurship mindset, confidence, and skills through action-based entrepreneurship and innovation training offered by academic institutions (Chu & Ang, 2017).
Aligning career goals with core values. “An alignment between your career and your core values produces satisfaction, a sense of happiness, and fulfillment” (Loffredo, 2017). These core values refer to your principles which, if not aligned with the organization you are working for, can cause unhappiness and disruptions on your journey toward achieving your goals in life.
Aligning career goals with life goals. Personal and professional goals must not pull you into two separate directions. While establishing a balance between your career goal and personal goal may be difficult, it is important to take both into consideration when making important career decisions either can turn into roadblocks instead of stepping stones. For example, if moving to and living in a different country is a significant part of your personal goal, your career path must not only hold you back from accomplishing this but also prepare you for the time when you have to live in a different country. This process involves taking control as it helps individuals become responsible for meeting the future by using effort and persistence and for shaping themselves and their environment. In a survey conducted among millennials in the United Kingdom, achieving career goals placed sixth in the list of the respondents’ top life goals. It is, however, also important to note that a successful career plays a significant role in achieving the majority of life goals in the list.
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Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Owning my own home: 51
Owning my own home
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Achieve financial stability for my family: 40
Achieve financial stability for my family
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Travelling: 29
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Get fit/become healthy: 27
Get fit/become healthy
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Having children/starting a family: 27
Having children/starting a family
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Achieve career goals: 23
Achieve career goals
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Achieve the right work-life balance: 21
Achieve the right work-life balance
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Get married: 19
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Being secure in retirement: 16
Being secure in retirement
Life Goals of Millennials in the United Kingdom in 2019 Paying off my university/tuition fees: 3
Paying off my university/tuition fees
Source: Santander First-Time Buyer Study
Career Goal Setbacks and How to Avoid Them
Psychotherapist Amy Morin identifies the common obstacles to an individual’s dreams and goals and here are some of them:
Nurturing the “someday” syndrome. Delaying your goals will never help you accomplish them. This is the reason why it is important to create a timeline and stick to it.
Waiting for yourself to be ready. Finding an inspiration that can motivate you to start working toward your career goals can place you in uncertain circumstances. In situations such as this, it is necessary to deal with the behavior first. If this behavior is habitual, it can leave a significant negative impact on your career plans.
Being unprepared for the hard times. Challenges are part of every journey. As you work toward your goals, it is important to consider the kind of hardships you might have to deal with and plan ahead.
Thinking that mistakes are failures. Anticipate that the journey toward your ultimate goal will not always be smooth sailing. There will be times when mistakes will be made and force you to step back and reconsider. These mistakes, however, should not be taken as signs that you are failing in your own plan. It is important to keep your focus and get back on track.
Poor prioritization. There may be times when it would seem like a lot of things are happening in your life at the same time. During these moments, career goals may have to be pushed to the back burner.
Setting the bar too high. This is not an issue of dreaming big but having only that dream as the focus of your career path. This is why it is recommended to establish milestones that can help you achieve your dream step by step instead of heading straight toward your ultimate goal to avoid the long and arduous process of achieving it.
Examples of Career Goals
Goals are made up of short-term and long-term components. Here are some career goals examples for each category.
Short-term career goals
These goals involve setting up realistic milestones that are achievable within the foreseeable future usually meant to accomplish immediate improvements, such as the following:
Improving communication skills
Earning a professional certificate
Source: Statista, Kelly Global Workforce Index
These are the goals set to be accomplished within a longer time frame as it involves more planning and can have a more significant effect on the overall career plan. Some examples of professional goals intended for long-term are the following:
Getting a promotion
Building a personal brand
Self-Knowledge and the Hope Factor
Lyons et al. (2015) stated that individuals with a strong self-awareness of their core career competencies tend to be more resilient and experience more satisfaction as they progress toward their career goals. Furthermore, people who possess a high level of understanding of the careers they want to pursue also have more focused and realistic plans for their future “that are based on accurate information about their personal strengths and weaknesses” (Brotheridge & Power, 2008).
But while self-knowledge provides an individual with a certain level of awareness that helps in creating an effective career plan, there is one more component that has a special relationship with goals and that is hope. While hope may sound like putting a dramatic spin on the subject of career goals, Savickas and Porfeli (2012) described it as “a psychological source of career adaptability.” And according to Snyder (1996), hope provides the ability to create clear and meaningful goals, as well as become a powerful source of willpower—both of which are extremely necessary for establishing career goals, and most importantly, in achieving them.
Abele, A. E., & Spurk, D. (2009). The longitudinal impact of self-efficacy and career goals on objective and subjective career success. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74 (1), 53-62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2008.10.005
Career Mentor Editors (n.d.). Steps to a successful career planning. Career Mentor.
Chu, G., & Ang, S. (2017). Entrepreneurial mindset and motivations of youth students in Singapore. 7th Annual International Conference on Innovation & Entrepreneurship (IE 2017). https://doi.org/10.5176/2251-2039_IE17.8
Fishbach, A., & Ferguson, M. J. (2007). The goal construct in social psychology. In A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles (pp. 490-515). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Hull-Blanks, E., Kurpius, S. E., Befort, C., Sollenberger, S., Nicpon, M. F., & Huser, L. (2005). Career goals and retention-related factors among college freshmen. Journal of Career Development, 32 (1), 16-30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845305277037
Indeed.com Editors (2020, March 21). Career goal statement: Why they are important + examples. Indeed.com.
Korkmaz, O., & Cenkseven Önder, F. (2019). The relation between life goals and career adapt-abilities: An investigation of the mediating role of hope. Education and Science, 44 (200), 59-76. http://dx.doi.org/10.15390/EB.2019.8380
Links International Staff (2019, December 20). How to set career goals: The importance of milestones. Links International.
Loffredo, S. (2017, November 13). The importance of aligning your career with your core values. Inside HigherEd.
Morin, A. (2016, July 26). How to overcome the 9 most common obstacles that prevent people from living their dreams. Inc.com.
Rabiu, A. (2013). Leading and realizing your career goals. AuthorHouse.
Royle, M. (2020). Do our linkages to others and a sense of loss when we leave a community mediate the relationship between our career goals and success? Journal of International Management Studies, 20 (1), 5-18. https://doi.org/10.18374/jims-20-1.1
Sadowski, E., & Schrager, S. (2016). Achieving career satisfaction: Personal goal setting and prioritizing for the clinician educator. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 8 (4), 494-497. https://doi.org/10.4300/JGME-D-15-00304.1
Santander. (2019). Santander First-Time Buyer Study: The Future of the Homeownership Dream. Regent’s Place, London: Santander.