Talking Points

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A young professional’s guide to setting career goals

As a young professional at the start of your career journey, establishing clear career goals is indispensable for cultivating a prosperous and satisfying professional life.

Whether you’ve attended a job interview or undergone a performance review, you’ve probably encountered the classic question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Essentially, this enquiry is all about your career aspirations.

So, let’s explore the significance of career goals, understand how to set them, and ensure you can confidently respond when confronted with that daunting question.

What are career goals?

Career goals are the stepping stones leading you to your ultimate career destination.

Each short-term career goal is a significant milestone, propelling you closer to the desired position you aim to attain in the long run.

Once you’ve determined your overarching career objective — a managerial role, business ownership, or CEO position, for example — you can set specific short-term goals to pave the way to your dream career.

Why set career goals?

Setting career goals enables you to bring clarity and realisation to your professional aspirations.

By defining these objectives, you create a vision of success in your mind and transform it into a tangible reality.

Career goals keep you on track and serve as a guiding force, allowing you to concentrate on your ambitions and take deliberate steps that measure your advancement to your dream career.

How to set career goals

Young professional man working on laptop, smiling.

Use the SMART acronym to establish your short-term career goals effectively.

  • S — Smart: Ensure each goal is well-defined and detailed, including the specific company you want to work for or collaborate with if you already have an idea of that.
  • M — Measurable: Ensure your goals can be quantified, allowing you to easily track your progress and recognise when you’ve achieved them.
  • A — Attainable: Avoid setting unrealistic goals that may lead to disappointment and failure. Make each goal achievable by considering your experience and the time required to complete it.
  • R — Relevant: Set goals aligning with your overall career aspirations. For instance, if you dream of becoming a nursery manager, focus on setting childcare and early years education objectives.
  • T — Time-bound: Establish practical deadlines for each goal to maintain motivation and drive yourself forward. Time-based goals inject a sense of urgency and provide a definitive endpoint, encouraging you to work diligently and purposefully.

As you formulate each career goal, assess whether it aligns with the SMART framework. If it doesn’t meet the criteria, make necessary adjustments until it does.

If you’ve already written some career goals, revisit and re-evaluate them using the SMART framework.

For example, if your initial goal was to “get a job as head of English,” you can rework it to adhere to the SMART framework by refining it to “secure a position as head of English in a local secondary school within the next three academic years.”

This revised goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based — making it a SMART goal.

Considerations when setting career goals

Before defining each career goal, take a moment to reflect on your intention behind it — it could be that you aim to build, reduce, change, or improve something in your professional life.

For instance, you might aspire to transition to a different career path, attain greater job stability, climb the ladder to a leadership position, or seek a better work-life balance by reducing working hours in your current role.

By considering your intention, you can refine your goal into something that truly resonates with your aspirations.

Once you’ve set a goal, it’s beneficial to establish regular progress checks — especially if your goal’s deadline is several months or years away.

These periodic evaluations allow you to monitor your advancement, stay on track, and make any necessary adjustments to remain focused on achieving your goal.

Examples of short-term career goals

Crafting career goals can be challenging when you’re new to it. We’ve created three examples that adhere to the SMART framework to assist you, so you can see how the approach works in practice.

Example one

Career goal: Within eight months of completing my AAT Level 4 Diploma in Professional Accounting, I will secure a promotion from credit controller to accounting analyst in my current workplace.

Now, let’s analyse how this goal aligns with the SMART criteria:

  • S — Specific: The goal is well-defined, leaving no room for ambiguity about what needs to be achieved, when, or how.
  • M — Measurable: Completing the AAT Level 4 Diploma and the subsequent promotion are tangible measures of the goal’s success.
  • A — Attainable: The goal-setter knows the necessary steps to advance professionally, and the objective is realistically within reach.
  • R — Relevant: The goal is set within the same industry and company, aligning with the individual’s overarching career plan and professional growth.
  • T — Time-bound: The young professional has an eight-month deadline to accomplish their objective, providing a sense of urgency and focus.

Example two

Career goal: Within 12 months, I will gain entry-level employment at Leeds City Council within their housing department.

Let’s review how this goal fits the SMART criteria:

  • S — Specific: The goal mentions who (the young professional), what (gain entry-level employment), when (within 12 months), and where (Leeds City Council).
  • M — Measurable: The success of this goal is measurable when the goal-setter obtains employment within the local housing department at Leeds City Council.
  • A — Attainable: The goal is realistic for an entry-level position, and prior experience in the sector is not expected, making it an achievable objective.
  • R — Relevant: The goal-setter’s desire to work for Leeds City Council is specific, and they are targeting entry-level positions within the council’s housing department, aligning with their long-term career aspirations within the council.
  • T — Time-bound: The young professional has a clear deadline of 12 months to achieve employment, providing a definite endpoint.

Example three

Career goal: I will secure employment as a nursery deputy manager in 2025 at a Leeds nursery after gaining two full years of experience in my current position as baby room leader.

Now, we can evaluate how this goal meets the SMART criteria:

  • S — Specific: The goal is clear and unambiguous. It outlines the professional’s intention to become a nursery deputy manager by gaining two years of experience as a baby room leader.
  • M — Measurable: The success of this goal is easily measurable once the goal-setter finds employment as a nursery deputy manager.
  • A — Attainable: The young professional has a realistic plan to progress by gaining experience as a baby room leader, ensuring they are prepared and ready for their desired deputy manager role.
  • R — Relevant: The goal is highly relevant as it involves advancing elsewhere within the same industry, aligning perfectly with the worker’s career aspirations.
  • T — Time-bound: The professional has decided on a specific deadline of 24 months to seek and secure employment as a deputy manager of a nursery.

Meeting the SMART criteria makes these career goals well-structured, focused, and achievable.

If you’re eager to progress in your career, our recent blog post outlines eight excellent ways to get started. Among these steps, setting career goals stands out as a crucial component.

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