Learning how to create a career plan is something that should be taught in school, but often isn’t.
And once you’re working, it’s hard to imagine starting from square-one in the jungle of the job hunt. But if you want to grow and continue expanding what you can do (and how much money you do it for), then knowing how to create a career plan will help you plot a course for future success.
No one’s career ever goes 100% according to plan. But having a plan in mind is key — otherwise you risk simply floating along until you realize too late that you want more.
Follow these nine steps to clearly and smartly outline the pathway to your dream career.
Self-assessment: Grab your journal and write these prompts down.
What do you do in your current position? Even if you are not working at all, take stock of your daily activities and write everything you can think of (volunteer work, personal projects). If you’re working, what are your biggest tasks and priorities and projects? Come back to this page a few days after you’ve completed it and start crossing out what you don’t want to continue doing in your future career.
What can you do that you aren’t? Maybe your employer isn’t utilizing your skills to the fullest or if you don’t have the opportunity to bloom where you’re planted; write down all the amazing things you’re capable of. What are your strengths?
What do you want to do? The question of the ages. If this inquiry freaks you out, think about what you already enjoy doing (even if it isn’t work). Your work activities, your social time, your hobbies — or even little part-time jobs you had in high school that you loved. What makes you feel like you’re doing something that really matters?
Where do you want to work; geographically, environmentally, atmospherically? Don’t sell your dreams short. If you want to work for an innovative company like Airbnb or move to Vietnam to teach English, be really specific about where you want to work. If you simply want to stay in your hometown in an office not riddled with flourescent lighting, outline your dream workspace. That workspace could even be your house.
Take care to go deep with these prompts. Your career plan will affect everything else in your life: where you live, who you hang out with (and how often), how much money you have, and so much more.
By getting clear on what you you’re good at and what you want to continue doing, as well as where you want to do it, you’ve established the initial parameters for your career funnel. The career funnel will be how you search for – and choose – potential career opportunities.
Prioritize your answers to the above prompts.
You’ve taken the time to brainstorm all the possibilities (and definite ‘no’ options) for your future career. Revisit those lists and take stock of your answers. It helps to have different colored pens or a few pen symbols in your written vocabulary to separate and identify different types of answers.
What you’re looking for:
- Marketable skills, aka things that people will pay you to do.
- Areas of overlap — do your strengths line up with activities you love? That’s a great way to find a job that feels rewarding.
- Skills that compliment one another
- Important lifestyle priorities like working from home, living in a specific city, having certain time flexibility, or paid vacation.
- Position-specific priorities like leadership positions (or not), employee responsibilities, and team structures that feel right to you
Some things might start to jump out at you. Are there skills or job titles that are sparking a little light inside you? Set those aside in their own space, so you can do further research into those areas.
(But don’t throw away the rest yet. You might be surprised that you come back to something later that didn’t seem as important before, but could be a key to finding your dream job.)
Research to create a list of prospective career options, aka positions & titles.
Searching for a career or job can sometimes feel like searching for an Easter egg that no one actually hid.
Rather than shooting blindly at job titles and general search terms, start with one of these direct parameters:
- Potential companies. Depending on where you want to work (geographically) and what kind of workplace environment you want (laid back, ultra-professional, retail or hospitality), make a quick list of companies in your area that you’d enjoy working for.
- ‘Best jobs for [insert your area of study or interest].’ By starting with a general list of potential titles, you have a better chance of navigating the tricky and ever-changing organization chart of your future employer.
- ‘What can I do with my [insert degree here] degree?’ While you may already know what you want to do, it may not be so clear what the position is called in the professional world. For instance, it took me years to know that I wanted to be a Creative Director, because frankly, I never knew what that person did until I started doing reading about creative careers.
- Stalk people doing what you want to do on LinkedIn. By far the best tip ever received for career searching. I love seeing the trajectory of individuals doing exactly what I want to do or who are on their way; this has inspired many career moves I wouldn’t have anticipated. Consider how you can apply what these individuals did on their way to their current position and take notes on what would interest you in their path.
Create a list of jobs, career paths, inspiring career figures (whose journeys you might like to replicate), and potential companies you’d like to work for.
Some of the positions you outline may not be immediately accessible; they may require more experience, education, or certification than you have. That’s okay; we all need big goals after all. We’ll get to the big picture career trajectory in a few steps.
Speak with individuals in your network (and outside) about your options.
Personal interviews are a valuable tool for any professional. Ask your friends and family, a career counselor, or trusted professional mentor about career options and inspiration. If possible, speak to individuals who work at the companies that interest you and in the positions you’re after.
Ask open-ended questions. Encourage your sources to elaborate. Take notes as you can. If possible, gain connections from those with ties to your career path. If you know someone who works at the company or in the field of your choice, ask them about company life, what their workday consists of, how they reached their current position, and what skills they have that make them good at it.
Lay out your findings and evaluate.
At this point, it’s very tempting to dive right in. To start applying, to start throwing your resume at anyone’s inbox. But there is more work to do, to make sure you send your resume to exactly where you want to be. You have done all this work to get focused on your goals — now make sure you get there.
First, take stock of the companies, career paths, job titles, and opportunities you’ve gathered in the past four steps. Go back through your notes and highlight quotes, resources, and connections of importance. On a fresh page, summarize your experience. Make a list of the most impactful line-items.
Divide this space into three sections:
- Career trajectory. This is where you’ll list positions, jobs, and titles that move you and how you’ll ideally grow over time (though this may always change).
- Companies. The list of places you’d like to work. Remember, don’t sell yourself short. Be clear and be bold.
- Opportunities & resources. These line-items may not be specific jobs or information directly relevant to your career path, but they may be the contact information for individuals at a particular company, quotes that resonate with you, and advice you collected in your personal interviews.
Choose your top priority, backup plan, and a handful of complimentary options.
Start by identifying the best possible outcome for the future. Think in terms of: daily work activities, lifestyle, money and perks, family and community impact, and personal satisfaction. If you could wave a magic wand, which end result would be your one wish?
Place that option as your top priority.
For your backup plan, you have two options: If there is a career path that is almost as enticing as your top priority, but is otherwise pursuing a different direction, that would make a great backup plan. Your second option is to determine what career path will make it possible for you to make a lateral or cross-disciplinary move to your top priority in the future.
Both of these plans, your top priority and your backup plan, should light your fire. They should also be surrounded by a general idea of how you’ll accomplish that position and where you should start.
The handful of complimentary options are your stepping stones as you acquire the necessary skills, experience, and certification to start on your top priority. Consider these your career path prerequisites.
Especially if you are young or new in a career field, you would be wise to aim for the complimentary options first. You don’t want to apply for a Creative Director job if you have none of the skills or experience necessary; instead, aim for a job that will help you build the skills you need to be a Creative Director or to learn from a Creative Director firsthand.
How to create a career path timeline.
On a fresh piece of paper, write your top priority career position. Begin filling in the known milestones along the timeline in order from now to the actualization of your career trajectory.
Milestones might include:
- Writing a resume that highlights your qualifications for that job
- Sending your resume and cover letter to a list of companies
- Securing informational interviews with specific individuals from your network
- Advancing from your starting position to the next
- Achieving a certain income level or sales goal
- Accomplishing a project in your current role
- Receiving a specific certification
Feel free to transfer this timeline activity to a larger paper if you have a long way to go! I encourage you to create this timeline over again, especially as you advance through your career.
Too many people make plans but never revisit them. Once you’ve worked out your timeline and are confident in the steps (for now), consider putting up on your bulletin board, making the background on your tablet, or carrying around folded-up in your daily planner.
You want to be able to continually check in with what you should be working on and how far you have come. This is the best way to accomplish a big goal like getting your dream job.
Set SMART goals for each outlined milestone.
Some of your milestones may be clear-cut, and others may require hard work. For the milestones you can clearly outline, outline the general steps ahead of time so you can begin to work out the solution.
As a refresher, SMART Goals are:
Set yourself up for success by not leaving out the A, for accountable. Tell someone about your career plan. Show it to them. This person may be inside your organization, like an HR representative, if you’re looking to stay with your current company. Or it may be a guidance counselor, best friend, parent, or professional mentor. Choose someone who is healthily invested in your future, who wants you to succeed.
Create your career pursuit schedule.
The time has come: put those SMART goals into your planner with deadlines for their completion. Schedule that consultation with your professional mentor to practice interview questions. Set a date and time to send out each application you’ve put on your prospective companies list. Select the day you will secure the first step toward your dream career and work intelligently toward that date.
With a career plan in place and a timeline in your calendar, you’re following a personal road map to your dream job. You have everything you need, go for it.