What Are Your Career Goals? How to Find Out

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Long-term and short-term career goals can help you stay on track as you work toward your ultimate aspirations.

[Featured image] An employee rejoices, smiling and leaning toward the camera after completing one of their long-term career goals.

Chances are, at some point in your life someone has asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This person was asking about your career goals.

Depending on your age at the time, your response may have varied on the scale of probability, but whether you wanted to be a dinosaur or a scientist, your response likely reflected your current interests and understanding of the world, and indicated how you wanted to participate in that world in the future.

As you learned more about the realm of possibilities and what you’re drawn to, you’ve likely refined those dreams and turned them into concrete, achievable goals. You may not have realized this at the time, but this is a great framework for determining your current career goals.

In this article, we’ll define career goals, discuss how to recognize your own, and offer tips on answering the grown-up version of that common childhood question: “What are your career goals?”

What is a career goal?

You can have goals in all areas of your life. Anything that you hope for your future and that you work toward making a reality qualifies as a goal. A person who is training to run a marathon may have a fitness goal, and someone who is swiping on dating apps may have a relationship goal.

A career goal is the dream that you are progressing toward with your work. With a clear career goal, you can center all of your professional actions and decisions around your ultimate aspirations.

Short-term goals vs. long-term goals

Often, people will categorize their goals as short-term or long-term. There’s no established distinction between short-term and long-term goals, but generally, short-term goals can be accomplished more immediately—say, within a few months—and long-term goals will take more time—perhaps a year or longer. Acknowledging how much time your goals may take you to accomplish can enable you to set realistic expectations, prioritize tasks, and track your progress.

Ideally, all of your career goals will exist within the same ecosystem in which your short-term goals bring you closer to achieving your long-term goals. This cohesive approach can help set you up for success over time.

Example: Long-term and short-term goals in action

Say you are currently working as a business analyst. You like the work you do, but know you could qualify for a promotion within the next year if you had stronger data collection skills and applied them to your work. In order to acquire those skills, you decide to enroll in the Google Data Analytics Professional Certificate program, which takes about six months to complete. As you progress through each course, you plan to find ways to incorporate your new skills into your upcoming work projects.

Here, your long-term goal is to qualify for a promotion in the next year. Your short-term goals, in service of your long-term goal, are (1) to earn your professional certificate, and (2) to incorporate your new skills into your work projects.

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Making SMART goals

One popular method for framing goals is to make them SMART:

  • Specific: Is your goal absolutely clear?

  • Measurable: Can you quantify your success?

  • Achievable: Is your goal realistic?

  • Relevant: Does your goal directly relate to your big-picture dream?

  • Time-bound: When will you achieve your goal?

Together, these five checkpoints can encourage goal completion—but they’re not the only key to success. Learn more tips for staying motivated as you work toward your goals.

How to accomplish your career goals

You can use your goals to guide your career trajectory, but it’s okay if you don’t know what they are yet. In fact, maybe your goal is to figure out what your goals are! Learning about yourself, your work preferences, and your values is all part of the journey toward recognizing and accomplishing your goals.

There are five key stages in achieving your goals, which we’ve outlined below. If you’re feeling stuck, it can be helpful to determine what stage you’re currently in and to ask yourself specific questions that can propel you forward.

As you read through each step, remember that self-reflection can take time, and it’s important to remain flexible in your goals. Just as you one day realized that being a dinosaur when you grow up wasn’t likely to happen, expect to learn new things at each stage that may alter your path.

1. Understand your values.

Your values are unique to you and essentially serve as your moral compass. Values are anything that’s important to you: loyalty, honesty, authenticity, relationships. If you align your goals with your values, they can be great motivators as you build the life you want to live.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s important to you?

  • How do you want to show up in your career?

  • What keeps you going?

  • What do you want to learn more about?

2. Picture your ideal future career.

With your values in mind, consider what it would look like to live in alignment with those values. Envisioning your success is one key to achieving it. Sit with all of the possibilities of your ideal future career until you land on one that feels right for you and your circumstances.

Ask yourself:

  • What is your ideal future career?

  • How does that career align with your values?

  • How would it feel to achieve that career?

Your vision of your ideal future career is your long-term career goal.

3. Take inventory of your skills.

Once you know where you’re going—or your long-term career goal—you can start connecting your future destination to your current state. Research what skills and experience you’ll need in order to reach your ideal future career, and take stock of the skills you already have. (Don’t forget to think about both workplace skills and technical skills!)

Writing your career development plan can help you organize your thoughts throughout this stage and the next.

Ask yourself:

  • What skills do you already have?

  • What skills do you need?

  • What are some ways to acquire those skills?

Tip: Taking inventory of the skills you currently have alongside the skills you’ll need to gain can get overwhelming, and it’s common for fears of failure to creep in at this point. Here are some ways to soothe those worries:

• Go back to your values. Use the reason you are pursuing this path in the first place as fuel.

• Ease your timeline. It may seem like you have a lot of work to do, but you also get to decide how long it takes you to do it all.

• Reduce your scope. You can project your ideal future career toward any point in the future. If thinking three years ahead feels too far, then ask yourself where you’d like to be in one year.

• Examine your discomfort. Sometimes, discomfort can indicate that your goals aren’t aligned with your values. Try to specify what feels off to you and whether you may have overlooked a crucial point of consideration.

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4. Work toward progress.

With the knowledge of what you’ll need to gain in order to reach your goal, you may be ready to commit to action steps that will get you there. At this stage, you’ll be focused on the concrete tasks you can do as you work toward your goals. You may find it helpful to break your long-term goal down into short-term goals, and formulate your action steps using the SMART goal method.

Ask yourself:

  • What smaller steps can you take to reach your long-term goal?

  • How would you like to prioritize your short-term goals?

  • What will you try this week to work toward your goal?

  • What progress would you like to make in the next month? Next three months?

5. Assess and reiterate.

With each movement toward your goal, you’ll be implementing new skills and practices and strengthening your career tool kit. Think about the “new normal” you’re building and how it feels to be in it. Some aspects will feel easy, while others may feel more challenging. Examine both of these: what makes easy tasks feel easy, and what makes the challenging feel challenging? These can be valuable insights as you continue to work toward—and rework—your ultimate goal. 

Ask yourself:

  • How does it feel to work toward your goal?

  • What are you learning about yourself as you work toward your goal?

  • In times of stress, what was the impact of distress?

  • How can you plan ahead to cope with future roadblocks?

Common career goals examples

People are guided by their own values and motivations in determining their career goals, however some people have similar values and growth aspirations. Here are some examples of career goals:

  • Advance to a leadership position

  • Become a thought leader

  • Change careers

  • Gain career and financial stability

  • Improve industry processes

To dive deeper into these and more examples and to practice answering the interview question, “What are your career goals?”, check out these career goals examples.

Taking action

Determining your career goals can take some time, but working toward those goals to build the life you want to live can be quite rewarding. For more guidance on career planning and professional development, check out MacQuarie University’s Adapting: Career Development Specialization.

Or, if you know your career goal and are ready to start building upon your skills, consider earning a Professional Certificate from top companies like Google, Meta, and IBM. Prepare for an entry-level position in data analysis, social media marketing, cybersecurity, and more—and you can get started any time.

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Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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