"Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?"
Of all the job interview questions out there, this has always been one of the most difficult.
These days, the next steps in your career aren't always linear. The age-old corporate ladder model of putting in a few years as an associate contributor, becoming a manager of a small team, and climbing your way to the senior management or director level is not right for everyone.
And considering you'll spend roughly one-third of your life at work, it's critical you take the time to reflect and choose the best career path for you.
To help you figure out your short and long term career goals, I spoke with four career coaches. Here, we'll explore how you can determine your own career goals for long-term professional fulfillment. Let's dive in.
What are career goals?
Career goals are any short or long term milestones you hope to achieve throughout your career to get you where you want to be. While your personal goals might include starting a family or buying a house, your career goals are entirely focused on the trajectory of your professional life.
Your long term career goals are the adult answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Perhaps you hope to become CFO, business owner, or VP of Marketing. Alternatively, maybe you want to become a lecturer at a college, open your own private practice, write a novel, or own a yoga studio.
Once you've identified your long term goals, you'll want to create a strategic vision for how to get there, which is comprised of lots of short term goals. For instance, maybe in your short term plan, you'd like to get your MBA, speak at conferences, take a writing course, or get your yoga certificate. All your short term decisions should be made, at least in part, with your long term career goal in-mind.
Let's dive into the difference between short and long term career goals, now.
Short Term Career Goals
A short term career goal is any professional goal that will take you a few months or few years to achieve. Your short term goals should fit into the roadmap you need to follow to eventually reach your long-term goals.
Short term goals can relate to education, professional development, personal development, or leadership. For instance, a few short term goals might include:
- Taking an Excel course to become more proficient in data analysis
- Signing up for your company's professional development workshop to master new skills related to management
- Enrolling in a Toastmasters class to become a more confident public speaker
- Increasing your monthly sales by 30%
- Collaborating more efficiently across departments
From these examples, you can begin to see that short term goals are not the end-all, be-all of your professional development — they're just a starting point. It's often easiest to determine your short term goals by first discovering your long term goals, and then working backwards.
For instance, if your long term goal is to become the VP of Marketing, you'll want to identify an appropriate leadership roadmap and start with relevant short term goals, like taking a public speaking course, strengthening your leadership skills, or networking within the industry to find appropriate mentors.
When devising your short term goals, you'll want to ensure you're following the SMART framework: Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
The SMART framework can help you create more specific goals that are typically easier to achieve — for instance, you might modify your short term goal, "I want to create a stronger team culture" to "I will improve our team's culture by implementing weekly team lunches and facilitating various ice breakers or games during these lunches. At the end of the quarter, I'll send out a survey to team members to measure employees' satisfaction levels with team culture."
Long Term Career Goals
A long term career goal is your long-term vision that drives your career and professional development decisions, and typically takes years to achieve.
Oftentimes, your long term career goals can be the motivating factors in your day-to-day. For instance, perhaps you don't love your current role as a content marketer — but it's necessary for you to learn the ins and outs of marketing, since your long term goal is to become a VP of Marketing.
A long term goal should drive your professional decisions and career conversations with your manager, since long term goals are only achievable once you've crossed off a series of short term steps. Of course, you'll want to ensure the long term goals you articulate with your manager are possible at your current company.
For instance, if you're in a marketing-related role, it's appropriate to communicate to your manager that your long term goal is to become a VP of Marketing. It's less appropriate to tell her that your long term goal is to write a science fiction book, since that demonstrates to your manager that you don't plan on staying at your current company for the long haul.
A few examples of long term goals include:
- Become an executive at a company
- Lead the financial team at a start-up
- Become a thought leader in the SEO space
- Start your own company
- Take courses to switch career paths and become a product manager
- Build a consulting business
Ultimately, your long term goal is the desired end result of many strategic, short-term decisions.
If your long term goal is to become a product manager, some short-term decisions might include taking a college course on product management, conducting informational interviews with product managers to learn more about necessary skills for the role, and taking a few courses related to the core requirements.
If your long term goal doesn't relate to your current role, consider how you might level up outside of work to break into a new industry. For instance, if a long term goal is to become a novelist, perhaps you take some fiction workshops outside of work. Alternatively, if your long term goal is to start your own business, maybe you create your business plan on the weekends.
How do you know what your career goals are?
It's the million dollar question, isn't it? Many of us hope to know what our career goals are as soon as we graduate college — but, as we try out certain roles and uncover our professional strengths and weaknesses, these goals likely change over time.
To get some insight here, I spoke with Nicole Palidwor, a certified career coach and resumé specialist at Ama La Vida.
Palidwor told me she typically urges her clients to focus on the following five areas when considering a career change:
- Values: What do I care about? What is important to me?
- Interests: What topics do I find fascinating or intriguing?
- Work Environment: What industry and/or company type interests me?
- Status: What is my desired professional recognition and achievement?
- Compensation: What is my long-term desired income?
Palidwor says, "Different priorities will lead you down different paths. For example, if interests rank highest, you'll look for careers that allow you to explore your passions or reflect your training. If overall compensation is your motivator, you'll pursue titles and qualifications that move the salary needle."
She adds, "It's also important to recognize potential tradeoffs. High compensation doesn't necessarily align with working for social causes. Ideal work environments may not always provide the status you're looking for. Non-profit work, tech startups, Fortune 500s, engineering firms, and executive opportunities all await you, but they may not all make sense."
Senior Director of Student Affairs for Penn State University and career development strategist for Mentor Me Ashley A. Adams, PhD, agrees that figuring out your values is a critical step in choosing a career path.
Adams told me, "The first step in determining career goals is to focus on your values. Values serve as a compass and should guide your decision-making in all things, but particularly in your career."
"For instance," She adds, "if you value family, identify industries that have structured or predictable work schedules that allow you to plan appropriate family time. Alternatively, if you value wealth, find organizations that have lucrative benefits, high % matching 401K, and above-average salaries. Once you've identified your values, then you can focus on your strengths and weaknesses."
Once you've made a list of your values and interests, you can begin to identify your most powerful professional skills. You'll then want to determine a career that aligns all three of these areas.
Additionally, Sho Dewan, who was listed one of the top career coaches globally on LinkedIn's Top Voices list and is CEO of Workhap, recommends breaking down your goals into three parts:
- What is the result I want? (Example: "I want to earn a promotion in six months.")
- What is the action I have to take every day or week to achieve that goal? (Example: "I will arrange feedback meetings with my manager, learn new skills, organize team-building events, etc.")
- What is the thought I need to remind myself to achieve that goal? (Example: "I am skilled at what I do, my manager wants to see me succeed, and I am a valuable asset to the team.")
Dewan says, "If you can think these thoughts consistently, then you will be motivated to take the required action — which will lead to you getting your desired results."
Heidi Siegal Kogon, Founder and Career Coach at Kogon Coaching, also encourages her clients to understand their core values and innate strengths. She says you can do this by asking those closest to you, leveraging personality or strength assessment tools, or thinking about what you most enjoy doing.
She adds, "You'll want to take the time to figure out what you truly want — not what someone else wants for you, or what you think you 'should' do. Many people live their lives based on what other people think they should do. Those people may think they have your best interest at heart, but it still may not be the best decision for you."
If you currently work at a company, or you're interviewing for a new position, follow these tips to decide what your career goals are:
- Look at the organizational structure
- Know the company’s hierarchical lingo
- Ask what a typical career trajectory might look like in your role
- Consider long term goals such as becoming an executive or owning your own business
- Think about what motivates you
This means that you'll want to think about what motivates you and then consider what the next step would be at the company you're working for. You should know how the organization structures its hierarchy and the lingo that's used.
Then, you can lay out a basic plan for a career trajectory from one role to the next. Once you have an idea of the roles you want, then you can focus on deciding what skills and education you might need to get there.
5 Career Goal Examples
Now that we've explored what career goals are, let's put this into practice. Here are six examples of career goals to get you started writing your own.
Alternatively, here's how you might want to answer the question, "Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?" during a job interview.
Example One: A Leadership Career Goal
"Over the next couple of years, I'd like to enroll at a university to earn my MBA in finance. I hope to one day become CFO at a company, and I believe my MBA will help me achieve that goal. I have always been interested in a career in finance, and I also have strong leadership skills. Becoming an executive for a financial department would combine these interests well."
Short Term Goal: Get an MBA in finance
Long Term Goal: Become CFO at a corporation
Use Case: Interview or performance review
Example Two: An Independent Career Goal
"My ultimate dream has always been to write a book and become a novelist. To help myself achieve this goal, I am going to sign up for a local writer's fiction workshop so I can receive feedback on my writing from my peers."
Short Term Goal: Take a fiction workshop
Long Term Goal: Write a book
Use Case: Personal
Example Three: A Skill-based Career Goal
"Over the next five years, I'd like to gain enough experience to transition into a role on the SEO team. During my conversations with SEO strategists, I've learned one weakness I have is minimal knowledge of Excel, so I'd like to take an Excel course to strengthen my skills. This excel course, along with seeking out collaborative projects with the SEO team, should help me achieve my goal."
Short Term Goal: Learn Excel
Long Term Goal: Become an SEO consultant
Use Case: Performance review
Example Four: An Outside-of-Work Career Goal
"Within the next five years, I want to open a yoga studio. To accomplish this, I am going to start by getting my yoga teacher's certification. This will enable me to break into the yoga industry, and after a few years working at a yoga studio, I can learn the ins and outs to better equip myself to open my own studio."
Short Term Goal: Get my yoga certificate
Long Term Goal: Open a yoga studio
Use Case: Personal
Example Five: A Business Owner Career Goal
"I've always dreamed of one day opening my own public relations firm. This goal influenced my decision to attend X University and get a degree in Public Relations with a minor in Management. In the short term, I'd like to join your team as a public relations associate and work my way up the ladder. Experience at your company would be invaluable to me as I begin my career."
Short Term Goal: Get a job as a public relations associate
Long Term Goal: Open my own public relations firm
Use Case: Interview
How to Write Career Goals
Once you've determined what your career goals are, you'll want to write them down. Perhaps you'll mention them on your resumé if your goals align with the role for which you're interviewing.
Alternatively, maybe you write your career goals down before a performance review with your manager for a more constructive, guided conversation.
Finally, even if your goals don't align with your current role, you'll still want to write them down for personal reflection.
Here are four steps you can follow when writing your career goals:
1. Consider where you want to improve your career.
2. Use SMART goals formatting.
3. Write short term and long term goals.
4. Be detailed with your plan.
1. Consider where you want to improve your career.
Before you write your goals, think about the areas you want to advance. There are four main categories that I like to think about:
- Improving work performance.
- Developing skills that will help you become a leader/manager.
- Self-improvement focused goals.
- Learning about something new and different in your field.
When you write out your career goals, think about each of these areas.
How can you improve your work performance? What kind of skills do you need to develop to get where you want to go? How can you improve yourself and grow? What can you learn about that's new in your industry?
Thinking about these questions will help you begin brainstorming if you're not necessarily sure where you want to end up.
2. Use SMART goals formatting.
An easy way to write out your career goals is to format it like a SMART goal, like mentioned above. Your goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
Being as specific and relevant as possible is important for you to communicate with your manager or a potential employer.
3. Write short term and long term goals.
When you're writing out your goals, write out a few short term and long term goals. It's important to consider what type of goals you want to achieve in the next few years, as well as goals for the distant future.
You can come up with a career trajectory, and then write out short term goals that will help you get there. Additionally, when writing out your long term goals, consider why you want to become an executive or own a company. Thinking about what motivates you can help you maintain focus.
4. Be detailed with your plan.
Writing out your goals doesn't just mean writing out a wish list. You should also come up with a plan of action for how you're going to achieve your goals. This plan will consist of a basic trajectory, and the short term goals you need to achieve to get there.
I asked Nicole Palidwor about the "do's" and "don'ts" when it comes to writing career goals.
Palidwor told me, "You'll want to write career goals that make sense for your current lifestyle, available bandwidth, and the urgency of a professional change. People often get ambitious, but come to realize sending out 50 applications a week isn't realistic."
"Instead, create action steps that reflect what you can and want to do by establishing smaller, but still relevant, achievable, and appropriately ranked goals."
Palidwor adds, "Don't make too large or ambiguous goals. Break them down. Additionally, I'd quantify your expected results to hold yourself accountable, and give yourself deadlines so that you stay on track to achieving your goals. The more you break down and organize your goals, the easier they seem (and are!) to accomplish."
When writing career goals for a resume, however, you'll also want to ensure you make it clear how you plan on helping the company hit its own business goals — not just your own.
As Marcy Williams, Founder and Career Coach at Coach Marcy Life Coaching Services, tells me, "When writing out my career goals for a performance review or for a resumé, I make talking points of what I contribute to the role within the organization first. I discuss how I love working as a team to improve processes and the experience for all versus speaking of just myself."
Williams adds, "Do not talk about yourself first when jotting down career goals because it will give the employer the feeling that you are only in it for yourself and not for the betterment of the organization."
And there you have it! You're well on your way towards creating more actionable, tactical career goals to get you where you want to be. Keep these tips in-mind, and don't be afraid to iterate over time as you learn more about what you like — and don't like — about your current career path.