Have you ever been in an interview, or an annual performance review, and found yourself a little stymied by the very simple question, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” It’s a question right out of the Interviewing 101 handbook, and the asker is probably more interested in making sure that your answer isn’t “following Phish around the country” than in hearing the nitty-gritty of your next 10 career steps. But that doesn’t make it any easier to answer, if you haven’t put much thought or energy beyond your next step. And it also doesn’t mean you should phone it in.
Why Have a Career Plan?
Even if you haven’t been called out on your long-term career plans directly, it’s an exercise worth doing for your own sake. What do you want out of your career? It can be so easy to get caught up in what’s happening now, or what’s happening immediately next. If you don’t have a career plan, no one’s going to blackball you as a slacker. Still, here are five irrefutable (okay, not easy to refute) reasons you should consider making a career plan for yourself.
1. It gives you a foundation for your career.
It’s good to have a base to come back to—a sense of what your purpose is. Coming up with a career plan lets you put specific goals around ones that might be a little on the vague side. “Become a manager” or “get promoted to VP” are great goals, but they’re short on specifics. The career plan can help you figure out the milestones you need to hit in the interim. This is especially true if you’re looking for a job, or are trying to break into a particular field. Knowing what you want ahead of time can help you figure out what the best opportunities are.
2. It’s not set in stone.
A career plan can seem like a commitment, especially if you’re relatively new to your field. But this isn’t about putting a ring on it for good—it’s about sketching out your preferred outcomes, so that you can make your current and near-future actions more productive. You can change it up later, if you decide this career isn’t for you after all, or you want to take a totally different approach.
3. Strategy puts you in more control of your own success.
If you have an upcoming fantasy football draft, or you’re into hunting Pokemon, these hobbies have something in common: you have a strategy for success. Maybe you’ve obsessed over stats, injury reports, and sports gossip sites checking to see if that quarterback is going to bounce back from his rehab stint. Or you got a hot tip about where that rare Flareon is hanging out, and you want to figure out the best time to go hunting. Either way, you’re making a plan for success. Think of yourself as the general here. Are you guaranteed a specific outcome? Nope. But does your plan give you better odds of succeeding than wandering (or drafting) aimlessly would? Absolutely.
4. You’ll learn more about yourself.
Your values and priorities change over time—so assumptions and decisions you made way back when might not even be close to accurate anymore. If you put in the time to take stock of where you are now and where you truly want to go, it puts you in touch with your current self, rather than the self who was making career decisions years ago.
5. All the cool kids are doing it.
That reason never stops being valid, right?
Okay, I Need a Plan—Now What?
Here’s where the great idea of planning your career starts getting down and dirty—you need to start doing the actual work. According to Quora, this process can be broken down into a series of steps:
Step 1: Conduct a self-assessment.
What do you value most? What are your strengths and weaknesses as an employee? What skills and experience do you bring to the table?
Step 2: Decide your career options based on the interests and strengths from that self-assessment.
Once you have that snapshot of you as a professional person, the next part is hard: finding jobs that line up with your wants and needs. (More on that below.)
Step 3: Name your career goals.
What do you want to achieve at different points throughout your career? What about six months from now, a year from now, two years from now? You can spin this out as long as you want. (Bonus points if you pass Go.)
Step 4: Develop your career strategy.
Step 5: Review and adjust that strategy as necessary.
How does your career outlook change as your life changes? Remember, this is not a one-and-done exercise—you can change it as much as you want.
How Do I Figure Out What I Want to Do?
Some careers have very specific milestones, if The Sims taught me anything. For example, if you want to become a tenured teacher, first you have to get your degree, be a student teacher, possibly get your Master’s, get certified/licensed, and find a full-time teaching job. That’s pretty straightforward. If your goal is to be a VP of marketing somewhere, it’s less straightforward. Which industry are you marketing in? There may not be a direct line in your field, but rather a ladder of experience that you can gather from different places. If you know what you want to do but are a little unclear on the steps to get there, then internet searches are your best friend. Look for professional
Remember: Passion is Not a Plan
When you’re making your plan (or even figuring out how to start), it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need to use this planning process as an altar to your professional passion.
Terri Trespicio, a branding strategist and life coach, talks about rejecting the idea that you have one passion job or career in your life. Your career plan doesn’t have to be a tunnel vision view of your abiding passion in life—it can be as simple as an outline of the kind of experience you want to gain over the next few years. It’s not about limiting yourself to one track, it’s about giving yourself a lifeline you can follow even when things get rough (if you lose your job, if you hate your job, etc.). Think of this as a problem-solving exercise: what problems need to be solved for you to get to the next level?
Quiz Your Way to a Plan
The self-assessment may be more than just your strengths and values—it might be even more basic: “What do I want to do when I grow up?” (If you’re anything like me, you ask yourself that question long after the point when no one would mistake you for not yet grown up.) There are lots of great resources out there that can help you narrow the wide world of careers into a manageable number of potential paths for yourself. These are tests, quizzes, and surveys online that you can do at your leisure, and not only offer insight, but recommendations on what you can do with your newfound (or newly confirmed) info.
- The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
- The Johnson-O’Connor Career Aptitude Test
- The MAPP Career Assessment Test
- The O*Net Interest Profiler
These resources (some free, some premium) can help you get a better snapshot of what you’re well-suited to do. The soul-searching about values and priorities has to come from within, but you can definitely get some outside help on how to translate your skills and abilities into a fulfilling career path, and a set of goals you can meet along the way.
Setting Your Goals
After you figure out your strengths and what you’d like to do (in general), the next step is figuring out your goals. When you’re thinking about these goals, they should be:
If you make your goals as specific and reasonable, and put a schedule around it (approximate is fine), you’re more likely to hit them. Goals that are vague or too difficult will quickly get left behind as you concentrate on other things.
How Do I Come Up With a Strategy?
The strategic plan is the result of that round of asking yourself questions (or using one of the online self-assessments as an oracle). And it involves…more questions.
- What additional skills/experience do I need to hit my goals?
- What kind of network will I need?
- What jobs or companies would help me achieve those goals?
- What weaknesses can I fix to meet these goals?
- What kind of experience would be most helpful to me?
But at this point, your questions are getting more refined, and more centered around what you want to be doing. You’re ready to start writing down milestones (goals) and a few bullet points for each that provide more information.
Be Ready to Revise
Remember, this plan is not an all-or-nothing document, which shall not be changed. You will change, your circumstances might change, and your field might change. All of the potential for shifts in your plan mean you need to be ready to keep thinking about your career plan, and whether it still works for you. Maybe it’s an annual check-in with yourself, with a yearly reminder set for a quiet Sunday. But once you’ve gotten in touch with where you want to be at various points in your career, it’ll be easier to keep the plan in your mind as you move forward with opportunities and make decisions.