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7 Tips for Setting Realistic Long-Term Career Goals

7 Tips for Setting Realistic Long-Term Career Goals

Setting goals may be the secret ingredient in the recipe for long-term success. In fact, one Harvard Business study found that the 3 percent of MBA graduates who wrote down their goals ended up earning ten times as much as the other 97 percent combined, ten years after graduation. 

Doing this effectively, though, requires more than just jotting down a few pie-in-the-sky dreams and hoping for the best. The most successful people set goals, then break them into smaller, more manageable chunks that take them progressively closer to making their dreams a reality. 

If you want to sculpt a brighter future, here’s how to set long-term career goals in a way that maximizes your odds of success. 

Know Why and How to Set Goals

Setting goals keeps you focused on the future, while tying the actions you take today to the life you hope to have tomorrow. This can make it easier to buckle down and study, save money, apply for school, ask for help from loved ones, and manage the numerous other tasks that you might otherwise delay out of frustration. Every action you take can get you closer to your dreams, which means it’s never too early—or too late—to set goals. 

To set effective career goals that aren’t just pipedreams, use the SMART acronym. Achievable goals are: 

  • Specific: Simply saying you want to feel happier or make more money isn’t enough. Instead, think about how you intend to make these goals a reality? “Get promoted to manager by the time I am 40” is a better goal than “Do better at work.” 
  • Measurable: The best goals are those you can clearly assess your progress toward. “Make enough money to afford a house in x neighborhood by the time I am 45” is measurable. “Have a better job” is not. 
  • Achievable or realistic: Achievable goals build upon the skills and opportunities you already have. They also depend little on fate or chance. For example, winning a Pulitzer prize might sound great, but it’s a goal that depends a lot on outsiders and luck. If your goals are realistic, you should be able to outline a clear and specific path from here to there. 
  • Relevant: The goal must be relevant to your life or your job. Becoming an astronaut doesn’t fit this criterion if you have no science or math background. The better your goal fits into your current lifestyle, personality, and working style, the more likely you are to achieve it. 
  • Time-bound: You must have a timeline for achieving your goals. “Someday” is not a date. How long will it take you to reach your desired outcome, and what will you do each day to get closer? Take advantage of time management tools that can help you achieve your dreams faster. 

Identify Realistic Career Trajectories 

Setting career goals demands that you understand how to reach your goals. You can’t become a lawyer if you don’t know what education an attorney needs or how long it takes to complete law school. 

Be sure to do the following to gain a realistic understanding of what the role demands: 

  • What specific education does this job require? How long does that education usually take? 
  • What are the prerequisites to going to school for this job? For example, must you take an admissions test or complete certain college classes before applying to grad school?
  • What is the average salary for this job? Can you live on that? 
  • What are common career paths in this role? How might your career look now and in 10 years? 
  • Who succeeds in this career? 
  • What do people in this job say about their work? What do they wish they had done differently?
  • Is this career growing, or is the number of available jobs shrinking? 

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Set Attainable Goals 

Surveying a few potential career paths can help you decide which one is right for you. Take a long, hard look at your personality and prior work habits. The ideal career capitalizes on your best traits, offers work you enjoy doing, and opens doors to a better life. 

Some questions to ask yourself that might help you narrow your options and start setting strong career goals include: 

  • What work comes most easily to me, and which jobs offer that type of work? 
  • Is there anything I have consistently struggled with or excelled at in previous jobs? 
  • What work settings suit me? Can I find a job that offers that setting? 
  • Do I have any negative work habits I can work now to correct? 
  • If I attended college before, why did I leave? What can I do to reduce the likelihood of that happening again? 
  • What support systems do I have in place? 
  • How much time can I commit right now to achieving my goals? 
  • Can I access programs—such as a scholarship from an organization in which I participate or a workplace career assistance program—that will make the path to my dreams a little smoother?

Devise a Plan for Reaching Those Goals

Once you know what your ideal job requires, it’s time to map out your plan for getting there. Make a list of every major task you must complete, in order. Be sure to include admissions tests, college applications, job applications, and similar major milestones. 

Armed with this list, start breaking each item down into smaller steps. For example, if you need to return to college, you might need to apply for school, get your old college transcripts, choose the right school, and enroll in classes. List each individual step in order, then consider how long you think each might take. 

This empowers you to begin integrating these goals into your daily life. Your time management strategy for reaching your dreams should include lists of actionable steps broken into daily, weekly, or monthly goals. 

Revisit Your Goals at Regular Intervals 

Setting career goals isn’t something you do just once. Your plan is a living document that must inform every action you take—not just now, but years into the future. After all, if you set ambitious goals, those goals may take years, and sometimes even decades, to achieve. 

To stay on track, you must continually revisit your goals. The right interval depends on the nature of your goals and how quickly you’re working to achieve them. Someone who is in college and actively applying to jobs might need to check their plan as frequently as once a week, while someone who is delaying their plans for now can revisit those plans every few months. 

As you assess your plan, be mindful of the following: 

  • Are you hitting benchmarks on the timeline you envisioned? If not, why? Is it that your plan was unrealistic, or are you procrastinating? 
  • Have you learned new information that might change your plan? For example, do you need more college classes than you initially anticipated? 
  • What unanticipated roadblocks have you encountered? Is childcare or support from your spouse a problem? 
  • How does your career plan tie into your financial plan? What can you do to ensure you have enough money to reach your goals? 

Focus on the Future Today 

Your daily task list is your ticket to the future. Yet when the kids are screaming, the dog is barking, and your spouse left you a sink full of dirty dishes, focusing on the life you hope to have may feel impossible. This is why you must find ways to remain motivated if you hope to achieve your dreams. 

Try making a list of all of the reasons you are setting these goals. Schedule self-care, because tending to your body and mind is mandatory if you want to remain motivated. Remind how the lives of the people you love most will improve as you get closer to your goals. 

Get Support 

No person is an island. The more support you can get from those around you, the more you will be able to focus on the many tasks you must do to realize a brighter future. Your career plan must also include the people on whom you will lean for support.

Consider the following: 

  • What are your childcare options? 
  • How can you and your spouse or partner balance the housework load when you return to school? 
  • Is your boss willing to work with you to make your work schedule more manageable? 
  • Do you have friends to whom you can vent when school feels overwhelming? 
  • Have you chosen a school that will offer you the support you need through financial aid, support for adult learners, and versatile learning options?

How SNU Helps 

For many adults, achieving career goals means returning to school. This can feel overwhelming, perhaps even impossible amidst a busy schedule. But it doesn’t need to be. The right educational environment makes it easy, and even fun, to excel in your classes and graduate on time. 

SNU’s innovative programs cater to the unique needs and challenges of adult learners. We understand that you have a busy life and fill many competing roles. We make graduating easier with our online learning, nighttime courses, and network-building cohorts. You’ll learn from leaders in your field, without the stress of fighting traffic every day to come to school. Our prior learning assessment helps you graduate faster, offering credit for up to a year of prior learning—on top of any transfer credits you bring to school. 

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