The only guide you’ll ever need for career planning

July 8, 2021 - 15 min read


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What is career planning?

Do you have to be at a certain age to plan your career?

How do you start career planning?

7 steps to organized career planning

Some additional tips to help build your career plan

Whether you’re fresh out of college or you’ve been in the field for some time, everyone can benefit from career planning. It may sound formal, but chances are you’ve already taken the first step. 

Deciding what kind of work you want to do and how and where you want to do it is the essence of career planning. This step-by-step guide will help you with the rest.

What is career planning?

Career planning may look different for different people. However, a great place to start is considering your skills and values first. With that foundation, you can start exploring which types of jobs and roles align with what you want. Career planning can involve assessment tests, professional coaching, educational programs, and occupational training.

Do you have to be at a certain age to plan your career?

There is no “right” age or time to start planning your career. Ideally, when you reach the end of high school, you’ll have some idea of what you want to do. But it’s okay if that’s not the case. College, vocational school, and entry-level positions can all provide valuable experience. You can pad your resume and network as you narrow down your career choices.

For those who are a few years out of school, career planning is an opportunity to reflect on the highlights and challenges of your career to date. Looking at what you’ve already done and what you’d like to do more of is a great place to start. 

No matter your age or how long you’ve been working, it makes sense to invest time in career planning. After all, your plan isn’t fixed in stone. As you encounter new opportunities and learn more about your field, you’ll want to change it to reflect your growth.

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How do you start career planning?

When you sit down to put together a career plan, there are four main areas you’ll want to consider. These are your interests, your skills, your values, and your preferences.

Interests are the things that you are passionate about. Even if you weren’t paid to do them, you’d want to spend time (and maybe money) learning more about them. Clues about our interests can often be found in our hobbies or in our choice of college major. Scan your bookshelf, email subscriptions, and even your apps. Do you notice a theme? 

Ask yourself: 

  • What would I do in my free time? 
  • What do I find interesting? 
  • What would I read a book about or take a class on?

The next area to consider is your skills. Skills are what you excel at. They can be natural talents, or they may be areas of competency that you’ve developed over time. These are the traits that you can rely on when you need to get something done. 

It may take a little creativity to see where you can turn your interests and skills into career options. For example, if you’re creative and organized, you might like graphic design, social media marketing, or app development. There’s no harm in looking into something that sparks your interest.

Ask yourself: 

  • What am I good at? 
  • What do I do better than anyone? 
  • What’s something that I do for free that others get paid to do?

Once you’ve determined what you’re good at and what you like to do, your values will help shape how you use those talents in the world. Values are the ways in which you want to make a difference. For example, let’s say you want to become a lawyer. Do you want to be a prosecutor, a public defender, general counsel, or specialize in intellectual property? Do you want to work in criminal justice or environmental law? The same job title may find you at very different companies.

Ask yourself: 

  • What problem am I passionate about solving?
  • What makes me really sad, happy, or angry?
  • What cause would benefit from my skills and experience?

Finally, imagine your dream day at work. Are you driving to work, biking, walking, or rolling out of bed? Is your dream work environment a big-city skyscraper, or a sunny cafe in Cancun? Does your work keep you busy, or do you have plenty of time to spend with friends and family? Are you earning a lot of money, or just enough? These preferences will help you decide which career path will best suit you and the work-life balance you desire.

Ask yourself: 

  • What does my ideal morning look like? 
  • What’s one thing that’s more important to me than work? 
  • Where do I want to live?

woman writing her career plan on a notebook

7 steps to organized career planning

Determining long-term goals for your career can feel overwhelming. Once you have an action plan, though, it can accelerate your growth and streamline your efforts. It’s worth taking the time to commit your ideas to paper (or somewhere where you can see them).

When you’re ready to sit down and write (or review) your career plan, follow these 7 steps:

  1. Self-evaluation 
    Self-assessment is the first step of the career planning process. The questions in the section above are a great way to start. However, you can also try taking a personality assessment or aptitude test, like BetterUp’s Whole Person Assessment. You may also find a core values assessment to be worthwhile in exploring how to integrate your values and your career. 

    Talking to a coach or a career counselor is also a great way to gain insight into your strengths and where you might thrive. Be sure to take enough time for self-exploration in this first step, or you may find yourself unhappy with your career decisions later on.
  2. Research your dream job
    Be bold with your goal-setting at this stage in the process. In a perfect world, what would you do for a living? Do some research and a job search for the title that you want to have. Titles can be vague or overly specific so don’t be too attached to the title. Read the job description, paying close attention to the skills and responsibilities of the position. Who do they report to? How much education do they have? What kind of companies are hiring for that role?

    Keep in mind that there are many jobs and titles you’ve never heard of, so talk to a lot of people and stay open-minded. Spend time on LinkedIn and read the profiles of people who post interesting content or read the profiles of speakers on conference websites for inspiration. You may be surprised to find yourself saying, “Wait, people get paid to do this?”
  3. Determine the basic steps
    There isn’t one right path to your dream job, but there may be certain steps that are non-negotiable. For example, if you want to become a doctor, you won’t get there without going to medical school. What are the non-negotiable short-term goals for your role, and how do you get there from where you are? Will you need to go back to school or switch fields?
  4. Identify organizations that align with your values
    While you’re researching open roles, look at the companies that are posting the jobs. Are they companies that you could see yourself working for? Which types of organizations (non-profit, startups, Fortune 500) appeal to you the most? What kinds of perks, healthcare, and salaries do they offer? For some people, the type of company might be more important to them than their own title or role. For others, the industry or the organization’s mission might be more important. Ask yourself what matters to you and why.
  5. Look at job openings on the ground level 
    Once you’ve got an idea of what role and which companies you’re working towards, look at other roles in the same department. If, for example, you want to become Director of IT, look at the other open positions — especially any that may report to the director. What’s the easiest rung on the ladder for you to grab? It might be an entry-level position on the help desk — or it might be a coordinator or other mid-level role.
  6. Take the next right step
    Identify which short-term goals get you closer to the job that you want. If it represents a career change, you may want to start by applying to training or graduate school. If it’s just the next step in a field you’re already in, you may just have to start sending out your resume. If you love the company you’re with but you’re ready for a new role, discuss your goals with your manager. They can help you create a career development plan and start taking on new responsibilities.
  7. Tell everyone you know
    The final step of the career planning process is to recruit as much help as possible. Tell your manager, coach, and everyone at brunch that you’re looking to move ahead. While dated career advice would tell you to keep your ambitions under your hat, it’s an old truism that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Besides, many people love to help others, especially if it means they get to give advice or showcase their connections. Networking and showing your commitment to growth is a critical part of your career planning development.

woman drawing her career plan on a whiteboard

Some additional tips to help build your career plan

Once you’ve set your sights on that snazzy new job title, you’ll probably be excited to start making it a reality. The 7 steps in career planning outlined here will give you an excellent foundation. However, there are a few other things you can do to help you take the next step. Here are a few career planning ideas: 

  • Volunteer. Finding paid work in your field may be challenging, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get experience. Offer to volunteer part-time for an organization that aligns with your goals. This is especially effective if you’re looking to work with nonprofit organizations.
  • Talk to your college. Universities, honor societies, and professional schools usually have some sort of alumni network. Reach out to them or to the organization’s career center. They can usually steer you in the right direction, and some may offer financial aid or help with career exploration.
  • Apply for internships. Look for opportunities to work with companies and people you admire. Even short-term internships can provide valuable experience and networking opportunities. Plus, you’ll be the first to hear about new full-time job openings.
  • Build your skills. Going back to school can be a great option — but it’s not the only way to learn something new. Try enrolling in online courses and certification programs that align with your career goals. Showing that you’re committed to mastering new skills can help you stand out when you’re ready to apply.
  • Review your resume. If it’s been a while since you were in the job market, you may want to take a look at your resume. Update it with your latest accomplishments, certifications, and position. Once you’ve taken a look, you may want to show it to a colleague or professional resume writer for a second opinion. Ask them to read a sample cover letter or do a mock job interview with you. Their feedback could be instrumental in landing your next job.
  • Strike out on your own. If you have the skills, you may want to start getting your feet wet by freelancing in your new field. It’s a great way to begin working towards your dream job while keeping the security of your current position. Just check with your human resources department to make sure moonlighting is allowed.
  • Build your professional network. Spend time attending conferences and networking events. Join the right professional associations for your field and look at their job boards. Spruce up your LinkedIn profile and, if you’re feeling bold, connect with individuals in the roles and industries you’re interested in and ask for informational interviews. Keep in mind that the people you currently work with are valuable parts of your network. Don’t burn any bridges when it’s time to move on.

Get started today

The average person spends nearly 25% of their time at work. The relationships and experiences we have in our workplaces are more important than nearly any other. To a large extent, your career determines your happiness. It’s worth taking the time to do a little career planning and set a course for a successful, happy life.

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Published July 8, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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