9 examples of professional goals (and how to achieve them)

woman with curly blue hair is thinking about how to reach her short and long term professional goals

If you ask ten people in a room to define success, you'll probably get ten very different answers. Some want to get a promotion and climb the corporate ladder, and some just want to acquire new skills. Others might be looking for ways to completely change career paths with as little disturbance to their everyday lives as possible.

Success and advancement can mean a million different things because we all have different dreams, hopes, aspirations, and of course, professional development goals. But there's one thing we all have in common: we want to do better.

If you've already identified your goals and you're looking for tools to help you get where you want to be, we've got you covered. Before we dive into our 9 examples of common career goals, we'll share a simple framework to help you stay focused and see your dreams through to completion.

Table of contents
Set professional goals the SMART way
Example professional goals (+ ways to achieve them)

Set professional goals the SMART way

SMART is an acronym used to describe the five goal-setting criteria first published by George Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. Since then, the SMART method has gained plenty of traction as both a personal and professional development tool. Whether you're planning a long term goal or short term goal, the SMART method is one of the simplest and most effective goal setting systems.

SMART goals need to be:

  • Specific: The more focused and specific your goal, the better. If you want to be successful, you need to be willing to ask the right questions. What is my goal? Why do I want to achieve this goal, and how am I planning to get there? Who is involved, and what are my constraints? Specific goals are the stepping stones to success.
  • Measurable: You can't achieve your career goals overnight. It's a long process, and keeping your goal measurable is all about knowing what your target is.
  • Achievable: A substantial dose of realism is another prerequisite for success. Typical career goals are challenging enough to bring considerable change, but they're still feasible and in touch with reality.
  • Relevant: It's always good if your professional goals fit into the broader context of your personal life and other business endeavors. This is something you'll have to figure out for yourself. For example, if you want to get a promotion, you'll have to carefully consider all the responsibilities that come with it. Is it the right time? Are you willing to put in the extra hours?
  • Time-bound: A sense of urgency is necessary if you want to get things done. You don't have to stress, but setting a realistic timeframe with distinct milestones will motivate you to keep going.

SMART career goal example

Loosely-defined goal: I want to make more money.

SMART goal:

Specific: My wife is pregnant, and I need more money so that I can move to a larger house before the baby comes.

Measurable: I need to make at least $15,000 more to afford a larger home.

Achievable: I haven't gotten a raise in three years, and my KPIs have never looked better.

Relevant: My family always comes first, and I want the best for my child.

Time-bound: I have 9 months to reach my target. If I can't get a raise within the first quarter of the year, I'll start looking for a higher-paying job elsewhere.

SMART goals are extremely powerful, and they can help you get where you want to be. For more information (and access to our worksheet), check out our step-by-step SMART goals guide.

Example professional goals (+ ways to achieve them)

With that in mind, it's time to tackle some of the most common professional goals. We'll start with some short term goals that you can quickly achieve in a few months, and we'll then help you figure out how to tackle a  long term career goal.

Remember to keep your SMART worksheet at hand. If possible, try to define and write down your goal's criteria as soon as possible – it will help you get a clearer picture of the situation.

Short term career goal examples

1. Land a job interview - and ace it

Searching for a new job can be quite a stressful experience. You're often competing against hundreds of applicants, and not everyone gets a fair shot at an interview. If you want to land an interview, you need to:

  • Brush up your resume. Did you know that, on average, recruiters skim resumes for no more than 8 seconds? Good resumes feature simple layouts with clearly marked sections and title headers. So keep it nice and short, and don't forget to include a brief overview or mission statement at the top of the first page.
  • Tailor your resume to fit the job description. Your most relevant (to the job) work experience should always come first, even if it's not in chronological order.
  • Keep applying. Most people only apply to one or two jobs, wait to hear back, and only then plan their next move. Don't do that. If you want to get hired, apply to as many relevant jobs as possible and keep your options open.
  • Apply quickly and follow up. Recruiters often start inviting applicants to interviews a couple of hours after the job is posted online. Stay on top of their list by applying as quickly as possible, and don't forget to follow up on each application after a few days – a brief email will do.

Once they get back to you and an interview is scheduled, remain calm and prepare your next steps:

  • Research the company. The more you know about your employer, the easier it will be to anticipate their actions. Prepare some answers to common interview questions, mention your work experience, and focus on your strengths.
  • Be punctual. Whether you're being interviewed online or on-site, showing up on time is incredibly important. First impressions matter, and arriving late to an interview is a sure way to annoy recruiters.
  • Stay cool. Planning is good, but don't spend too much time overthinking. Give yourself a break, and try to take your mind off the interview the night before.

2. Learn a new skill

New skills come with new knowledge, often leading to further career advancement opportunities. Most skillsets are valuable in various contexts, but it'd make sense to pick a learning goal relevant to your field or industry.

Remember, the first thing you need to do is define your goal by making it as specific as possible. For example, it would make sense to work on your public speaking skills if you're already pursuing a career in politics or media, and want to deliver impactful speeches.

It would also help to conceptualize your new skill as a collection of sub-skills. Delivering a great speech, for example, isn't just about saying the right words at the right pace and rhythm. It's also about being able to quickly improvise by assessing your audience's reaction, finding ways to calm your nerves on demand, and so on.

You might be tempted to take on several new skills at once, but that's rarely a good idea – you'll likely end up wearing yourself out. Start small and build your way up one step at a time.

3. Get better at networking

How are your communication skills? The internet has revolutionized networking in many ways, but face-to-face contact can't be replaced by LinkedIn or any other social networking platform. This is not great news, especially if you're an introvert with a small professional network. But there are some things you can do:

  • Get out there and meet people. Yeah, the pandemic has made human contact slightly more difficult, but that's no excuse to pass on all networking events in your area. Maintain a healthy work-life balance, and don't miss out on opportunities to gather with like-minded folks.
  • Look for people who're not already engaged in conversation. It's hard to talk to someone who's already talking to someone else. If you don't know where to go, just look for people who're aimlessly scrolling through their Instagram feed waiting for someone to walk up to them. If you're at a networking event, this is a great way to make new friends and contacts.
  • Don't try too hard. Most people walk into networking events with a narrow mindset (e.g., I need to promote my product/services to as many people as possible). But the people who truly benefit from networking are the ones who can, above all else, establish a personal connection with the people they meet.

Of course, you need to stay up to date with key events and make sure your business card or portfolio website is as memorable as possible.

4. Start your own business

Sure, establishing a successful business is definitely a long-term career goal, but you could, hypothetically, start your own business today. The internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities, and this could be your time to shine.

Before you get going, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Is entrepreneurship the right choice for me? Just because you're an exemplary employee doesn't necessarily mean you'd make a great entrepreneur. Again, try getting to the bottom of your goal by answering all the whys and hows.
  • Find your passion. Passion alone doesn't make for a great company, but it's a good start – it might help you answer many of the whys and hows mentioned above.
  • Conduct market research. Thousands of new businesses are registered in the US every single day, so you need to make sure your personal brand is bringing something unique to the table. Is there an audience for your product/business? What do you know about your competition? For example, if you want to open a vegan-friendly cafe, it will help to know how many vegan-friendly restaurants operate in your area.

Once that's done, write your plan, register with the authorities, and prepare to grow your business at your own pace.

5. Be more productive

Being more productive and getting more things done is crucial if you're serious about career development. Productivity is tied to proper time management, so if you want to squeeze more out of your workday, make sure you:

  • Prioritize. If your schedule's full, recognize that you can only finish a finite amount of tasks before your energy is depleted. Make an effort to tackle your most challenging tasks in time for lunch.
  • Take a break. Breaks sound counter-productive, but a tired brain is as good as a car without gas. Take regular breaks, and give yourself plenty of time to recover your batteries.
  • Minimize distractions. Do you have to check your social media while writing an important performance review? Turn off phone notifications and limit other distractions for as long as you're in the office.

Remember to fuel your brain with the energy it needs to function properly. Eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise regularly.

Long term career goal examples

1. Earn a Qualification

Degrees, diplomas, and other forms of professional certifications can give you a competitive edge in your career path. Depending on your position, you might have several options to choose from, ranging from official university degrees and diplomas to recognized online degrees and certificates on MOOCs such as Coursera, edX, and Udemy.

Not all certifications are created equal, so make sure you do your research first. Some role-specific certifications include:

When picking a certificate/certification, make sure that a) it's relevant to your field and that b) you can dedicate enough time to complete it and earn your credentials.

2. Become an expert

Who doesn't want to be an expert? Experts exert expert power and are regarded well for their skills. They also have a higher chance of earning promotions and reaching leadership positions. But acquiring expertise is one of those long term goals that don't seem too attainable, mostly because it's loosely defined.

If you want to become an expert in your field - as a personal goal or professional goal - you must:

  • Find your passion and stick to it, even if that means working long hours and putting up with difficult bosses. Switching careers and changing positions every few years won't help your case.
  • Practice, and then practice some more. You've probably heard of Malcolm Gladwell's popular 10,000-hour rule. Let's put that into perspective. If you have to put in 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, it will only take you about five years to achieve a high level of proficiency-provided you're working full time.
  • Share your knowledge. If you want to convince others of your expertise and make something out of it, you need to be willing to share your knowledge. If you're confident about your skills and expertise, don't be afraid to guide team members who need your help.
  • Never stop learning. There's no ceiling when it comes to knowledge and proficiency. There's also no slowing down technology and discoveries, which means that experts must continue to read and educate themselves through courses, workshops, and the like.

If you want to be the best at what you do, you got to try extra hard. In the words of the great Charles Bukowski: "If you're going to try, go all the way."

3. Reach a leadership position

There are few things as beneficial for your professional career as moving up to a leadership position. Becoming a leader will give you more control and decision-making power within your organization, but it will also likely lead to a higher salary and better future opportunities. It's one of the most common career development goals people have.

Reaching a leadership position is often the result of achieving many successful objectives – the culmination of years of hard work. Most leaders:

  • Have spent years expanding their leadership skills.
  • Have quite a few certifications under their belt.
  • Are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about their field of work.
  • Have excellent communication and decision-making skills.
  • Aren't afraid to ask for feedback and career advice.
  • Have worked alongside (and learned from) other inspirational leaders.
  • Express their opinion and tend to stick to their guns.
  • Actively seek leadership opportunities.
  • Know their worth.

If your ultimate goal is to become a leader, these are some qualities that you should keep in mind. If you think you're ready to take on a leadership role, perhaps it's time to go out and actively chase your dream. Devise an action plan, think about enrolling in a leadership development program, and keep the end result in mind.

4. Switch careers

This professional goal can be a bit scarier than everything we've mentioned so far. Change is sometimes pretty scary, especially when it has to do with your career plan.

Whether you want a career change because you're feeling burnt out, or because you believe a different course in life might be better for you, you have to realize that it's never too late.

Start by brainstorming, and work with a career coach if you can. Make a list of potential careers that might be a good fit for you, and make a note of relevant acquired skills. It'll be easier if you consider a new job in the same industry you're already in – a few key contacts can make all the difference.

Of course, that doesn't mean you can't do something completely different, but be realistic and consider your financial situation. Take your time, and don't rush! Come up with a SMART career switch plan, and answer all the 'why's and 'how's in as much detail as possible.

Are you ready to ace your professional goals?

Whether your goal is to simply improve your productivity at work or make a 180-degree turn in your career, our free Goal Catcher program can help. Learn how to set personal goals and achieve them with the help of our incredible AI-powered Coach Marlee.

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