Career Planning

All career seekers are served well by strategically preparing for future opportunities. A key tool in strategic career planning is the Career Project – viewing a career as a project, and taking on the role of project manager. This article offers guidance on how to undertake a Career Project.

As the project manager of his or her career, the career seeker is in charge of creating a solid plan, sticking to the plan or adjusting it as needed, making informed choices, taking advantage of available resources, and adapting with changing circumstances in order to keep things moving. By taking on this responsibility for important career development, challenging situations become learning experiences and reaching objectives are moments for wholehearted rejoicing… rather than putting an entire livelihood in the hands of someone who is probably less invested in one individual’s overall success.

Creating the Career Project Plan

A Career Project, like any project, has a beginning and an end. Its scope is defined by big picture goals which are formed after doing research to identify needs. Then, the project’s structure is set by specific shorter-term objectives that support those goals. For each objective, individual tasks are listed and resources are identified. During the process of assembling these components of the project, a timeline emerges with benchmarks to measure success along the way.

Taking the time to think through and document these elements of a project gives the career seeker the plan he or she needs to move forward on a career path. The finalized Career Project Plan should be customized to suit the individual’s unique style, desires, abilities and vision of success.

Since the Career Project Plan will be a touchstone through the career seeker’s entire career, it should be clearly defined yet flexible. Adding to it or changing it should come easily. A good plan instills confidence that he or she will be able to accomplish their dreams for their life’s work.

Step 1: Identifying Needs

Figuring out what they want and need from their careers may be the most time-consuming activity for career seekers in planning mode. They shouldn’t be discouraged if they spend weeks, months, or years sorting out Step 1.

The first step is to brainstorm what is wanted out of a career, writing down anything that comes to mind. Include those things the career seeker is good at, but is not sure that he or she wants to do them as a job because they may not pay well or other people have had negative things to say about them. The goals is to think bigger than before, and not to rule anything out.
Imagine life after retirement. What can be said about a lifetime of work? What has been accomplished? How is time spent now? These things should be added to the brainstorm list. Careers that showed up as good matches through personality assessments such as the Myers-Briggs and standardized tests like the SAT or ACT should also be included. Once the big brainstorm list is complete, the career seeker should go through it and rate each item as:

  • “Yes! Absolutely include this career in the plan”
  • “Perhaps… More research must be done before this career can be included in the plan.”
  • “Nope. It can be safely said that this career wouldn’t be a good match.”

The goal is to end up with 1-5 items marked as #1, and 5-10 items as #2. Conducting research on those marked with #2 is next. Once their importance has been determined, their numbers should be changed to #1 or #3. Combining careers should be considered – for example, combining Dental Hygienist and Dentist, or Multimedia Artist and Graphic Designer. When at last the career seeker feels good about his or her final 1-5 #1s, it will be time to move on to Step 2.

Step 2: Defining Big Picture Goals

For Step 2, the first task is to write down each of the #1s as a goal statement. Include a brief paragraph about why each one was selected. Describe what the vision of success in that career would be. A sample goal statement would be:

“I want to become a commercial pilot, and own my own two-engine plane so I can transport people from island to island in the Caribbean. I believe I would enjoy this because I would meet people from all over the world, be up in the air where I love to be, and have an independent lifestyle in paradise.”

As the goal statements are being developed, some individual goals may be easily combined into one. For example, consider the following goal statement:

“I know I was born to help people, and I believe I’d make a good nurse. My mother was a nurse, and I’ve met other nurses who helped me feel better when I was sick. I’ve been volunteering at the hospital, and feel at home there – especially when I can help someone feel better, even if it’s in a small way. I want to make a difference in the quality of care people get in hospitals — to be the face of healthcare. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher too, so my ultimate goal is to be a nurse educator, teaching nursing students to provide excellent care.”

As the goal statements are finalized, keep in mind that for each of them, multiple objectives and tasks will be set. Therefore, this is the best time to weed out anything is not clearly important to be included (to cut down on the planning work that comes next).

Step 3: Setting Short-Term Objectives

Having accomplished the creation of big picture goal statements, the next step is to list, under each goal statement, smaller goals (called objectives) that will help accomplish the big picture goal. It helps to list them in order of how the career seeker will pursue them, if there is an established career path. Examples of objectives might be:

  • Get a college degree in the field of _______.
  • Find a job in the field of ______ that will provide me with relevant work experience that will help me achieve my goal.
  • Take the certification test for ______.
  • Become a licensed _______.

Or the objectives may be less organized, so that they can be pursued at the same time:

  • Start working on my portfolio of artwork / photography / writing samples, etc.
  • Complete a manuscript for a non-fiction book about _______.
  • Submit my works to noteworthy contests / agents / publishers, etc.

When listing objectives, look for how success might be achieved in more than one career at the same time. For example, perhaps the career seeker wants to be a photojournalist being published in magazines, and also learn a foreign language and work at an embassy in another country. By studying foreign language, photography, and journalism during college, preparations are made simultaneously for all three careers. This could therefore be one of the objectives.

Step 4: Listing Tasks and Resources

Under each objective, write down smaller objectives (tasks) that support the larger ones. Be specific – every piece of the puzzle should be included here. For example:

  • Get a college degree in civil engineering with a minor in mathematics.
  • Take my SAT / ACT.
  • Research colleges and select my top five.
  • Apply to my top five colleges with a start date of ____________.
  • Fill out my financial aid FAFSA application.
  • Look into scholarships for which I am eligible and apply for them.
  • Get certified in the top 5 leading technologies in networking.
  • Find a full time job in network technologies that will pay for me to get certified in CISCO and .NET.
  • Study and test to get certified in CISCO and .NET while I’m job hunting.
  • Talk to Jim’s friend Greg, who is certified in .NET and works in networking, and find out how he got certified. Maybe ask him if he would mentor me.
  • Get any job that pays well (preferably something in IT), and then apply to attend Cisco’s certification training program.

While writing down tasks, it may be helpful to look at career profiles to identify the steps within that career path. In addition to describing each task, include resources that are already available or easily accessed. For example:

  • Ask Aunt Sarah if I can shadow her for a day at her work with the volleyball team as a sports trainer (and then take her out to lunch to say thanks).
  • Start studying my book on American Sign Language to become fluent in it.
  • Put $200 from each paycheck this summer into a savings account for living expenses while I’m in school.

Step 5: Establishing a Timeline

The last step in the Career Project Plan is to lay out a timeline of when the career seeker would like to, or can plan on, achieving each objective. Each task should have its own row, and columns should reflect each week, month, and year. Set target dates for accomplishing each task. Make special note of major accomplishments which are being pursued, so these measures, or benchmarks, of progress can be celebrated.

There are many sample project plan templates that can be found and downloaded by searching on the Internet, and there are software programs that can be used to create a project plan, such as Microsoft Excel or programs specifically for project planning. (Some can be pretty complex and take a long time to learn, so evaluate them before purchase.) Customize and update the plan regularly (even daily sometimes when progress moves fast), so make sure it’s easy to use.

Additional Resources for Career Project Planning