Plotting Your Career Path

When does a job become a career? The answer is different for everyone. But all workers come to a point where they need to chart a course for their future. Plotting out a career path offers direction as you forge ahead in life.

A career path lays out the steps it will take to reach one’s employment goals. But deciding your career path requires more than looking at an organizational chart. To choose a career, it’s helpful to make a plan that sets you up for success.

What Is Your Career PathWhat is a Career Path?

To get started on planning your future, it’s important to understand what career path means. Career planning involves preparation, research, self-reflection, and a little bit of fortune-telling. It’s not an exact science, but it can be useful for making the most out of the tumultuous labor market.

Career Plan vs. Career Path

Setting a plan for your employment requires thinking both in terms of broad ambitions and specific stepping stones. This is the distinction between a career plan and a career path.

According to MIT’s Career Advising & Professional Development, a career plan outlines your short-term and long-term goals. Meanwhile, a career path lays out the different jobs that will mark each new step in your career.

These terms are similar, but thinking about each will help you keep perspective: Take your career one step at a time, but don’t lose sight of where you want to be in five, 10 or even 20 years.

What a Career Path Looks Like

There are lots of ways to lay out your career path -- it all depends on what will best help you envision yourself achieving each new step. Some people can make a straightforward written list, while others prefer a more graphic approach. An example could be a flow chart, blueprint or timetable that shows different ways of getting to your ultimate goals.

Why a Career Path is Important

Choosing a career path gives you a sense of direction and purpose in your work. When you’re working toward a long-term goal, it gives your day-to-day duties more weight and meaning.

Most workers feel aimless in their work. Anne Fulton, author of “The Career Engagement Game,” told the website Human Resource Executive that 60 percent of HR leaders believe they offer employees a clear career path. But only 36 percent of employees agreed. The rest are likely to feel disengaged from their jobs.

Even if you don’t realize it, it can be demoralizing to feel like your full-time job isn’t taking you anywhere. Research has shown that the majority of workers leave their jobs because of the lack of career development. Feeling confident in your career path will keep you focused, stave off boredom, and encourage you to develop professionally so that you are more valuable on the labor market.

And the benefits aren’t all about internal satisfaction. Planning a career path can help you reach new professional heights, whether that’s in promotions or raises. Once you’ve laid out your next steps, you’ll be able to recognize new opportunities when they come along.

A personalized career path not only helps workers -- it also benefits companies. Engaged, determined employees are more likely to be productive at work. They’re more likely to stay in their job, thereby lowering turnover.

The online learning platform Udemy found that 42 percent of millennial workers said that learning and development opportunities were the most important benefit in deciding where to work. Workers want to see the potential for future growth in their jobs.

How to Find the Right Career Track

Deciding on your career path won’t be a simple process. With so many different jobs out there, it can be overwhelming to figure out which career is best suited to your skills, abilities and personality.

Don’t worry if you haven’t figured it out yet. The average person changes jobs 10 to 15 times in their career. However, there are strategies you can use to help determine the job opportunities that will help you achieve your goals.

The Skills and Interests You Need for Your Career

Determining the best career path for you requires taking a long, hard look at your abilities, strengths and background. You need to evaluate what skills and expertise you can build upon to advance in your career. And knowing your strengths are can help you identify which careers will be rewarding for you.

When it comes to finding a career where you’ll be successful and fulfilled, don’t underestimate the value of a strong foundation of knowledge and ability. If you already have basic skills and talents required for a certain career path, you’ve got a head start. Research careers and sectors that call for the assets you bring to the table. They might not always be your dream jobs, but perhaps there’s a niche within these fields that would give you job satisfaction.

If you’re looking to make a drastic left turn in your career trajectory, you might need to first seek out instruction on the field’s basic skills and knowledge. Otherwise, it’s unlikely you’ll make it very far in the hiring process. You might need to go back to school, obtain a new certification, or otherwise prove your capabilities in certain areas. Starting from scratch is difficult, but it can be rewarding if you find a fulfilling career in the process.

In any case, it’s worthwhile to identify the skills that are in high demand in career paths that appeal to you. Growing your value on the labor market will open up new opportunities.

Identify what Motivates You at Work

Find your passion. As you go about your work -- or, if you’re still in school, your studies -- be mindful about your responsibilities and tasks. Which ones are you eager to take on? Which ones give you a feeling of satisfaction or pride when you’ve completed them well?

If the answer is “nothing,” you might be on entirely the wrong track. But more than likely, there are some aspects of your job that excite you more than others. Think about what you find fulfilling about these aspects -- and how they could translate into future opportunities.

Consider also what you are missing in your current role. Do you see other people working on projects that interest you? Think about what it would take to get to that point. Assume nothing is off limits and lay out the steps necessary to get where you want to be.

Get Outside Input On Your Potential Career ChoicesGet Outside Input on Your Potential Career Choices

You’re not the first person to wonder how to plot out your career path. Chances are, you’re surrounded by people in your professional network, friend circle, and family that have insights about planning for the future. Don’t take every piece of advice you receive -- just what resonates with your vision for yourself.

Mentors and Coaches: First, reach out to any mentors you might have worked with over the years. They could be a boss, professor, coach or colleague that has shown an interest in your advancement. These are people whose perspectives and experiences you trust and who have steered you right on the past. Share with them your situation and what you hope to achieve. Hopefully, they can help identify possible routes for your career.

Managers and Supervisors: Don’t be afraid to share your interest in planning a career path with a manager or supervisor. While they will likely be biased in favor of you staying within the same organization, perhaps they can illuminate opportunities for advancement that you wouldn’t have otherwise found about.

Networking Connections: Use your networking prowess to see what other opportunities are out there. If you’re a college student, see if your school puts on career fairs where you can chat up recruiters and representatives from different fields. If you’re a recent graduate or already on a career path, attend professional mixers, relevant conferences, and other networking events that can expose you to new areas. See if anyone brings up opportunities that appeal to your professional interests, skills or ambitions.

Try a Personality Test or Career Assessment

Aptitude tests aren’t just for high school students. You’re never too old or experienced to try to learn more about yourself. Many different tools and frameworks have been developed to offer insight into the ideal working environments for personality types.

Many of these tests point to job possibilities based on quizzes that identify traits, habits and working styles.

Meanwhile, other popular tests categorize people according to a few different personality types. Rather than pointing you toward a specific career, these tests simply outline the way you work best. You can use these revelations when considering various career paths. These tests include:

Research Growing Fields in Your Job Search

If you are conflicted about which type of career to pursue, take some time to investigate the future employment outlook of different sectors. Which fields are seeing growth and new employment opportunities? Which skills and abilities are in high demand in the job market?

A career path that is expanding will offer a greater chance of success than one that is stagnating or contracting. The market for comparable jobs can drastically differ from one sector to the next. While your own ambitions and dreams are important, don’t fail to consider the realities of the job market when plotting your career path.

Take Internships in Possible Career Paths

Internships are a low-stakes way to get a firsthand look at whether a job or field is right for you. Because internships usually only last for a predetermined period, you don’t have to worry about cornering yourself into a certain job. Meanwhile, you can gain real-world experience in the workplace and develop your skills.

Internships often lead to job opportunities -- whether you’re hired within the same company or use the experience as a launching pad to gain a job elsewhere. The worst case scenario is that you learn that a career path isn’t a good fit.

Read Industry News

When weighing a possible career path, it can be worthwhile to check out news that discusses where the industry is headed. This could include trade magazines, company blogs, or articles in mainstream publications by consultants and experts.

You might discover exciting new trends and opportunities that excite you -- or you might find that the field is going in a direction that doesn’t appeal to your career ambitions. Either way, trade magazines are an insider’s look at a sector can help you decide whether it’s the right path for you.

Consider a Career Coach

A career coach isn’t right for everyone, but people who are deeply conflicted about their career path and financially stable can find real value in advice from hiring an objective professional.

A good career coach offers honest, unvarnished feedback and expertise to help guide their job search. They keep you from avoiding decisions about your career path because you have someone to answer to. Plus, some people are motivated by simply putting in a financial stake in furthering their career.

Coaches will focus your job search by asking pointed questions that put you in the right mindset for furthering your career. The success will come from within yourself -- the coach just puts you on the right track. They can also help beef up your resume and hone your interviewing skills.

Those who decide to hire a career coach need to be open to change, according to a Q&A with one career coach in The New York Times. Otherwise, the guidance won’t lead to meaningful results.

How to Map Out Your Career Path

When you’ve identified the career path you want to pursue, it’s time to go about laying out the steps it will take to achieve your objectives. A detailed career plan will keep you on track with a sense of purpose as you work. While your career might take you in unexpected directions, it’s useful to stay mindful of your long-term goals.

Start at the End

The point of a career path is to carry you to ultimate goals. When plotting out your career path, start by establishing where you want your career to lead.

Think not only about the job title you hope to acquire, but the kind of company you hope to work for, the accomplishments you hope to complete, and the mission you hope to further. You should consider what you want in an employer almost as much as what you want in a job. From there, you can start to fill in the necessary steps to get there.

Find a Model

While a career path should be a reflection of your personal ambitions, it also needs to represent the real world. It’s useful to find templates that lay out the common ways to reach your career goals. If you are a student, you might consult a career counselor or faculty adviser for insight into the steps you need to take. Even a search on Google or social for the job you hope to someday to obtain might help to reveal the standard path.

If you’re already in the workforce the company you work for may have outlined a typical career path for someone in your position. While this can be a useful resource, don’t assume that you have to follow the same route as everyone else in your shoes. You can personalize your career path to cater to your own dreams.

More than Positions

Your career path should not only trace the various job titles you’ll need on your resume. You also should think deeply about the specifics skills, professional development and experiences to accumulate that will aid in your career journey. Define any professional certifications that you need to obtain to excel in your field. Your career path should lead to personal growth, not simply advancement.

How to Progress in Your Career Path

You laid out all the steps in your career path. Now how do you put them into action? Staying on track requires commitment, perseverance and resilience. Follow these career path tips to see the best results.

Set Target Dates

When climbing the career ladder, sometimes you need an extra push to get to the next rung. To motivate yourself, set deadlines by when you hope to achieve certain benchmarks. Having a target date in mind can keep you from getting too comfortable in a current position. You should always be looking ahead. The clock is ticking, after all.

Hold Yourself AccountableHold Yourself Accountable

In your day to day duties, you probably have a boss who holds you accountable if you don’t stay on task. But when it comes to your personal career goals, you only have yourself to answer to. If you’re serious about progressing in your career path, you have to find ways to motivate yourself.

For example, withhold major purchases for yourself or other indulgences until you’ve reached a new benchmark in your career path. The reward offers that extra bit of encouragement and positive reinforcement to get you to the next level.

The Power Of NetworkingThe Power of Networking

You’ve probably heard that it’s more about who you know than what you know. It’s a cliche for good reason. To find new opportunities, it’s essential to put yourself out there and meet new people in your field. Attend networking events, conferences, seminars and other opportunities to interact with industry leaders. This will help to put you ahead of the pack when new positions become available.

Be Flexible

The actual progression of your career probably won’t exactly resemble the path you’ve laid out for yourself. It’s important to recognize good opportunities even if they diverge from the plan. When a new path -- or even just a detour -- appears, take the time to think about how it could contribute to your long-term goals.

Say Yes

Chances are, no one is going to shepherd you to the next step in your career. You need to seize opportunities when they arise, whether that means a leadership role on a new project or learning a useful computer program. Don’t overload yourself, but recognize when there’s a chance to add to your toolbox. Not every endeavor will lead directly to the next step in your career -- but you don’t know that in advance.

Signs You Are Ready For Your Next Step In Your CareerSigns You’re Ready for the Next Step in Your Career

When you have a career path rolled out in front of you, it’s natural to get impatient about moving forward. Don’t forget to live in the moment -- make the most each position, accumulating experiences, skills, and knowledge. When you feel ready for the next level, here’s how to indicate to the powers that be that you’re a good candidate for a promotion.

  • Show leadership. When projects and opportunities arise, take an active role in the planning and execution. Demonstrate that you have a broad understanding of the team’s and organization’s goals, not just capable at your own day-to-day tasks.
  • Take initiative. Volunteer yourself to take on new responsibilities. Show that you’re someone to go when problems need solving.
  • Network. Successful people don’t get by on hard work alone. Make connections that behoove yourself and your organization. Higher-ups will value employees who can build relationships that advance the business.
  • Show a willingness to learn and develop. Take part in professional development, seminars, training and other learning opportunities that show that you’re interested in building your value.
  • Go above and beyond. When it comes to your regular tasks, don’t just do the bare minimum. Give that extra oomph that shows you’re ready to take on new things.
  • Get involved. Be active and engaged in meetings, displaying the value of your perspective and insights. You want to prove that you’ve thought about the pressing issues your organization is facing.
  • Respond to failure. Grit and resilience are highly regarded qualities when it comes to hiring. You need to show that you bounce back after challenges and disappointment.
  • Build relationships with colleagues and peers. Managers value interpersonal skills and want to promote people who have the support of their coworkers.

Don’t Balk at Lateral Moves

You might think that every new stage of your career needs to be a step up. But sometimes, a step to the side -- or even a step back -- is necessary to move forward in the long term.

Maybe you feel like you’ve maxed out your potential in your current organization. Maybe a change of scenery is necessary. Maybe you want to learn how things are done elsewhere. Think holistically about new opportunities -- not just whether you’ll get a fancy new title.

How Often Should I Change JobsHow Often Should I Change Jobs?

Don’t be surprised if you change jobs frequently, especially early in your career. Changing jobs has become the norm for younger generations. The polling organization Gallup dubbed millennials to be the “job-hopping generation.” They “move freely from company to company, more so than any other generation”: They are more likely to have changed jobs in the last year and less likely to expect to be working for the same company a year from now.

Another Way Plan Your Career PathAnother Way to Plan Your Career Path

There’s more than one method for mapping out your career plan. In the Harvard Business Review, expert talent adviser Marc Effron outlines an approach that takes the idea of a career “map” very seriously. Here’s how it works:

  • Find Your From/To: Effron wants you to think critically about your present situation, and then identify the “next big destination.” You should describe who are you presently, and how you hope to see yourself at the next step of your career. These should be two short statements that encapsulate your “from” and “to.”
  • Make a personal experience map: Now that you have a goal, outline experiences you will need to reach the destination within the next few years. They should involve challenging situations that push you out of your comfort zone -- and thus next to a new stage of your development. These should be actionable and realistic, Effron writes.
  • Get an outside perspective. Effron encourages you to interview experts in your field that can help you understand what leads to success. Through an informational interview, figure out what valuable experiences prepared them for and led them to their advancement. This will make sure your career map reflects true paths to success in your industry.
  • Consult the map. Now that you have a destination and the steps to get there, use it to focus your career progression. When weighing whether to take on certain opportunities or experiences, see how they fit into the plan you’ve set yourself. This isn’t set in stone -- you can always make adjustments along the way. But now you have a guide for your professional life.

When To Change Your Career PathWhen to Change Your Career Path

Choosing a career path isn’t just for recent college grads. People who have reached a crossroads in their professional lives might be considering a career change. A drastic break from your past experience is a big decision to make, and it isn’t for everyone. But there are certain circumstances where forging a new path could be advisable.

Underused Skills

If you feel you have untapped potential that will never be realized in your current career path, you might look into other job opportunities that would better make use of what you bring to the table.

Before jumping ship, you should consult with your current manager to see whether there are ways you could expand your role to showcase the skills that are going to waste. Be willing to take on new projects or responsibilities -- they might take you out of your comfort zone, but you might find new ways to get satisfaction in your job. However, if the opportunities don’t exist in your current path, you don’t want to get stuck feeling undervalued.

Misaligned Values

After working in a field for a while, you come to understand the mission, values and priorities. You may discover that you don’t share the same ambitions for your professional life. Perhaps you want a career with an eye toward public interest or social responsibility. Maybe you are eager for an environment that strives to innovate rather than uphold the status quo.

If you don’t believe in the values instilled by your line of work, it will hard for you to feel motivated. You’re likely to stagnate.

Incessant Boredom

Most jobs involve duties that are more of a slog than others. Others require years of grunt-work before you can get to the impactful, meaningful tasks that got you into the career in the first place. But if you are consistently finding your work dull and uninspiring with no end in sight, a career change could be called for. Unrelenting boredom at work is a quick way to feel unfulfilled in life.

Consistent Exhaustion and Lack of Energy

Demanding jobs are good -- if you get satisfaction from the work. This kind of job might wear you out but should also have stretches where the work energizes and inspires you. If, on the other hand, you find yourself constantly burnt out at work or worn out with no complementary feeling of vigor to balance it out, you’re probably in the wrong job for you.

Toxic Environment

It’s not uncommon to end up in workplaces that where a cutthroat approach is the norm. While some people are motivated, it can feel repressive to others. It might just be a specific company or team that is causing this environment. But if you’ve constantly felted alienated or otherwise repelled by the work environment at different workplaces, it might be time to ask whether you’re on the right path.

You’ve Hit Your Ceiling

If you no longer see potential to grow on your current career path, you have a few options. You can be satisfied with the level you’ve reached, and endeavor to become the best you can be in your current role. Or, you can look outward to new opportunities that may diverge from your previous path. If you are still at a point in life when you’re eager to develop professionally, don’t settle for a static position.


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