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Early Career Planning: 4 Simple Steps to Set You on the Right Path

Updated: Aug 16, 2023



If you're just stepping into the professional world or perhaps still navigating your way through university, the notion of 'career planning' might seem a tad premature. But even at this nascent stage, laying the foundations for your professional journey is pivotal. Recent studies highlight the significance of early career planning in moulding long-term job satisfaction and progression. It's essential to appreciate that a career plan isn't about charting a fixed route. Instead, it’s a dynamic map, evolving and adapting as fresh opportunities emerge and your interests develop.


When we mention career planning, it doesn't strictly mean an intricate, three-year plan. It could signify a voyage of self-discovery - a continuous endeavour of grasping your interests, values, motivations, and aspirations. Not having a clear vision of what you want in your career from the outset is entirely normal. A career plan acts as a beacon in your journey of self-discovery. It aids you in maintaining focus and provides direction without constraining you from seizing new possibilities.


Let’s deconstruct this journey into four uncomplicated and pragmatic steps:



Step 1 - Identify Your Career Options:


Activity 1: Identify your Values


A straightforward technique to discern your personal values is by examining peak moments in your life. These are instances when you felt elated, proud, or content. It's a three-fold process:


List 3 Peak Experiences: Pinpoint three paramount moments from your personal or professional life.


Delve into each of these moments. What were you engaged in at that time? What aspects of this particular scenario evoked feelings of happiness, pride, or fulfilment? Was it the duty you were carrying out, the individuals you were alongside, or the surrounding environment?


Ascertain recurring themes: After scrutinising each instance, search for commonalities or trends. What were the consistent motifs threading these experiences? These often indicate your foundational values.


This reflective task aids in discovering the values you hold dear. Synchronising your professional trajectory with these personal values will invariably lead to a more gratifying career.


Activity 2: Identify your Motivations


Grasping what fuels your passion is another cardinal component of your career plan. After all, our motivations ignite our actions and choices. Career motivations are vast and unique, but the seven most prevalent ones are:


Financial Stability: Earning a steady income and fiscal growth.


Professional Development: Acquiring new skills, advancing professionally, and broadening your knowledge.


Recognition: Garnering accolades and commendation for your endeavours.


Work-Life Balance: Achieving a harmonious equilibrium between work responsibilities and personal life.


Autonomy: Exercising independence and autonomy in your profession.


Helping Others: Positively influencing others or giving back to the community.


Creative Expression: The avenue to channel your creativity or innovative thoughts.


Pondering these widespread motivators can help pinpoint what spurs you in your career. They can be pivotal signposts as you traverse your professional path.


Step 2 - Learn From Others


Navigating the professional realm can resemble charting uncharted waters for those early in their career. Beyond grasping your motivations, it's essential to acquire wisdom from various quarters about jobs, industry sectors, and potential career trajectories. With a plethora of information available, pinpointing the right sources can initially be daunting. Here's a succinct list of avenues for early-career individuals to gain invaluable insights:


Family and Friends: Your close network can frequently offer first-hand anecdotes and might possess contacts in areas that pique your interest.


Networking Events and Job Fairs: Numerous professional bodies and organisations host networking soirees, offering a splendid platform to interact with industry stalwarts and peers.


Industry Podcasts: An increasing cadre of professionals disseminate their expertise via podcast interviews.


Industry Publications: Subscriptions to periodicals, journals, and digital publications tailored to your sector can keep you abreast of industry updates, emerging trends, and upcoming opportunities.


Career Counsellors: They proffer advice attuned to your strengths, interests, and the prevailing market landscape.


Online Platforms: Portals such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and niche forums can be superb platforms to garner insights and liaise with professionals.


University Alumni Networks: Your alma mater's alumni community can facilitate connections to individuals who were once in your position and have since carved a niche for themselves.


Workshops and Webinars: Various institutions and enterprises conduct workshops, combining learning with networking.


Internships: They offer hands-on exposure and a taste of the industry, assisting in determining if a specific route resonates with you.


Step 3 - Establish SMART Goals


In the early stages of your professional journey, having a structured goal-setting strategy can be a game-changer. This is where the concept of 'SMART goals' comes into play. SMART, an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound, provides an effective framework to set and achieve your career aspirations. A SMART goal not only helps you identify what you aim to achieve but also charts a clear path on how to get there, acting as both a guide and a motivator. Using the SMART criteria ensures that your goals have a clear endpoint and measurable milestones—an approach that research has shown can substantially enhance motivation and overall performance.


But how do you formulate a SMART plan that syncs perfectly with your career aspirations? Here's a structured process to guide you:


Be Specific: Start with clarity. Instead of saying, "I want to be successful in my field," narrow it down. What does success look like to you? Is it a particular job title, responsibility, or expertise in a niche area?


Make It Measurable: Quantify your goal. If you're eyeing a promotion, consider setting a goal like, "I aim to acquire three new skills in my field by the end of the year to be eligible for the next role."


It’s Achievable: Your goals should challenge you, but they shouldn’t be so lofty that they demoralize you. If you're a fresh graduate, aiming to become a CEO in a year might not be realistic. Instead, focus on attainable milestones that lead towards that ultimate goal.


Stay Relevant: Align your goals with your broader career aspirations. If you're in digital marketing, for example, mastering a programming language might not be as relevant as gaining expertise in data analytics.


Set Time-Bound Targets: Deadlines can be motivating. Instead of deciding to "learn digital analytics," a SMART goal would be "to complete a certified digital analytics course by the end of Q2."


Break It Down: Large goals can be intimidating. Divide them into smaller tasks. For instance, if your goal is to write a book, start by creating an outline by month-end, draft two chapters the next month, and so on.


Review and Refine: Regularly assess your progress. If you're consistently meeting your milestones with ease, maybe it's time to challenge yourself a bit more. Conversely, if certain goals seem persistently out of reach, recalibrate and modify them based on your current circumstances.


By mastering the art of setting SMART goals, you not only provide direction to your early career aspirations but also ensure a consistent path of progress and growth. Remember, the objective isn't just about reaching the destination but also about enjoying and learning from the journey.


Step 4 - Review Regularly:



One of the most effective activities in creating a flexible career plan is self-reflection. This tool helps you understand yourself better and facilitates clearer decision-making, particularly in the context of your career. Self-reflection allows you to clarify your passions, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and understand what truly drives you. It can reveal patterns and preferences that might not be evident otherwise.


Activity 3:


As you gain more exposure to different tasks and projects at work, here are ten self-reflection questions to help you learn more about yourself and what your dream career might look like:

  • How did I feel on my first day compared to now, and why?

  • Which tasks have I enjoyed or found tedious, and why?

  • What strengths have I discovered in myself, and what areas need improvement?

  • How have I reacted to feedback and used it for growth?

  • What aspects of my work environment energize or drain me?

  • How well do my values align with the company's, and how does that affect my satisfaction?

  • How do I feel about team dynamics versus solo work, and what roles do I naturally assume in teams?

  • Have I discovered new passions through this job, and how might I further pursue them?

  • What is my vision for an ideal job based on my experiences so far?

  • How have I grown personally since starting this job?

Marcus Buckingham, a researcher in employee engagement and happiness, believes that if we can find tasks we genuinely enjoy and spend just 20% of our work time on them, it can make a huge difference in how fulfilled we feel. This idea challenges the common belief that we need to love everything about our job to be happy. He talks about the 'red thread', a guiding passion or interest that can lead to much happier and more satisfied workplaces.


By taking the time to reflect on what we love and finding ways to incorporate that into our work, we can create a more satisfying and successful career. Bridging the gap between our passions and our day-to-day tasks is essential. Planning early in our career is crucial. While having a plan is beneficial, being open to new opportunities is also important. By understanding ourselves and learning from others, we can make better choices for our future.


Don't forget to make use of available resources, such as high-impact development programs that your employer may offer for early career talent. These programs can provide invaluable support in your career planning journey. Career planning isn't just about where we end up, but also about the journey and the lessons we learn along the way.





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