How to Set Long-Term Career Goals
Updated 30 October 2020
For most of us, a successful career is a top priority. So, in this article, we look at long-term career goals – what they are, why they’re important, and how to set and achieve them.
We also offer a list of long-term career goals examples to help you figure out what your future aspirations may be.
What Are Long Term Career Goals?
Long-term career goals are goals that you wish to achieve in your professional life within a certain number of years; typically three to five, though some may look even further into the future.
To meet these ambitions, you need to set a series of short-term career goals.
These are smaller objectives that give you the tools you need to move forward and are attainable in the near future.
Long-term career goals are unique to the individual. Some may be driven by professional aspirations alone, while others may consider personal circumstances.
You may have a single long-term objective in mind, or you may work towards multiple goals simultaneously.
Why Is It Important to Have Long-Term Goals?
A successful and happy professional life takes careful planning, and long-term goals are one of several career strategies that help you develop a clear pathway for future development.
They’re important because:
They give you direction – Most people have at least one ambition in life, but without steps to get there, they all too often go unfulfilled. Long-term goals help you define not only what you want to achieve, but exactly how to achieve it.
They challenge you – Long-term goals often lead you to step outside of your comfort zone, tackling short-term challenges that you might otherwise avoid in favor of the status quo. This proves to you, and others, that you’re capable of more than you think.
They keep you motivated – Without something to work towards, life can become monotonous and uninspiring, especially in a professional context. Long-term goals give you a sense of purpose and drive, keeping you motivated as you progress towards the finish line.
They help you make the most of the short-term – In setting long-term goals, you have a vision for the future. This enables you to focus more on the here and now and make the best use of your time by taking actions beneficial to your future self.
Your long-term goals aren’t just important to you as an individual. They’re also useful to current or future employers.
Being able to provide a concise answer to where you see yourself in five years or more shows that you’re a determined employee not content with standing still, which makes you a valuable asset to any business.
Examples of Long-Term Career Goals
1. Secure a Promotion
Few people look to stand still in their professional lives, which makes promotion one of the most common long-term career goals.
Regardless of how long you’ve been with your current employer or the level of experience you hold, you should never take it for granted that you’re next in line for a promotional opportunity.
These privileges are earned, so your short-term goals should revolve around increased productivity and personal development.
You could even request an internal secondment to broaden your understanding of the organization you work for, and how all of its departments contribute towards shared business objectives.
The more involved you become, the quicker you’re likely to achieve your long-term goal of a promotion, and the sooner you can start working towards the next one.
2. Gain Management Experience
If you’re in the early stages of your career with ambitions to advance to top-level management, it makes perfect sense to set a long-term goal of gaining management experience within the next few years.
Several short-term goals can help you here, such as taking the lead on a project, attending management seminars, shadowing senior staff and developing leadership skills that qualify you for a higher position.
As a long-term career goal, getting a foot on the management ladder is well within reach for anybody willing to step up, take responsibility and show they’ve got what it takes to become an influential leader.
3. Increase Your Salary
The desire to earn more money has a stigma attached to it, often assumed to be rooted in greed and materialism. However, for most people, this simply isn’t the case.
This is one of the long-term career goals fuelled by responsible ambitions, like providing for a family, purchasing a property or saving for the future.
It’s a more than acceptable long-term goal for anyone to set themselves, but a pay rise (over and above those in line with inflation) is not a given and needs to be earned.
Consider the short-term goals you can set that prove your request worthy of consideration further down the line and set yourself realistic expectations by consulting the average salary information for US workers.
4. Switch Careers
Long-term career goals don’t necessarily need to be tied to your current employment. Many people find themselves in a rut, unfulfilled by their chosen profession. It may be that your role doesn’t meet expectations, and you find your interests move to an unrelated field.
Where this is the case, a career change is a more than reasonable long-term goal.
Most of your waking hours are given over to work and if you’re unhappy, it can have a major impact on other areas of your life.
A successful career change can take years to accomplish. You may need to learn new skills, embark on further study, or take a pay cut and work your way up from the bottom.
That said, if they lead to a rewarding outcome, the short-term sacrifices are worth the long-term gain.
5. Set Up Your Own Business
Achieving the freedom of self-employment is something many people aim for, and in the age of start-ups and entrepreneurs, going it alone is an increasingly popular long-term career goal.
Of course, it’s not easy to set up a business, which is why it’s sensible to set this as a future objective and spend the intermediate years learning the key competencies you’ll need to be a successful business owner.
You can learn a lot from how others operate, not just what they do well, but also their mistakes.
You should also take every opportunity to learn as much as you can about marketing, finance and any other discipline you’ll need to make your long-term goal a reality.
Moreover, a few years in regular employment gives you scope to put funds aside, meaning you’ll start on the right foot as a business owner with a level of financial stability.
6. Establish Yourself as a Brand
No matter what your line of work, building your own personal brand is a great long-term career goal as it makes you more visible and more appealing to prospective employers.
Like any brand, it takes time and hard work to grow a reputation, which is why you shouldn’t expect to become established for at least a couple of years.
Set yourself smaller targets that contribute to the end result, like growing your online presence, collecting LinkedIn recommendations, developing a tone of voice and being active in conversations around your profession.
As you become better known and respected among your connections, your personal brand will travel further afield and may well bring new opportunities your way.
If you build your brand well enough, you may even find yourself on the receiving end of a headhunting inquiry.
7. Have Work Published
Long-term career goals are all about progression, and one sure-fire way to boost your prospects is by becoming a credible source of information within your field.
This goal is not restricted to academic, scientific or research professions. Almost every sector has journals, magazines and/or other industry publications that regularly curate work from authors working on the front line of their given industry.
How much you contribute will be entirely dependent on your circumstances, but it’s a good idea to set yourself a target of so many articles per year to build your presence.
Having your work published not only gives you credibility, but it can also lead to a career shift and see you teaching future generations as a university lecturer in your specialist subject.
8. Become a Certified Professional
Achieving certified status is a common long-term career goal for many, as it often equates to promotional opportunities and a bigger pay packet.
Becoming certified usually involves a long-term commitment, with advanced study, work experience and examinations. That said, once you are certified, your career prospects become global, as many professional bodies are recognized worldwide.
Most industries, from finance to marketing, offer professional accreditations. For those working in academia or scientific research, a logical long-term goal is to pursue a PhD, either as an individual or with support from an employer.
9. Become a Thought Leader
If your long-term career goals are motivated by inspiring change, thought leadership is something well worth working towards.
As a thought leader, others will look to you as an authority and your opinions will be widely regarded as valuable. It sounds like a great place to be, but it takes hard work and dedication to get there.
You’ll need to throw yourself into every aspect of your profession to become an expert. As such, this is one of the long-term career goals that takes many years to achieve.
It’s also not a standalone objective. To become a thought leader, you’ll need to focus on other long-term goals like getting your work published and building your personal brand.
10. Step Back
Professional progression doesn’t always mean more work and more responsibility. In some cases, it could mean the exact opposite.
Perhaps you intend to start a family in a few years, and part of your career plan is to get to a position where you can comfortably work part-time or from home, and give more attention to your personal life.
Maybe you want to set up a business, but your longer-term objective is to hand over the reins as soon as it’s well established.
Sometimes, long-term career goals have more to do with personal needs than professional ambition.
If this is relevant to you, then your short-term objectives should focus on financial security, and you should have a backup plan in case your long-term goal proves unsustainable.
How to Set and Achieve Long-Term Career Goals (Key Steps)
Now you have a good idea of what long-term career goals are and why they matter, it’s time to set your own.
The SMART method helps you shape your long-term career goals into actionable objectives.
Your goals should be:
Essentially, this means you need to develop goals that are to the point, quantifiable and within reasonable grasp in a designated time frame.
For example, 'Climb the career ladder in the next four to five years' is vague, and the time scale is loose. As a long-term goal, it lacks focus, which makes it hard to achieve.
An alternative would be: 'Be directly responsible for X number of staff in X number of years'.
This is specific, and you’ll know whether or not you’ve achieved it because it’s based on measurable metrics.
Specific goals also help with the next stage of the process.
Develop Short-Term Goals
Short-term goals are the stepping stones that lead to long-term objectives.
With the above goal in mind, you might set yourself the task of developing communication skills or taking ownership of a project in the coming months.
This demonstrates that you have what it takes to head up a team.
Avoid Negativity and Look Forward
A forward-thinking, positive mindset is key when it comes to long-term career goals.
In some cases, your goal might arise out of a bad situation, but you should always put a positive spin on your aims.
As an example, 'Leave a toxic work environment' is a goal rooted in negativity. It focuses on the downside of your current situation instead of looking towards a brighter future.
By simply rephrasing it to something like: 'Join a company that encourages effective teamwork' you are setting your sights on what could be, not what is.
Be Prepared to Tailor Expectations
There’s a common phrase that the best-laid plans often go astray.
Provided you follow the steps above, this shouldn’t be the case with your long-term career goals.
However, you should still be prepared to adjust, because life has a habit of throwing unexpected curve-balls.
Being too rigid with your goals can lead to frustration and hold you back. Be open to some movement to avoid your ambitions moving further out of reach.
Long-term goals should form part of any strategic career plan.
Knowing precisely where you want to end up not only gives you the motivation to get there, it also helps you understand the steps you need to take in the short-term.
It’s never too early to start planning your professional development, and it’s never too late to work towards new ambitions.
So, whatever stage you’re at in your career, make long-term goals part of your outlook.