How to make a career plan

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Sometimes working life can feel a bit hard to control, particularly considering the challenges we've all faced since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But whatever stage of life you're at, it's never too late to plan. 

A good career plan will usually have short-term, mid-term and long-term parts to it. In years, that’s roughly the next one to five years, five to 10 years, then 10 plus years. Remember it can change along the way – working life spans more than four decades, after all. Who you are at the beginning may be very different from who you are at the end, as personal, financial or family circumstances, your outlook and interests all change over time. This means a flexible attitude is important, as well as self-acceptance. There’s a good chance that things won’t always go your way, plus there’s usually an element of luck involved in where we end up.

Circumstances play their part too. Some opportunities and industries are quite location specific. Although luckily, with more flexibility and remote working possibilities, geography is not quite as tricky as it once was.

Whatever your situation or ambitions, the questions below will help you put together a career plan that you can stick to.

What are your strengths and passions?

You’re more likely to succeed in your plan if you know what your strengths are and play to them from the beginning. You’ll also have more staying power with a career plan if you’re doing something you really love or believe in, rather than something you think you should do.

If you’re very organised, then something involving logistics could be your best bet. Or if you’re creative and love storytelling, a communications role could be your path to happiness. A combination of what you’re good at and what you love – plus the practical realities of what’s available to you – is a good objective.

If you’re not sure, take a skills assessment on the National Careers Service website to find out what jobs or roles might suit you, or do some research on the types of careers out there and what they involve.

What do you want out of life?

Work backwards from your ultimate life goals. Do you want a career that makes you happy, makes you money, gives you influence and allows you to shape the future? How about making or designing something, bringing people together, helping those less fortunate, inspiring people to take action or sharing understanding?

In reality, what you want to achieve is likely to be a combination of outcomes. These bigger goals then inform more specific, short-term goals, like whether to sign up to a vocational training course, take on some voluntary work that could give you some new experience in your spare time, or just knuckle down and focus on the day job for a couple of years.

How ambitious are you?

We’re not all the same and not everyone wants to be CEO of a multi-national company, or even a department manager. Be honest with yourself about the level of responsibility you want – it’s ok to not want more. An awful lot can be achieved and fulfilment to be had, sometimes more, when you aren’t at the top.

Can you do more training?

Continuing to learn as an adult is one of the most valuable things you can do to boost your prospects and your income. This is true for almost any profession. Qualifications are important markers of your skills level. If you haven’t done any learning recently, hunt around for what’s available either in your current line of work or one you’re interested in. There are also many free courses on a huge range of subjects and skills available online.

Is a ‘non-linear’ career best for you?

With most careers, there’ll be times where you seem to be flying and other times when things will seem a bit stuck. Be patient and realistic. There can be a lot to learn from being in the same role for a number of years, from job changes within the same level, or even starting at a lower level if you’re changing industry completely. Most careers are not linear.

Will you give yourself some time out?

It’s quite sensible to plan for the option of taking some time out of your career at some point. Career breaks are becoming more popular, as are sabbaticals. They can offer you a valuable fresh perspective on where you are and where you want to be. This perspective can be hard to achieve when your nose is to the grindstone. Planning for this might just involve building up a savings buffer, to give you the option of some time out further down the line.

You could also explore the possibility of a doing a secondment, where you work for another organisation or a different department in your company for a set period of time and then return to your original job. Secondments can be a valuable route to learning new skills and gaining different experience with the security of knowing you have your job to come back to.

How will you let people know about your progress?

If you want to progress through the ranks, people need to know about what you’ve done so far. Being able to confidently speak about what you can bring to an organisation is a useful habit. It might feel awkward sometimes, or like you’re blowing your own trumpet, but if you’re growing in skills and expertise, it’s important that others know about it.

You could also check and see if your workplace has any shared career development platforms. LinkedIn is a good place to showcase your growth too.

Do you need some help?

If you’re struggling to work out what you want to do, it could be worth considering a career coach or mentor. A coach will be able to help you establish your goals, understand what skills you have or need, and support you with decision making and development – whether it’s to help you in your current job, start a new career or achieve a different professional ambition.

Information on career planning

The National Careers Service (nationalcareers.service.gov.uk) provides information, advice and guidance to help you make decisions on learning, training and work.

Information on work and your money

The Money Advice Service (moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/categories/work-and-redundancy) offers advice on everything from understanding your employment rights and what in-work benefits you might be entitled to, to handling redundancy and self-employment.

What about self-employment?

If you’re considering self-employment or starting a business, read our articles to learn about the things you should consider.