Megan joined a top software engineering firm straight out of college – it was a natural choice as it was one of the biggest paymasters at the time. She had reached a senior level position in 5 years – not very common at her firm – and was sure she could negotiate a better role and salary if she tried elsewhere. 

But, by then she had lost interest in her job. The daily office commute felt oppressive, getting through projects was a chore, and even getting out of bed felt difficult on some days. She knew she was depressed, and that the only thing that could save her was taking up writing full time, an interest she had loved in school and college, but had found little time for since she started working.

It happens so often that we choose our career, or at least know someone who has done so, on the basis of factors that seem superficially important at the time – pay package, peer pressure, societal image, easy availability – and come to regret it in a very short while. 

How do you decide on career goals that give you a better shot at job satisfaction, which drives greater self-esteem, which, in turn, is the key to an improved quality of life? Here are a few steps that might act as a guide to setting career goals, whether you are a student, are fresh out of college or have been in your career for some time.

  • Choose the career path that works for you – The obvious first step towards setting your career goals, but this is much easier said than done. There are several sub-steps involved here:
    • Self Assess – What truly interests you? Possibly the most important step in the whole process. In most jobs, even if the pay does not look attractive at the beginning, if it’s something that matches your interests, you will be motivated to work hard to reach a level where the pay disparity with any other job is nullified. And what are your top skills? You might be interested in a career that you do not have an aptitude for. This question brings a degree of realism to the self-assessment process. You would want to build on some basic skills, instead of starting from scratch altogether.
    • Shortlist Career Options – Identify a few careers that match your interests and skill set. The Occupational Outlook Handbook released by the US Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistic is a good place to start. Talking to career counselors, trying out online quizzes, reading through career websites are some other options.
    • Talk to People – Once you have further narrowed down your options, talking to people already in these fields is a very good way to figure out the job profiles. Internships are also a smart and low-stakes method to closely observe a career profile that interests you.
    • Make a Decision – List the pros and cons of the options you are left with, weigh their relative importance from your perspective, and make an informed decision.
  • Set long term goals – You would have ideally considered long term goals while evaluating career options. These goals are not just in terms of the position you want to reach, the amount of money you want to be making or the comforts you want to have in, say, 25 years. Your long term life goals need to be aligned to these more materialistic goals too. 
  • Set short term goals – If your long term goals are the destination and your career the vehicle that takes you there, then the short term goals are the path that you ride on. These could include the extra training you need to invest in to build on your skills, the industry you should focus on, finding a balance between your long term objectives and shorter term ones like repaying your education loan, etc.
  • Be clear about your goals – Keep in mind that your career goals really guide you when they score well on the following criteria:
    • They are focused and unambiguous
    • They are measurable
    • They are action-oriented
    • They are realistic
    • They are bound by a deadline, especially your short term goals
    • They challenge you
  • Actively seek feedback – This can be in two forms again. The first feedback is when you are setting your goals. Working with someone who is experienced in the career option or options you are considering in order to tweak your goals is invaluable. Equally important is to work with a mentor who can provide feedback on your progress. Identifying the right set of mentors can not only have a direct benefit on how you progress on your career goals, it can also be a great way to develop strong relationships with more successful people in your chosen field of work.
  • Remain open to reevaluation and revision – Honest self-assessment is a valuable tool at every stage of your career, which keeps guiding you towards course-correction. Plus, your goals should be steadfast, but never rigid. Your perspectives change as you progress in your career, and it is possible that you might not want the same things 10 years into it that you wanted when you were starting off.

In the end, there is no foolproof way to ensure that you will be happy on your career path. The best you can do is take a well-considered step when you set out on it, and stay conscious of where you are going as you move ahead.