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How to Create a Five-Year Career Plan

By Nicole Cavazos

Imagine if you set out on a road trip with only a vague idea of where you were headed and no road map to get you there. It sounds pretty crazy, right? But many people choose to approach their career in just the same way, without a clear destination in mind or the means to reach it.

A better approach is to actually take charge of your career – to have a destination in mind and a course mapped out. Obviously, the destination and the course must be realistic. If I suddenly decided I wanted to become an opera singer at The Met, there’s probably no amount of singing lessons that would make this possible. The first step is to realistically assess your skills and talents and go from there.

A five-year plan gives you plenty of space to grow and pick up necessary skills and knowledge along the way. Here’s how to create one.

Define Your Goal

When defining your goal, it helps to be as specific as possible. For instance, don’t just say you want to work in health sciences. Narrow it down to a specific discipline, say epidemiology. From there you can elaborate further: “I want to someday work as an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization (WHO), combating emerging diseases in third world nations, specifically South East Asia.” Now you’re getting somewhere.

Explore Your Options

Of course, the World Health Organization is not going to hire you without the proper training and education. What can you do now with the experience you do have? How can you augment your education and training to put you in the ballpark? What are all the options available to somebody with your particular degree or experience?

Back to the epidemiology analogy, are there other organizations similar to WHO where you might be just as happy working—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance? Is there another job that offers a similar experience or work environment that you might like just as much?

The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to reach your goals.

Create a Game Plan

Once you’ve considered your options, it’s time to create an action plan. The first step could be starting in an entry-level position at your desired company and working your way up. It could be working as an intern in your field. It could be getting real experience through pro-bono or volunteer work. Or it could be taking appropriate classes.

It helps to have an idea of the usual career trajectory of somebody in your job of choice. One way to find out is by going to LinkedIn and studying the resumes of people currently working in your dream job. Another idea is to speak to a career counselor. Most college alumni organizations offer career services. Or you could just attend networking events and talk to people directly. This way you can also establish valuable contacts.

Once you know the necessary steps, figure out places to target. Go online and research companies that offer career advancement in your field. Have an idea of how long you should stay in a preliminary position before seeking advancement to the next.

All the while, be sure to network as much as possible. Since most jobs are given as a result of personal recommendations and referrals, you want to have as many contacts as possible in an array of fields. Keep in touch with friends and colleagues. They’re much less inclined to help if you contact them out of the blue asking for a favor.

Revisit and Adjust as Necessary

Finally, no five-year plan should be set in stone. It’s only a guide, not a manifesto. As you gain skills and learn more about yourself, it’s natural for your goals to change or evolve. In light of what you’ve learned, see if there are things you should be doing differently. Periodically consider whether your current career path is still relevant and desirable. If so, use these check-ins to reaffirm your resolve. Be flexible, but stay the course.

Nicole Cavazos

Nicole Cavazos is a Los Angeles-based copywriter and blogger. As a former contributor to the ZipRecruiter blog, she covered the job market and wrote advice for job seekers.

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