Before traveling, most people figure out the most efficient route to their destination. If they hit the road without consulting a map or GPS and just try to wing it, they'll end up wasting valuable time and resources, and more than likely, they'll get lost along the way.
This same concept applies to your career: It will take you much longer to get where you want to go if you don't know how to get there. That's why many career experts recommend taking the time to create a formal "career plan" to guide you through your professional life.
"Regardless of how long you've been in the workforce, it's important to take an active role in shaping the future of your career," said Amanda Augustine, career advice expert at TopResume, a career services provider. "If you're not managing your career path, someone might do it for you — and you might not like where it leads."
This doesn't mean you have to have everything figured out and follow your "map" exactly. The purpose of a career plan isn't to give yourself concrete, step-by-step instructions, but to establish a general direction toward your own personal career success.
"The beauty of a career plan is that it will help you explore opportunities and various career paths so you can confidently determine a long-term career goal for yourself, and then take steps to achieve it," Augustine said.
This is especially true for recent or soon-to-be college graduates, who may end up taking a different path than they originally intended anyway. Many students end up changing their majors during their undergraduate career or finding a job outside their field of study after graduation, said Bob Labombard, CEO of GradStaff, a career matchmaking company for entry-level positions.
"It's almost impossible for most college students to map out a detailed plan leading to a specific job or career area," Labombard told Business News Daily. "Our advice for college students is to develop and identify their ... skills, abilities and experiences that employers will find compelling. The benefit of this approach is that it opens up many potential career fields, not just one."
What to include
When you're creating your career plan, be sure to account for the following factors:
Your value proposition. What makes you marketable to employers? This can include more than just your relevant work experience, especially if you are just starting your career and don't have much experience. Labombard said strong transferrable soft skills (e.g., critical thinking, communication, interpersonal relations), as well as extracurricular activities, volunteer work and nonprofessional jobs, should all be considered part of your value proposition.
"Employers want interesting, well-rounded people who have a history of being active and showing that they can manage time well," he said.
Your strengths and weaknesses. Augustine advised taking stock of your strengths, weaknesses and interests, and listing them in your career plan, so that you can start to clarify your job goals.
"If you're unsure where you see your career heading, this is the time to explore various avenues," she said.
To assess your strong suits and gaps, you can try conducting a personal SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) to help you organize your career potential.
[Related: SWOT Analysis Defintion]
Goals and a timeline. You don't need to write, "I should be working for Company X three years from now." But you should have a few general benchmarks to help you monitor your progress. For example, you might say you want to move up to the next level in your chosen field within the next three to five years, or save up enough money to start your own business within 10 years.
"Break down your plan into more digestible steps and action items you can work towards on a monthly or quarterly basis so the process does not seem overwhelming," Augustine said.
"Having a deadline to see if your plan will be worthy of the 24/7 efforts you're putting in is helpful," said Suki Kramer, founder, formulator and president of suki skincare and founder of sukiscoop.com.
[Learn more about how to track goals]
Networking resources. The old cliché says success is all about who you know, and job hunting is perhaps the greatest example of that. Augustine said to make a list of resources that can help you achieve your goals. That list can include mentors, valuable contacts from your network, relevant membership associations and professional development opportunities.
"[Job seekers] should develop and use their personal networks to augment their job searches," Labombard added. "In addition to alumni, professors, coaches and other mentors, look for help from parents, parents of friends, co-workers and others to help you get a foot in the door. Informational interviews are an excellent way to get more information about employers."
Following your plan
Once you've charted a path, you need to commit to following it, even if that path changes over time. Kramer emphasized the importance of trusting your own instincts about your career, which means you need to be willing to change direction if something feels off.
"For some, that means learning to hear them, because our instincts are the first millisecond feeling we get about everything," she said. "Go against your instincts, [and] you will pay a steep price."
She also noted that there will be obstacles along the way, and things will not always go according to your plan. But if you want to achieve your goals, you can't give up when you feel discouraged.
"Every obstacle is an opportunity to overcome a challenge that will have a ripple effect throughout your life," Kramer said. "You need gumption, perseverance, determination, tenacity, and a steely focus on your goal. If you do the necessary work, take the risks, face your fears and make the sacrifices you need to, [you will] get there."