Are Your Career Goals SMART?

One of the challenges individuals face in establishing or working towards their career goals is the inability to clearly identify and define exactly what they intend to accomplish.  Back in the early 1980s, the concept of using “SMART” goal-setting elements was introduced; however, because it is a simple and common-sense approach to planning, it is still popular today.  In fact, you may find that organizations often modify or customize the SMART model to meet their own individual needs, but at its core, the concept is essentially the same.

SMART is an approach to considering and evaluating goals to ensure they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based.

For example, suppose you would like to pursue a specific career path but lack the necessary college degree, and after investigating the job you desire, you learn that a bachelor’s degree in the field of X is an absolute prerequisite to ever being able to get such a position.  Suppose also that you currently have either no college, some college, or an associate’s degree in X.  You are fully committed to the pursuit of this career path, so you establish a goal of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in X.  Let’s look at your goal from the SMART perspective.


In this particular example, the goal is already very specific and quite obvious; it is not enough to have a bachelor’s degree in any major, it must be in the field of X.  When this is true, make sure your educational goal is very specific, and the particular degree or major which is to be pursued must be clearly indicated.  In the real world, this is not always the case; while some careers and positions do require very specific degrees, others may only require a degree in any major.


Educational goals are inherently quite measurable, as they require a certain number of credit hours or semester hours in order to be awarded a degree.  Because these can be easily quantified, it is easy to know where you stand and how close you are to obtaining your degree.

What about other goals, such as those relating to skill?  Suppose you have a goal of “becoming proficient in Microsoft Excel” (which is really not too specific by itself).  How would you measure that?  What about taking a class in Excel?  After all, that’s measurable; either you took the class or not.  However, you probably already realize that taking a class in Excel is not the same as being skilled and proficient in Excel.  I’m sure you know people who have taken a class in Excel and still cannot create even a basic spreadsheet or chart; now you see the difficulty of making some goals measurable.

For a goal like this, it may be helpful to identify a situation which would reflect that a certain level of skill has been achieved.  For example, your goal might read something like: “By December 31, I will personally develop and implement four interactive Excel spreadsheets which allow for user entry of data and include both bar charts and pie charts of the information.”  With the modified goal, this particular individual has identified the specific aspects of skill in Excel which are to be obtained, and is satisfied that the ability to personally create four such spreadsheets will demonstrate that the goal has been met.


While a goal like education might be easy to measure, it may certainly be more difficult to attain.  With the goal of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in X, this individual will need to consider several factors in order to determine whether it is attainable for him or her; here are just a few:

  • Time.  Can I carve out the class and study time necessary to complete the degree?
  • Finances.  Do I have or can I obtain the necessary funds to pay for my education?  Are there resources available through my employer, union, government, or college financial aid?
  • Support System.  Is my spouse/significant other/family/employer supportive in this goal or will they put up obstacles at every turn?
  • Ability.  Not everyone can handle certain college degree programs.  For example, it is unlikely an individual with zero natural art talent would do well in a graphic arts program.  Also, not everyone has the ability to make it through a difficult degree program such as calculus or physics.

Note that the above factors should not, on their face, necessarily stop someone from pursing their goal; it is just that aspects such as these will need to be addressed to help ensure the goal will be attainable.


This may sound like an obvious aspect, but sometimes people expend time and energy on things which are only marginally related to their goal.  Unless you have excessive resources of time, money, and energy, it is best to focus on the goal at hand for now and make sure all resources are directed at the goal.  With regard to this particular example, the individual needs a degree in X; is the choice of the specific degree program and college selected relevant?  For example, if a position specifically requires a four-year bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (BSME), pursing a bachelor’s of applied science (associates + two years, BAS degree) may not be relevant.  Certainly, relevance of a goal must be thoroughly researched up front.


As stated in the table above, goals which are not time-based or time-sensitive are usually put off until “someday” which typically never comes.  A deadline helps to keep you on track and lets you know where you stand regarding goal completion.  A goal of “I will obtain my bachelor’s degree” and “I will obtain my bachelor’s degree within 5 years” are two entirely different goals.  One merely suggests “maybe someday” and the other places a deadline; the deadline will help the individual determine how many courses must be taken each semester in order to achieve the goal.  As also stated in the table, longer-term goals should be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces.  Establish a series of smaller “milestone” targets (with dates) as you move along the path toward the goal.


Featured image courtesy of  Steven Depolo – flickr

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