Are Your Career Goals SMART?

One of the challenges individuals face in establishing or working towards their career goals is clearly identifying and defining what they intend to accomplish.  Back in the early 1980s, the “SMART” goal-setting concept was introduced.  However, because it is a simple and common-sense approach to planning, it is still popular today.  Although the SMART model is sometimes modified to meet specific needs, at its core, the concept is the same.

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

A table detailing the meaning of the SMART acronym letters.For example, suppose you would like to pursue a specific career path but lack the necessary college degree.  After investigating the job you desire, you learn that a bachelor’s degree in the field of X is required.  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 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 also very specific.  However, while some careers and positions do require very specific degrees, others may only require a degree in any major.


Since degrees require a certain number of credit or semester hours, educational goals are inherently quite measurable.  Therefore, it is easy to know where you stand and how close you are to attaining your goal.

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 likely already know that taking a class is not the same as being skilled and proficient.  I’ll bet you know people who have taken an Excel class and still cannot create a basic spreadsheet or chart.  If so, you can 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 create four Excel spreadsheets which allow for user entry of data and include both bar and pie charts.”  With the modified goal, the specific aspects of skill in Excel which are to be obtained have been identified.  When you are able to personally create four such spreadsheets, the goal has been met.


While a goal like education might be easy to measure, it may be difficult to attain.  An individual will need to consider several factors in order to determine if the goal is attainable.  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 resources available through my employer, union, government, or college financial aid?
  • Support System.  Is my spouse, significant other, family, or 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 math-oriented degree program such as calculus or physics.

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


This may sound obvious, but people sometimes expend time and energy on things only marginally related to their goal.  But who has time, money, and energy to waste? Therefore, focus on the goal at hand and make sure all resources are directed at that goal.  Let’s go back to our example of an individual needing a degree in X.  Is the choice of the specific degree program and college selected relevant?  For example, suppose a position specifically requires a four-year bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (BSME).  If so, pursing a bachelor’s of applied science (BAS), which is an associates + two years, may not be relevant.  Research the relevance of a goal up front to avoid wasting your resources.


A goal which is not time-based or time-sensitive is often put off until “someday.”  As you might suspect, “someday” 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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