SMART Career Goals Help Ensure Success

Two young female African-American college graduates.Been giving some thought to your career goals and how to accomplish them? Great! It may seem like a simple task at first, but doing this well can be challenging.  To merely know what you want to accomplish is not enough; you must consider other factors as well.  Fortunately, the “SMART” approach can help you do this.  SMART will help ensure you have looked at your goal from all the right angles and asked all the right questions. So, what exactly is SMART?

SMART is a goal-setting concept introduced back in the early 1980s.  However, because it is a simple and common-sense approach, it is still popular today.  Variations on the SMART model exist; however, the core concept is the same.

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

A table detailing the meaning of the SMART acronym letters.

Let’s see how this works in the real world.  For example, suppose you would like to pursue a career in the field of X.  Next, you check the educational requirements for a job in that field and discover a bachelor’s degree is definitely required.  However, suppose you currently have no college, some college, or an associate’s degree.  Therefore, you establish a goal for yourself of obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Seems like a very simple, straight-forward, and logical goal, right? However, have you looked at the goal in enough detail?  Let’s look at your goal from the SMART perspective.


In this example, the goal probably seems very specific already: get a bachelor’s degree. Or is it? Sometimes, it may not be sufficient to simply have a bachelor’s degree in any major.  Often, certain career fields require a degree to be in a very specific major. Sometimes, even a specific major is not enough!  The degree may also have to be from a college program which is accredited by a particular entity. Did your goal include these very specific details?  If not, your goal is not specific enough.

Depending on the circumstances, your new goal may be: get a bachelor’s degree with a major in X from a university accredited by ABC.  This is a significant change which can affect where you must get the degree, how long it will take, and what it will cost. Still, better that you find this out up front. Otherwise, you could spend time and money on a degree which will not achieve your end goal.


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.  However, not all goals are nearly this measurable.

What about other goals, such as those relating to skill?  Suppose you have a goal of “becoming proficient in Microsoft Excel.” By this point, you should already suspect that such a goal is problematic. How would you measure something like that?  What about taking a class in Excel?  After all, that’s measurable. Either you took the class and passed, or not.  But, simply 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 challenge in making some goals measurable.

For a goal like this, identify a situation which confirms achievement of a certain level of skill. Your modified goal might read something like, “I will create four different Excel spreadsheets which allow user data entry. The data in each will be presented in both bar and pie charts.”  With the revised goal, the specific aspects of skill in Excel which are to be obtained have been identified.  When you are personally able to successfully 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 must consider many factors in order to determine if the goal is attainable.  For our education example, here are a few; other goals may have more or different factors.

  • 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 difficult or math-oriented degree programs, such as those requiring calculus or physics.

The above factors alone should not necessarily cause someone to despair and give up their career dreams. However, you must consider and address such aspects if the goal is to be realistically attainable.


Oddly enough, people sometimes really do expend time and energy on things only marginally related to their goal.  Who has time, money, and energy to waste?  Make sure to direct all resources only toward activities related to the actual goal.  Let’s go back to our example of an individual needing a bachelor’s degree in X.  Is the choice of the specific degree program and college selected relevant?  For example, suppose a position in the chosen career 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.  Or, if the degree must be accredited, pursuing a degree from a non-accredited college program will not be relevant. Research relevance up front to avoid wasting resources on things which do not directly move you toward your goal.


A goal which is not time-based or time-sensitive is often put off until “someday.”  As you might suspect, someday usually never comes.  A deadline helps to keep you on track and lets you know where you stand regarding goal completion.  Consider the following two goals:

  • “I will obtain my bachelor’s degree”
  • “I will obtain my bachelor’s degree within 5 years”

These are two entirely different goals!  The first goal merely suggests “someday I will get the degree” and the other places a specific, self-imposed deadline.  A deadline helps the individual determine how many courses to take each semester in order to achieve the goal within the target time frame.  As stated in the SMART table above, 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.


Regardless of the nature of your career goals, think them through in a SMART way.  Currently developing your goals?  As you do, make sure each is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based.  Already have goals in place and working on them right now?  Pause for just a moment to look at them again from the SMART perspective. You just may be surprised at what you find and how they can be improved.

 Agree? Disagree? Share your experience or thoughts?
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Featured image courtesy of VIA Agency – flickr

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