Are Your Career Goals SMART?

Businesswoman jumping from one rock up to another, with the word "job" as the goal.Been thinking about your career goals lately? That’s great! Obviously, it is important to know what you want to accomplish. However, that alone is not enough. Many other factors can impact your chances for success and must also be considered. 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. Although it has been around a while, it is far from obsolete. In fact, it is still quite popular today. Why? Because it is a simple, easy-to-understand, and common-sense approach. You may come across variations of the SMART model, however, at its core, the basic concepts are the same.

Developing and evaluating goals using the SMART approach helps 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 SMART might work in the real world.  For example, suppose you decide to pursue a particular career field.  After researching the educational requirements required for a job in that field, you learn a bachelor’s degree is definitely needed. However, what if you currently have little or no college? It would seem the goal is fairly obvious: obtain a bachelor’s degree. However, have you really examined the goal in enough detail?  Now, take a look at the goal from the SMART perspective.

NOTE: In this example, completing one’s education was the identified goal, so SMART will be applied with that in mind. However, keep in mind the SMART approach will work with any goal, not just goals relating to education. Simply adapt the SMART model for your particular goal.


The goal is to get a bachelor’s degree, so that seems pretty specific already, right? Or is it? Sometimes, it may not be enough to simply have a bachelor’s degree in any major.  Certain career fields may require a degree in a very specific major. Even then, a degree in a specific major may not be 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, the goal is not specific enough.

Depending on the circumstances, the goal may have to be revised. For example: earn a bachelor’s degree in the specific major from a university with the required program accreditation. This is a significant change which could affect where you get the degree, how long it will take, and what it will cost. It’s a good thing you figured this all out up front. Otherwise, you could spend time and money on a degree which will not achieve your end goal.


Since degrees require a defined number of credit or semester hours in order to graduate, educational goals are inherently measurable. It is easy to count your completed credit hours and know how close you are to obtaining your degree.  Unfortunately, not all goals are nearly this measurable.

What about goals such as those relating to skill?  Suppose you are seeking a promotion to an analyst position which requires skill in using Excel spreadsheets. Your goal might be “becoming proficient in Microsoft Excel.” You should already suspect such a goal is problematic for several reasons. How would you measure something like that?  How do you know when the goal has been met?

Here’s an idea. What about taking an Excel class?  After all, that’s measurable. Seems simple enough; either you took the class and passed or not.  But wait! Simply taking a class is not the same as being skilled and proficient.  You probably know people who have taken an Excel class and still cannot create decent spreadsheets or charts.  If so, you see the challenge in making some goals measurable.

Goals like this might be best measured by identifying an accomplishment which would confirm achievement of the desired skill level. For example, 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 analyzed using at least two Excel functions. Information resulting from each analysis will be presented in both bar and pie charts.”  With the revised goal, the specific Excel skills desired have been identified.  When you are personally able to successfully create four such spreadsheets, on your own, the goal has been met.


A goal like education might be easy enough to measure, but admittedly difficult and challenging to attain.  Many factors enter into whether or not a goal is attainable.  For our education example, here are just a few; other goals will likely have additional or completely 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 the college financial aid office?
  • Support System.  Is my spouse, significant other, family, and/or employer supportive in this goal? Or, will they put up obstacles at every turn?
  • Ability.  Not everyone is necessarily prepared to tackle 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 heavily math-oriented degree programs, such as those requiring calculus or physics.

If you discover factors do exist which make goal attainment difficult, you should not simply give up. Instead, recognize you are being smart and realistic, and therefore won’t be blindsided by these issues later on. If you really want the goal, focus on finding creative ways to overcome the challenges so it is attainable.


Strange as it may seem, people sometimes really do pursue activities which are only marginally related to their goal.  But, who has time, money, and energy to waste?  Make sure to direct your resources only toward those things directly related to the actual goal.

Let’s go back to our example of needing a bachelor’s degree in a particular major. Perhaps you are thinking about first obtaining an associate degree from a local community college and then later transferring to a four-year university to complete the required bachelor’s degree. Is pursuing the associate degree a relevant activity?

It depends. Suppose many of the credit hours from the associate degree cannot be transferred to the four-year university or the courses would not be applicable. If true, you would need extra time and money later to take the additional courses necessary for the bachelor’s degree. Clearly, in this case, pursuing an associate degree would not be relevant.

However, suppose the community college credits are transferable. In this situation, taking at least some carefully-selected courses at the local college might make sense. Perhaps the local college is more convenient (saves time) and has a lower cost (saves money). If attending the local college saves resources and contributes directly to the goal, it would be relevant.

It might also be possible the associate degree somehow fits into your career goal in the short run. Perhaps having the associate degree would enable you to advance to a new position at work while you continue to pursue the bachelor’s degree. If so, obtaining an associate degree could be relevant.

The key is to consider the relevance of your planned actions up front. In this way, you will avoid wasting resources on activities which do not directly contribute toward attainment of 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 (aids in measurement).  Continuing with the education example, let’s say you have completed some college but do not yet have near enough credit hours to graduate. Consider the following two goals:

“I will complete my college degree”

“I will complete my college degree within 5 years from today”

These are two entirely different goals!  The first goal merely suggests “someday I will get a degree” and the other identifies a specific, self-imposed deadline.  A deadline will help you determine how many courses must be taken each semester so as 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 goal completion.


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 the goals can be improved to enhance your chances for success!

Agree? Disagree? Share your experience or thoughts?
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Featured image courtesy of FotografieLink – Pixabay

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