What Are Your Career Aspirations? A Simple Way to Map Them Out

We might get asked this question in an interview, or an annual performance review.  What should we say?  What has the right combo of growth/drive/pragmatism? A seemingly simple question, and the answer reveals a lot.

We want to put our best foot forward, right?  Show we are open to growing, committed to putting in the work to reach our goals, want the same mutually beneficial relationship that the company wants.

Two things we should keep in mind: being honest is better than saying what we think others want to hear, and we don’t have to have our whole life mapped out.

By being truthful we set ourselves up for long-term success.  If we like research, we should say that.  Saying we want to be managers when it just isn’t true means that a) if someone invests in you and your actions are contrary to your stated goals, they will feel used and b) you will be frustrated and probably unhappy with the way things turn out.  It’s not sustainable to work against our natures for any length of time.

On the other hand, if you don’t know every detail what you want from your career, that’s OK. Life and work will always throw curveballs.  Better that we chart a course, and be flexible to the winds – it’s the forward momentum you generate that will lead to great things, not often the unrelenting quest after a narrow-focused goal. A general plan is best and know that’s OK if that plan changes, because it probably will.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

So: be honest, and have a general idea of where you want to go.

“That’s great, Steph, but how do I actually answer the question?”

I have a few tips you can use to be more skillful in your response.  In management terms, there are three levels of strategy:  vision, strategies, and tactics.  Companies start with a vision, how they want the distant future to look. Strategies are medium-term ideas to drive to that vision.  Tactics are the short-term actions that are taken right now to work those strategies.

Business Planning as Career Development
Business Planning as Career Development

I suggest you state your career goals in a similar way.  Short term goals can be accomplished in one to two years: “Complete this project to develop skill X” “Obtain this certification” “Be accepted to into an MBA school” “Achieve X target through this initiative” “Start a professional networking group” “Gain experience through this cross-functional project”.  Medium term goals can be accomplished in three to five years, and could include an intent to be promoted (that could be a stretch, but a little ambition here is OK).  Maybe you want to finish that MBA, obtain a professional engineering designation, transfer to another department and broaden your company knowledge, etc.  Long term goals are five to ten years on the horizon, and should be a statement of your vision.  This could also include a promotion two or three steps above your current position.

I hope this helps!  If you have any suggestions, you can leave them in the comments below.  Everyone who has a stellar career goes about it differently, and they have great ideas beyond those above.


A note: I will be doing a few different series of posts this fall.  I have an interview series planned, and a series on reliability value.  I’ll try not to switch around too much, the topics will be in blocks of subject matter.  Thanks for reading, I’m glad you’re here.

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Steph Holko

Reliability Engineer in Steelmaking. I love the business and the process. I'm working to inspire others to care about the details. Novice runner, environmentalist, supporter of kids in STEM.

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