People come in all shapes and sizes, and that holds true for how goal-oriented they are. Some people are so goal-oriented that they focus on a goal to the exclusion of much else in their lives. Other people simply flow with the events and opportunities around them and never really strive for a specific goal. When you set out on your career path, I believe it’s wise to find a solution somewhere between these two roads.
All sorts of advice is available about how to set and achieve goals. If you Google “career goals” you get 29 million hits in 0.36 seconds. Narrow that down to “setting career goals” and you only have 5 million hits to search through, essentially all of which are someone’s opinion. The range of advice runs all the way from setting unattainable goals and always trying to reach higher than you know you can, to setting easily attainable goals so you can accomplish them and be motivated to take on new ones. The links listed at the end of this blog include excellent advice on career goals that is available through AACC, as well as a link to SYCL’s Mentor of the Month program. Each mentor also gave their advice on career goals.
From my perspective, a career goal should start out with some version of the thought “What do I want to do or be when I grow up?” perhaps coupled with the thought “What do I enjoy doing?” Since choosing your career goal will determine your work path for the foreseeable future, you will want it to be something you can enjoy. Once you know what you want to do, you can set a long range career goal, and then begin to refine and define the smaller goals that will take you there. For example: ‘I want to work in the medical field’ can be refined into smaller goals. Do I want to be a bench tech in the lab? Involved in direct patient care? Do I want to direct a hospital laboratory? Each of these avenues will require smaller goals to achieve.
Determining the steps, or smaller intermediate goals, necessary to achieving your career goal is the next phase. Many people set a long range goal but fail to consider the actions necessary to achieving it. If your goal is promotion to Professor and it requires publishing two papers per year in peer-reviewed journals, then researching and writing those papers has to be close to the top of your priorities each year and you must be aware of that. Can you achieve the same goal using teaching and clinical work? If not, but if teaching and clinical work are your passions, you may need to change your ultimate goal. Never be afraid to stop working toward a goal that makes you unhappy. Sometimes you may find that you have to try several professions, or areas of your profession, before you find your personal niche.
It is actually important to always have a goal or goals, no matter where you are in your career. If you are drifting without a clear goal, you may find yourself becoming stagnant or complacent and you’ll very often begin to dislike your job. Interestingly, it’s almost harder to define career goals the higher up you go. For example, if you are a full Professor and the director of a lab, what is your next career goal? However, even if your goal is retirement, it is vital to be moving toward something.
My advice then: Always have a goal. Choose goals that fit your passions. Determine the steps necessary to achieving each goal and don’t lose your focus on them. That being said, one huge piece of advice I will add: say “Yes!” to opportunities when they arise throughout your career. Although not always immediately obvious how these opportunities will help you achieve your goals, most of the things you agree to do will benefit your career down the road. In my case, a simple “yes” to the question of whether I would be willing to run for member-at-large of the Pediatric and Maternal-Fetal Division of the AACC back in 1994 led to contact with all my current colleagues, and ultimately helped me achieve the career goals that have culminated in my current position.