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Many people lack a professional development track or growth plan. Whether you’re a student, new to the workforce, or currently have your dream job, everyone can benefit from career development, but how should you get started crafting a plan? First, let’s explore what career development is and why it’s important. 


Career development is the process of finding your footing in your professional life. This process involves assessing where you are now compared to where you want to be and creating a plan to get there.

Career development doesn’t start when you find a job after college. It can (and should) be a process that you work through during college. In fact, since career development is an ongoing process, it’s recommended you start your plan in the first year of college.

Types of Career Development

Your career development journey doesn’t stop after you land your first job. It is a lifelong process that needs to be continually refined and redefined. Below are some steps you can take to be successful in your professional career long term.

Self awareness. Take time to find out what you want and don’t want, and discover where your strengths lie and the areas that need improvement. Figure out what you excel at and find a matching career path.

Goal setting. Set a series of small goals that will get you closer to your long-term goal. This is where you’ll acquire information about different industries and organizations, and create a career strategy of how to get there. This is also where you’ll participate in career exploration and career identification.

Training and learning. Develop the specific skills necessary for career success. Whether that be participating in a leadership training program, watching webinars, or taking on an internship related to your overall career goal.

What is career development?


Career development helps you stand out in front of employers, compete in today’s job market, and grow within a company. The process of career development is just as important for students as it is for those currently in the workforce. As a college student, these plans help you make informed decisions around the major you choose, courses you take, organizations you get involved in, and internships you pursue.

While career development plans may take time and effort, being intentional about your growth will save you time in the long run. Without a career development plan, you risk staying stagnant in your career or choosing the wrong path altogether.


Creating a career you love requires planning and goal-setting. Here are some basic building blocks of a strong career development plan.

Step 1: Conduct a self-assessment


We spend a large portion of our lives at work. You want to find a job that makes you excited to get up and go to work in the morning. Not only will finding a job you love help improve your quality of life, but you'll also be more motivated to excel at it.

Take a moment to think about your current position, values, passions, past experiences, and skills. Identify your strengths and see how you can use these along with your passion in your career

Think about where you want to be in five to 10 years, and see how that lines up with the jobs you’ve been considering. Weigh the pros and cons of each position you consider, such as work-life balance, compensation versus fulfillment, industry culture and environment, required education, location, and opportunities for long-term growth. Then, use that list to help you determine your next steps and the overall career path you want to take.


Once you’ve completed your self-assessment, explore what industries may be the best fit for you. To start, conduct research, take courses, build your network, and talk to people in different professions. 

One of the best ways to tell if an industry is right for you is to get hands-on experience. Volunteering, part-time jobs, and internship programs are great opportunities to determine if the job or degree you're pursuing aligns with your self-assessment. 

For example, if you want to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy, volunteer to shadow a physical therapist. You may find you’re on the right path or that it’s not as fulfilling as you thought it would be. 

It’s important to note that no time is wasted during this process. Every experience you have sharpens your soft skills, which can be used in your next opportunity, even if the job title or industry isn’t necessarily relevant. 

If you were captain of your volleyball team but decided going pro isn’t for you, the communication, organizational, and leadership skills you gained through that experience can still be applied to your job as a bank teller, for instance. 


Once you’ve chosen the career you want to pursue, analyze how it lines up with your current experience, skills, and values. This comparison will give you a clear picture of the things you need to accomplish to reach your end goal. 

Talk with your advisor, mentor, or supervisor to get a better understanding of what’s required of the role. Compile a list of areas where you have developmental gaps and categorize the skills, experiences, and certifications you need to fill those gaps in and continue to grow. 

Step 4: Set Career Development Goals


After you’ve identified your long-term goal and developmental gaps, make a list of short-term goals and tasks you need to accomplish. It can be overwhelming to compare where you are today to landing your dream job, so it’s a good idea to break your plan into smaller, more achievable milestones. Goal-setting techniques like the SMART goal strategy can help with this. 

There are also many other types of goal-setting techniques that you can use to your advantage to find success in your personal and professional life. How you set your goals and finding the technique that works for you is critical to future long-term success.


Whether you’re just getting started in your profession, changing careers completely, or moving up the ladder in your current organization, there are plenty of different career development goals you can set. 

Let’s say your long-term goal is to start your own social media marketing company, but you find you have a gap in understanding how the industry works. Here’s what realistic goal-setting would look like to achieve something like that:

Long-term goal: Start a social media marketing company 

Short-term goal: Get your first job as a social media marketing professional


  • Create a well-crafted resume and cover letter
  • Practice and prepare for your interviews 
  • Take extra courses to hone your skills
  • Build a portfolio 
  • Become familiar with and get certified in industry software platforms, like Google Analytics 

Maybe your dream is to be a managing partner of a law firm. Through your career development planning process, you found a developmental gap in leadership. Here's what goal-setting might look like for you if you needed to develop your leadership skills.

Long-term goal: Become a managing partner of a law firm

Short-term goal: Gain stronger leadership skills


By breaking down your career development goals into these smaller pieces, you can establish a clear, less overwhelming path to career success.


Regularly check the progress you’ve made on your career development plan and make time to celebrate certain milestones. Along with tracking your progress, you want to make sure you’re adjusting your goals as needed. Remember, things in life change unexpectedly. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate and change your tasks, timelines, and short- and long-term goals.


Creating a career development plan takes careful preparation and, even more importantly, follow-through. Though everyone’s journey is unique, there are a few tips that everyone can utilize: 

  • Hone your communication skills. The biggest issues in any organization almost always result from a communication breakdown. While technical skills are required for many jobs, both written and verbal communication are some of the most important skills. Personal communication skills are fundamental to a successful career in any industry.

Here are a few more ways you can develop your communication skills: 

    • Use your school’s resources
    • Take on a leadership role in an organization
    • Practice communicating in a clear, simple, and direct way 
    • Become a member of a club, honor society, or sports team
    • Look for opportunities to network and build relationships with people
  • Be intentional and take initiative. Career development is a critical part of progressing on your professional track. With the daily demands of work and a busy life outside of the office, it can be easy for these plans to get crowded out of your schedule. 

Don’t wait for others to give you instructions on how to progress in your career. Take initiative and be strategic about your growth. Dedicate time in your schedule to pave your way in the workforce.

  • Invest in learning opportunities. One of the best ways to continue growing in your career is to constantly absorb new information. Do research, take courses, listen to podcasts, read career development books, and more. You can also earn digital badges for completing certain programs so hiring managers can immediately identify the desired skills and effort someone has put in beyond a formal education.

Build your network.

  • Build your network. Building relationships is a critical part of your career development journey. Networking opens the door to many different experiences and opportunities you may not have even been aware of. Plus, having a group of people that are invested in your growth is a great way to keep the momentum going on your career development. 


It’s never too early to start your career development plan. Connect with your school’s career development office, advisors, or faculty members to gain insight into what resources are available to you. They may direct you to internship programs or certain clubs and organizations, such as a leadership honor society.

At The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS), we help students find career success through leadership skill development and opportunities including jobs, internships, and networking. Ready to see how the NSLS can help you excel in your career?