Career Development Definition

What Is Career Development?

Career development is the process of learning and utilizing short-term skills to progress toward long-term professional goals. This process is often lifelong and involves steadily reaching milestones specific to your designated career path. Much of career development calls for reflection and the exploration of purpose in your work, and is the foundation for achieving larger career growth.

A career path can be visualized as a ladder, with each rung symbolizing the level of a role on the path. Landing a job is a  paramount first step, but odds are you may not want to stay at the entry level forever. Moving up the career ladder and earning promotions is easier said than done, however. It often requires careful planning and taking intentional steps.

Career development is all about gathering what skills and experiences can launch you further on your career path, and navigating these processes in increments (or ladder steps) to make career growth manageable.

Why Is Career Development Important?

Having a structured career development plan helps professionals ensure that they are entering and traversing a career path that makes the most of both their skills and values.


Helps Make Use of Skills

The further you climb the career ladder, the more you have to build and utilize certain skills for the workplace. Career development helps employees home in on what specific skills they would like to learn, what actions need to be taken to learn them and how to actively use them. Plus, seeing the positive feedback of forming new skills signals a feeling of reward, incentivizing an employee to continue the practice.


Increases Motivation at Work

Career development is all about finding tangible goals to work toward. This helps workers set realistic expectations, feel less pressure and find more enthusiasm to reach these goals. As their career develops, an employee often gains a sense of accomplishment and motivation to do even more in their job.


Helps Achieve Financial Goals

A worker with more experience and refined skills generally will receive a higher pay. While following a career development plan, employees typically get a better idea of what milestones need to be met on the job in order to get a promotion or increased salary.


Increases Employee Retention

People want to make the most out of their jobs, and can feel stuck or neglected in their career without proper growth resources. Employees who are provided professional development opportunities at work are shown to be more engaged and yield a higher retention in comparison to those who aren’t. Making learning and career development a part of a company’s culture can help employers both attract and keep their employees for the long run.


Increases Happiness and Satisfaction

Career development and happiness at work often go hand-in-hand. Feeling successful in your development goals at work will likely boost workplace happiness, and in turn workplace happiness will boost performance and incentivize further development. To frequently learn, develop and master new skills as an employee makes for a more rewarding and satisfying career overall.


How to Create a Career Development Plan

Laying out the groundwork for goals years down the road can be overwhelming, which is where the short-term actionable goals of career development come in. These stages for how to create a plan are only the smaller parts of overall career growth, and likewise, each stage is also comprised of individual pieces or skills to consider. Being realistic about what you can immediately accomplish and taking your plan one step or ladder rung at a time is paramount for healthy career development.

Don’t think of your first career development plan as creating the final plan or a checklist list you have to precisely follow, but rather just a basis to reference on your career journey.


Explore Your Interests and Goals

So you’ve decided to build a career for yourself. Now what? Start by reflecting and ask yourself the big questions about what you want out of your job. Though career development isn’t entirely about the final destination, having an overarching vision can keep you motivated, grounded and get a grasp on your values as an employee.

Take a step back and think about what you like to do and what you’re good at. Do you want to manage people, or do you want to achieve excellence in your craft? Do you prefer to work at a small startup where you can experiment with responsibilities beyond your job description, or a big tech company with more structure and support systems?

Be sure to consider factors outside of work too. More responsibility often translates into more money, but it can also make work more stressful and your schedule less predictable. And if you love to travel or spend time outdoors when the weather is good, a decent job at a company that’s flexible about taking time off with short notice might be just as good as a more exciting, but all-consuming one. Figuring out what you want might require some experimentation.


Research the Skills You Need

After getting an idea of your desired career, start by brainstorming and researching what skills, competencies and years of experience the people in your dream job have. Ask yourself: How can you gain them? Can you talk to someone already doing the work about how they got there?

As an example, imagine you are currently working as an entry-level software engineer at a tech company and want to eventually become a mid-level software engineer. In this case, a steady progression on the career ladder is needed.

Let’s say you researched what you need to make it to the mid-level engineering role within your company. Your research shows you need proficiency in up to three programming languages and to be more proactive within your role. Ask yourself how to boost these areas of expertise — maybe it involves learning another coding language, or maybe it involves leading more projects within your team. Necessary skills will change for each new role, so this process must be repeated in each rung of the career ladder.

Though everyone’s career development path is different, conducting this kind of research one role at a time for each role in your path gets you slightly closer to your conclusive goal or dream role. Compile your research on requirements for each role within your path to keep track of career progress and measure any skill gaps that may need filling.


Build Your Skills

Now it’s time to seek out opportunities to build the skills necessary for your desired path. Some hard skills like coding or editing can be learned through classes or reading books, while some soft skills like interpersonal communication and collaboration are best learned on the job and by volunteering to take on additional responsibilities as they come up.

Keep an eye out for opportunities to show you’re capable and enthusiastic about moving to the next role level in your career. Additionally, don’t be afraid to seek guidance from mentors, managers or colleagues you encounter along the way, as they can be a great avenue for gaining such opportunities or just passing down industry knowledge.

Going back to our example, to get a promotion to a mid-level software engineering role in your company, you know you’ll need to gain some more experience in another coding language relating to your work, as well as show greater initiative in your work and processes. To build these skills, this could include participating in a Java, Python or similar coding bootcamp, or offering to help collaborate in a cross-team project.

How you build your skills will look different depending on the seniority of the role you’re pursuing though. Attending a coding bootcamp may be the answer to building a skillset you need for the mid-level engineering role, but that may not be the same case when it’s time to advance to a senior-level engineering role.


Career Development Resources and Tips


Salary and Benefits

Finding a fulfilling job is important, but pay and benefits matter too. Effectively advocating for yourself can make a huge difference to your lifetime earnings — and doing that starts with understanding how compensation works.

How to Ask for a Raise

Don’t just sit around waiting for more money; ask for it. That might sound simple, but many of us leave money on the table because we’re too afraid to ask for raises. To negotiate effectively, you need to do some research to understand how much your peers at other companies make, as well as how your company’s salaries compare to broader market trends. That said, don’t think of these ranges as the cap of your earnings potential. If you’re good at what you do, you might be able to negotiate yourself to an above-market rate.

How to Counter a Job Offer

Starting pay has major implications for earnings down the line, since many companies calculate raises based on a percentage of base salary. Making an effective counter offer requires some finesse, though, since you need to weigh getting what you want against the risk of alienating a potential employer. Common strategies for striking the right balance include asking for a company’s internal salary range, insisting on reviewing the written offer before accepting, and ensuring that you don’t tip your hand too much in the negotiation.

Stock Options

Early stage startups can’t match corporate salaries, so they make up the difference with stock options. In short, stock options are contracts that let you buy part of a company at a set price in the future, giving you the chance to share in the upside of an IPO or an acquisition. How much you stand to make from an exit depends on a number of factors, including the company’s valuation, the number of shares you hold and your strike price — which is usually lower for longer-tenured employees.

Severance Pay

A severance package can lessen the blow of losing a job, but it isn’t free money, exactly. Packages can include weeks’ or months’ worth of your base salary, as well as extended healthcare benefits and help finding a new job. In exchange, you typically need to sign away the right to sue your former employer — and some agreements include non-disparagement, non-disclosure and non-compete clauses as well. You really should review it before you sign anything.


How to Get the Career You Want

If you have specific goals, you need specific plans. If you’re lacking in either, these resources will help you kick off your career development journey.

How to Get Your Dream Job

Your dream job might be something you lose yourself in entirely, and where you find yourself bursting with ideas and enjoying every moment. Or it might be more about negative space: a job that’s pretty good, but flexible, and that leaves plenty of room for whatever else you like to do with your time. If you don’t know what your dream job is, it might be time to start thinking about it. Otherwise, your career might pass by before you find out.

How to Set Effective Long-Term Career Goals

Too often, we become laser focused on the next step on the career ladder, losing track entirely of long-term career goals. Taking a longer-term view is important, because chasing the next step can end up leading you astray. Do you want a high-powered career with lots of responsibility, or do you want to close your laptop at the same time every night to spend time with friends and family? Do you want to be responsible for other people, or do you prefer to focus on excellence as an individual contributor? The answers to these questions should shape your long-term career goals.

How to Set Career Goals

Sometimes, it’s the short-term plans of career goals that are lacking. If you find yourself stuck in a rut without a clear path forward, a good first step is thinking about some short-term to medium-term goals. These goals should feel fulfilling, yet also attainable. Think: “Mentor a colleague,” or “Lead a presentation for my team about best practices.” Don’t make it trivial, but don’t make it too hard, either. A quick win can do wonders for your self-esteem, and help you reach more ambitious goals in the future.

How to Set Short-Term Goals to Boost Career Growth

Short-term goals need to be specific and measurable. For example, if you want to expand your professional network, “establishing two new contacts every month” is a better goal than “having a robust network by the end of the year.” Once you’ve established a goal, write it down and ask someone you trust to hold you accountable.

What You Need to Know About Job Shadowing

Many companies reserve job shadowing for interns, but a chance to look ahead at what the future could hold can be valuable at any step in your career journey. Shadowing lets you look beyond job descriptions and get a sense of what the day-to-day work actually looks like. That’s important if you want a clear idea of what you’d like to do, or, perhaps equally importantly, what you don’t want to do.

Use the 30-60-90 Day Plan

No one expects a new hire to know everything, but some things are more important to remember than others. The 30-60-90 day plan is designed to help new hires prioritize their time, laying out expectations for the first, second and third month, respectively. In most jobs, the first month is mostly about learning, while the second and third months are for experimenting and taking on real responsibilities.


Building Your Network

Networking opens up the door for new roles or knowledge in your career, and can be done no matter if you work in-person or completely remote. It’s important to note, however, that a robust network doesn’t appear overnight. If you put in the effort and offer up as much help as you receive to your colleagues, you might soon find that all roads in your chosen field lead back to you.

How to Build a Professional Network

Building the right network can do wonders for your career, helping with everything from introductions to gut checks before important decisions. But although your network might grow naturally over the course of your career, you’re going to have to put in some time and effort in developing and maintaining connections. The best way to do that is to set aside some time every week for keeping up.

How to Find the Right Mentor

Different people want different things from a mentor. Some people want a role model with a job they dream to hold. Others are looking for a successful peer with a shared professional or personal background. And while some turn to mentors for emotional support while things are tough, others want a trusted person like a coach who will tell them when they’re in the wrong. Whether you’re looking for a mentor or coach, there’s probably someone out there for you.

How to Get the Most out of Informational Interviews

The informational interview can be a powerful tool for anyone looking to break into a new specialization or industry. Usually initiated by the person looking to make inroads, these interviews are opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of what someone does and how they do it. Informational interviews do have the potential to help you land a job down the line, but you shouldn’t spend your contact’s precious time trying to sell yourself. Instead, do your research and ask thoughtful questions, and trust that your wits and curiosity will make an impression. Either way, the insights you gather are likely to help you do better in your next job interview.


Developing New Skills

Traits like communication, confidence and ability to trust people play an outsize role for anyone aspiring to leadership of any kind. They may sound like nice-to-haves, but neglecting these so-called “soft skills” will derail even the best-laid career development plans.

How to Develop Interpersonal Skills

Technical know-how might get you a foot in the door, but if you want to move up within an organization and do high-impact work, you’ll need strong interpersonal skills. Fortunately, you can work on those, just like you can any other skill. One important thing you can do is pay more attention to how you behave around others — do you interrupt often, for example? Other strategies include setting aside time for checking in with coworkers and asking for honest feedback about what it’s like to work with you.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

If you ever feel like you’re in over your head and about to get found out, you’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is extremely common in the tech industry — especially among women and members of other underrepresented groups. Fortunately, talking openly about these feelings can help, since it sheds light on how everyone struggles in one way or another. And if everyone feels like they’re falling short in some way, maybe we’re all just setting the bar too high for ourselves.

Active Listening Techniques to Know

If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next, you’re not really listening. Some of us are better at hearing what others are saying than others, but active listening is a skill we could all stand to get better at. Some improvements will come easy, like disabling notifications when you step into a meeting. Others require a shift in mindset, away from troubleshooting a conversation partner’s problems in real time, and toward embracing moments of silence as you consider what to ask next.

Which Soft Skills Are Most Important?

People will go on endlessly about the importance of soft skills, but which skills are they actually talking about? In tech, hiring managers tend to look for communication and listening skills, a collaborative mindset, friendliness, and openness to feedback. It might sound like a no-brainer, but developing these skills is easier said than done: hiring managers consistently report trouble finding candidates who possess them.

How to Avoid Micromanagement

The transition from individual contributor to manager can be tricky, in large part because it involves moving from doing something you’re good at to managing other people in the job you used to have. Often, that means you can fix problems your employees are stuck on in no time — but this can easily lead to micromanagement. Letting your employees learn how to solve their own problems is critical to their professional growth, and it’s going to make your own job easier in the long run. It can be painful at times, but it’s the right thing to do.

How to Write Effective Interview Follow-Ups

Some hiring managers don’t care about interview follow-ups, while others think it speaks volumes about a candidate’s interest in the job. Since there’s no way of knowing which camp someone falls into, skipping the follow-up email can end up costing you the job. That said, be sure not to overwhelm the recipient. Keep it short, reiterate your interest and emphasize why you think you’re the right person for the role.