How far ahead should you plan your career?

If everyone managed to achieve their early career ambitions, the world would be full of ballet dancers and astronauts. Instead, most of us change our minds, compromise, make spur-of-the-moment decisions and generally drift through life without any coherent plan.

By contrast, says Sarah Berry of Career Consultants, one 20-year-old she met recently already had every career move planned out for the next 30 years - and her only question was 'why not longer?'. She believes that while comparatively few people ever draw up a formal career plan, everybody can benefit from doing so.

"People spend more time planning their holidays than they do planning a career," she says. "The most important thing is to focus when you're young on what profession you want to be in. It's then much easier to switch within that profession than to move to a completely different one."

Ideally, she says, people should start out getting experience in as many different fields as possible within their chosen profession, and only later move on to become a specialist. This gives far more security if you need to make a move unexpectedly. And it's vital to have a clear idea, not just of what you'd like your next move to be, but of what you want further down the line.

It's important to be realistic, she says, and aware of what skills or experience you'll need at every stage.

"You have to look at 'where I am' and 'where I want to be' - with a career coach or by filling in a career choice profile - and work out how you can fill that gap," she says. "You can't be idealistic, you have to be quite technical about it."

Having a fixed career plan can certainly work. Alex Pillai, for example, knew that he wanted to be a film or television director at the age of 12. Three years later, he'd established what training and experience he would need and set about acquiring it.

Back in the 1970s, "there was a closed-shop film union, and no university courses. There was no YouTube, or any kind of film-making community," he says.

"When I was 15 a fellow film-making geek showed me a prospectus for the National Film and Television School, and I realised that it was the place for me. Apart from being the only professional film course funded by a student grant, on graduation I would be guaranteed that all-important union card."

Now a successful television director, he says that on several occasions he has taken a pay cut or even worked for nothing in order to gain experience that would improve his prospects further down the line.

More formal career plans tend to follow a tried-and-tested structure. First, identify exactly what you're aiming for, whether it be a specific job or, say, to be self-employed or earning a certain amount.

Next, list your existing qualifications and experience and consider how they can help you reach your goal. Identify the gaps, and think about how you can develop the new skills you need. And finally - but perhaps most importantly - set yourself a list of specific tasks and a timetable.

The National Careers Service has created an online Action Plan, enabling people to create a career plan for themselves. It starts by asking users what they're aiming for long-term, and then prompts them to fill in the steps between then and now. Finally, it lists a series of immediate actions - such as finding out about the possibilities for training - and asks users to fill in a timescale for fulfilling them.

But can everybody make career plans more than a year or two in advance? Not necessarily: some careers are far more predictable than others. Teaching, for example, has a clear career progression, while life as an actor is a little less easy to plan.

And many jobs nowadays are so new that nobody could have planned for them twenty years ago. "When I was at university, I wouldn't have known there would ever be such a thing as a web designer," says Rob Williams. "I was actually keen to be a photographer, and did that for several years; I got into web design rather by accident, and it turned out to be something I love."

It's important, therefore, not to be too prescriptive about your career plan, but remain open to new possibilities as and when they present themselves - while always considering how they fit with your long-term aims. Many successful people have had only a loose idea of where they wanted to end up, but have made the biggest leaps forward by seizing unexpected opportunities.

The UK's top ten dream jobs
See Gallery
How far ahead should you plan your career?

Read Full Story