What is Career Planning?

You may have heard the term, or even used it: career planning.  But what is it really?  And do you need it?
Career planning is the process of evaluating different career options, deciding on a direction for your career, and planning actions you will need to take to be considered for the role.  It is not necessarily a one-shot process, as we tend to reevaluate our career direction at various points in time.  For example, you probably went through some process to decide on your college degree, then when moving into the workforce, you revisited and refined your career plan to take into account the different options that your degree and interests provided you.
But in today’s workplace, career transitions are fairly common.  Many people have multiple careers in the course of their lifetime.  The process of evaluating (or reevaluating) what work is meaningful to you and the direction in which you want your career to go in the next phase of your life tends to be a recurring process.
So in a nutshell, career planning is about deciding on a destination for your career.  This can include the desired field, the industry that interests you, and roles and levels you’d like to obtain.
To effectively plan your career, you should first gain clarity on your personality, talents, and preferences.  What are your strengths?  What work tasks, activities, and environments do you most enjoy?  What are your interests?  Do you like structure, schedules, and clearly defined tasks, or do you work well with ambiguity and lack of structure?  Do you work better on your own, or as part of a team?  You can also look into taking assessments such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strong Interest Inventory, and the Social Styles Model to learn more about yourself.
Next, if you don’t yet have a clear idea of which direction to take your career, it becomes a process of exploration.  Identify roles that match how you work and your inherent strengths and work interests. The U.S. Department of Labor has created a website that can help you identify occupations that may match your skill sets (http://www.onetonline.org/).
Once you have a list of potential career paths, do some research on the occupational outlook, salary ranges, and specific job responsibilities.  Set up informational interviews and talk to people who are in those roles to find out what they like about the job, what they dislike, what a typical day looks like, and what type of person usually thrives in the role.  With this information, you can assess whether it really is a career you’d enjoy and in which you’re likely to be successful. 
Once you decide on your desired career path, you’ll need to identify any gaps between your education and skills and the requirements of the position.  What skills do you have that are transferable to your new career? Do you need to go back to school to complete a degree?  Gain a certification?  Gain hands-on skills through volunteering, interning, or looking for a more entry position in the industry to obtain the contacts and knowledge?
In summary, career planning is evaluating your options, setting a direction for your career, and assessing what steps you need to take to get there.  A successful career planning exercise will include self-assessment and introspection, as well as diligent research to determine which path is right for you.