It’s January – the month when thoughts turn from holidays and revelry to resolutions and weight loss. Beach season may be months away but those who have had one too many cookies know – you have to plan now if you want to be ready for it in May.

Your Career Past, Present and Future

Just like it takes a few months to to from holiday jolly to beach body, it takes some careful planning now if you want to keep your career advancing in the months to come. Now is the perfect time to start planning the next step in your career, or to refresh yourself on the career goals you’ve already set. Most annual reviews take place in January. Even if yours is months away, however, taking the time to set a plan now is only to your advantage. You’ve probably read plenty of articles about establishing a career plan. The basics are this – you need to have an idea about the past, present, and future for your career, and take clear steps to link them together.

The easiest way to start is by examining your career now – what kind of work are you currently doing, and is it work you enjoy, that is fulfilling and that will lead you to the next step in your career path? If you’re in an industry that’s constantly evolving, such as defense contracting or information technology, it may be difficult to predict the next step. What you need to focus on is how education and training is preparing you for the unexpected. If the defense department’s need for your specific skill-set goes away, or technology evolves, do you have a plan?

Focus On Strengths, Not Weaknesses

Today’s government budget environment means more people than ever are facing uncertain job prospects. In the face of such uncertainty, many work on what they perceive as weaknesses, in order to help themselves. This is actually contrary to what some career experts have discovered. In the book “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” former Gallup Organization senior vice president Marcus Buckingham’s research demonstrated that top performers were individuals who use their strengths in the workplace every day.

As we’ve noted here at ClearanceJobs.com, a “jack of all trades, master of nothing,” is not likely to find great employment prospects in the security-clearance industry. While we certainly see individuals in the workplace who have a variety of talents it’s best to focus on specific, indispensable skill sets for your industry rather than trying to build up weaknesses.

What Would You Like to be Doing in 20 Years?

Once you’ve explored where you’re at now and the skills and education you’re currently pursuing, you’ll want to take a look at where you’d like to be in your career. This is important whether you’re currently employed or looking for a job. (If you’ve had an interview recently, you’ve likely already heard the inevitable, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question).

I’d argue it’s best not to think in year increments but to think in career stages. Is it your goal to advance to a management position? Would you like to move into program management? Are you a government contractor who would like to snag a GS position, or vice versa?

Think about career stages and what you’d love your last career to be. Then, consider how you’d get there or what positions will help you. Think both within your company, and outside of it – few individuals today will spend an entire career working for the same company.

You might not know what career path to pursue, or what you’d like to be doing when you retire. That’s okay. But, the sooner you discover and begin pursuing a career path with real growth and professional development in mind, the more successful you’ll be – both at the work you’re doing and in your salary potential.

And keep in mind that gone are the days when you could just get your undergraduate degree and forget about needing additional education or professional development. CertificationsCISSP, PMP or CCNA, for example – are also increasingly required. Look at getting certified now, or build new levels of certification or education into your career plan.

Is Your Current Security Clearance Sufficient?

For those with a security clearance career planning has another dimension. If you’re a help desk technician with a secret clearance who would like to begin working in a more demanding technical role, chances are you’ll need to obtain a higher security clearance to do that work. Keep in mind that the adjudication process for a TS/SCI clearance can be 12 months or longer. See if there is a way your company would consider sponsoring you for a higher clearance before it’s a requirement. That way, when a new opportunity presents itself you have the background you need.

Also, know when you’re up for reinvestigation and keep tabs of the details you’ll need, such as references and work history. Self-report issues that may come up between investigations and don’t do anything dumb that would jeopardize your security clearance and your career.

Building a career plan doesn’t need to be an intense process. It can be as simple as a bullet list of workplace accomplishments, education and training goals, and jobs that lead you to your dream career. Do yourself a favor and speak with a mentor or even your human resources department to get feedback. Don’t get so caught up in the job you have today, that you neglect to plan for your career tomorrow.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves cybersecurity, social media, and the U.S. military. She hates to plan ahead and rarely goes to the grocery store with a shopping list. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email editor@clearancejobs.com.

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.