Career goal setting and developing a personal career strategy

By: Toni Collis, Chair & Co-Founder of WHPC, Director of Collis-Holmes Innovations & CBDO at Appentra Solutions

First Published on Feb 18th, 2019.

As co-founder and chair of Women in High Performance Computing I am often asked about my career, how I got to where I was today, the experiences I’ve had along the way and which choices I made I believe were the good ones. I’m always hesitant to answer though. Not because I don’t want to share – I’m humbled that so many amazing women want to talk to me – but because I wonder why they want to know. I know that nine times out of ten, it isn’t idle curiosity that is driving these questions, but a desire to solve a problem. What instead I want to do is to turn this back on the person asking me, and ask them: what do you want from your career, what would you do if you could do anything, regardless of money resources, education and time? I want to ask this, because everyone has a unique route to take. There is no one perfect way to navigate your career path. But instead, you do have to understand what you want, in order to figure out how to get there.

I’m not saying that you should love every second of every day of your job, but you should be absolutely comfortable with the way you spend your time. One of the reasons I setup Women in HPC was to help more women thrive in their work and enjoy what they do. I want more women to achieve career success and do what they love, today and every day. In this blog post, I want to help you understand a little more about your own career goals. If you’ve read this far its because you are intrigued by what I’m writing, so please, read on!

Understanding what you want from your career

Take a step back for a moment from what is the current ‘problem’ in your situation. Instead, think about the outcome you wish to achieve. Ask yourself:

  • What do I want to do today?
  • What do I want to do tomorrow?
  • Am I stuck in a rut, or feeling purposeless?
  • What is my goal?
  • What are my intentions, my red lines, for what I want for myself?

Some example answers (but truly, they are just an example to get your brain going) include:

  • I want to spend more time with my family.
  • I want to increase my earnings to xxx amount (be specific: what salary are you after, what will make you comfortable).
  • I need to reduce my working hours.
  • I need to reduce my stress.
  • I want to do more of work activity xxx.
  • I want to do less of work activity yyy.

Once you understand your desires and your red-lines, what you aren’t prepared to compromise on, and the goals which are more fluid to fit around your red-lines and the reality of work, it can become clearer where you want to go. But don’t worry if you don’t immediately know the perfect job title that fits your list. Many of us these days end up creating a role for ourselves, whether in your current organisation, somewhere else or by being an entrepreneur. But you first have to be true to yourself and understand what you really want, then you can develop your strategy to achieve those goals.

The benefits of a personal career strategy

A career strategy is exactly what it sounds: a strategy for reaching career success. Strategies are one of the most useful tools for achieving a set of goals. By having a strategy you provide a framework for decision making around every aspect of your life that aligns with the purpose of the strategy. A strategy will help you know when to say yes to something, even if you don’t really like the idea of it, and when to say no (even if you want to say yes to it). Your strategy will help your decision making so it sits around your goals and intentions. That doesn’t mean you have to say yes and no based on your strategy, but you will have a better understanding of the consequences.

Life throws so many opportunities at us, but one of the lessons we all have to learn early on is how to say no (this is a lesson I’m still learning!). If we don’t learn how to say ‘no’, we become overwhelmed and under-perform. But if we are able to strategically take advantage of the opportunities offered to us we have the potential to contribute something extraordinary to society. I believe everyone has the capacity for this, but very few of us are able to tap into this extraordinary potential, simply because modern working practices do not actively encourage personal growth and exploration unless a specific focus is put on you to ‘develop’. Instead, modern workplaces are all about stretching out the resource we have, spreading it as thin as it will go, increasing ‘productivity’, without really knowing what we mean by productivity. Work is constantly about efficiency, not effectiveness. Society is constantly telling us we all have to provide ‘value for money’ and equating that to how much we can do in the shortest amount of time, frequently to the detriment of quality. If we consider that people are like the jam, spread on a slice of toast, there comes a point where you are spread so thin, that yes you cover a lot of toast, but actually, it is so thin you would be better with just plain toast!

To achieve career happiness and success you need to be your whole self again, and embrace your creativity, imagination, intelligence, compassion and self-awareness. Using these qualities will help you be much more effective in the workplace to find extraordinary results. This may seem incredibly idealistic, but so it should be. Many, if not all of us, have a desire to have an impact on the world. To have an impact, sometimes we do have to be idealistic!

What a personal career strategy can do for you

If you are reading this blog you are likely to be the type of person who is successful and ambitious, possibly more so than you know!. You are driven to excel in what you do. So do you know what you want to do next and how to get there? Sometimes this is the hardest question to answer, and it also changes over your career.

In the discussions about careers, I also hear a little of ‘I hate my job’, or something similar, but often from people who also feel stuck in their job for a variety of reasons. But what if we could move past this feeling, pinpoint what is wrong with the current job and figure out how to change it, or move on in a way that is compatible with your, very-real, life restrictions? Wouldn’t that be a good place to be?

I believe that whether you want to stay in the role you are currently in but find it more rewarding, or you have ambitions that you don’t quite yet know how to fulfil, that you need some goals and a personal career strategy. But before you do that you need to understand what it is you are trying to change.

So how to do you start?

Understand what barriers you face.

Most of the time if you are thinking about where you want to go next, or asking others about about how they got there, there may be something stopping you. Take a moment to stop and reflect on your current situation.

  1. What is wrong with the current situation? Is it just not where you want to end up, but good enough for now, or is there something fundamentally wrong about your current job?
  2. What causes the problem(s)?
  3. How have you failed, so far, to solve this problem? What have you tried to do to solve it? Or is the problem that you haven’t even started trying or don’t know where to start?
  4. What is the desired positive outcome of solving this problem?

Now that you can see your fears and obstacles written down. Ask yourself, what do you really need to change to get past this barrier in your career?


If you know the job you want to be in, then fantastic, you are ready to figure out the goals you need to set to get there! But I know that many of us don’t know where we want to be. You might have a few ideas, but you aren’t sure. In an ideal world we would each meet someone doing the job we wanted to do and be inspired. But reality isn’t that easy, and for many the job you want to do in 10 years time, doesn’t exist yet because the world just moves that fast today. So instead it is worth considering what you enjoy and what is important.

Ask yourself:

  1. What are you good at? Write down EVERYTHING you are good at, even if it is nothing to do with your current job sector or role.  It doesn’t have to make sense, just get it written down!
  2. What do you enjoy doing? What do you love to do when you are procrastinating?
  3. What do you have experience in? This can be anything from time doing a hobby, to a side-project in your day job, to something you were taught while still in school. Again, don’t worry about the final outcome, just brainstorm.
  4. What is going to make you feel happy, fulfilled and passionate about what you do? What is different about the projects you actually finish and the ones you start but never complete? What makes you excited about something?

Set some goals

If you already know where you want to go in your career, then fantastic, now is the time to figure out what goals you need to get there. If you don’t yet know, then your first goal should be figuring out what type of role you want to be in. Either way, writing down some goals for yourself, to stretch yourself and getting out of your comfort zone are the first step in moving towards a more fulfilling career.

Goals should always be specific and with a deadline. For example, rather than ‘network more’, the goal could be ‘In 6 months I will meet 10 new people who work in technical programme management and ask them about their job to understand the role and job requirements’.

And don’t forget, one of your goals, should be understanding your next set of requirements, so you can set future goals!<

Setting a strategy

Goals are great, but unless they are simple, often we get stuck on how to fulfil them. This is where your strategy comes in.

For each goal, you need to understand how you are going to fulfil it. For example, if you need to meet ’10 programme managers’, your strategy should focus on how to meet them, where to meet these people (e.g. conferences, online etc.), and how you will engage them.

It is also worth having a personal mission statement. This may seem corny, as many organizations seem to write mission statements to make them sound better, rather than really believing in it. But a good mission statement guides you in your decision making. If you know what type of person you want to be, you will be better equipped to make decisions along the way. And beware, decision fatigue is a real thing! So automate your decision making by having a mission statement and a strategy to guide you, but still be comfortable that your decisions will be aligned with your goals in life. Your mission statement and strategy are your starting points for a career roadmap

Take action

Remember, that although you have a strategy, that this should be fluid. Surround yourself by the right people and inspiration, and be cautious about over-consuming as you may find you get overwhelmed. And then start working towards the roadmap.

If you’ve been struggling to figure out what your focus is, or you’re trying to pinpoint what might be holding you back, I’m offering two people a free one-to-one, 20-minute laser coaching session. It’s absolutely free and I believe we can make a huge shift for you during our time together. Sign up here, for your chance to receive one of these sessions.

About the author: Toni Collis

  • Dr Toni Collis is Chair and Co-Founder of Women in High Performance Computing (WHPC) as well as the CBDO for Appentra Solutions and Director of Collis-Holmes Innovations. Toni has spent a large part of her career focusing on enabling scientists, engineers, academics and many more to access High Performance Computing and is passionate about broadening the availability of the resources available. WHPC was born from this vision: how to achieve equality of opportunity for everyone, so that the benefits of HPC can reach as broad an audience as possible. Toni runs her own consultancy business, Collis-Holmes Innovations. In her current role at Appentra, Toni focuses on democratising access to HPC by using the new Parallelware Tools Suite to lower the barrier for academics to write and maintain parallel software. As Chair and Co-Founder of WHPC, Toni has worked on a number of initiatives to improve diversity from developing and leading HPC tutorials for women academics and students to workshops and conferences across the world. Toni participates in a number of voluntary efforts internationally to improve diversity including as Inclusivity Chair for SC17 and SC18, and as a member of a number of advisory committees including the XSEDE Advisory Board and the ISC High Performance conference Steering Committee.

Blog Editor: Jesmin Jahan Tithi, Research Scientist, Intel.