“What do you want to be doing five years from now?” It’s one question that job seekers notoriously struggle to answer during interviews. But answering it well just takes a little reflection and strategy.
Before you start listing off your ambitions, first consider what a hiring manager might want to hear, based on their most likely reasons for asking it. Here are a few of the other, more practical questions lurking just beneath, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
- Are the company’s goals and yours compatible?
- Are you looking for fast or steady growth in a position the interviewer knows is a virtual dead end?
- Are you going to ask for more money than the company can ever offer?
- How have your goals and motivations changed as you’ve matured and gained work experience?
- If you’ve recently become a manager, how has that promotion affected your future career outlook?
- If you’ve realized you need to acquire or hone a particular skill, how and when are you planning to do so?
To be fair, this interview question isn’t as popular as it once was, since the pace of change at many businesses continues to increase so rapidly. You’re more likely to be asked to concentrate on a much tighter timeframe: “What will you be able to accomplish during your first 90 (or 100 or 180) days on the job”?
There are also common variations on the five-year question, like these:
- What are your long-term goals?
- Have you recently established any new career objectives?
- What do you ultimately want to do with your life?
The common theme here is looking ahead, trying to gauge where a candidate sees him or herself heading. Whatever form it takes, this type of question gives you a chance to explain how your goals and motivations have changed as you’ve matured and gained valuable work experience. If you’ve recently become a manager, talk about how it’s affected your career outlook for the future; if you’ve realized you need to sharpen a particular skill, tell the interviewer what you’re doing about it.
Naturally, you want the interviewer to know that you’re looking forward to a position of responsibility in your field. But you don’t want to give the impression that you’re a piranha waiting to feed on the guppies in your new department. So start humbly:
Well, that will ultimately depend on my performance on the job, and on the growth and opportunities offered by my employer.
Then toot your own horn a bit:
I’ve already demonstrated leadership characteristics in all of the jobs I’ve held, so I’m very confident that I will take on progressively greater management responsibilities in the future. That suits me fine. I enjoy building a team, developing its goals, and then working to accomplish them. It’s very rewarding.
In other words, you want more—more responsibility, more people reporting to you, more turf, and even, yes, more money. A general answer like the one above is okay, but don’t be surprised when an interviewer asks the obvious follow-up questions:
- “Tell me about the last team you led.”
- “Tell me about the last project your team undertook.”
- “What was the most satisfying position you’ve held, and why?”
- “If I told you our growth was phenomenal and you could go as far as your abilities would take you, where would that be, and how quickly?”
That can give you some opportunities to get more specific about your goals and explain how they sync up with the employer’s. And the good news is that these more specific questions are the type that’s easier to prepare for.
Some candidates think they’re being bold by telling hiring managers that in five years they want “your job.” But that’s a trite response, and it’s time to retire it.
At the same time, there are perils to offering the generic answer above and leaving it at that, especially if the interviewer probes for more. Your inability or unwillingness to cite specific, positive goals may give the impression, warranted or not, that you haven’t taken the time to really think about your future, which makes it impossible for the interviewer to assess whether there’s a “fit” between their goals and yours.
You also probably shouldn’t insist you want to be in the same job for which you’re applying. That can seem insufficiently ambitious at best and disingenuous at worst. In fact, any answer that reveals unrealistic expectations is probably one to avoid. A savvy candidate should have some idea of the time it takes to climb the career ladder in a particular industry or even in a certain company. Any expectations that are too ambitious will give an interviewer pause. If a law school grad, for example, seeks to make partner in four years—when the average for all firms is seven and, for this one, 10—it will make even novice interviewers question the extent and effectiveness of your pre-interview research.
There’s nothing wrong with showing confidence, but a savvy candidate should temper those expectations during the interview. Most interviewers are aware that some candidates do “break the rules” successfully, but they will get a little nervous around people who don’t seem to know them in the first place.
If you think you’ve made an interviewer worry that her company couldn’t possibly deliver on the promises you seem to want to hear, you can expect a follow-up question: “How soon after you’re hired do you think you can contribute to our success?” Even someone with a tremendous amount of pertinent experience knows full well that each company has its own way of doing things; the learning curve may be just a few weeks or many months, depending on circumstances.
So any candidate—but especially an overly ambitious young person—who blithely assures an interviewer she’ll be productive from day one is cause for concern. The interviewer may really be trying to assess how trainable you are, and you’ve just announced that you already know it all! Not a good start.
Finally, keep in mind that even though you’re being asked to talk about long-term goals, this isn’t a conversation in a bar with a friend. Don’t rattle off some remarkable response that can only be deemed a fantasy–even if it is one you hold dear–to be retired, own their your business, live on the beach, and so on.
The key instead is to keep your answers pertinent to your immediate job search and your expectations for growth in and beyond the position you’re applying for. Keep that in mind and you’ll hit it out of the park.
This article is adapted from 101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions, 25th Anniversary Edition by Ron Fry (Career Press, 2016). It is reprinted with permission.