Part of preparing for an interview means coming up with answers to common interview questions. “Tell me about yourself?” “Why did you apply for the job?” and “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses,” are all interview questions you can pretty much count on hearing.
Another common interview question is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Though expected, it’s not as easy to come up with an answer. After all, without a crystal ball, how can you really see where you’ll be in five years?
Well, while you can’t know exactly where you’ll be in five years, you can have a plan of where you’d like to be in that time. And once you understand why interviewers ask this question, you can create an answer that helps them understand who you are and why you want to work for them.
Why Do Interviewers Ask, “Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”
Asking a candidate “Where do you see yourself in five years?” might seem like a waste. But hiring managers are truly interested in how you answer because it gives them a lot of information and insight into who you are as a professional and what your long-term goals are. More importantly, it helps them understand how the role and the company fit into your long-term goals—or don’t!
What’s the Plan?
Interviewers ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” to find out what your career plans are. Do you know what you want from your career? How will you accomplish your professional goals? Not wanting to move up a rung on a career ladder is perfectly fine, but do you have an overall game plan for your career?
It’s OK to be unsure of where you see your career going in five years. But if you don’t have some idea of what your career plans are, the employer may be hesitant to hire you out of fear that you’ll become bored with the job. Or, worse, that if you don’t have an action plan for yourself, you may never be able to create action plans in the role and move projects forward.
How the Job Fits You
No matter what or how vague your career goals are, the hiring manager wants to understand how this job aligns with your career plans. Will this job just be a quick stop in a larger game plan, or will you stick around in the job and at the company for the long-term? Just because a job title is a good fit for your career plans doesn’t mean this job or company is a good overall fit.
For example, say that you’re applying for a customer support role. If your answer to “Where do you see yourself in five years?” includes something like “as a lead customer support agent,” then the role might be a good fit for you, particularly if there is a large customer support department and you could move up to a lead role.
But, if your answer involves transitioning into a programming role and leading a different team, the job and company may not fit into your long-term career plans, and this could make the hiring manager hesitant to extend an offer.
Do You Really Want This Job?
You may have very valid and legitimate reasons why you’re applying for a specific job that does or does not align with your career goals. However, when the hiring manager asks where you see yourself in five years, they’re also trying to determine how long you might stay in the job or with the company.
Take the above customer support role example. If your ultimate career goal is to move into programming, how long will you be happy in a customer support role? Will you perform the job to the best of your ability and always give it your all? Or, will you become bored and discouraged if the customer support role never leads to programming, leading you to perform poorly or quit in a year?
How to Answer “Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” seems like a trick question, but it’s not. Honesty, of course, is the best policy. But how you frame your answer is equally important as what you say.
Explain How the Job Fits Your Plan
If you have a career plan that includes an upward or well-defined path, frame your answer in a way that explains how this job helps you move forward. Describe what you hope to learn in the short-term and long-term. Give specific examples of what skills or experiences you hope to gain while in the role and how these will help your career.
Describe What You Hope to Improve
Not every career has an upward trajectory, and not everyone wants to be the head of the department one day. There’s nothing wrong with taking the non-management track. When answering, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” though, you’ll need to explain how this role fits in with your long-term goals and why your long-term goals don’t have an upward trajectory.
“I love being a teacher. Helping people understand things, solve problems, and grow is literally why I get up in the morning. I thought about moving into an assistant principal role, but once I looked into it a little more, I realized that wasn’t the right path for me. That’s more about being an administrator and setting policy, which is just not my thing. So, in five years, I still want to teach, but am interested in working with gifted students to help them hone their skills and really challenge them with work that excites them.”
When You Don’t Know
Even when you aren’t sure where you want to be in five years, you still need to have an answer. Though being honest is always a good bet, saying “No clue” is not going to get you very far.
Instead, explain that you aren’t exactly sure where you want to be and describe how this specific role can help you figure things out. Talk about how you like the field, how the role sounds interesting, and how you think that the job can help you develop a long-term plan. This positions you as someone with a growth mindset who’s committed to learning, even if you don’t have a specific career goal or path in mind.
“Honestly, I’m not totally sure where I see myself in five years. I do know that I want to continue developing my skills in (this field) and want to learn more about it. I don’t know if a management or leadership track is right for me at the moment, but no matter what happens, I know that I want to keep learning and growing within the role and outside of it.”
Plan for Career Success
Having a career plan—even a vague one—is a good idea no matter where you are professionally. It gives you a roadmap to follow on your way to career success. More importantly, it helps you answer, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” as professionally and confidently as possible.
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