Let’s say you’re interviewing for a job at a start-up. A good goal may include growing as the company grows and learning about the space from the most ambitious people in the business. Then, you can answer the question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” with a solid response: In five years, I hope to be leading a team of my own within the company.
Your answer should be forward-looking and optimistic. That said, you don’t want to come across as so ambitious that you would steal your interviewer’s job from under her. Think of your answer as a litmus test for how long you will stay with the company. However you answer the question, your interviewer’s takeaway should be that you want to stay at the company for many years.
The Psychology and Subtext of the Question and Answer
Why do interviewers ask this age-old question? Simple. The company does not want to go to all the effort and cost of training you, only to have you leave — taking everything you have learned with you.
Bringing on new employees is both time-consuming and costly. The subtext of your answer to “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” should be to allay your interviewer’s fears that your only interest in the job is as a conduit to a better job elsewhere.((Journal of Applied Psychology: The Situational Interview))
How to Answer It Well?
Coming up with a good answer to this question can be complicated as it forces you to think of a future that is currently a complete mystery. However, there are some ways you can prepare a reliable answer that will satisfy any interviewer.
1. Consider Your Five-Year Plan
To help you navigate the right answer, try jotting down a road map of where you actually see yourself in five years before you go on any interviews. Don’t worry about the exact title you’ll have (unless it helps you plan your future). Instead, think about the tasks you’ll be doing each day. Taking this one simple step can help you answer with conviction.
Plan to answer this question since it’s a perennial favorite of interviewers, and whatever you do, don’t show a lack of ambition by answering “I hope to be in this same job.”
2. Beware of Being Too Focused on the Future
Think of the “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” question as a shiny object. The interviewer wants to distract you from the present interview by asking you this question. Why? She asks you about the future to see if you can use it to draw a straight line back to the present.
For this reason, a two-part answer often works beautifully. “I want this particular job…,” you might say as a way to reinforce your desire for the position. Then, in part two, explain your future plans: …“because it will help me build the outreach skills I will need as a foundation for a successful career in marketing. Your company has won numerous marketing awards, and I know I will be learning from the best in the business.”
Keep it short and sweet, but also include details that show you know the company you want to work for.
3. Walk the Same Career Paths That the Company Offers
When someone asks “Where do you see yourself in 5 years,” should you answer with absolute honesty? Yes, of course you should. Your answer should also reflect the research you put into the company.
You never want to say anything about your plans to retire young. Never suggest that you’re independently wealthy and therefore won’t need to be working in five years.
Before you go to your interview, do as much homework as you can on the probable career path you will take. How does this job give you the entrée to that path?
For example, if you are applying for a receptionist position at a dermatologist’s office, do not say that you hope that this entry position will help you secure a job as a nurse at the same office. Instead, if you dream of becoming a nurse, learn the degrees and licenses you will need to earn to become qualified. If, indeed, becoming a nurse is your dream, it makes more sense for you to apply for a medical aid position instead of a receptionist so that your career path aligns with your goal.
One way to plan out your short-term career ambitions is to look up online job descriptions of the position you hope to attain and scrutinize the qualifications. In doing so, you will about realistic goals to bring up when you answer.
For example, if you aspire be a financial analyst in the investment firm where you’re interviewing, but you are currently applying for a finance program associate position, make sure you can attain the needed qualifications while working full-time. If you haven’t already earned the necessary degree, your interviewer may infer that you’ll be going back to school — and therefore either leaving your position or cutting back on your hours to attend part-time. That answer could backfire.
Better still, find out what training programs are offered through the firm or that can be reimbursed through the firm while holding down your full-time job. Reference your desire to hone your skills and learn more, and you’ll impress your interviewer with your future-focused aspirations.
4. Don’t Fight the Question
The “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” question forces you to peer into the future. Sometimes this can feel frightening, but fighting the question will not help you secure the job. Lean into the question, instead of away from it.((Language in Society: Answers and evasions))
For example, do not say, “I can’t possibly know where I will be in five years from now. In the last five years, I got married, divorced, and remarried. Whew! Life’s a whirlwind.” Do your best to answer the question, and don’t be defensive.
If you are truly just trying to land a job and haven’t given much thought to what long-term career path to pursue, you may want to answer in a broad, nonspecific way while still showing an upbeat attitude. For example, you may have decided your major in college isn’t your passion after all, and you are interviewing at the company because your roommate works there and flagged your application.
Let your interviewer know that you’re excited by the opportunity and why, and that you are ready for a long-term role. In this case, you may simply answer, “This is a field I’m excited to explore for its growth opportunities and cutting-edge advances. I’m hoping that in five years I’ll have the expertise to help move the company forward and keep it competitive.”
5. Be Realistic
You may be particularly ambitious, and your plan is to climb as high and land as far up in the company as possible, as quickly as possible. Still, tamp down your determination to unseat the CEO in five years (unless you’re entering upper management). If you shoot too high, instead of impressing your interviewer, you will raise eyebrows and come off as over-eager, callous, or even unrealistic.
Root your answer in reality, realizing that advancing one or two positions above the one you’re interviewing for is the most likely scenario. If you can use a past job advancement experience as an example, you will show that you are advancement-worthy.
For example: “My summer job in college was at a vacation resort where I started in the restaurant as wait staff, but after one summer, I was promoted to restaurant manager, and the next summer I became an assistant to the general manager. My hope is that in five years I’ll again be able to advance two positions above where I’d be starting in your company by showing my ability to learn quickly and gain others’ trust.”
6. Prove Your Staying Power
As today’s job turnover rates become as commonplace as upgrading your iPhone, employers are trying their best to discern which candidates will stick around and which will quickly become antsy and want to move on. In fact, applicants with a job history of changing jobs frequently may not land the interview at all, regardless of their qualifications.
Try to demonstrate that you see yourself staying within the company, learning and adding value as you go. If you then end up staying with the employer for five years or more, chances are it has turned out to be a positive situation for both you and the company — and the answer you gave to “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” may actually have been realized.