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“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

"Where do you see yourself in 5 years?"“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

How should you answer this tricky interview question?

If you’re like most people, you grimace at the thought.

It’s best to prepare your answer in advance – not necessarily memorizing the exact words you’ll say, but knowing what your key points are, and then practicing saying it in a natural way.

Start by just blurting it your answer to yourself, without any attempt to be strategic. Make sure you’re clear what’s true for you. If your answer is “I have no idea!” look a little deeper. Chances are you do have some idea where you’d like to be heading.

A great interview answer is one that is both authentic and strategic. It’s the best answer that’s true and shows you’re a good fit for the job. So your next step is to put  yourself in the employer’s shoes.

If you were the employer, you’d be looking for an employee who will not only stay a reasonably long time, but also will be 100% engaged in the job. Managers learn from experience that the best employees are often those who have goals. Where a candidate thinks he or she will be in five years (or three, or 10) has an effect on the energy they’ll bring to the job between now and then.

Too many employees have mentally “checked out” from their jobs, going through the motions day after day. Often it’s because there’s a mismatch between the job and their career goals.

If you’re not sure what your goals are, you’re not alone! It may be hard to decide now what you’ll want a year from now, let alone five years. Use your difficulty with this question as a wake-up call to explore your career options and make some decisions. There are resources that can help with career planning, including websites like CareerOneStop and career counselors like those at Bay Area Career Center (an organization I recommend but am not affiliated with).

Your answer to the five-year question doesn’t have to be extremely specific. It may be enough to say something like this:

“I see myself continuing to grow with this organization, deepening my skills, taking on new challenges. I am interested in growing into (new area that’s a realistic next step within the company, such as mastering new technologies, team leadership or management) over time, once I’ve proven myself in (role for which you’re interviewing).”

or:

“Being a recent graduate, I’m still exploring my career path, but I do know it will involve (skills or subject matter), so this job is a great fit. I admire this company because (reasons based on your research), and I can see myself continuing to develop my career here.

Key point: Show a balance of motivation with patience, ambition with realism, goal-setting with adaptability.

Be careful if your goal is to get your boss’s job – or if they might suspect as much and feel threatened. Communicate loyalty and flexibility in your answer.

If there’s a standard career path that is expected for people in this position, and you’re interested in exactly that, then your answer may be easy. Just show a combination of motivation to move up and also a strong commitment to excelling thoroughly in the current job, as in the first example above.

What if your goals require leaving the company in less than five years? Maybe you see this job as a stepping stone, which might be a problem for the employer. This is an ethical and also practical question that each person must settle for themselves. Consider these points:

  • How long do you think you will stay?
  • How long do most people stay?
  • How long do you think the employer expects you to stay?
  • Will leaving sooner than expected look bad on your resume?
  • Will it prevent you from getting a good reference?
  • Will it damage your reputation? (People do talk, whatever the official policy may be.)
  • Can you live comfortably every day with a secret (your impending departure)?
  • Is there a reasonable alternative to taking this “stepping stone” job?
  • Would the employer benefit from hiring you even if you don’t stay long?
  • Can you make this a win-win? How?

Your answer to the five-year question may be brief, but it’s wise to prepare – so you can respond with confidence.

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