Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?

Posted by Liz Seasholtz on June 16, 2011
Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?

Remember when you were ten years old and adults would ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" You'd smile, and without batting an eye, answer ballerina, fireman, teacher, or whatever profession had recently stirred your curiosity. Easy question, easy answer.

Nowadays, you may not be so self-assured. When an interviewer asks, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" a worthy answer is often hard to muster. Problem is, these days your whimsical desire to be an astronaut won't be so well received (unless you're interviewing at NASA, of course).

To prepare for this go-to question in the interviewer arsenal, you need to think about potential responses way before stepping foot in the recruiter's office. And just like a resume, you'll need to tailor your answer to the employer you're interviewing with: Don't say you see yourself climbing the corporate ladder when interviewing with a small nonprofit.

Generally, it's safe to assume interviewers are looking for a broad answer, but one that clearly demonstrates your ambitions. "Interviewers want to see that you can plan ahead, visualize potential career paths, and most importantly, that your goals match the goals of the company and position you are interviewing for," says Brad Karsh, founder of career consulting company JobBound, and author of Confessions of a Recruiting Director.

Since a "good" answer to this question really depends on the industry and position, it's more helpful to pinpoint the answers you should stay away from. Stay clear of these six musings on your future:

"In your job."

As you can imagine, it may be a little brazen-and awkward- if you tell your interviewer you want to replace her. Instead, vaguely describe the position she holds as something to which you aspire. Something like, "I see myself as a brand manager in consumer products, managing a team of employees," perfectly describes where you want to be-without directly saying it's her job you covet.

"At this company."

It's the future-it's hard to predict. Saying that you see yourself at a company you've just become acquainted with may seem a bit shortsighted. On the other hand, don't say that you see yourself elsewhere. Karsh feels it's a tight line to walk: "I wouldn't say it, but wouldn't not say it. Your answer should be about what you're doing, not where you're doing it."

"Married, living in Connecticut, and with one child."
Stay away from talking too specifically about personal goals in your answer. Interviewers generally want to hear about career plans, not life plans. However, if your personal goals impact your professional goals-for example, you want to be earning your MBA in five years so you can advance in the company, it can be helpful to mention it.

"A partner."
It's always good to have high aspirations, but be realistic. When interviewing at a Big Four accounting firm, don't say you want to be a partner in five years, when it takes an average of 10 to 12 years to earn the position. By having attainable goals, you'll come off less green and more sensible.

"Back in school-fulltime."
If you see yourself moving on after two to three years, keep it to yourself during the interview. "This type of answer, while it may be accurate, is a little too honest," says Karsh. "The employer didn't sign up to have you work for two years and then leave, so avoid revealing this if it's your true intention."

"I don't know."

If you really have no idea what industry, company, or position you want to be in five years from now, you still need to come up with an answer that shows you know yourself and have notable goals. (You might also want to do research and think hard on your own about potential career paths.) Karsh suggests using experience from your past. "You could say something like, 'When I think about what I've done in school, I know that I'll thrive working in an environment with people, contributing in a meaningful way to the organization, and have opportunities to be a leader."

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