The Best Way to Answer ‘Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?’

Demonstrate that your career goals align with the job at hand.
Hal Koss
May 6, 2021
Updated: May 11, 2021
Hal Koss
May 6, 2021
Updated: May 11, 2021

Items you should bring to a job interview: notepad, copy of your resume, crystal ball.

Joking aside, that last one might come in handy, thanks to a particular question that’s loved by hiring managers: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” 

It’s a tricky question, and if you don’t start thinking about it ahead of time, the answer is easy to flub.

Tips for Answering ‘Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?’

  • Show how your professional goals and this job align.
  • Focus on the skills you want to learn and get better at.
  • Don’t mention specific job titles or time frames.
  • Never say “I want your job,” “I’m gonna be CEO” or “Not here!”

Interviewers ask this question because they want to see if your professional goals align with the job you’re interviewing for. If the two don’t match, the hiring manager might doubt that you’ll be motivated to develop in your role or stick around long enough to make a difference — which makes you a risky investment, from their point of view.

“A lot of managers ask that question to feel safe,” Mike Manoske, career coach and co-author of the book The Job Search Manifesto, told Built In. “Typically, what they’re looking for is stability.”

Such caution is warranted. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that people usually stay at their jobs for around four years. When it comes to tech startups, employee tenure is often shorter than that

Considering how expensive it is to hire and onboard new employees, interviewers want to feel confident that people they hire have ambition to excel and potential for growth but who aren’t already plotting for how to land their next jobs.

Answering the five-year-plan question is a balancing act. You want to demonstrate that you are motivated and driven while still making it clear you are excited about the job for which you’re interviewing.

Keep these dynamics in mind as you think about how to answer the question.

More on Job Interview QuestionsHow to Answer ‘Why Should We Hire You?’

 

Tips for Crafting the Perfect Answer

Show You’re Interested in This Job

When Rick Wolf interviews candidates for a job, he looks for intentionality.

“If you’re kind of just drifting along, or you’re here because I asked you to be, I don’t think you’re going to be particularly happy in a role I have to offer,” Wolf, a data science manager at Grand Rounds, told Built In. “And moreover, I won’t be a good manager for you, because I won’t be able to figure out what to offer to help you grow.”

Hiring managers want to know that candidates are looking for something more than “just a job,” that the role for which they are applying fits in with their larger professional goals. This question helps uncover that.

For example, if you’re interviewing for a social media marketing position, and you say, “I want to eventually be a UX designer,” that signals you might not be excited about the idea of this particular job. 

Same goes if you’re applying for a customer success role with a fintech company but you say you’re not really interested in the financial services industry.

Stephen Jensen, director of mid market at KeepTruckin, put it this way: If he’s interviewing a candidate for a sales position, and they say they want to be a fisherman in five years, he’d think, “You might be able to do the sales job, but how motivated are you going to be ... to really understand and grow within this company and be successful at your job if you have no interest at building a career within our industry, or within this specific skill set?” 

“That’s a red flag,” he said.

 

Keep it General

Kirsten Nelson, a career coach, typically encourages job seekers to be very specific when answering interview questions. Not with this one.

“I think with this question it’s actually OK to be a little bit more general in your response,” Nelson said. 

She suggests candidates avoid sharing too much detail when it comes to timelines and job titles.

Instead of saying, “I want to be a senior marketing director within three years,” discuss more generally the skills you hope to accrue, the experiences you hope to have and the impact you hope to make. For example, say, “I plan on expanding my knowledge about different marketing channels, especially around experimenting with paid search and social ads, and finding ways to get more involved in campaign strategy.”

Catalina Peña, a career coach and founder of Catalyst Creation, offers similar advice.

“A bad way to answer is saying, ‘I want to be a manager of this team, and have this many people, and I want to work on this particular project — and I want to do it all from my house,’” Peña said.

The more specific a candidate’s answer, the more they box themselves in, she added. The more detailed a five-year plan, the less likely it is the job will be able to accommodate it.

Hiring managers aren’t looking for candidates who want something from a job that the job doesn’t provide. The best way to respond is to show intentionality with direction, but flexibility on the details.

 

Focus on Skills

When an interviewer asks, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” emphasize the competencies you hope to learn and improve upon.

“Focus on what you’re going to gain knowledge-wise and experientially,” Manoske said.

For example, you might say something like, “In the next few years I want to get better at designing, running and optimizing marketing campaigns. I look forward to deepening those skills and taking my knowledge base to the next level so I can contribute even more.”

Or you could offer a response that runs along these lines: “I’ve enjoyed managing a direct report in my current role. So in the next few years, I see myself enhancing my leadership and management skills, developing as a mentor and supervisor, and putting myself in a position where I can lead a growing team.”

Another answer might begin like this: “In my current role, I’ve been able to progressively get more involved in driving the strategy behind our product roadmap. And that’s something I want to continue to do. I see myself making an impact in that way.”

Shwetha Shankar, vice president of customer success at Tray.io, also thinks job seekers ought to center their responses on the skills they hope to learn.

If a candidate doesn’t know what skills to discuss, Shankar recommends they start by taking their long-term vision and breaking it down into the skills required to get there.

Additionally, candidates may want to incorporate some language from the actual job description into their answers.

As for particular phrasing, Shankar recommends a few jumping-off points: “I’m looking to become an expert in XYZ,” or “I’m looking to deepen my skills in such and such area,” maybe even, “I see myself in a leadership role in this particular space, and for me to get there, I’m hoping to learn A, B and C skills along the way.”

“It’s a mix of humility combined with ambition that makes for an excellent answer to that question,” Shankar added.

Related ReadingTackling the ‘How Would You Describe Yourself?’ Interview Question

 

Things You Should Never Say

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things you should never say when an interviewer asks you, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“I don’t know.”

“Not here.”

“Nothing that has to do with this job or industry.”

“I hope to be a [more-senior job title].”

“I want to work on [projects that aren’t mentioned in the job description].”

“I’m coming for your job.”

“I’m going to be the CEO.”

 

Things You Could Say in Your Answer

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of phrases you may want to use as starting points to help formulate your answer to the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“I see myself eventually developing into a leader in the [industry vertical] space. To get there, I hope to learn even more about [skills and experiences] along the way.”

“I want to continue to deepen my [example] skills.”

“I want to learn how to [skills] even better, so that I can make even more of an impact, including [impacts you wish to make].”

“My favorite part of my job right now is [ways you’re contributing]. I hope to continue to do that, but I also hope to challenge myself to grow in new ways, including [examples].”

“I’m interested in applying my love of [broader themes of your skills] to help make a difference, especially with organizations that value [company’s value you align most with].”

“I’m really excited about the [industry vertical] space right now. I hope that in five years, I’m continuing to get better at [skills] and learning more about how to become an expert in [skills] so that I can ultimately [goal that aligns with job description].”

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