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?” (They may also ask it in another form: “What are your short- and long-term goals?”)
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 the job you’re applying for align.
- Focus on the skills you want to learn and get better at.
- Don’t get too specific with job titles or time frames.
- Never say “I want your job,” “I don’t know” or “Not here!”
Why Interviewers Ask This Question
Interviewers ask this question for a few different reasons.
For starters, they want to see if your professional goals align with the job for which you’re interviewing. 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.
Hiring managers want to know that the candidate will be a fit for the company in both the short and long term, according to Roxy Phothirath-Burke, director of customer success at Resident.
“Are they looking for this role to be long term for them? Or are they trying to really just find a placeholder while they’re still searching for something else? We want serious candidates, we want to have some tenure from the candidate in the role they are in,” Phothirath-Burke told Built In. That’s why she asks the question.
Hiring managers also ask this question because they’re trying to uncover how the candidates see themselves growing, Phothirath-Burke added, and how that growth may or may not align with the vision of the company.
Things change fast in the startup world. You never really know what that next role is going to be for somebody — but hiring managers “still want them to be able to work the hardest in the role that you’re trying to hire them for in the current moment.”
Tips for Answering ‘Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?’
Answer This Question for Yourself First
Even before candidates field this question from hiring managers, they’ll want to prepare by thinking through what their short- and long-term career goals are.
Hilary Malecha, director of business development at Cogo Labs, said it might help to think of one’s career as a narrative.
She recommends that job seekers ask themselves: What is the climax of my plot? Where do I want to end up? What skills do I need to get there?
If people need help figuring this out, Malecha recommends finding someone, like a mentor, who’s more experienced and doing the sort of job they want to be doing one day. Ask them what their various roles were that gave them the skills they needed to land that job.
After doing this, job seekers should have a better understanding of how to prepare their answers.
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.
Connect Short-Term Goals With Long-Term Ambitions
Malecha recently asked a candidate what his goals were. His answer impressed her.
The candidate said in the next five to 10 years he hoped to work in venture capital directly. But in order to get there, he first needed to better understand the inner workings of successful companies — how they acquire customers, monetize, things like that — so he could best advise them.
“That was sort of an amazing answer and culture fit for Cogo [Labs] because we are building companies [and going] in the weeds. But we also have a venture capital company that invests in them,” Malecha said.
She said a colleague of hers, a senior analytics manager, also handled this question well when it was posed to her in an interview.
The candidate basically said that, long term, she saw herself bringing a woman’s view to leadership, whether that would be with Cogo Labs or at another company. But first she wanted to learn all of the skills she needed to get there — by coming into this role and driving impact and growth for the companies it's currently incubating.
Malecha liked this answer because it struck the right balance “between realism and tactical versus [an] optimistic, long term approach.”
Example Answers for ‘Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?’
Answering the five-year-plan question is a balancing act. A good answer demonstrates that you are motivated and driven while still making it clear you are excited about the job for which you’re interviewing. For help formulating an answer, here are a few starting points:
“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].”
Things You Should Never Say When Asked ‘Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?’
‘I don’t know.’
Malecha doesn’t really like it when candidates answer the question by saying “I don’t know.”
To her, it indicates they haven’t given much thought to their long-term career goals, if any at all. (With one exception — she thinks it’s just fine when recent grads say “I don’t know.” But even then, she’ll rephrase the question to try to get a sense of what general direction the candidate hopes to go in.)
For someone who’s already a few years into their career, though, not having any idea of what they want their future to look like is in “a little bit of the red flag category,” Malecha said. It might indicate a lack of vision or ambition.
‘In a more-senior role than the one I’m applying for.’
It may raise concerns from hiring managers when a candidate answers the question by saying they want to quickly get promoted into a senior role. It shows focus is a bit too far down the road, rather than the job right in front of them.
“That’s something that tells me they’re already, potentially, not going to be [around] long term in the role we’re looking for,” Phothirath-Burke said.
‘In a different department.’
A candidate whom Phothirath-Burke recently interviewed said their five-year goal was to work their way up to a leadership role — in a different department.
“That to me is a red flag,” Phothirath-Burke said. “I’m not going to be able to meet this person’s expectations for what they’re looking for — either I’m not going to be able to give them the resources, or they're going to get bored and uninterested because this isn’t in their goal for the future.”
‘I’m coming for your job.’
Pro of answering this way: it exudes confidence.
Con: “It makes me a little nervous,” Phothirath-Burke said. “But I am more than happy to hear their thought process behind it.”
Part of the reason this brash response puts Phothirath-Burke off is that the candidate doesn’t know enough about her job to make such a statement.
“I think that shows somebody wanting to run before they’ve learned to walk,” she said.