A reader writes:
All through high school and college, I wanted to be a journalist. I got my degree and spent four years in newspapers. And then I got fired. I realized the industry was dying and changing and perhaps it was all for the best. I still use my writing, editing, and research skills, but I’m in corporate America now and happy enough to work standard hours with good, reliable coworkers and decent pay and benefits.
Recently I’ve had a few initial interviews for jobs that sound interesting, and regardless of whether those jobs work out or not, I find myself hung up on how to answer the question of what I see in my career path. I honestly don’t know. I take life as it comes, and try to take advantage of opportunities if that arise. To me this seems like the wrong answer, but I also don’t have a dream job or path anymore. I can see a lot of possibilities. I’m fine with that, but what do I say to recruiters or interviewers? Do they want to know that I would stay in a new industry for the long haul, or what is the hidden purpose of this question?
When interviewers ask this question (or various other forms of it, like “where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?”), they’re basically saying, “Tell me how this position makes sense for your longer-term professional goals for yourself.”
That doesn’t mean that you actually have to have a plan or specific goals; lots of and lots of people don’t really have those things. But you probably have a general idea of what interests you and why this particular position seems like a logical step for you right now.
And they’re not asking you to write anything in stone or commit to a particular path (which is an objection I sometimes hear from people when this question is discussed — “how should I know what could happen in five years?!”). They’re just trying to understand how this job fits in with whatever thinking you do have.
Why do they care? Well, a lot of times, a candidate’s answer to this question will give useful insight into what they want out of the job and what their professional interests are. That matters to an interviewer because it can point to a strong or weak fit, and also just because it helps flesh out their understanding of who you are professionally. For example, maybe they’ll learn that you have career goals that this position will help you fulfill, or that you’re especially motivated by doing X and they can offer you a lot of that in this role, or that you think this position will give you enough exposure to X to help you achieve Y but in fact it won’t and it’s important to point that out now, or that there’s some other reason why you’d be unhappy with the role long-term. Or maybe it won’t tell them any of that but will just help them get a deeper understanding of you, your goals, and how this job makes sense for you.
That kind of thing matters to interviewers because they want to hire someone who will be excited about the job and where it will lead them, whether that’s to a specific higher-level position in three years or just to increased satisfaction with the work they’re doing. They want to know that you’re not just applying for jobs randomly and taking whatever you can get but rather than you’ve put some thought into why this particular job makes sense for you, because they don’t want to hire someone likely to get bored or to leave as soon as something else comes along.
But again, you don’t have to have a highly detailed plan for yourself, or even a specific idea of what job you’d want after you move on from this one. It’s okay to say something like, “You know, what’s most important to me is doing work at increasing levels of responsibility and skill, in an environment where I feel like I’m playing a meaningful role. I’m interested in this position is because I think it will move me in that direction.”