how to answer the interview question “how does this job fit with your career path?”

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.”

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Weekday Warrior

    Great answer! There are a lot of ways to frame our goals in life without having to make them fit one specific job or path. Most interviewers just want to understand that we have put some reflection into the answer. And this reflection is a perfect task for the start of a new year.

    Reply
    1. Annonymouse

      As someone soon to be hiring a (hopefully) lifetimer in our branch this question is super important to me.

      To give you context I work in a sports related field where it is possible to run:
      The admin/operations for a branch
      The sports and coach training program of a branch
      An entire branch by yourself/with a partner.
      Several branches if successful enough.

      So there is room to grow here and be your own boss within our company. So if someone tells me as much as they enjoy tasks A, B & C that we are hiring for, they really want to go into branch management one day it’s a good sign.

      If they offer up this is something that interests them and seems to have a good work/life balance also ok.

      Basically I’m looking to see if someone is going to stick with us for the long term and not jump ship leaving me with 12 hour days again.

      Reply
  2. Adam

    Very helpful. As someone who doesn’t really have career goals outside of wanting a more interesting and well paying job coming up with an answer to this one can be a bit of a head scratcher. I often don’t really care what I’m working on so long as it keeps me sufficiently busy and seems worthwhile overall.

    Reply
    1. Doriana Gray

      This is where I’m at. I have a development plan worksheet I have to fill out for the new job I’m starting in January, and one of the questions is where I see myself in three to five years. They want us to answer in terms of growing with their division, but I haven’t even started yet and have no clue if I even like the job enough to stay longer than a year – how would I know?! So I’ll have to make something up.

      Reply
    2. Retail Lifer

      Same here. I’ve applied to all kinds of jobs while trying to get out of retail. I don’t have a specific career path that I’m trying to follow so this question is always hard.

      Reply
      1. Adam

        While I would never actually say this of course, when I had my stints of working retail or food service and people would want to know why I wanted to leave my current jobs I always thought that answer should be sufficiently obvious.

        Reply
        1. Adam

          Not to disparage people who choose to work those jobs longterm of course, but every time I’ve had one of those jobs it’s definitely been the sort where you definitely want to make it temporary else you’re going to get miserable sooner or later.

          Reply
          1. MoinMoin

            It’s a rare and hardy unicorn that can withstand the difficulties of customer service long term, but they’re amazingly impressive people when you meet them.

            Reply
  3. Snarkus Aurelius

    Employers ask because they want to differentiate between a person who is taking a job for the paycheck and a person who wants to develop and grow…and also get a paycheck.

    Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with taking a job for the paycheck.  Think Chandler in the first half of Friends.  His job (data entry, I think?) didn’t require a lot of passionate input or have advanced growth that required his employer help develop his skills.  His boss needed a person to show up and make sure X, Y, and Z get done.  That’s all, and that is why Chandler was mismatched for his job, which eventually became a source of huge frustration for him.

    But if you are in a job where you’re going to push yourself to move up the food chain and you want your employer to invest in your professional development, that’s completely different.  As AAM said, employers want to know if you have that expectation so that they can either be prepared to fulfill it or tell you to look elsewhere.  (Or they could be a jerk and tell you they’ll fulfill it and then not do that, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.)

    Obviously there are a zillion jobs out there and they fall all over these two extremes I describe.  You need to figure out where you are on that spectrum and make sure you apply for jobs accordingly.

    Reply
    1. Jerzy

      “I just don’t want to be one of those guys that’s in his office until twelve o’clock at night worrying about the WENUS.”

      Reply
    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      There’s also the reality – and we’ve seen a few in this column over the years – that a company might not WANT someone who is interested in moving up the ladder…or someone who has career ambitions.

      Some places go out of their way to hire people with no ambition to get ahead or develop a career. That’s rare, but it happens.

      Reply
  4. KR

    This is really helpful. I applied for a part time HR assistant position and she asked me what my dream job was and I was completely stumped. I’m 21 years old. I have no clue yet. This job seemed more advanced and better than what I was doing.

    Reply
    1. Doriana Gray

      I always answer that question truthfully and I don’t think it’s hurt me. I think some people ask that question to help gauge your interests and personality. Have fun with it while remaining appropriate.

      Reply
    2. AnotherHRPro

      It is ok to not have a dream job, or know what it is. Instead, tell them he traits of what a great job would be. Challenging, analytical, strategic, whatever.

      Reply
    3. Retail Lifer

      I had my dream job for about a year in my 20s….I was a visual merchandiser (a store display person).

      It sucked.

      I’ve never known how to answer that question after that, as that job was all I ever wanted to do.

      Reply
      1. Stephanie

        Oh man. I always see like Anthropologie store fronts and think that that would be a cool job, too! What was so bad about it? Lots of pressure?

        Reply
        1. MissDisplaced

          I imagine the pay (minimum wage) and the hours (after closing) help make it sucky.
          Plus, it probably requires a 4 year fashion merchandising degree too.

          Reply
        2. Retail Lifer

          The pay wasn’t bad for retail and the hours were better than the typical store job, but we were forced to travel all the time (I was told in my interview it would all be local and genrally never more than two weeks total per year, both of which were lies) and we spent more time changing signs than doing displays or merchandising. Plus, the company I worked for had a million different managers who all thought they could tell the visual team what to do and none of them could agree on anything, meaning we never got much done because we were constantly redoing our work again and again to someone else’s specifications.

          Reply
    4. Product person

      “My drem job is one that lets me use my ( problem solving skills / organizing skills / writing skills / insert one or more valuable skills you have, enjoy using, and the employer is seeking ), in increasing levels of contribution as my knowledge of the organization grows” (in the same lines as AAM suggest) has always my go to answer, with good results.

      Just remember the interviewer isn’t asking for a specific title (“my dream job is chif nurse of a 300-bed hospital”, but rather a description of what type of activity you are interested in performing, which can be answered in the format I use, focusing on the skills I’m interested in using on my day to day, and signaling an interest in continuing to grow.

      Reply
    5. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      Also – the answer depends on the interviewee’s current station in his/her professional life.

      As a hiring manager , in a candidate

      at age 25, “(might not know where) but increased stimulating environment, learning, opportunity”

      at age 35, “(knows where, has a goal), increased responsibility, perhaps management, and, yes, compensation is important)

      at age 45 “(doing more of the same but branching out), conveying knowledge, perhaps be a mentor/supervisor, even a manager, provide valuable input, yada yada yada)

      at age 55 “anything that keeps me content and compensated; job security is nice.”

      Reply
  5. YourUnfriendlyPhlebotomist

    Love the response, something i’ll certainly revisit when I find a job worth interviewing for.
    Something about this makes me very envious of the OP attitude, I really wish I could be like that!

    Reply
    1. ThatGirl

      Ha, this was my letter, thanks — it’s just how I was raised, life changes, my parents both had twisty career paths, so I don’t have some specific goal or career in mind anymore. I value collaborative environments, good bosses, and feeling like I’m contributing and valued. The day to day details matter, but not as much as those things.

      Reply
  6. Mark in Cali

    I still can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard hiring managers ask such questions: “Where do you see yourself?” or “What do you want do?”

    But of course they are the first ones to talk about how someone gave them a chance when they didn’t know what they wanted out a career and that, “Well, you never really figure out what you want to do with your life. It’s a never-ending question!” or they talk about how so many opportunities just fell in their lap.

    It’s annoying to me that their high paying manager salary just fell in their lap, but they expect others to have a direction. I understand the spirit of the question and of Allison’s answer, but I don’t believe for a second that’s how most hiring managers are viewing the question.

    That said, you might as well give them what they want to hear since you’ll always lose over the person who says, “I’m passionate about Teapots and that’s why I’m here!”

    Reply
    1. AnotherHRPro

      I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Careers are always evolving and you never know what you may end up doing at some point in the future, but you can still have a general idea of the type of work you think you want to do. As time goes on and you experience different things you learn about other interests and sometimes this happens just by dumb luck and other times it happens because you stay inquisitive and continuously say yes to new experiences.

      When I graduated college I was sure I wanted to work in Finance. I took a job in which I got to help set investment strategy for retirement accounts. From that I learned about HR and decided to move in that direction. When I got into HR I always thought I wanted to be work with employees and managers but over time learned that I enjoy the strategy side of HR.

      What always remained the same was that I enjoy business, I like learning new things and I need challenging work. So I have managed my career to continue to focus on staying in challenging corporate roles (vs. non-profits) where I get to experience and learn new work.

      Reply
    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Hmmm, I disagree (obviously). Decent hiring managers are well aware that it’s not many people’s dream to, say, work in data entry or waste management or carpet sales or whatever it might be, but that they’ll still be motivated by responsibility and the ability to learn and increase their skills. You really don’t have to fake passion for carpet sales as long as you can talk compellingly about why this job interests you and will keep you engaged and performing at a high level for the next few years.

      Reply
      1. Stephanie

        Ha, coincidentally enough there was a mass exodus from my department to one of the garbage dump companies (i.e., Republic Services/Waste Management/the like).

        Reply
      2. J.B.

        Although I do think it’s pretty common for hiring managers to not have thought through the answer to the question in a lot of detail. (I’m not talking about flat out bad hiring, just maybe not completely self aware.) Realistically a lot of people will be drawn towards the enthusiastic “want to move up” person…but are they really clear whether the role has opportunities for moving up? Sometimes someone who can do the job competently and stay a while might be a better choice.

        Reply
        1. AnotherHRPro

          As a hiring manager, you do not want all of your team members to desire advancement. If you hire someone who wants more than you can offer, you will be looking to replace them eventually as they will get frustrated and leave.

          Reply
          1. Andy

            Or they leave when something at a higher level opens somewhere else. This is especially true when the candidate seems to view the job as somewhat beneath them or lateral. If they are there to get their foot in the door but are qualified for higher roles that aren’t/won’t open it makes it awkward when they announce their goals and you realize they aren’t the best candidate for the current opening.

            Reply
  7. Sharon

    Agree with all of this but I feel like these kinds of questions make young people feel pressured to choose The Right Career when these days people go through a series of different careers in their 50-some year working life. I did pick a career when I was young, and had a great twenty year run with it. But now I’m into something different and looking for another different thing for my waning years. The issue is that the world changes and nobody has a career for life anymore, so you have to be open to changing also. I don’t see anything wrong with working in a different industry every ten or so years!

    Reply
  8. Stephanie

    This question used to trip me up, but once I started realizing I didn’t have to answer with a 10-year plan, it got easier. It did help, too, that I was looking to switch out my former field anyway. I usually find one to three things that I can speak on (“I’m looking for more client interaction in my next role and it sounds like there’s opportunity for that in this role…”).

    Reply
  9. Not Karen

    I get frustrated with this question, too, because honestly my long-term plan doesn’t include a job in this career path. Then a few interviews ago I came up with the answer “I’m looking for a job that allows me to apply my skills towards improving people’s lives” which a) is true and b) applies to this career, but also to a bunch of other possibilities.

    Once when I was 20 years old an interviewer asked me where I saw myself in 10 years. That one threw me, considering it was half my lifetime.

    Reply
  10. Stranger than fiction

    I really like Alisons answer to this. Sometimes you just can’t tell what they’re looking for and this is somewhat one size fits all. For example, in a smaller company they may be feeling you out to make sure you’re not expecting a bunch of promotions because they just don’t have that many manager positions and in a place like that the hiring manager doesn’t want someone that’s gunning for their job. Conversely in a large corporation with a clear career trajectory they may not want someone who just wants to remain at an individual contributor role for years on end. This answer hits the sweet spot.

    Reply
    1. AnotherHRPro

      They key is not to tell them what you think they want to hear, but what you really want. After all, as a candidate we are also interviewing the company to see if it is a good fit for us. I wouldn’t want to join a company unless they are able to offer me what I want in a position/career.

      Reply
  11. Another English Major

    What if your goal is to go back to school for a completely different field and you just want a better paying job in your current field so you can pay for it?

    I only plan to stay in a new job long enough to complete my schooling but I don’t think that’s the answer interviewers are looking for.

    Reply
    1. J.B.

      That is probably not a great answer. If you were applying to something deliberately short term maybe it would be ok, but in your case maybe some nice variation of more money/more opportunity would be the way to go.

      Reply
    2. Felicia

      If people aren’t hiring for something deliberately short term, theyre highly unlikely to hire someone who will only stay short term

      Reply
    3. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      That would be a HORRIBLE answer – especially in a professional job. I once was interviewing a guy as an IT specialist (programmer-analyst, writing code) and asked the “five years from now” question.

      He replied that he wanted to do something completely different. Now, I understand mobility – but – for someone out of work, and interviewing for a computer job – saying he doesn’t want to work in computers in five years – and – we could not offer him a job in his field — we moved on.

      Reply
    4. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      On the other hand – if you’re applying for a job as a store clerk or cashier – the answer “until I complete my schooling in three years” is perfectly acceptable.

      Reply
      1. Blurgle

        I don’t even bother asking the “where do you see yourself in five years?” question to anyone interviewing for a non-career-track position. The question gives me no valuable information and, worse, puts the candidate on the spot. You might think you’re asking “explain your long-term goals to me” but she’s surely hearing “Explain why this part-time data entry position fits into your long-term career path – and if it doesn’t or you don’t have a long-term path yet I’m not hiring you, neener neener.”

        Reply
  12. Felicia

    When I was interviewing potential candidates, we asked variations of this question because we wanted someone who wouldn’t be looking for something new asap and might even stay for 5 years or so. Not that they had to, or that we held them to anything, or that they had to have a concrete plan. I know I didn’t . But if they said anything at all even vaguely related to the job we were hiring for, then that was fine. Same industry and or similar job duties fit in to their long term goals…even better. If they said they were hoping to do something totally unrelated in any possible way to the job they were interviewing for, we were unlikely to hire them. It didn’t have to be their ultimate goal or perfect job or anything. They didn’t have to love it.We just wanted someone for whom the job will be related to their goals and interests

    Reply
  13. Mrs. Psmith

    I know you kind of sped past it in your first paragraph, but it was the part that stuck out with me the most. Are you sure you’ve dealt with the complete change from your initial desire and four years of working as a journalist? I’ve been in journalism about 10 years now and I have never seen burnout and lingering anger (and some of the whole bad-workplace-PTSD) as I have in former journalists (and some still current ones). I think because it’s one of those careers that is so tied your identity it can really warp your vision of what future careers and goals should be. It doesn’t really help your current question about answering the interview questions about goals, but it might be worth thinking about how other career paths are so different from a journalism path to help give you a different way of thinking about those kinds of questions.

    Reply
    1. ThatGirl

      Hiya,

      This was my question. I appreciate what you’re saying and you’re right that journalism WAS my identity for a long time. I’m truly glad I’m out of the biz now, it’s been eight years and I’m much better paid and appreciated. And I’m still an editor. I like defining myself that way. But it is still a bit of a mystery to me what direction I want that to take. And being contacted by recruiters out of the blue got me wondering again both how to answer that question and on a more philosophical level what I want my path to be.

      And thank you, Alison, for answering! Your script is helpful. I did at least determine one thing — a 40% raise would not be worth it to me if I had to start working 11 hour days plus a commute.

      Reply
    2. Polly

      I also wanted nothing more than to be a journalist from age 12 to 22, when I also got fired from a reporting job. My issue was that I had zero interest in hard news or asking people questions they didn’t want to answer. I wanted to solely write fluff pieces. And there aren’t a ton of jobs where you can do that. Isis general assignment reporting for a while but couldn’t emotionally handle talking to parents of teenagers who had died in terrible car crashes (at least 8 dead kids in one year and I wrote every story). So I decided maybe journalism wasn’t for me after all. I went through several other jobs and am now, 12 years later, finally in a career that may stick.

      Reply
  14. Mimmy

    These types of questions definitely frustrate me because I don’t have a solid sense of where I can honestly see myself long-term. Yes I have my dreams, but they’re probably a bit ambitious (nothing managerial, that much I know, lol).

    Reply
  15. Dr. Doll

    This is probably not very encouraging, but — you can be near the peak of your career and more than pretty good at what you do, and still not know what you want to do next! All I know is I don’t want to turn around 10 years from now and be planning the umpteenth ____ because I couldn’t figure out what I did want to do.

    I envy my friends who are artists or musicians and have a true passion… of course, they pay for it in lack of security and stability.

    Reply

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