how to answer “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

No matter what field you’re in, if you’re interviewing for jobs, you’re likely to encounter interviewers who ask some version of, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

It might sound like a straightforward question on the surface, but job seekers routinely struggle over how to best answer it. Often the struggle is because they have no idea where they see themselves in five years. Or they have some hopes about where they’ll be, but are acutely aware that even the best-laid career plans can change, and so they feel odd about giving an answer that implies certainty. Or they feel that their goals aren’t very specific; they want to do interesting work and hopefully make more money doing it, but most figure that’s not a strong answer and that the interviewer is looking for a clear plan with commitment behind it.

So let’s start by translating the question. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is another way of saying, “How does this position fit in with your overall short-term and medium-term career goals for yourself?”

In other words, interviewers who ask this question aren’t asking you to write your plans in stone or commit to them with certainty. They’re asking you how you see this job fitting in with your overall plan for your career. If it helps, you can also think of it as, “How does this job fit in with where you see your career going?”

Interviewers want to know this because they want a better understanding of your overall goals for yourself and how this job is a part of that. That matters to them because they want to hire someone who will be excited about the job and where it will lead them, whether that’s to a higher-level position or just increased accomplishment or satisfaction. They want to know that you’re not just applying for jobs randomly and taking whatever you can get, because if you are, you’re more likely to get bored or leave as soon as something else comes along. By showing your interviewer how the job fits in with your overall goals, you can show that you’ll be excited to do the work and aren’t likely to leave prematurely.

So what might a good answer sound like? Here’s one example: “In five years, I’d love to have increased my skill level enough that I’m able to train others how to do this work. I love this work, and I’ve found that I really enjoy mentoring colleagues, so I’d be thrilled to be able to combine the two—continuing to work in a role like this one, but with a training or mentoring component to it.”

But to be clear, that’s just one example—not a suggested answer if it’s not true for you. Your answer should speak to whatever is really true for you, while still making sure the interviewer will be able to see how the open role fits in.

And if you’re really not sure of the specifics of what you’d be doing in five years, it’s fine to say that, but talk about what you do know you’d like to do. For instance, you might say, “You know, I don’t have a specific plan, but I do know that I want to stay in this field, doing work at increasing levels of responsibility and skill, in an environment where I feel like I’m playing a meaningful role. One of the reasons this position excites me is because I think it will move me in that direction.”

In other words, be genuine and help the interviewer understand why this position would be a great next step to you on your way to wherever you’re going—even if that destination isn’t mapped out in detail yet.

{ 102 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    If I was honest, I’d have to say retired. I am not certain that answer is appropriate, though.

    1. danr

      I know what you mean. But Alison’s rephrasing of the question shows the way to a better response. I haven’t figured it out yet, but the rephrase is a better starting point.

  2. Christine

    Thank you for the suggested script for those who aren’t sure of their specific career plans!

    1. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog

      +1. I always struggle with this question because my ambitions are constantly evolving. With every new position, I learn more about my field, and end up changing course. Also, I find that the opportunities available in my field really influence my career path. I try to jump on a great opportunity when I see it – and it’s impossible to know what opportunities I’ll find in the next 3 years. Focusing on skill acquisition is a much better strategy.

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.

        And if I were interviewing you, Christine, and you gave that answer, I’d think it an awesome one. :)

        1. Christine

          Which one – Kay’s answer or Alison’s? Although I do like Kay’s answer because I’m always looking for ways to learn new skills and topics related to my areas of interest.

          1. Kimberlee, Esq.

            Oh, oops, sorry, I meant Kay’s. It took me all day to actually notice that error, even when it was pointed out to me. Sorry! :)

  3. Maureen

    I know it’s a standard question, and I think Alison is probably totally right about how to handle it. Am I the only one who always finds it a bit intrusive? Goals are complex and very personal things, and can change without notice or permission, so the answer is essentially meaningless. And what if the real answer is something like “I don’t make long range plans, because they only make God laugh. I’m at this interview because I want this job, have the skills you need, and the pay is adequate for my current needs. Whether I’ll still be here in five years depends on a number of factors that neither of us can predict today.”

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think the reason you and others find it intrusive is because you’re not considering why an interviewer is asking. It’s reasonable for an interviewer to want to better understand how this job would fit in with your overall goals for yourself, after all, and that’s all the question is really asking.

      1. Jamie

        Right – and anyone with a lick of sense knows that life is fluid and no one has a crystal ball. It’s just to get a feel about fit – that’s all.

        Oh, and as a PSA I’d like to caution to never make the usual jokes about “In 5 years I’ll have your job.” or “In 5 years I’ll be your boss.” I’ve heard both said to people who didn’t find that at all funny.

        Interviewers don’t know you well enough to cut you slack on humor disguised as arrogant.

        1. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog

          Some people don’t even say those as jokes. One of my friend’s titles is “assistant manger” – pretty generic. She asked a new grad the 5-year plan question, and the candidate responded, “I want to be an assistant manger.” There were no additional details about the content of their work in 5 years. The candidate just provided the generic title.

        2. I am me

          I think it can work – depending on context.

          My sister was going through a change in career (pre-school teacher to admin assistant) and was interviewing at a sales organization. The Branch Manager asked why she should give my sister a chance and hire her for the admin role. My sister responded by saying “because one day I will be in your chair” and she got the job.

          And she did eventually move into sales and then a Branch Manager position.

    2. Kelly O

      I don’t find it intrusive, but I understand how you could perceive it that way, especially if the *ahem* recent economic downturn has been difficult.

      In the past, I have given an answer and followed it up with “although I do try to be as flexible as possible because, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray” or something like that, as light as I can manage in tone.

    3. Nancy

      Love the answer Maureen!!! So honest, and forthright… Now if only potential employers valued THAT!!! LOL

  4. Judari

    I still feel like interviewers are better off asking a more direct question or laying out their expectations with a perspective employee rather than hoping to get a certain answer from this question. You still aren’t going to avoid people who will lie or give a neutral answer because they are just trying to get a job but at least you will have put out your expectations into the universe and made them clear. As well, if you are expecting an answer of long-term vs. short-term employment, room for growth in the company, the person being OK remaining static in the position, etc., you are better off asking because a person replying with “wanting to improve skills” doesn’t answer any of those questions.

    Perhaps this matters less in certain fields but in advertising/marketing a small agency vs. a large corporate owned agency would have very different expectations, a lot of which just varies from agency to agency and not all that easy to guess until you get into the interview and start asking/being asked questions.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes, they’d be better off asking a different version of the question. But it’s still an incredibly common question and many interviewers are taught to ask it, so job seekers need to be prepared for it and understand what’s really being asked, rather than getting irritated and flustered by it, which it seems like many do (based on the comments about it here in the last few weeks).

      1. Judari

        I agree. Even though I don’t think its a particularly useful/telling question, I don’t think it is worth getting as flustered over as people seem to get. Most interviewers are just happy to know you will still want to be in the industry and find the work compelling. However I did once at an interview have someone include my personal life goals in that question as well. I definitely wasn’t expecting it so that completely threw me off.

  5. Anonymous

    This all depends on whether there’s potential for growth or promotion at the company. Just recently, the manager here has to interview candidates for a job, bemoaning having to sift through resumes. I asked her how she’d do it and she said, “First, anyone who mentioned “opportunity for advancement” or anything of that sort was out because there isn’t any.” She added that she was just looking for someone who wanted to do the job she was trying to fill, and that’s it.

    1. Kimberlee, Esq.

      And this is why it’s so important to just answer the damn question honestly! If opportunity for advancement is important to you, I don’t want to hire you for a job where I know that advancement is not going to happen.

      So the lesson is, don’t put a phrase like “opportunity to advance” in your cover letter because it’s the “correct” thing to put. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a candidate tell me the truth when I ask them a question, or that the things they say they value in their cover letter be things that they actually value.

      1. Jessa

        Except if I want the job and am willing to put in a year or two, it’s not unreasonable in this day and age to take that job. If you want someone who wants to be in your company for 5 years or more without advancement, I think that’s kind of on you to make that specific in the interview process and let those candidates who don’t like that exclude themselves. Why is it on the candidate to hint to you whether they do or do not want advancement, when you already KNOW your company and they might not at that level?

          1. twentymilehike

            But don’t you think it would be beneficial to metion ahead of time if a particular role is designed with promotion in mind or not? I mean, just that little bit of information save some people a lot of time an energy instead of having uncessary interviews, where you find that out at the interview.

            If I put in the effort to prepare for an interview and it ended up being the situation that anonymous above mentioned, where they was never any intention of advancement for that position, I’d be pretty darn pissed. I guess, they could at least mention that in a phone screen, if they are doing those.

    2. twentymilehike

      “First, anyone who mentioned “opportunity for advancement” or anything of that sort was out because there isn’t any.” She added that she was just looking for someone who wanted to do the job she was trying to fill, and that’s it.

      As Kimberlee said, this is why it’s important to answer the question honestly, but I really think this information is really important to be in the job ad! If you are looking for a job where there is room for advancement, then it would save everyone a lot of time and energy if the job ad mentioned that there were opportunities for such.

      For example, last year I interviewed at a company that my friend works at. If my friend didn’t tell me ahead of time, I would have had no idea that the companies hires for that position with the expectation of promoting in two to three years. In fact, she took a lateral transfer after about that time, then a promotion after less than a year. I think knowing that this is normal is a good piece of information for a candidate to have before the interview. Once you know something like that, it makes it a lot easier to gather your thoughts about how the position plays into your career path. That’s really what my hangup on this question boils down to.

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.

        The problem with this way of thinking is that there are all kinds of reasons to *not* include that info in the description, or to not want to tell candidates about it. Especially in small companies and organizations (since “opportunity for advancement” usually means some kind of equivalent of “opportunities to take someone else’s job”).

        Plus, it could be really difficult to tell what opportunities there are for advancement in any given position. In that case, I’m just probably not be interested in sharing the details with the entire Internet.

    3. Jessa

      Thank you, you said it better than I could. I tried to phrase this about 6 times, and then read what you wrote.

      A lot of the time what you answer to this question can rule you out of a job you want to take, because the company either expects advancement or expects non advancement. How do you find that out before you answer?

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        You don’t. You assume that you are screening for fit just as much as they are, and an honest conversation is the best way to ensure that you don’t end up in a job that isn’t a good match for what you want.

  6. Jamie

    This isn’t helpful regarding interviews, but it does bring up an interesting thought experiment:

    If you go back 5 years to the day how many of us could have predicted where we’d be right now. I find it interesting to think about where I thought a path was leading me, but to see all divergence along the way when opportunities presented themselves.

    I would bet if we all made those predictions 5 years ago, most of us wouldn’t be validating our predictive powers.

    1. Lexy

      That is a very interesting thought experiment! I would not have thought I would be anywhere near where I am. Funny how life goes, isn’t it?

    2. Christine

      It’s interesting that you say this, Jamie, because 5 years ago on this day, I was a month away from finding out I’d be laid off from my job. I don’t think I’d predicted that, 5 years later, I’d still be trying to find my path. It’s been a bumpy ride, that’s for sure.

    3. Kelly O

      I guarantee I would not have guessed I would be where I am. Ever.

      Or that my longest-held position ever would be here. I had that thought on my way out at lunch. This job was intended to be a short-term band-aid and here I am nearly 3.5 years later… life is funny.

    4. Lissy

      You would win that bet. The whole employment landscape has changed so much since 2008 that there was no way for anyone to predict where they would be now.

    5. EM

      Fun to think about! I’m still in my same field from 5 years ago, but then I thought I would be working in government on the compliance side, but I’m a consultant on the natural resources side of my field.

    6. Sascha

      I never though my plan 5 years ago would be to become a database administrator. 5 years ago, it was to be a specialty librarian with 2 master’s degrees. I think I’ve made the right decision. :)

    7. Chinook

      5 years ago I had every intention of being back in Alberta and teaching. Now I am back in Alberta and have finally accepted that I won’t be paid to teach until that mythical day all the older teachers decide to retire (which I was originally told was suppose to happen back in the 90’s *sigh*). Atleast I was half right!

    8. nyxalinth

      Five years ago I thought I’d be out of call centers for good, or at least in a QA or supervisor position. Nope..

    9. ThursdaysGeek

      Well, I am still doing similar work, but 5 years ago I was about 3 years into a job I loved with a great manager, so I would have predicted more of that. But retirement of the good manager and then the layoff a bit over a year ago changed my vision (as has reading this blog for the last 5 months).

      We were asked this question at Last Job, within a few months of that round of layoffs. I’m guessing the guy that said “retired” didn’t mean for managment to overhear, nor did he want the retirement to start so soon — he was part of the same layoff.

    10. Vicki

      I started LastJob as a “contract” (W2) temp on a 12-week contract. I never intended to stay past 12 weeks.

      When my position was eliminated last year, I had been there for 5 years and 6 months, all but 4 of those months as a FTE. There were times during those years when I wasn’t sure if I should be looking for another job or not.

      The two jobs I’ve stayed at longest (6 yrs and 5 yrs) were two I never thought I’d stay with at all. The two I was with for the shortest time (1 year each) both seemed “perfect” at the outset and then crumbled as some people left and others came on board.

      >And what if the real answer is something like “I don’t make long range plans, because they only make God laugh…”

      Yep.

      I like Alison’s suggestion for answering what the interviewer should have asked.

    11. Victoria Nonprofit

      I don’t mean to be contrary, but I’m basically doing what’s hoped I’d be doing – I’m in a more senior role, with a larger, more prestigious organization.

      However. I took a HUGE left turn in the five years we’re talking about. Huge like I took a 9-month sabbatical with the intention of getting clear on my vocation (fail! Although I got of other amazing things out of that experience – I was just wrong about this part), moved cross-country, etc. Five years ago I hoped I’d be basically where I am now, but four years ago I had a wildly different idea.

    12. Elizabeth West

      Jobwise, I never guessed I’d be doing what I’m doing–which is better than what I was doing.

      Personal-wise, it sucks and sucks bad. I hope in ONE year everything I want happens. Because the personal part is sucking all the good out of the job part! >:(

    13. Windchime

      Five years ago, I had no idea that I would be living where I’m living, doing what I’m doing. No clue at all. I had considered moving here (Seattle area), but I didn’t really think I would do it. So when I read Alison’s article, I pretty much thought the same thing as Jamie posed in her question: Who really knows where they will be in five years? I can pretty much guess that I’ll still be in IT, but other than that? No clue!

    14. Lindsay J

      Definitely things would be different. In 2008 I was still in college, and if you had asked at the time I would have said that I would have gone to grad school and be beginning my first year as a speech pathologist in New Jersey somewhere.

      Instead I’m in Texas working as an photographer.

      Even a year ago to this day I would have said something completely different. I would have been in the same industry at least, but still in New Jersey and still on the back end side rather than doing a lot of guest interaction.

      Heck, two months ago I would have said I was going to be at my previous company for a good long time. Being fired from there really blindsided me.

    15. NikkiTricky

      Five years ago, I was a loser with a GED, big ideas about where I wanted to be (but no way to get there), a crappy job where my boss hated me, and an unstable housing situation — I was basically couch surfing for a few years there. I figured life would be pretty much the same now as it was then. (I’m a realist with pessimist leanings lol)

      Today, I moved to the city I wanted to live in; I’ve stayed in the same apartment for nearly two years; I’m getting my Associate’s next week, and I’ve been accepted to what is (arguably) the best public university in the state of Texas to finish my BA.

      So, in short, life is good, and I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to do so far. Now to make more goals! Amazing how life can change and be better than you ever anticipated, huh?

    16. Waiting Patiently

      Five years ago, I knew I would still be here but in position to move on by my next contract year (2013/2014). My previous five years (10 years ago) were the crazy “I don’t know whet I want to do–go back to school, stay at home,work from home, or work part-time?!” In 2008, I had just finished one degree and completed some additional creds to put myself in a good position paywise. Now I’m 6 years in this job and I really really want to be doing work moreso in the field of my degree. I contemplate transitioning to a similar field and taking on the more intensive side –never thought I would even consider it but the work is rewarding. Then I think where “I want to be” and how much money I need to make…

    17. Girl with a purple pen

      Hell, five years ago I was quite happily employed in country Australia. Now I live in the middle of China. Never saw THAT coming…

  7. twentymilehike

    While I really do appreciate this post, I’m still hung up on this question (probably uncessarily). It feels like this questions means two different things to two specific groups of people: “Those working up some sort of career ladder,” and “Those earning a paycheck to fuel their life outside of work.” Or maybe it’s “Those who want a secure job to hold until retirement,” or “Those who are seeking new opportunities as their career progresses.”

    I think the openendedness is what intimidates me so much. I feel like I could answer it a million different ways and the interviewer is going to give me a funny look, make a note and decide I’m some weirdo for having unconventional career goals, when in reality I think I’m the same boat as most people in my socioeconomic class, and I’m sure that my answers would be fairly common.

    1. Jessa

      Exactly. Why can’t an interviewer say “this is a career track position, or this is a job for someone who likes being in a job and staying there for quite some time.” There are a metric tonne of BOTH types of candidates. Just SAY so. What’s so bad with SAYING this is a stable job, it’s not really career track kind of work.

    2. Kelly O

      My mom was laid off from one banking job due to some changes in the structure, but when her boss told her she was being let go, he said “well you just seem to view this as a way to fund your personal interests.”

      She was taken completely aback, because it was an executive assistant position that never really appeared to have any advancement. She’d always done her job and done it well, but because she didn’t appear to him to be upwardly motivated, then she wouldn’t be “as hurt” by being let go as someone with an eye to advancement.

      That’s why I try to ask the question “how do you see this position in a year (or two or whatever)?” – it helps me figure out what they want – or it should.

        1. twentymilehike

          “how do you see this position evolving” I’m going to have to remember this … for some reason this comment really struck me!

          when her boss told her she was being let go, he said “well you just seem to view this as a way to fund your personal interests.”

          I’d be so tempted to say, “good luck finding someone who’s personal interests are ‘assisting you’ …. ” I mean, isn’t that why we earn paychecks? To fund our lives, personal interests and all? I get what he was trying to say, but he could have worded it a little nicer.

          1. Jamie

            I get what he was trying to say, too, and yes – the wording sucks.

            But while there is nothing wrong with doing a great job and earning a paycheck to fund your life…and there are a lot of awesome employees that fall into this category (usually shorthanded as “work to live”) there is a subset of people who have their identity more wrapped up in what they do – regardless of the position level.

            I don’t agree with calling these people “live to work” because trust me, the paychecks stop and we stop coming in, but they are people who have more personal ego invested in what they do. I think these people used to be called “company men” and that’s probably what he was so clumsily trying to say.

            Sucks though – it should be about the job performance and not the personal emotional reasons for the job performance.

        1. Kelly O

          I think it was the implication that she was not “career-minded” as I’ve heard it called. She went in, did her job, and went home. (Granted, that’s what I’m doing too.)

          I think what he was looking for was the person who felt more ambition driven – the problem with that, in this position, is that he’d never really get a good relationship with an admin if he’s looking for someone *that* motivated – as soon as they got enough experience with him, they’d be moving on and up.

          It’s why I wonder sometimes if people really understand what they’re asking for, when they claim to be looking for that sort of thing. For me, I have to admit even though this is not what I want to do in the long run, it’s been nice to be able to leave work at work and go home to the family. Not to be corny, but it fits the season my life has been in.

          1. Jamie

            The flip side of this is when places specifically hire for someone not looking to advance – I’ve seen it more than once in reception – they want someone long term who won’t want to move out of the role…and then get annoyed when the person they hired doesn’t want to expand the role or take on additional training, etc.

            You specifically hired for someone who only wants to do X – so you can’t be surprised when they aren’t thrilled about being asked to do Y and Z.

            1. Sascha

              That is exactly what my manager wants when she asks the 5 year question for positions on my team. The positions we hire for are entry level, and she even calls them entry level, so when someone says, I’m looking to move into X and this job is my stepping stone, she rejects them because she thinks they will leave too soon. But if they say, I want this job because I love this work and don’t want to do anything or get ahead, she rejects them for being unmotivated and unambitious. Can’t win.

              1. Lindsay J

                This is a problem with the manager, though, not inherently the question.

                If it is an entry-level position with no room for advancement. (Receptionist seems to be a big one for this) then either you hire somebody who is a career receptionist and happy with that, or you accept that eventually they are going to move on once they have gotten all they can from the position.

                I can’t imagine somebody not specifically looking for a career receptionist that would be upset that somebody indicated that they would want to move up or out within five years – six months, yes, but five years is a long time.

                However, there is a difference between being somebody who loves being a receptionist (or a bank teller, or a cashier, or whatever) and doesn’t want to advance further than that but comes in every day and does an awesome job at their position, and somebody who doesn’t want to advance in the company and does a crappy job because they are not worried about vying for promotions. Somebody who is a career administrative assistant because that is where they are happy can be fantastic at their job and a huge asset to their company. Somebody doing the minimum that they can without getting disciplined or fired because they just don’t care isn’t somebody I would want to hire – you’re losing out on the benefit that you would get from having someone great there. But that’s what the rest of the interview and references are to determine.

            2. Vicki

              Or hire to advance out of the specific position. I know one tech company that hires “new college grads” into QA with the lure of “getting out of QA and into development”.

              That’s bad fr the company (you need experienced, careful QA folks) and bad for the experienced careful QA folks who can’t get hired.

          2. Lissy

            To be honest, it’s always a surprise when I leave an interview thinking that the interviewer really understood what they were asking for, and had a clue as to whether or not I could do the job. My last interview was truly bizarre: the guy never shut up about himself, asked me maybe half a dozen soft-ball questions, and got very vague when I asked for some specifics about hours, vacation time, etc. Then we drank Scotch, and he offered me the job on the spot. I think I dodged a bullet by turning it down.

  8. Rob Bird

    I have had that question two times in my life. It really took me by surprise the first time. I asked the Manager who asked me the question what they did in their position. It sounded interesting, so I said “That sounds really interesting. I can see myself in a management position, doing something similar to you.”

    It may not have been right, but it’s the best I had at the time.

  9. Sally

    Funnily enough, I feel like the only time I’ve encountered this question has been in interviews for very entry-level jobs, some of which I was exploring only because I needed the paycheck and seemed qualified for whatever the work was; I was working towards a degree at the time and knew it wasn’t going to be part of my long-term career plan.

    I mean, they asked me this at Barnes & Noble when I was hoping to pick up some holiday hours. Am I supposed to just lie and say I’d hope to be some sort of store manager by then? I like being honest in interviews, and I do honestly feel like there’s something to be learned at ANY job that can benefit you in the long run, but five years from now? Ugh. I usually just lie or stretch the truth somehow, but I hate doing it.

    It’s much easier, of course, when interviewing for something in my actual field; but now that I’m doing more of that, the question never comes up!

    1. Kelly O

      Oh gosh, when I was looking for anything and interviewing at the mall, those people were the WORST about asking about long-term career plans and things like that for temporary part time holiday work.

      I get that you have a large applicant pool, but trust me, I am not at all interested in retail management. In five years I hope I don’t need to get a part-time seasonal position… and I hope you eventually change your relationship with Starbucks so I can get Tazo tea in this mall because I don’t like the stuff in the B&N cafe as much as I do the Tazo.

      1. KellyK

        That is an odd place to ask that question, unless they’re using it deliberately because they want people who *aren’t* looking for career advancement that they can’t provide. I mean, if you hire extra help around the holidays, someone whose life goal is to work at your store is probably going to be disappointed when you let them go in January.

        Honestly, unless you get the vibe that they really want to be your dream job, I’d answer it honestly.

      2. Manda

        That’s ridiculous. It’s no secret that retail has a high turnover. But if they want to reduce that, they should put a little more effort into training new staff so that they’d be more comfortable and less miserable in their jobs. They would also have to fire fewer people after a few weeks or months for sucking at their jobs when they never got the proper training. Of course, that could be an issue outside of retail too.

    2. AmyNYC

      When I was job hunting last year, a friend put in a good word for me at a retail store where he was working. I went to the interview looking for a part time/”get by for now” and was asked “do you see yourself with a career in retail?”
      I said no, and the interviewer thanked me for my honesty and offered me the job the next day.
      But I turned it down because I had realized that they wanted someone to start a career and I just wanted a few hours to help make ends meet.

  10. S. Martin

    Considering that my last job lasted ~6 months, and the three before it each lasted 4.5 years +/- a month, if I answer this honestly I have to say something to the effect of ‘looking for or just starting my next job after this one’. Not sure that’ll go over too well with most interviewers.

    If they ask for desires instead of predictions I can give a more useful answer, but in my personal experience the question is more likely to be phrased looking for a prediction (“where do you see yourself?”) than for desires (where would you like to be?”).

      1. S. Martin

        To be clear, I’ve never answered it as a prediction with no qualifier. Usually I’ll ask for clarification as to what they’re looking for, or if I have a particularly good rapport with the interviewer I’ll give my prediction, then follow up with “…but I’d like for xxx to happen instead.”

        But you won’t convince me that “where do you see yourself…” isn’t looking for a prediction. Considering professional questions I field during or about my job are far more likely for predictions than hopes I don’t think it’s unreasonable that my default interpretation of a question that doesn’t specify is prediction. If it’s not phrased as what I want/would like or something similar, my brain just doesn’t interpret my hopes as being relevant to the question… whatever the question is.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Well, it sucks that I won’t convince you because by insisting on holding on to that interpretation (even in the face of interviewers here telling you that it’s wrong), you’re making interviewing more frustrating and stressful for yourself.

          1. S. Martin

            It’s not as bad as all that for me. I understand what the interviewer is looking for, I just disagree with the phrasing of the question. I think I’m just doing a bad job at explaining myself here. Maybe this will help: If there was internal monologue to me getting asked this question it goes something like this “They asked me for my five year prediction but I think what they really want is my five year ambition, I should clarify and then answer accordingly.”

            And for what it’s worth the in-person interview is about the least frustrating and stressful part of the whole job search. :)

      2. twentymilehike

        They’re asking what you hope to do.

        Well, in our defense, this is just as difficult of a question. Sad to say, but a lot of people don’t have hopes of doing anything but going home at night with a paycheck. Some days this is me and other days I think I’ll do something else with my life.

        But then again, this might not always be the right blog for that type of thinking.

        1. Jamie

          But if that’s what you hope to do, doesn’t this conversation help figure out if you’re on the same page? I would assume people who aren’t looking to advance wouldn’t want to take a job where that was the expectation. Just like the people who want to advance should want to know if the job for which they are interviewing has limited growth potential.

          I guess instead of looking at it as a gotcha question – which I truly don’t think it is – look at it as one part of the dialogue about fit and aligned goals.

          1. Marie

            I see your point, but wouldn’t it be easier and more honest to just TELL the candidate “here is how we see this position fitting into our organization for the next five years”. Then tell them the truth and ask “how does this sound to you?” It would remove the right/wrong aspect of the question, and the candidate can give a better answer, because they were better informed.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              The problem is that far too many candidates try to figure out the “right” answer and will say what they think you want to hear, so it’s less likely to get you an honest answer.

              1. twentymilehike

                The problem is that far too many candidates try to figure out the “right” answer and will say what they think you want to hear, so it’s less likely to get you an honest answer.

                I find this rather disheartening. I mean, I think it would benefit both parties to just straight out say what the mean/want and how flexible they are. It always seems like everyone just feels like they are going to be misunderstood.

                All-in-all, I am going to say that this entire post and conversation sort of actually took the stigma out of it for me and now I feel a little less like I’m going to be judged unfairly on my career goals (or lack therof). Alison, your constant reminders that interviews are a two-way street are something that I know I need to hear (and probably many others)!

                1. Joey

                  I think you just have to ask yourself if you want to be taking home the same paycheck 5 years from now. And if the answer is no, what is it you want to be doing to earn the paycheck you want?

                  The problem is far too many interviewees are focused on saying whatever it takes to get a job now while an employer is more focused on making a longer term investment.

            2. Kimberlee, Esq.

              Agreed with AAM, and Marie, I think your version has a FAR greater chance of generating a right/wrong answer response. If I lay out what I think will happen with the position – which is really variable anyway and largely dependent on who is IN the role – and ask “You cool with that?” there is a clear right and wrong answer.

            3. Lindsay J

              Because then candidates lie and say they are not looking for advancement – even if they truly are – because they need a job and want to get hired.

              Then they get frustrated because there is no room for advancement and either quit – making you have to start the hiring process all over again and costing the company money – or become a difficult, low performing employee.

              Or vice versa they accept a position that the company uses to groom people to move up, when they have no desire to move up, messing up the flow of promotion in the company and causing the employee to ultimately feel pressured and/or unhappy, and again leave or become a problem employee.

  11. Anonymous

    It’s interesting that the ‘5-year’ period is mentioned so often when the prevailing advice/wisdom seems to be that you should be looking to change positions every two years, not five. The ‘5-year’ period might harken back to bygone times when employees stayed with the same company for eons, if not until retirement. Those days are over, for sure, and change happens more quickly both for the employer as well as for the employee. Many, if not most, companies, operate on a quarter system even, making HR decisions quickly and frequently. Five years just seems too long of an horizon for employees, with the least power, to contemplate.

    1. Cat

      I believe the prevailing wisdom is you should assess your skills and market position every couple of years; not that you should actually be looking to change positions every 2 years.

  12. stage maroc

    I usually unswer besides my real thoughts otherwise the risk is that the interview turns into too much personal moment and that’s not always good.

    Dr Stage M.

  13. MJ

    I have this one in my company’s appraisal, and for the last two years it’s been “not here” as delicately as I could manage. I don’t want to be tied down to a company that pays so little and offers basically nothing in the way of advancement. Of course, that doesn’t go down well when most of my department started working at this company when I was still in primary school (or when I wasn’t even born)…

  14. Renee

    This topic reminded me of a great Mitch Hedberg quote:

    “I had a job interview at an insurance company once and the lady said “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and I said “Celebrating the fifth year anniversary of you asking me this question”

    Obviously not the way you would actually answer that question, but so funny!

    1. TCA

      Haha, that is fantastic. I’m currently going through the interview process with a few companies, and I will laugh the next time that question is asked because this response will be in my head.

  15. Dan

    Well, I honestly think that the older you get, the more the five year question makes sense.

    When I got out of grad school, I was interviewing for a variety of positions that matched up with my academic skill set. Where did I expect to be five years later? Who the f knows. My trite answer is “same cube, more responsibility, perhaps some project management.”

    Although to Jamie’s earlier question — five years today I wouldn’t be able to predict that I am where I am. Four years ago today, I could have — I’m still sitting in the same cube. Because I’m a government contractor, only god knows what’s in store over the next year.

  16. nyxalinth

    I had my answer bite me on the ass last year. I was interviewed by a small call center, got this question, and said I wanted to move in to QA or a team lead position. I didn’t get the job because they wanted people who were content to be eternal phone drones.

    1. Lindsay J

      Did it really bite you in the ass though?

      If you actually want to move up, and the company doesn’t plan to promote from that position, isn’t it better to find that out in the interview than to work there for a year or whatever, start looking for ways to advance, and find out that there isn’t any way for you to do that? Then you’ve wasted a year plus at a job where you then have to accept that you’re going to be a phone drone forever, or start looking for a new job where you’ll have to start building up your reputation and company knowledge all over again before you get that opportunity to advance.

      1. nyxalinth

        Good point. I think it’s harder for me to see that on my own (hence the ‘bit me on the ass’ line) a year later when I’m still looking for a job.

    2. Manda

      They actually asked that question at a call center?!?! That’s worse than retail! I thought most people don’t last more than a few months in those jobs. I wouldn’t last a day.

  17. GeekChic

    I actually use this question (when it’s asked) as a springboard to disclosing my health issues, because I don’t really have career goals.

    The two times I was asked this were reasonably recent. The first time I answered with: “I don’t really plan that far out. I have several severe health conditions (cancer and the related side effects of medication) that will likely become terminal. My “goals” are to continue living a good life and being productive as long as possible. I can put you in touch with my doctors to discuss how down-turns in my health will impact job performance.”

    The second time (interviewing for my current position) I said: “I expect to be dead in five years as I have terminal cancer. My doctors tell me that I should be able to productive at work until close to the end. I am happy to put you in touch with them so you can independently verify this and ask further questions.”

    In both cases the interviewers were startled at first but then asked further questions about my health and what accommodations I might need. At the interview for my current job they asked if I might prefer to be doing things other than work at this time. My reply was that I had no family other than my husband and neither of us were overly in to traveling so I was comfortable working.

    I got the job both times so my answers seemed to satisfy them – though I’m sure it was not what the interviewers expected. ;)

      1. GeekChic

        Thank you. It’s not unexpected. Cancer and I are old “friends”.

        I’ve been very fortunate to find employers that were willing to hire someone who was ill and to deal with my accommodations. I enjoy my work and my colleagues.

        I hope your new job is treating you well.

  18. ew0054

    I actually have said (joking, of course) “five years, hmm… maybe if I do a good enough job, I’ll be sitting in your chair!”

  19. Lindsay J

    I’m so glad you answered this! This question has always bothered me, I guess because I thought about it too literally – I always felt like they were asking what position in the company I was aspiring to or whatever, rather than goals or achievements. So this really helps!

  20. anon-2

    As a 20-something – you’d better have a good answer.

    Last time I was asked this – I was 45 years old. I replied “well, if you had asked me that ten years ago – you’d get a different answer. But since you’re asking today – I’d like to be in a position where I’m content, I get challenged, I’d look forward to coming to work and I’m doing well enough to not worry financially”….

    And at 60 – “perhaps able to continue working”…

  21. NikkiTricky

    The last time I was asked this question was for my current job. I just straight up told the truth: “I’ll be in grad school. My number one priority right now is my education, so I only need to work part-time. But, I have a lot of experience in customer service, especially over the phone. Plus, I’m excellent at problem-solving tasks, so I know I can add a lot to your team.”

    I think they were impressed because I’m ambitious and a straight-shooter, and I made it clear that I’m looking for a good fit, that I don’t want to advance, and I basically just wanted to have a place to work and do a good job while I pursued outside goals.

  22. Anonymous

    I believe most employers want to hear you SAY convincingly that you want the job for which you’re applying and you’d be happy doing it for as long as they want you to, BUT, at the same time, to be able to GLEAN from the tea leaves and from between the lines that you would not be opposed to advancement, should the opportunity arise.

  23. Megan

    Hey.
    So the truth is I want to be a Business Analyst. But the job is for tech writing. So, should I say, in five years I hope to be a BA? Or should I pretend that I want to move to a higher-up tech writing position (this company has four levels of writer).

    Also, I know the hiring mgr, and I can’t remember if I mentioned my BA aspirations to her or not. What if I lie, and she feels that my whole interview is disingenuous? What if I never mentioned my aspirations and I mention them in the interview and she thinks I’m not serious enough about tech writing? What do i do? Do I just list off skills I want to have at that time?

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