Answering The Interview Question: Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

The much-used interview question "Where do you see yourself in five years' time?" is often dismissed as a waste of time. No one can see that far into the future; particularly graduates who may not have a set career path in mind and are exploring their career options.

In fact, your interviewer is asking this question for an important reason. And it’s not because they are trying to test your psychic abilities.

Contents

  1. What Are They Really Asking?
  2. Other Similar Questions: How They Are Different
  3. Typical Mistakes Candidates Make When Answering This Question
  4. ‘Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?’ – Examples and Tips
  5. Some ‘What If’ Scenarios
  6. Final Thoughts
  7. Further Reading

What Are They Really Asking?

Your interviewer doesn’t expect you to wield a crystal ball and tell them exactly where you will be in five years’ time. The question is used to weed out weak and unsuitable candidates.

Employers want to recruit people who are motivated, self-aware, engaged in their job and who share similar goals and values. Recruitment is expensive and time-consuming, and potential employers want to be sure that you intend to stay.

Your interviewer will ask "Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?" to understand:

  • Your long-term career objectives
  • How you are striving towards your goals
  • How this particular role will contribute towards your success.

Other Similar Questions: How They Are Different

Other variations of the "Where do you see yourself in five years?" career objectives question may also crop up in your interview. At first glance, these questions might appear to be asking the same thing. Sometimes they are – but sometimes they can be subtly different, and it's important to know how.

Variations of this question which ask the same thing include:

  • What are your long-term career goals?
  • Where do you want to be in five/ten years’ time?
  • Do you have a long-term career goal?
  • How will this job help you achieve your long-term career goals?

Similar variations of the ‘five years’ time’ question which are subtly different include:

    “How will you achieve your career goals?”

    This is often a supplemental question to the 'five years' question. However, it focuses more on how you will achieve your goals. You should mention your past achievements, those you are close to obtaining, and any relevant skills.

    Example: “My goal is to achieve chartered tax adviser status. I have the required qualifications and am seeking to obtain the practical experience necessary to apply my skills.

    “What does success mean to you?”

    In contrast to the 'five years' question, this one scrutinizes both your long- and short-term career goals, plus your overall work ethic. Make sure you give specific examples to help your answer stand out.

    Example: “To me, success is going above and beyond what is expected. For example, last summer I interned at a commercial law firm. My main responsibility was to carry an independent caseload. However, I also volunteered to compile a client report detailing our work on 150 cases. I delivered the report before the deadline and received positive client feedback.

    “What do you want for your next job?”

    The interviewer is trying to gauge whether your personal goals and values align with those of the company. Focus less on your long-term development and more on how you can apply your skills to further the company’s objectives.

    Example: “My previous experience in a customer-facing capacity means I am confident and proficient at sales. I am looking for a position at a larger company where I can apply my customer service skills and boost sales.

    Typical Mistakes Candidates Make When Answering This Question

    1. Trying to be humorous – Some employers might appreciate humour, but many will not. The best option is to avoid it all together. Humorous answers run the risk of making you sound insincere or that you are avoiding the question.

      An example of a bad answer: “I’ll be running this company in five years’ time” or “I’ll be sitting in your seat.

    2. Being too honest if you don’t know where your career is going yet – Vague answers are OK. However, your interviewer wants to know whether you are serious about the job concerned. If you tell the interviewer that you don’t intend to stay in the position, then it is unlikely they will want to invest in hiring you.

      An example of a bad answer: “I don’t know if I’ll still be working in marketing in five years’ time. I might return to university and retrain as a nurse.

    3. Being too specific – Unless you are familiar with the exact responsibilities of the job, there is a risk you will talk yourself out of it.

      The interviewer only wants to assess whether you will be a good fit for this particular role. Your answer of “In five years I will be head of the customer services co-ordination team” is all fine and dandy. Until you realise the company you are applying for does not have a customer services coordination team, and the role you are applying for is a data analyst position.

      Keep your answers fairly general and always link the job at hand to the furthering of your career goals.

    4. Being too general or mentioning pipe dreams – Although you should not be too specific, you should also avoid giving a non-answer. The example below tells the interviewer nothing about whether you will be suitable for the job.

      An example of a bad answer: “I will probably be CEO of some company, or maybe I’ll finally write that book.

    5. Getting too personal – Put simply, answering too emotionally is unprofessional. Keep your answer focused on career goals and do not mention any fear of failure.

      An example of a bad answer: “If I turn 30 without achieving [this] and [this], I’ll have failed at life.

    6. ‘Um and ah-ing’ your way through a question, or saying you do not know – This shows a lack of introspection and engagement and will not impress your interviewer.

    ‘Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years’ Time?’ – Examples and Tips

    The best answers to ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ fall within that narrow range of ‘generally specific’. To respond well, you need to structure your answer in two parts:

    1. Outline your long-term goals.
    2. Demonstrate why the job you are applying for will help you achieve those goals.

    Bearing this in mind, here are some tips and sample answers to help you:

    • Consider why the job interests you – Before your interview, take some time to note down what intrigues you about the vacancy. This lays the foundation for explaining how the job will help you get to where you want to be in five years' time.

      Potential points of interest:

      Passion for the sector concerned.
      Opportunities for advancement within the company (eg internal qualifications, support for external qualifications, networking opportunities or management training schemes).
      Specific responsibilities of the job *(eg using particular software, engaging with clients or organising marketing events).

      Example answer:

      Through my degree in computer science and personal research, I have discovered a passion for testing and finding practical solutions to technical problems. I was therefore drawn to this position of Software Test Analyst, due to its focus on quality assurance and dedication to producing faultless systems and applications. Your internal training and mentoring scheme is something I am interested in pursuing to develop my skills.

      Why this answer is good:

      You have outlined why the position is of interest, and your reference to developing your skills within the role leads to a discussion about your long-term career goals.

    • Research the business – Never go into an interview unprepared. Always take time to research the organisation’s values and its long-term objectives. Then think about how your personal career goals coincide. If you share the same goals, it is more likely you will be suitable for the job.

      Example answer:

      I am passionate about research and development within the cybersecurity sector. I admire the business’s significant role in creating robust security systems for the prevention of cyber-crime. In five years' time, I want to have made my own contributions to the development of security technologies. I am therefore excited about the opportunity this position presents for developing my expertise.

      Why this answer is good:

      You have researched the business's role within its sector of expertise, acknowledged the importance of the work it does and demonstrated how your long-term goals coincide.

    • Don't worry if you don't know what kind of career you want to pursue – Just emphasise your drive to succeed and dedication to self-development. The best employees are driven, confident and self-motivated. Even if you don’t know exactly where you will be in five years’ time, say to your interviewer that you are dedicated to furthering your career. Keep your answer focused on progression.

      Example answer:

      Over the next few years, I want to explore and develop skills in project management. In five years, I want to have gained experience in leading projects for major clients. I will be looking for opportunities to expand my responsibilities within this role to work towards my goal.

      Why this answer is good:

      It outlines a career path without being too specific. It indicates that you are motivated. It also describes a valid career goal – obtaining experience in project management.

    • Be enthusiastic – This will indicate that you will engage with the job and are more likely to stay in the role for some time.

    • Be realistic – Ultimately, whatever your answer to the question, you need to sound realistic and believable. For example:

      Only outline goals which can be achieved within five years.
      Ensure your goals are related to the job description.
      Emphasise that you will achieve your goals through hard work, not luck.

      Therefore, don't tell the interviewer that you want to be a billionaire in five years' time and that this position as Business Sales Associate will help you achieve that. 

    Keep your answers focused on achievable goals.

    Some ‘What If’ Scenarios

    What If I Don’t Envisage Myself at This Company in Five Years’ Time?

    Under no circumstances should you tell the interviewer that you won’t be working for them in five years’ time (even if you know it is likely true). Ensure you present yourself as:

    • Interested in the job
    • Driven and motivated
    • Dedicated to success.

    These are all indicators that you may stay with the company for a long time, without you having to lie.

    What If This Job Is Just a Temporary Stopgap?

    For example, if you intend on returning to university in the near future.

    If this is the case, sidestep the issue by outlining career goals which do not depend on you remaining at the company for five years. For example:

    • “One of my goals is to develop leadership skills and take on a managerial role.”
    • “I want to build strong, reliable relationships with high-profile clients.”
    • “I want to learn [skill or technology] to a high level of expertise.”

    Remember, you need to link your goals to the job for which you are applying. For example, only say you want to develop a skill if it is something you can learn within the role.

    What If I Am Planning a Career Switch?

    You might have no idea whatsoever where you will be in five years’ time, since you are in the process of switching career.

    As with point two above, be general in your answer but remember to link your goals to the job for which you are applying.

    What If the Business Is Small?

    The question "Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?" can be particularly relevant to small organisations and start-ups because the impact of each employee tends to be bigger than at a larger company.

    However, the size of the company can also make it harder to answer the question for the following reasons:

    • A start-up may have fast-evolving company objectives.
    • The job role may be new and the responsibilities not yet fully defined.
    • There may not be any guaranteed internal progression.

    As above, you can avoid any pitfalls by keeping your answer vague. Research the business thoroughly and pinpoint its strategies and objectives.

    If the business’s goal is growth, then use this to your advantage: “Over the next five years I would love to help further your objective of bringing on board more non-profits and building close client relationships.

    Final Thoughts

    As you can see, what appears to be a simple question can tell an interviewer a lot about you as a potential employee. So do not dismiss this question; instead, make sure you prepare for it appropriately.

    Here are some final tips to round off:

    • Remember to structure your answer – Outline why the job interests you, what your long-term career goals are and how this job will help you achieve them.

    • Demonstrate a commitment to the business – Show that you are motivated and enthusiastic.

    • Research the company – Learn its objectives and how your long-term goals coincide.

    • And finally, be confident – The interviewer knows you cannot see the future. However, confidence in your chosen career path will make your narrative more believable.

    Further Reading

    You may be interested in tips on these other similar interview questions:

    Why Do You want To Work For Our Company?

    Why Should We Hire You?

    What Interests You About This Job?

    How Would You Describe Yourself?