Updated 12 June 2020
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.
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:
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:
Similar variations of the ‘five years’ time’ question which are subtly different include:
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“I’ll be running this company in five years’ time” or “I’ll be sitting in your seat.”
“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.”
“I will probably be CEO of some company, or maybe I’ll finally write that book.”
“If I turn 30 without achieving [this] and [this], I’ll have failed at life.”
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:
Bearing this in mind, here are some tips and sample answers to help 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:
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
This will indicate that you will engage with the job and are more likely to stay in the role for some time.
Ultimately, whatever your answer to the question, you need to sound realistic and believable. For example:
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.
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:
These are all indicators that you may stay with the company for a long time, without you having to lie.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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:
You may be interested in tips on these other similar interview questions: