There are many uncertainties in life. But here’s one thing you can bank on: at some point during just about every job interview you will be asked a variation of this question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
While honesty is always the best policy, you should prepare ahead of time so you can respond with an answer that’s truthful but also helps you land the job. For example, if your first thought is, “In 5 years I plan to have won the lotto, quit my job, and be lying on a beach in Mexico drunk out of my mind on Tequila,” well… that might be true, but it’s probably a truth that you’d be better off keeping to yourself for now. So what should you say? Here’s everything you need to know to answer this inevitable question and land the job you want.
What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know
When an interviewer asks you about your five-year plan, they’re trying to get to know you as a person, but there are two other strategic reasons they ask this specific question. First, they want to know if you are likely to remain with the company. And second they want to make sure your long-term goals align with the job’s reasonable growth expectations.
For example, let’s say you’re applying for a job as a truck driver at Acme Trucking, and you’re asked about your five year plan. If you reply that you would love to be a dispatcher or manager in five years, that makes perfect sense. If you go on at length about how you hope to have a hit play on Broadway, that’s nice, but it shows you aren’t really interested in a future with Acme trucking company. Your dreams of a Broadway play might also suggest that you aren’t a very realistic planner, since driving a truck rarely leads to success in the theater world.
What your interviewer ultimately wants to know is that if hired, your plan is to remain with the company. Of course, anything can happen--the company might go out of business or you might move to New Zealand and become a sheep farmer. But your answer should reassure the hiring manager that you have every intention of investing in a long-term career with the company.
This is especially important if your resume shows that you’ve frequently moved from one job to another. Keep in mind that hiring managers look bad if they offer someone a job and that person quits after a few months. So it’s essential for you to express an intention to stick with the job you’re interviewing for and make it a long-term role.
Here’s how to do that:
How to Answer the Question:
“Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”
The interview has been going great. It’s about to wrap up when you’re asked, “So… where do you see yourself in five years?”
Take a deep breath. This question seems innocuous, but is a potential landmine. And there’s a very simple reason why you can’t get away with being completely straightforward when asked this question. Because the interviewer isn’t really asking where you see yourself in five years. What they are really trying to gauge is your level of ambition. Your expectations for your future growth potential. And most importantly, how well you understand the career trajectory of the job you want.
So the key to answering this question properly is understanding what the role you’re interviewing for might realistically lead to, if you’re hired and continue working for the company for the next five years.
When you answer this question you have a golden opportunity to remind the interviewer that you will be committed to the company for the long-term. This reassures them that all the time spent training you will be a good investment.
Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer to the question of where you hope to be in five years, and the interviewer is not expecting you to be a psychic. They are asking about your hopes and aspirations. So you don’t need to memorize a specific reply. But as you answer the question, you should focus on your desire to learn, to excel at your role, and your ambition to achieve even greater success in the future.
Your answer to this question is also a way for the interviewer to get some insight into you as a person, because it will reveal a lot about your character if you have a realistic understanding of where the job could lead, and how that aligns with your personal career ambitions.
For example, if you are interviewing for a position as an associate graphic designer, you might say something like, “I’m really hoping to learn enough about using the InDesign software suite, and grow my own skill set so that in five years, I’m qualified to be an art director.” That shows that you understand what skills are required for the current role and you also have a realistic understanding of the job’s likely career trajectory. The critical thing is to understand what the likely best outcome is for the job you want.
Some jobs may offer a great learning experience but not a direct way to climb the ladder. For example, if you get an entry level job as an administrative assistant in a financial firm, that probably won’t lead to you becoming a financial analyst. For that you would probably need to leave work and get an MBA. For the same reason, if you’re applying for a position as a nurse, you might not want to say your five year plan is to become a doctor because that isn’t the logical career trajectory for a nurse. Obviously, nurses aren’t promoted until they one day become doctors. So your answer to a question about your five-year plan should reflect a realistic knowledge of where you can expect a job to take your career.
Similarly, if you’re applying for a job as a paralegal, that’s not going to lead to a job as a lawyer unless you quit your job and get a law degree. In such cases, you can say something like, “I’m really not sure where I want to be in five years, but I am confident that this role will help me learn more about what it’s like to practice law on a daily basis, so I can gain the insights I need to make an informed decision.”
In other words, you should tell the truth but make sure you’re being realistic.
If your plan requires you to leave the job and get additional education or certification, that may be something to keep to yourself for the time being. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with not having a clear vision of where you want to be in five years. As long as you can explain why the job holds appeal for you and what value you can bring to the company, you’ve answered successfully.
4 Ways You Should Not Answer This Question
We get it, you’re really funny. And there is always a time and a place for a disarming joke. But when you’re asked what you’d like to be doing in five years, a joking answer is not appropriate. (Also if you were going to say something like “in your job,” or “running this company,” it’s not only going to land flat, it’s also a joke the hiring manager has probably heard before)—from someone who didn’t get the job.
In general, during interviews it is best to be specific, but when asked about your five-year plan, it’s better to be succinct and general. Going on at great length or going into too much detail isn’t likely to help you get the job.. Your answer should be two or three sentences, not a novel. Say something like, “I’m really excited about long-term growth prospects within the company. I am hoping to learn and grow to be the best I can in my particular role, and learn more about new innovations that will impact my job, so I can eventually grow into more of a management position.”
What you should not supply is a long detailed scheme about how you plan to climb the ladder, whose job you’re going to take, what your salary will be, which office you hope to end up in five years, and how you’re going to redecorate it. Even if such a plan is entirely realistic, such an answer will make you sound like you don’t understand the basic ground rules, and will come off as unprofessional.
It’s wonderful that you plan to get a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and cure cancer and fly around the world in a hot air balloon. But this is a job interview, not a conversation about your bucket list. So keep your feet on the ground, and whatever you do, don’t mention hot air balloons. Instead, think of practical and realistic possibilities for the ways a person could be expected to excel in the position for which you are interviewing.
It’s totally fine to be honest and say you’re not sure where you want to be in five years, but if so, you should have that answer planned and be ready to look the hiring manager in the eye and say it with confidence. If, on the other hand you begin with a long awkward pause or “ummm” followed by “hmmm,” you will communicate weakness and lack of vision. So if you aren’t sure where you want to be in five years, simply say that you’re really focused on more immediate planning. You'll come across as honest and relatable.
There is no one-size-fits-all way to answer the question of where you want to be in five years. The answer will be different for different roles and industries. But here are a few sample answers and why they work, as well as some examples of ones that don’t.
- Sample Answer #1
Let’s say you’re interviewing for an entry level job at a radio station. When asked about your five-year plan, you could say something like this: “I would be so thrilled to have this role as an assistant in the programming department at WBHT. First of all, this is my favorite radio station. I love music and want to learn everything I can about the broadcast world. My goal is to pay my dues, learn the ropes and earn the respect of everyone here so that in five years I could be one of the programmers for this station. That would be a dream come true for me.”
- Why it works:
This answer works well because it shows that you have real passion for the job, you understand what you still need to learn, and you have a clear and realistic sense of where the role might lead.
The wrong way to answer this question would be if you said, “My five year plan is to be a recording artist and have my songs played on this station every day.”
While that might be true, there is no direct connection or career path between being a radio programmer and being a recording artist. Yes, they are both in the music business but one doesn’t lead to the other.
- Sample Answer #2
For another example, let’s say you are applying for your first job as a realtor. If you’re asked about your ambitions, you could say something like, “I know that I love everything about real estate but since I just got my realtor’s license I still need to invest time learning more about the daily realities of the business. I’m not sure yet if I am more interested in sales or rentals, but I know that I prefer corporate real estate as opposed to helping private individuals find their homes. So in five years, I hope I will be one of your most successful realtors and be leading my own team here at Johnson Realty.”
- Why it works:
This answer works well because it shows humility as well as ambition. It’s fine to say you are still learning and haven’t figured everything out. Remember: the hiring manager isn’t expecting you to have a crystal ball. Instead, you will be expected to demonstrate that you have a good head on your shoulders and understand where the job might lead.
A poor way to answer this question would be, “My dream would be to be the CEO of this company within five years, and grow it into a global superpower. Of course, by then we would change the name from Johnson Realty to my name.”
Why doesn’t this work? Because while it’s great to be ambitious, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Nobody wants to hear you plan to take over their business in five years (even if that is your secret goal.) Remember to modulate your response in ways that sound ambitious yet reasonable and professional.
- Sample Answer #3
Many larger companies have websites where you can read about on-the-job training opportunities for specific roles. If you’re applying for a sales job at a large pharmaceutical company, and you’ve read on the website that they provide training and because they value teamwork, they also have a mentorship program, you can weave that information into your answer.
For example, you can say something like, “I’m especially excited to be a sales rep here because I want to continue learning and I understand you offer a great on-the-job training program. In five years, I hope to be in a position where I could even be a mentor to new employees.”
- Why it works:
This response shows that you’ve done your homework, and that you’re a team player committed to the company’s long-term growth.
The wrong way to answer the same question would be: “I just want to shatter all your sales records and go down in history as the best salesperson you ever hired.”
This reply might seem positive in that it demonstrates tremendous ambition, but it’s also all about your own ego. By selling yourself as a lone wolf who is capable of doing heroic things, you have failed to show that you understand the company’s teamwork-oriented culture.
The bottom line is you should expect to be asked about your future plans, and have a good answer prepared. That doesn’t mean you need to memorize a specific script. You can be authentic and relaxed and answer this question off the top of your head. But it shouldn’t come as any surprise that during most job interviews you will be asked about where you picture yourself in five years, and it will definitely help you to think ahead about your answer.
Now you know what to say when you’re asked what your 5 year plan is. Unfortunately, there are a few more tricky questions you are likely to be asked during most job interviews. Fortunately, JobHero is here to help. Here’s how to handle three more common questions so you can turn potential pitfalls into opportunities.