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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

How to answer “What are your career goals?”

13 min read
How to answer “What are your career goals?”
Artwork by:Anna Sarukhanova
Compelling career goals help show an employer you are motivated and ambitious. This blog will walk you through the dos and don’ts of expressing your career goals.

While career dreams might seem somewhat nebulous and far off, it should be possible to plot a logical and achievable path to your career goals.

When you are asked about your career goals at an interview, your future boss wants to hear about how they might be part of your journey. This is no time for fantasy. The more thought you give to your career goals, the more certain you will feel about your career trajectory.

In this blog, we explore the topic of career goals within an interview context:

  • What are career goals?
  • Why does an interviewer want to understand your career goals?
  • How to set career goals that are SMART and relevant.
  • Blend short-term and long-term ambitions for credibility.
  • 8 Examples of career goals for your interview.
  • What to avoid when discussing career goals.

Remember that career goals are always a work in progress – it is along the journey that you and your future employer will enjoy success. The loftier the goal, the more profitable the journey. Don’t be afraid to aim higher than makes you feel comfortable.

Expert tip

What is one of the most attractive character traits for any candidate?

Ambition. While you cannot walk into an interview and announce that you wish to take over the world, the “What are your career goals?” question gives you a genuine opportunity to unveil an ambitious streak. If you are someone who is going places, your employer will benefit. Show them that your career goals align with their expectations of excellence.

What are career goals?

We are all driven by thoughts about where we would like to be tomorrow.

Career goals (both immediate and distant) provide a framework to help us prioritize our personal and professional development. These milestones form a roadmap to a better future – if they come from the heart, they can be incredibly powerful.

We undertake tough projects because we think that they will help us to develop. We take risks when we believe that the effort is worth the reward. Career goals keep us motivated when we encounter setbacks. Sharing them with others helps them to feel that they are contributing to our story. A purposeful career is a successful career.

Career goals are the fuel on our professional journey.

Expert tip

Why does an interviewer want to understand your career goals?

Put simply, your future boss wants to know two things: whether you can do the job and whether you are motivated to stay for long enough for their investment in you to be worth it. If your career goals are compatible with the challenges of the role, everyone wins. If there is a tenuous connection, they will likely offer the role to someone else. Get ready for a barrage of future-focused questions and make sure that you are consistent with your answers.

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Every interviewer wants to feel that a candidate can’t wait to get started in the job. While the reasons for their motivation may vary, it is the strength of their conviction that will win the day. What makes you excited about coming to work?

How to set career goals

When setting out on a job search, your career goals should dictate your strategy. Being clear about your ambitions is not just for your interviewers. Compelling and deeply held career goals will help you to make the right decisions in your job search.

Here are a few tips on how to set career goals that will work for you:

Make a link between personal and professional goals

As work/life boundaries blend, professional goals will often mix with more personal hopes and dreams. Do not feel that you need to be an unfeeling robot during an interview. If you are on a personal journey, link your workplace ambitions to the trajectory of your life. Your eyes will sparkle with belief and your future boss will warm to your vision.

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It has long been a job search rule that experienced professionals should not put hobbies and interests on resumes. However, as work/life boundaries shift, employers are increasingly interested in the broader aspects of a candidate’s personality. Time for a rethink.

Make your ambitions relevant to your employer

Every topic of conversation during an interview should be relevant to the specific job in question. It is unlikely that any given role will offer a direct route to your career nirvana, so pick only those aspects of your career goals that are a fit with the expectations of the role. Make that feel that this is the one job that will help you to get where you want to be.

Outline your career goals action plan

Listing your ambitions will not convince anyone that you have what it takes to reach them. Weave a compelling narrative of how your short-term goals can lead to your long-term goals. Show awareness of which soft and hard skills will help you get there and include previous examples of how you have hit your goals in a similar way. 

Be determined, but flexible

Life can throw the most unexpected curveballs sometimes, so show that you can roll with the punches. If you tell the interviewer about a time in the past where you successfully readjusted your sights, they will believe in your ability to hit your future goals – even if you need to take an unexpected diversion or two. Flexibility can lead to unexpected opportunities.

Expert tip

For a career goal to be credible, it should be SMART:

Specific. Tell the interviewer in detail how your goal fits into your future career plans.

Measurable. If a goal is not measurable, it may float away, forever just out of reach.

Achievable. No one wanted to hire someone who is delusional. Can you get there?

Realistic. Is it the sort of goals that others in your position have achieved previously?

Timely. Talk about your goals for the next 5 years during an interview. No longer than that.

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Most job seekers are unsure of what exactly they want out of their next role, let alone what lies in wait five years from now. This question is an interview staple for good reason. It will shine a light on your suitability and motivation.

How to blend short-term and long-term goals

In the next chapter, we will share a selection of short-term and long-term career goals. Short term goals are the tactical stepping-stones that will help you to achieve the overarching long-term career strategy. 

If you have lots of short-term goals without a long-term direction, your career will meander unpredictably. If you are fixated on long-term goals without the first clue how to get there, you will stagnate and live in a fantasy world.

When it comes to personal development, quantum leaps in performance are rare (and often unbelievable when recounting a career story). If you wish to demonstrate that you can replicate organic success, you need to show that you understand the link between the tactical and the strategic. 

Short-term goals might have a time frame from one month to a year, while long-term goals might have a window of up to 10 years. From the point of view of an interview it is best to talk about a long-term goal that you will be able to achieve during your likely time at the next company (i.e. in the next 5 years). If you set your goals too far in the future, you will be talking about a time when you have moved on. Not a good look during any interview. 

Expert tip

Six examples of achievable long-term career goals:

  • Taking on a leadership role in your industry
  • Moving to work in a new function
  • Gaining a new qualification or degree
  • Improving your personal productivity
  • Starting your own business or side hustle
  • Becoming a more efficient communicator

8 examples of career goals for your interview

With a wide variety of career and professional circumstances, it is impossible to give a definite list of career goals, but it is important to group them into two categories.

When you are answering the “what are your career goals?” question, make sure that you lead with the long-term vision and then fill in the journey with the short-term goals that you feel will help you along the way.

Ensure that you are talking about the sorts of things that will be achievable with your prospective employer. There is nothing worse than your future boss thinking: “Well, they won’t be able to do that here.”

Here are four top-level examples of areas for career goals:

Professional development

Short term. Taking a course on the latest Agile techniques.

Long term. Assuming operational responsibility for factory operations.

Leadership

Short term. Developing a mentoring relationship with a colleague.

Long term. Becoming a department manager with P&L responsibility

Educational advancement

Short term. Attending seminars on artificial intelligence in your industry.

Long term. Taking a remote-study degree in computer science.

Personal improvements

Short term. Improving employee feedback communication skill metrics.

Long term. Influencing at board level to drive measurable profit growth.

It is not always easy to share a quantifiable benefit when you are gazing into the future of your career, but it is enough to give an idea of your direction of travel. Sharing examples of how you successfully set goals for yourself in the past will be enough to demonstrate that you have what it takes.

Expert tip

One tip for the best possible career goals answer: Make sure that you brim with excitement at the thought of hitting the goal. If you are not excited by it, then how can you expect a potential employer to believe that you have the motivation to make it happen? No obstacle will be overcome if you do not have a fire inside you to get past it.

What to avoid when discussing career goals

Hopefully we have clarified how this question forms a critical part of any interview, but there are also several pitfalls that can prove detrimental when answering the question. 

Don’t say you are fine with the way things are. No employer wants to hire someone who is fully content with their professional situation. You might well want to take a breather in your career growth, but you should still try to show some career ambition.

Don’t talk about improving salary or benefits. Employers understand that financial compensation is a key element of the job search process, but unless your job is strongly commission based, leave money motivation out of the conversation.

Being too specific will make you seem like an obsessive dreamer. Keep any career goals fairly general – as previously mentioned, flexibility is important. If you share a long-term goal in too much detail it might show that you favor thought over action. Go with the flow.

If your goals aren’t relevant, the interviewer will wonder why you are there. Every single goal (no matter how big or small) should be intimately connected to the future success of your employer. Your future boss should be excited about how you can achieve it together.

You are in a job interview – keep the career goals discussion professional. There is no doubt that many of your professional goals will have a personal angle, but do not be tempted to offer too many personal details during an interview.

Key takeaways

  • Every part of your job interview should relate back to your core career goals.
  • If you accept that you are primarily going to work for your own benefit (most of us do), then putting your career goals at the heart of your interview will ensure that you find the best possible job for your needs.
  • Avoid giving too many personal details and keep the conversation relevant to the employer’s needs.
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