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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

How to respond to “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

23 min read
How to respond to “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
Artwork by:Olia Levina
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.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” is one of the trickiest questions in any interviewer’s arsenal. No one can truly know what the future holds so you need to balance your answer with the right amount of ambition and realism.

Staring blankly and mumbling something about getting promoted won’t impress anyone. Employers want employees with drive and vision. Someone who is working towards a compelling future will help to elevate everyone around them.

In this article we will look at the following:

  • Why are interviewers interested in your medium-term prospects?
  • How to answer “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
  • 9 example answers in different situations
  • Four awful responses to avoid (with examples)

Forgetting where you are and filling a blank sheet of paper with where you would like to be is a great exercise at the start of any job search process. Hopefully the following chapters might prompt you to ask yourself some questions about where your ideal future lies.

Expert tip

Tread the fine line between ambition and arrogance. Whenever an interview answer calls for a hint of ambition, the risk of arrogance is never far away. Be rational and logical in what you say and make sure that your body language remains neutral. This is not the time to launch into a flight of fantasy. Paint a picture of your career ambitions and spend the rest of the interview backing up why they could conceivably come true.

Why do Interviewers ask about the distant future?

Interviewers want to envision a bright future as much as you do. 

As they ask you where you will be in five years, they will be subconsciously asking themselves the same question. If you demonstrate that your ambitions will help them on their professional journey you can set off on the journey together.

When a boss and an employee are looking in the same direction (albeit from slightly different vantage points), that is where the magic happens. Outline the following:

Do you have the skills and ambition to grow with the company? 

While the interview will revolve around the progression of your skills over the course of your career, your future boss will want to understand that you have not stopped growing. Which skills do you want to pick up next and how will they benefit the company? Give the interviewer an idea of where they need to make their investment in your development.

What value do you bring to the team?

Ambition is contagious. Conversely, there is nothing worse than working with people who are happy to stagnate. Make it clear that you see those around you as a key part of your journey – there is nothing more enjoyable than reciprocation in the workplace. You never know how your mix of experience might make a difference to someone else – make it clear that you will give as well as take.

What is your level of personal and professional motivation? 

This question about your future plans is the perfect opportunity to delve deeper into your motivations. While the empty phrase “I am a highly motivated person” might sound hollow in another context, here you have the chance to explore the exciting possibilities of what might lie in store. 

A successful answer to this question should get the interviewer leaning forward in their chair. Intrigue them, captivate them, and get them wondering what part they might play in helping you to make your vision a reality.

Expert tip

Interviewers often ask a common question in a slightly different way, although they are always looking to get the same information. Here are seven questions that are looking to dig into how you see your future unfolding:

  1. What are your long-term career objectives?
  2. What do you want to get out of this role?
  3. How do you see yourself developing in the job?
  4. What is important to you in your career?
  5. What are your medium-term career goals?
  6. How do you measure success in your career?
  7. If you could do anything, what would you do?
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How to answer “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

This is a question that has the potential to reveal many different things about your candidature, so weigh your answer carefully. 

Here are a few angles that you might bear in mind. You can be sure that a well-constructed answer to the question will stick in the interviewer’s mind for the rest of the interview.

Undertake some career time travel

Before you answer the “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question, you need to look at your current career direction of travel and understand whether you wish to make any course corrections in your next role. 

Look at the things that you might wish to change about your job. What does your ideal working week look like? Which activities would you like to do more of? What does this new and improved you feel like when they get up on a Monday morning?

Adopt an ambitious and hopeful tone

It would concern any employer if the candidate did not become animated at the thought of what lies ahead. Job searches are mentally tough, and it may be hard to dream big if you have already received countless rejections, but you need to answer with a note of optimism.

Paint a hopeful picture of where you see yourself in five years. There is no requirement for it all to come true, so impress your future boss with the extent of your ambition.

Use the job description as a starting point

Any future ambitions should ideally correlate closely with the reality of the job that you are applying for. Each part of your future vision should be viewed as a next step (or two) from the job that you will be expected to do. If the disconnect is too wide your suitability for the role may come into question. Start with the job description and think about how the listed responsibilities could link with what might be next.

Showcase a track record of successful change

Your assessment of your future potential will not mean much if you cannot demonstrate a track record of making plans and hitting your personal targets. Your judgment is on trial during an interview, so make sure that you can back up your ambitions. An employee who is in control of their destiny is an employee who can make that next step, over and over again. Continuous improvement is tough, but you must keep aiming higher.

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Match your answer with the company culture

Ideally, any answer to “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” will fit with the culture of the company that you are seeking to join. If your future ambitions do not seem in line with the way that a company is run, an employer might start to doubt whether you are a fit at the moment, let alone in five years’ time. Cultural fit is hard to pin down during an interview, so any answer that goes against the grain will be a red flag.

Consider how your interests may change

Any rational person will not answer this question with absolute certainty. A realist knows that any question about five years in the future should contain a healthy dose of ambiguity. Avoid absolute language and do not cling on to your dreams too tightly. If the employer challenges your vision (they may be interested in how you react), do not be too defensive. No one can say for sure how their future will unfold.

Consider future achievements and experiences

Part of your answer to the question may still be entirely unrelated to your next role. There is much value in showing a future employer that you are not afraid to dream big and have an ability to join in the dots when needed. What would you really (really) like to do? What would impress an employer and truly make them think about how they might be able to help you get there. Offering an unusual angle to your ambition will make you memorable.

Expert tip

Make it abundantly clear that your future lies with them. Loyalty starts when you walk into that interview room. You need to make it clear that they are the employer for you. This sort of question is a perfect opportunity to share a vision of a common destiny.

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Seven amazing answers to “Where do you see yourself in 5 years”

Here are seven different scenarios that you might wish to talk about. The most important consideration is that you answer from the heart. Don’t try to second guess what you think might impress the interviewer – your personal preferences will come across in your other interview answers in any case. Be true to your career hopes and dreams.

You are driven by professional development

Being specific about your educational and professional development plans is a great way of showing that you are someone who is thirsty for knowledge and always seeking to improve themselves. Focusing on your professional development is a non-threatening way of showing your future boss that you are ambitious, but you should remember to link this development with improved results at work. Tell them about how a past qualification helped you to make a difference at work. They will invest in you if your workplace impact is improved.

Expert tip

“I am keen to develop my understanding of the international freight forwarding market and would like to broaden my experience in international trade. I would love to play a part in developing the Far Eastern markets in terms of new customers and operational models. I am already heavily involved in various regional trade groups.”

You want a promotion

There is no shame in saying that you want to move up the corporate ladder. If your career achievements justify you being on the verge of a promotion in the next couple of years, don’t shy away from mentioning this in an interview. Your boss will possibly want to move up themselves, so having a capable replacement is a key part of their strategy. Working for someone who seeks to suppress the development of their people is not healthy, so be brave in mentioning your ambition. A bad boss won’t give you the job and you will jump the shark.

Expert tip

“After a decade in various finance roles, in five years’ time I feel that I may be ready for a director-level role. I have worked across many different finance areas, so this move might be in a number of departments. I feel a deep affinity for the Hawson product and culture and would love to aim to make this move with you.”

Taking on a bigger leadership role

Five years is plenty of time to grow into an expanded leadership role - leadership experience is not acquired overnight. Stating that you have an ambition to grow into a leadership role does not require any justification, but it does mean that you will be the sort of person to put yourself forward when someone is needed to run a project or when a colleague is struggling and needs a mentor. Aspiring leaders tend to seize on these opportunities for growth and they can make a big difference to those around them.

Example

“As this will be my second team leader role, I am aiming to develop the required skills to make the move up to department manager within the next few years. I realize that I still have much to learn about the commercial aspects of the role and I hope to prove my worth in this regard.”

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Expert tip

It’s ok if you say that you are not 100% sure in certain circumstances. 

If you are making a big career step with uncertain prospects it is acceptable to be honest and say that you are not certain about the medium-term outlook. Make it clear that you have a track record of successful career development and share some reasons why you are committed to the employer (cultural fit works well here). Your honesty will be respected.

In the same job but with transformative results

If it is the case that your next job is a step up from your previous role, you might decide not to be too ambitious with any predictions of further growth in five years’ time. It is fine to say that this next role will be a challenge for you, but in the next breath you need to talk about all the things that you hope to achieve within the role itself over the next five years. An employee on a journey of exploration is someone who is easily managed and coached – if your future boss recognizes your potential, they will be happy to mentor you.

Example

“I feel that I will have a steep learning curve if I am successful in securing the position, so while I still expect to be an operations manager in five years’ time, I would hope that I have become an indispensable asset to the business with an eye for productivity gains and efficiencies. I am excited about the opportunity of learning the ropes from you.”

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You want to transition into another function

Plenty of people might have future plans that involve a subtle change of function . A marketing professional might wish to transition into market research, for example. There are two important considerations in this case. Firstly, you need to show how your next job will help you to get there – your boss will want at least 2-3 years of dedication. Secondly, you need to show a dedication to a long-term future at the company. If you are talking about the possibility of a move, make sure that you are talking about doing it internally.

Example

“Having spent four years as a nurse assistant in a nursing home environment, I would like to move towards more managerial duties. I enjoy the patient care aspect of working in a nursing home, but I have increasingly been getting involved in commercial and operational questions, which I have genuinely enjoyed. The best nursing home managers are those that have worked directly with their patients.”

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Drop an ultimate career goal into the conversation

While you might answer the question about your plans for the next five years and leave it there, it sometimes helps to offer an employer an idea of the really big picture. Some career dreams take longer than five years to achieve, especially if you are starting out. Many bosses will have shared the same dreams when they were starting out, so don’t be ashamed to push the timescale out a little further than five years. You never know, your boss might know someone who has had a similar journey. Empathy is a powerful feeling

Example

“I realize that this is a long way away, but I would love to travel to the Antarctic and work as part of their scientific team for a couple of years. My goal is to become one of the leading experts in global warming, so for me, this role with the World Meteorological Organization is the ideal starting point.”

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When your future does not lie with this employer

This is a tricky one. How do you handle this question when you are sure that you only want to be in the role for 2-3 years? Well, if you want the job, you need to act as if you are in it for the longer term. It is not advisable to lie during an interview, but this question is one of only a few that may require you to break out your acting skills. Think of a couple of plausible reasons for you to stay that will allow you to continue your career progression (and don’t talk about it for too long). The longer you talk, the easier it may be to detect any untruths.

Example

“I am looking forward to a long career at Upton Inc. and I am sure that many challenges will lie ahead. I hope to be a helpful colleague and contribute to your mission of serving your millionth customer. My product design skills will hopefully send a few new innovations their way.”

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Expert tip

Ask if they can help you to get there (both boss and company.) 

Every interview is a two-way exploration of fit, so it is perfectly reasonable to ask the hiring manager whether they think that the employer can accommodate your longer-term hopes. If there is any hesitation, it is probably better that you look elsewhere. You could also ask about their long-term plans for you. It is sometimes fun to ask interviewers the difficult questions - their body language and facial expressions will likely tell you more than their answers.

Four Awful Answers to Avoid

While there are plenty of great answers to the questions of where you would like to be in 5 years, there is always the potential of giving a less than impressive answer. Here are four ways of guaranteeing the dreaded rejection email:

You haven’t given any thought to the future

Let’s be honest, most job seekers just want to get a job that will get the money rolling in again, let alone obsess about a strategic step to future glory. It may well be that the future “is what it is” but you cannot afford to hint at any such apathy during an interview.

A candidate who doesn’t have a longer-term vision for their place in the company is a candidate who is likely to move on at the first sign of trouble. Recruiting people is expensive, so retaining them is at the front of a hiring manager’s mind.

Example: “Um, well, I don’t really know, actually. Shall we see if you want to give me the job first. I like to live in the moment. Thinking about the future makes me feel nervous.”

Don’t describe the position as a stepping-stone

We have all worked with people who don’t seem to be in the room. Poorly motivated colleagues reduce the morale of the entire team. If the hiring manager senses that the role might simply be used as a stepping-stone to another position somewhere else, they will not be keen to take you on. If there is any sense of disconnect between the position in question and the future that you describe, they will run a mile.

Example: “If I am honest, I view this role as a stepping-stone to something else. I do think that there are many valuable skills that I can pick up along the way and I will be sure to give of my very best as I do so.”

You make it clear that you want their job

Ambition is fine but looking into their eyes and saying “I want your job” is not the way to win over a hiring manager. For one thing, it suggests that you think that you can do a better job than them (before you even know them). Secondly, you are setting yourself up as a threat rather than an asset. You might have those thoughts after a few years in the role, but don’t lead with them in an interview situation.

Example: “I would want your job, of course. Wouldn’t you, if you were in my position? I am sure that you will be moving on anyway. I’d be happy to learn from you and would hopefully help you to get where you want to go. I know that I have what it takes.”

You share career plans that can’t happen there

Ambitious career plans are to be applauded but if, for whatever reason, they cannot be realized with your prospective employer you are already picturing a future when you will be working for someone else. Do your research and make sure that what you share is realistic to achieve within the confines of your future company.

Example: “I know that this sounds a little left-field, but I would love to set up my own business and travel around the country in a camper van one day.”

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Key takeaways

  • Finding a happy mix of your dreams with the expectations of your future employer is a great way to find a common ground.
  • Every hiring manager will hope to hear different things in the answer, and you cannot possibly know their mind, but as long as your answer contains ambition and is grounded in some sense of reality, you will have every chance of impressing them.
  • Let them gaze five years into the future and imagine you still making a difference to them and your employer. There is nothing more compelling that letting them know what role they might be able to play in your success story.
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