Ask an Expert: How Do I Answer 'Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?'

job interviewA common question employers ask is, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Or in 10 years. However they ask the question, employers want to know what your career plans are, but job seekers don't know what answer will land them the job. Is there a right answer?

Job interviews, at their core, are supposed to be a meeting where two people decide if they should work together. The employer wants to know if you are qualified for the position and a better fit for the company than the other candidates. You want to know if the position aligns with your career goals, the company culture suits you, and the pay is right. But interviews ultimately end up feeling like a high-stakes espionage, where both parties assume the other is talking in code.

That's why a simple question like "Where do you see yourself in five years?" is difficult to answer for many job seekers. You simply want to get hired and get paid; looking five years down the road feels premature. Rather than let one simple question trip you up and derail your interview, take some time to prepare for it with these five things:

1. What do you want to do in the next five years?

Before you can perfect your answer for the interviewer, you need to know what your long-term career goals are. You don't need to have a rigid plan set in stone, but you should have some markers to signify career advancement and progress.

For example, if you're an entry-level copywriter who wants to be a senior copywriter in five years, figure out what needs to happen in the meantime. Do you want to work on a campaign for a Fortune 500 company? Do you want to collaborate on a campaign that wins at least two industry awards? Understand where you want to go and how you'll get there.

2. What can you do in this role?

Because you don't know if you'll be at this job for one year or 10, don't devote your answer to a hypothetical situation where you have a specific title, manage a team of 15 employees, and have a corner office five years from now. Look at what you can begin working toward in this role once you start and how it builds upon your existing skills. Employers need to hear how you will improve their businesses, not just your own career. Can you use your degree in finance to find new opportunities for the company? Can you take your previous management experience and use it as a building block to become the manager of an international team? Remember that you might have big dreams, but right now you're applying for this job.

3. What shouldn't you say?

Let's give hiring managers the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not trying to trick you into saying something foolish and that they only want to learn more about your long-term career goals. Still, use common sense and don't say the following:

"I want your job." -- The hiring manager wants someone with ambition, but not someone out to steal his or her job.

"I sure as heck don't want to still be here in five years." -- If the thought of working for this boss or company is that revolting, then you probably don't belong there at all.

"I don't know." -- No one wants to hire the worker who will just float through life, passionless, doing whatever they stumble upon.

"Married, three kids -- twin girls and a boy -- and a dog." -- The interviewer is asking about your professional goals, not your personal life.

4. What requires waiting five years?

Be certain that the goals you hope to achieve in five years can't be achieved today. If you list accomplishments that require incremental progress in the next five years, you will show that you're thinking about your future and planning rationally. If you want to learn more about social media or take a Spanish course, your interviewer will wonder why you're not already doing these things. Focus on the big picture, not items on your to-do list that you've just been avoiding.

5. Don't lie.

Don't be honest to a fault and admit that you're not sure what you want to do, but don't pretend to be a completely different person, either. Employers ask this question to make sure they're hiring the best candidate, for your benefit and theirs. Twisting your answer just to please them will result in you working a job that you hate -- which will not be good for you or the company.

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