You’re in the interview. You have your talking points down cold, and you’ve rocked the small talk portion of the interview. You’re ready to talk about your job qualifications all day if you need to. Then the interviewer smiles, looks at you, and says, “This is all great. So where do you see yourself in five years?”
This is one of the most common interview questions, but also one that produces awkward “uhhhh” pauses more than it should. After all, the future can be a loaded subject—especially when you’ve been focusing most of your energy on getting to this point in the hiring process in the present.
Understand why they’re asking
The interviewer does not expect a detailed, minute-by-minute plan for the next five years of your life. Rather, they’re asking the question for (probably) one of a few reasons:
- They want to get a sense of your personal goals and values.
- They want to see how you think on your feet.
- It’s a standard interview question, and they like textbook conversations.
Whatever the reason they’re asking the question, it’s in your best interest to have a concise, confident answer ready to go. A strong answer would satisfy all three motives for asking the question in the first place. It also helps build a narrative that can help the interviewer see you in this particular role and understand how you might grow at the company in your time there.
Think about your career goals
You’ve been working toward getting this new job, but have you done the legwork of thinking about how this next step works into your bigger career scheme? Instead of focusing on what company you’d like to be working for five years from now or what specific title or salary level you’ll have, think about what type of work you’d like to be doing and what kinds of skills you’d have.
Do you see yourself in more of a management role? If so, talk about the kind of leadership skills you’d like your five-years-older self to have. If your goal is to transition into a specialty area, talk about that and mention how you see this particular job fitting into that evolution.
Your answer to this question should show what pushes you forward in your career and what kind of path you see for yourself—even if you don’t know every step of the way yet.
Interviewers usually have pretty good suck-up detectors. So if you answer “Where do you see yourself in five years” with something like, “Oh, working here and with you, of course,” it’s more likely to get you a subtle eye roll. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median amount of time that people spend in a single job is about four years. That means that in all likelihood you won’t be in this same role in five years—nor do you have to pretend you will be.
Instead, talk in more general terms about where you see your skills and experience leading. You can use this company as a frame of reference, without committing to it for the next 30 years. For example:
“One of the biggest priorities in my career so far has been innovation. I see myself building on that base and working in a role that prioritizes creativity and problem solving, like Company X does.”
Or, “With my management team-building skills, I’m ready to take more of a leadership role. Within five years, I would like to be leading a team of my own.”
By emphasizing your own skills and priorities honestly, you won’t risk coming off as phony, and you’ll have a thoughtful, self-reflective answer.
Keep it short and simple
This is just an interview question, one of many you’ll be answering. This is not the time to wax poetically or go into great detail about your plans, your hopes, and your dreams. Instead, when you prepare for the interview, come up with a few sentences that illustrate where you want your five-years-hence self to be. The interviewer may ask follow-up questions, but if you find yourself talking for several minutes without a break you’ve gone too far.
Unlike off-the-wall interview questions or ones that are highly specific (“How would you handle X situation?”), this is one that you can absolutely prepare ahead of time. Putting a bit of thought and planning into it before the interview day will give you a short script you can deliver with confidence: No “uhhh”s necessary.