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What is a good answer to this interview question:

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

What information is the interviewer trying to ascertain and what information should the job seeker try (or avoid) and impart?

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16  
Don't do this? –  enderland Feb 8 '13 at 19:46
    
This Q seems to be very relevant. Don't look into what's being specifically asked. Simply get yourself prepared for standard questions. –  bytebuster Feb 8 '13 at 19:48
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The worst answer I ever got to this questions was, "I would like to be your boss." . –  HLGEM Feb 8 '13 at 19:48
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@HLGEM Like this? :) youtube.com/watch?v=7W_qrc-TkR8 –  bytebuster Feb 8 '13 at 19:54
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What ever you do, do not answer "In jail for running a meth ring." The HR types never get that kind of humor. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Feb 8 '13 at 19:58

8 Answers 8

I usually take it as the interviewer is looking for two things:

Do you have ambition and some plans for getting there?

Personally, I want people to have career goals. Maybe the 5 year goal won't fit with the team, but even so, there may be work out there that can help the person get where they want to go. As an interviewer, I get worried if someone shows absolutely no ambition or passion for some future goal because it worries me that they won't have much ambition for the current work, either. In a professional career.

It doesn't have to be a 100% perfect plan. "I think it's like to... so I'm trying... to see if it's what I want" is a fine answer, it just shows me that you've got some interest and curiosity beyond just doing what you're told.

I also hope they have some plan to get there. Don't know what you want to do next? That's fine, how are you going to gather some information and learn what you like and don't like about your work. Have a goal to be a technical guru of some sort? Great, what are you reading or doing right now to get ahead? What's next on the list. I don't particularly care if the plan is a good plan, but I worry as well when I'm faced with some one who expects a promotion for just sitting there like a bump on a log.

What is your ambition and does it fit with the company?

If you tell me that your career ambition is to quit this computer job in 2 years to pursue a wildly different career field... we may have a problem. Some jobs (computers in particular) have a fairly long time until the new hire reaches peak performance. I don't want to learn that an abrupt career change is ahead.

Ideally, the interviewee and the company are halfway decent fit - the new hire has some places he can grow, the company has some opportunities that interest him. This isn't always abundantly clear - there are companies on a rapid growth curve, for example, that may need all kinds of managers, while in another company, the primary opportunity is to become a subject matter expert in some key areas. Since the interviewer knows more about the company than you do, this is a good time to put out your thoughts.

Is this person realistic?

Different companies can breed different expectations. In a small young firm, a person may go from software engineer to product manager in a few years, for example. In another, PMs may have 30+ years of experience and vastly more responsibility. Better for both sides to talk about some these disconnects right up.

That's the nice way of saying it. The more critical point is that I've had fairly green candidates come in and say to me "Well, I pretty much expect to own the place", when they really don't have the chops to claim that prize. Getting a sense of whether the person has some realistic sense of their skills and the logical next steps is important, too.

Should I obfuscate?

Yes and no. Obfuscate at your peril.

Quite honestly, if you need a job, no matter how realistic they may be, the following answers are unlikely to fly well in the majority of scenarios...

  • I'm looking at retirement in the next 3-4 years
  • When my life partner graduates, we hope to start a family, so I plan to quit or go part time (this is touchy - there's lots of discrimination law around this one, but even so, I wouldn't come right out and say any condition that ends in "not working for you... that's for sure!")
  • I'm writing the great American novel and I hope to have it published by then, assuming it hits the best seller list, I'll be a full time author in 5 years.
  • Go back to grad school for social work - do you have educational benefits?
  • Honestly I'm taking it as it comes, after the nervious breakdown, I have trouble making long range plans.

Real and honest they may be - but all these answers, when offered a job with a long learning curve, tell the employer that the candidate is a risky bet. Mileage varies - jobs with a shorter ramp-up or a more flexible retention expectation may be completely different - it's a case of knowing your field.

The perilous part is hedging too much. If you have a great desire to be a whatever and it's reasonably likely the the company has a need for such a role - then I'd say ask about it. Don't worry if you are a computer guru right now and you want to be a financial analyst later - if you work at a bank, ask about it. You could hit a golden opportunity and it's better to know, if this is where you passion lies, then to take the job and hope it'll all work out.

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6  
"As an interviewer, I get worried if someone shows absolutely no ambition or passion for some future goal because it worries me that they won't have much ambition for the current work, either" -- What if it's 'I love my job; I don't see myself doing anything else in 5 years; I just want to be as good as I can be at the job I do'? Is that last bit ambition, in your eyes? –  pdr Feb 9 '13 at 0:11
    
@pdr I would see it as an ambition, but kinda weird in an interview setting since you haven't got the job yet (and can't realistically know enough about it to be that passionate). –  pap Feb 11 '13 at 12:38
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@pdr - it's at least enough for a relatively decent follow up question - "what do you like about the job?" Getting better and better at a single technology or always learning some new one? The challenge of progressively harder problems? Being part of a good team? As long as the paycheck and vesting in your 401K aren't the drivers, we're probably OK. –  bethlakshmi Feb 11 '13 at 15:22
    
And... mileage varies... I'll caveat that my expertise is knowledge workers, and I know plenty of folks in other types of work who have a very different job-to-ambition correlation. For example, I have good reason to believe that every barista working in Cambridge, MA wants to be a dancer. :) –  bethlakshmi Feb 11 '13 at 15:24

Where DO you see yourself in 5 years?

I know that sounds like a flippant answer, but it's not. Just tell the truth.

You don't know if the person on the other side of the table is a lifer, or plans to move onwards and upwards. You can't guess. You just have to base your answer on what you do know, which is what you want.

Imagine you end up in that job and

  1. you want a promotion, but it's largely deadman's shoes
  2. you want to stay in the job you're doing forever, but it's one of those companies that believes everyone should be ambitious
  3. you want to leave after a few years, but they value long-standing employees

You are going to be unhappy and so will they. So what could possibly be the benefit of lying?

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"deadman's shoes"? Is this some Britishism that we colonists (or at least this one) don't know? –  GreenMatt Feb 8 '13 at 21:17
    
@GreenMatt, it can mean either that a job is one that people don't retire from, nor get promoted from, and work there until they die. Or you can't get promoted until your boss dies, or retires. –  Tangurena Feb 8 '13 at 21:29
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@GreenMatt: Is that a Britishism? Link to meaning added. –  pdr Feb 8 '13 at 21:42
    
"Just tell the truth". Many years ago when I first got asked the question, I told the truth. After 2-3 minutes detailing my life plan the interviewer replied with "I didn't mean your personal life". :) –  Simon O'Doherty Feb 10 '13 at 10:26

This is one of those questions that offers some opportunities to be spectacularly wrong (and possibly cost you the job) and little benefit for being right. Wrong answers include:

  • anything that suggests this job is a temporary stopgap that is interchangeable with some other temporary stopgap job, just a way to get money while you pursue your real dream such as having a child, earning a PhD, moving to another continent to volunteer in a school, or becoming a rock star or poet.
  • no plan at all, deer-in-the-headlights, never-thought-about-my-future, can't answer the question
  • wild overreaching such as a new grad confidently announcing that in 5 years they will hold a specific position (eg Senior Vice President) at that company, where all the other people in that position have over 20 years experience
  • clear plans to own your own [consulting company, restaurant, travel agency] to compete with this one, using what you've learned here
  • complacent settling such as thinking you'll still be a Junior Whatever in the very same department - five years is long enough for at least one promotion and possibly two

If you're interviewing at a place that expects you to change roles every 18 months, and you want to find a role and stay in it, a truthful answer to this question will show both sides that this is a bad fit. And if you're interviewing at a very small company that doesn't really promote people or change their job titles, but gives them new things to do all the time, and you want a title like VP of Whatever and you want it within 5 years, then again a truthful answer will show this is a bad fit.

What should you do? There are two strategies:

  • tell the truth. Sit down and read What Colour Is Your Parachute or whatever this century's equivalent is, dare to admit your dream to yourself and truly decide what you want over the next 20, 10, and 5 years. Then when people ask, tell them. It might cost you jobs, but only ones you don't want, goes the theory.
  • develop a milder version of the truth that won't automatically cost you the job; one that's tailored to the place you're interviewing. It's not really lying, goes the theory, and will let you get jobs that move you along in your plan.

I like having a life that lets me go with the first option every time. If you're younger, or you're worried that other candidates might be more qualified, then go with the second. I don't mean flat-out lie. But you can choose to emphasize how you'll spend your days rather than whether you'll be running your own business or working for them. You can choose to emphasize your skill set rather than your job title. You can choose to emphasize the impact of your work rather than a salary number.

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Generally, it is helpful for establishing if your career goals can be met well by the company. Employers generally like long term employees, but sometimes may also be looking for fresh, fast moving talent. It helps the employer categorize the individual's level of initiative (which is good for productivity, but possibly bad for longevity) and goals. If the candidate wants to have lots of growth opportunity and it's a fairly static department, they might not be a good fit for the position. Similarly, if the company is quick growing and rapidly changing and the candidate wants to come in, do their job and go home, then it might not be the best fit either.

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What information is the interviewer trying to ascertain and what information should the job seeker try (or avoid) and impart?

First, there is the question of whether or not you have a plan for where you'll be in 5 years. If you do, how well can you articulate that plan. Are you going to take over the world? Become an intermediate developer? Become a manager? Become an architect? There are lots of different possibilities that if you can say which way you're thinking of going, then the company can have an idea of whether or not it wants someone with your aspirations.

The key is to consider what kind of place do you want to be in 5 years, how well could getting this opportunity move you towards that goal and what would the company gain if you do achieve that 5 year goal?

Thus, for a recent graduate with little development experience, there could be an answer like:

"I see myself being an intermediate developer, well acquainted with the systems and processes here. I will be a resource for new hires to bring them up to speed quickly and provide assistance in architecting future solutions given current infrastructure."

Course in a start-up you could probably change "intermediate" to "senior" as there may not be that many developers so thus you could see being high up quicker in this case. The key is to tailor the response to the environment as well as understanding what is the big gain for the company to hire you and invest in you for 5 years.

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Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Some of the potential answers can tell an interviewer that:

  • you have no plans for the future and will just drift along.

  • you plan to move into management, so if this is not a management-track position, you'll leave within 5 years.

  • you plan to change careers.

  • you are an ambitious person. For companies where climbing over the backs of coworkers is standard, this will be a measure of how "hungry" of a wolf you are tossing into the rest of the wolves.

This sort of question has lost almost all of its meaning over the decades. When the expectation that you would work all your working career at one company, finding a good fit was very important for both the employer and candidate. Today, few people stay 5 years at a job, so this question is obsolete except as a measure of the ambition of the candidate.

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There are only three interview questions:

  1. Can you do the job? (skill)
  2. Do you want to do the job? (motivation)
  3. Do I want to work with you? (fit)

Every question can be reduced to one of these three.

This question is really "Do you want to do the job?" Your answer, therefore, should be to paint a picture of yourself in five years time where this role is integral to the outcome. It has to be genuine (if you're lying, you'll either get caught out, or will find that you didn't want the job anyway), but it has to be relevant and specific.

To answer it well, you need to know the company's business, the role, their culture, and what they can really offer you as an employee. You need to answer it in a way that focusses on what you will be doing in this role and how that will help you get to where you want to be in five years (as opposed to what the company will do for you - whatever you do, don't say that it will be great to have five years at company X on your CV).

If you like, think of the question like this: In five years' time, are you likely to be promoted two to three levels above this role, and are you motivated to learn and achieve what is necessary to grow into that level?

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It is a question where virtually any answer can get you into trouble, since you don’t know your interviewer. If you aim too high, you might come off as too ambitious and either won’t be around long enough to cover the cost of training or you’ll threaten their own position. If you aim too low, you lack initiative and won’t contribute enough to cover the cost of your salary. One of the best answers I have seen to this question is as follow.

“I don’t have a specific plan! I would like to advance. However, I am flexible. I will do my current job to the best of my ability and keep my eyes open for opportunities within the organization to advance even if it means changing roles. I am prepared to learn new things and contribute to the overall success of the organization in a number of ways. The only specific within that “plan of willingness” is that the opportunity be within my ability to learn, interesting enough for me to dig in and do a good job, and the compensation increase a reasonable amount in relation to the demands of the position.”

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