How do you diplomatically ask for what career paths there are to take from the current position you are interviewing for without putting off the interviewers?
While there should be thought put into the correct phrasing of any question you plan on asking during the interview, this does not seem to be controversial topic
At some point in the interview they will ask you if you have any questions. If they haven't already discussed this with you this is the perfect opportunity to ask this sort of question.
Other related topics that should be covered by one party or the other include:
- Long term prospects for the position/contract.
- Makeup of the team and your vertical position within that structure.
- Opportunities to move from a junior position to a senior position within x years
- Opportunities to move to a leadership/management role.
- Other opportunities withing the same building/town with that company.
It's definitely OK to ask. It's generally wise to be aware that you don't want to imply that you think the position is so beneath you that you will expect a promotion in a set amount of time. More that you want a sense that the company is growing and changing enough that you'll be able to grow along with the business. It's fair to expect that as you become a greater asset to the work, the work should be prepared to help you grow your career accordingly.
Some things I'd look into in this area are...
What's going on in this business? What's the model and how are they making (or planning to make...) money with the stuff you'll be working on? How fast do they think the work will ramp up, and what's the plan in place to grow the business?
That'll tell you a lot about job opportunities. There's all sorts of ways to grow a business. Some may involve promotion of internal staff, but others may involve acquisition of other organizations, or outsourcing or other sorts of growth ideas. For great staff, there's almost always a way to stay with the company, but not every opportunity will be something you yourself want.
"What are some career paths in this company?" is a perfectly valid question. A large, mature company may have a very well defined set of patterns for how people grow and get promoted in various "tracks". But a younger, newer, less well defined organization may not be able to answer this so easily, which is why the company growth question may be a first place to start.
Only you know how much a given type of opportunity will matter to you. I know that when I was fresh out of school, I only wanted to know that there was room to grow, and opportunity to learn - I didn't know enough about my chosen field to have a strong sense of what I would want to do in 3-5 years. 10-15 years later, many folks who've worked in a given field for a long time likely have a collection of different job experiences, and are likely to have a fairly specific idea of what growth opportunities are most appealing.
The counterpoint is that only you know how much you want the job. If you've got a fine job and you're looking to grow, you're likely to be a LOT choosier than someone who was laid off last year and hasn't worked in 6 months.
But - if you know that certain types of work and opportunities are a drop-dead, "won't the take job without them" sort of deal breaker - then don't leave them guessing. Saying "I want X, is there an opportunity to go that way when I've proved myself?" is a fine approach. When you're very certain of what you want, and in a position to say "no", then be clear, don't waste the other group's time trying to guess.
Be aware, though, that when "having a job" takes precedence over "having the right set of opportunities" - that you may want to stay with the vaguer questions above. If you're too aggressive, you can give the impression that you'll leave in a short time frame if you don't get what you want.
My suggestion would be to backup for a moment and consider asking how well do they have a formal review and professional development plans for employees. If they don't, then asking about career plans is likely to put off the interviewer as if you're inquiring in a start-up that is only a handful of months old, there isn't going to be a career path for your position as the company is still forming itself so do consider that there is something to be said for what assumptions do you have in asking this question. On the other hand, established companies with an HR department may be more likely to have these and thus it becomes where you could follow-up the question with whether they have career paths and where could you be in 2-3 years and in 5-7 years with the company as ways to see the career paths at a high level.
While it is a fair question to ask, there is something to be said for understanding how well can a company answer that as this could be similar to asking parents of a 1 year old, "What major do you think your child will have in college?" that is just way too far in the future to predict with any degree of accuracy.