How to answer: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

How to answer: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Prior preparation is the key to a successful job interview. Part of that preparation should involve thinking about the likely questions you’ll be asked - and while not having a scripted response, certainly you should have at least a reasonable idea of what you will say – and not say.

Chances are, at some stage you’ll be thrown that old chestnut “Where do you see yourself in five years?” This is one of those questions that’s easy to take the wrong step with, but it’s a lot harder to get the response wrong when you understand why it’s being asked.

Employers are looking for a return on their investment

First up, the interviewer isn’t interested in hearing about your plans to retire in the next five years; your ambitions to appear on X Factor; or even your hopes of spending life on a surf beach somewhere in Bali following a big Lotto win.

The fact is, when you’re asked “Where do you see yourself in five years?” the interviewer is trying to gauge your long term commitment to the company.

While applying for a new job is a big deal for you, it’s also a big commitment for the company that is hiring.

The process of recruiting, onboarding, training and developing the skills of a new employee is costly, hence why high staff retention rates are so important to employers. The longer you remain with a company, the more value you offer. You become more familiar with the role, the company, its culture and clients. When an organisation has invested significant sums in training and development, the last thing they want is for you to pull stumps and take those skills elsewhere – even worse, to a competitor.

In other words, employers want to test the waters to see how long you’re likely to remain with the company.

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An opportunity to demonstrate your commitment

This being the case, the question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” can be the ideal opportunity to showcase your plans to be a loyal, productive, long term employee. And if you can back it up with a strong explanation of why you plan to stick around and how you can to contribute to, and grow with the company, so much the better.

For instance, if you’re applying for a role as a junior accountant, a reasonable response may be, “I know your company offers a good career path and within five years I would like to have risen through the ranks to be your accounting manager. By completing additional qualifications - and with the opportunity for training and mentoring, I believe I can get there.”

This sort of response shows ambition, dedication and some thought on behalf of the candidate about how their personal career plans meld with their place in the company. This is the trifecta to aim for because off-the-cuff remarks don’t always go down well.

…and what not to say

As a guide, when you’re asked “Where do you see yourself in five years?” it can be tempting to assume a response like “I’ll be doing your job” shows ambition. However, it may have taken ten years or more for the interviewer to reach their current position, and this type of response can come across as cocky, arrogant and ill-informed.

At the other end of the spectrum some responses can raise a red flag to an interviewer who asks “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

There’s the casual approach – “I don’t know even what I’m doing this weekend, how could I possibly know what I’ll be doing in five years”, through to the downright disastrous – “Well actually, by then I’d like to be running my own business, or acquiring a role with another company for the next step in my career.”

So, where do you see yourself in five years?

If you are passionate about playing a long term role with the company, and you want to be sure your five-year plan is married to the organisation’s goals, don’t be afraid to take the lead and ask where the role could take the successful candidate over the next five years.

The bottom line is to be sure that your response demonstrates you have a long term career plan. Ideally, this plan will strike a match with the company’s goals. Realistically, none of us know what lies five years down the track. But the answer you give today could see you land the job tomorrow.

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This article was originally featured as "How to answer: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” on the Robert Half Australia Blog.

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