I've had two separate conversations recently with relatively new college grads looking for their first jobs. In both cases, they were looking for advice on how to answer a recurring question they were getting in job interviews.
Where do you see yourself in 5 (or 10) years?
Although I've addressed that question in a previous article, I think there are different factors to consider for someone that is seeking their first career related position. In many, perhaps most cases, entry-level candidates don't have enough knowledge of potential career paths, or of the industry, to have a good idea of where they might be in 5 years, much less 10. In most cases, the interviewer knows, and understands that as well.
So why do they ask the question? I believe for multiple reasons…
- To find out if the candidate might have specific goals and objectives for their career
- To discern whether the candidates goals fit with what they might be able to do at that company
- To see if the candidate has a grasp of what realistic objectives might be
- To see whether the candidate is willing to earn their opportunities, or expects them to simply be given
An employer looking for an entry-level candidate is not likely expecting the same kind of defined goals that someone 5 or 10 years into their career might be expected to have. They are primarily looking for someone that…
Has some related schooling and/or experience
Has a positive attitude and a sense of professionalism
Shows enthusiasm for their job / career
Is ‘on the ball’ / can learn things quickly and understands things quickly / and can communicate well
- And is willing to prove themselves in their current role before expecting promotions / raises / etc.
Unfortunately, the last point is sometimes rare to find.
In the two conversations I had, the individual circumstances were different. Each of them are new grads, however, one had very specific goals he wanted to accomplish in 5 years, and the other had really didn't know where she wanted to be in 5 years.
In the case of the first conversation, he had been sharing his goals in his interviews, unfortunately however, his goals really didn't align with the positions he was interviewing for. He ultimately wanted to obtain a PhD and teach at a University. In the meantime, he was interviewing for entry-level engineering positions at companies now. When they hear his goals, their impression, rightfully so, is that he's looking for a company to pay for his advanced education, and then he would leave. That's not an attractive prospect for most employers.
In the second conversation, although she had exceptional education accomplishments, she wasn't yet clear on what kind of career she really wanted to pursue. Her primary objective was to get a job and pursue what she could. Her various answers to the question made it sound like she was primarily looking for what a company could offer her, rather than any desire to make a real contribution.
When asked the question… if you have a specific goal that aligns itself well with the company you are pursuing, then certainly articulate that goal and what you hope to achieve along the way. However, when your goal is not aligned well with the job, or you're not sure what your long term objective is, a reasonable answer might be something like:
"At this point, I don’t have a specific goal for a role I want to hold in 5 (or 10) years from now. But I want to find an opportunity where I can prove myself to a company and see how far my hard work and abilities can take me. I think that if I focus each day on doing the best job I can, the rest will take care of itself."
That kind of answer sounds realistic, and yet sound ambitious. It makes it clear that you're not looking just for a “job” to settle into for the next several years. The more your answer can show you’re interested in being of value to them rather than just getting what you want from a company, the better your answer will be received.
It's not a good idea to profess a goal that you don't really have or believe, in the hopes that it makes you sound more ambitious. You won't be sincere, and a good interviewer will see through your ruse. It's not necessary to have a specific goal. It is necessary, however, to make clear you are looking for an opportunity to contribute.
The question is likely to be asked. Practice your answers in advance and imagine how it might be perceived by an employer.