Professional Development

‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’: What job interviewers really want to know

Making a five-year plan is hard — but thinking one through will help you during your job search.

Why does your job interviewer want to know what you'll be doing in five years?

(Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels)

It’s one of the most common questions in any kind of job interview: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

In fact, you should probably expect to be asked about your five-year plan, whether you’re just out of college or at the senior level.

Your mind might go naturally to your personal life. Maybe you’re hoping to settle down with your partner, have kids or move from an apartment to a house within five years. But that’s not what your potential new employer is interested in.

Well, they may be interested, especially about big-impact (and impending leave) things like starting a family — but it’s not their business by law, and you shouldn’t volunteer information employers can’t ask about. This includes things like your religion, sexuality or gender identity, disability, or ethnicity.

What they’re really asking is a combination of career-related questions that will help them discern the likelihood of your retainability, without asking outright:

  • Do you plan to be living here, in this city, in five years?
  • Do you plan to stay at this job, if hired, and work your way up?
  • Is this the job/industry you plan to stick with long term, or just a job until you can find something in the industry you really want to work in?
  • Are you loyal?
  • Are you organized?
  • Do you think ahead?

Simply put, employers care about retention, and this question aims to see if you’re willing to grow with the company.

Preparing for the 5-year question

In general, job interviews shouldn’t come off as rehearsed, and should include the kind of back-and-forth conversation that can’t be memorized. When it comes to the five year plan question, you should plan your answer — which can be anything from writing it down word for word, to just getting the answer straight in your head.

“Although tech interviews are challenging because questions differ greatly depending on the position, you can still prep by sitting down and thinking through potential answers to commonly asked interview questions at top tech companies, which local companies might ask variations on,” said Stephanie Wernick, then VP of sales (and now president) for Mondo, in an 2017 guest post.

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At this point, remove hypothetical factors that could lead to you leaving the job in less than five years from the table; assume you like the job, get along well with management and are compatible with your team. Research the company and its departments, positions and levels, as well as opportunity for upward mobility. Sites like Glassdoor can be helpful.

Then make a plan. If your goal is to be a senior software developer, for example, map out how you might get there, or move toward that goal, in five years at that company.

And if research alone hasn’t made it easy to create a clear path, you can always ask questions about how they promote internally.

“We love when candidates ask thoughtful questions that show that they’ve researched the company, and want to know how they can contribute their unique skills to Asymmetrik,” said Toni Fung, then brand manager for the technology and analytics company, in a 2019 interview with Technical.ly. “We consider interviewing a two-way street: It’s equally important for the candidate to evaluate whether Asymmetrik is the right fit for them as it is the other way around.”

Try backward mapping

Willie Sanders Jr., founder and executive director of the nonprofit Pass IT On, a tech training and IT organization, talked to Technical.ly in June about an education concept called “backward mapping” that helps with goal-setting — not just for the purposes of getting through job interviews, but as a tool to reach your goals.

Sanders’ goal to become a university professor was realized using this concept.

“This is my 10-year goal,” Sanders said. “What should I be doing for the next five years in order to get there? What should I be doing for that next one year to get to that five-year goal? I mapped that all the way down to what I should be doing, day by day, in order to make that 10-year goal happen.”

You may not want to make mapping out your goals a lifestyle, but the five-year-plan question would be considerably less stressful if you had an established plan in place that can be tweaked to fit the job in question.

Ask yourself:

  • What is my goal? What specific job are you striving for?
  • If your goal is beyond this employer — maybe you want to be CEO of your own tech company or hope to end up in a different industry — what can this job do over the next few years to get you closer to that?
  • What are my priorities? A high income? An executive position? Flexibility? Personal job satisfaction? How can this job provide that over the long term?
  • Do you see multiple possible paths you could take in your career? What would a path evolving your career with this employer look like?

Of course, if you don’t really want the job, you can try these duds, and you probably won’t hear from them again:

  • “I don’t know.”
  • “Probably not here.”
  • “I hope to have your job by then, haha.”
  • “You sound like my mother.”
  • “Well, assuming [politician] hasn’t killed us all …”

Exceptions to the question

An important caveat to all of this: Some neurodivergent people struggle with this question in particular, and that doesn’t reflect on reliability or a desire to stay with the company in many cases.

While disability status is one of those things you shouldn’t randomly volunteer in a job interview, you can work with a job placement organization like Autism at Work that helps neurodivergent people through the job interview process in a transparent way, and advises employers of better interview techniques for their clients.

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