Often appearing towards the end of an interview, this question seems relatively straightforward. Indeed, the main problem candidates face with this question is not having thought that far ahead! But don’t worry, this question isn’t a test of your prediction skills – it’s a job interview question just like any other. So how do you answer it?
First of all, the panel does not want to hear about your personal aspirations. This includes where you want to live, how much money you want to earn, whether you want to start a family, and even ‘I want to be doing a job that I enjoy’. As with other interview questions, keep your answer focused and professional. Your ambitions should be related to the industry you’re applying for and, if it’s a full-time position, preferably to the company or organisation you’re being interviewed by.
A good strategy is to break your answer down chronologically, beginning with the position you’re applying for. If it’s an internship, how will it provide a stepping-stone to your future career development? If it’s a graduate job, how do you hope to progress within the role? It’s important to stress how you want to develop the skills you’ve already mentioned in the interview, and that you want to become an expert in your field.
Nonetheless, be realistic. Five years may seem like a long time, but it’s not an eternity in professional terms. If you say that you want to be managing an entire team by then, you’ll look naïve rather than ambitious. To avoid such mistakes, it’s a good idea to find out what other people who’ve applied for your position in the past have gone on to do (LinkedIn is a great resource for this). That way, you can find out what’s achievable, whilst tailoring your answer to your own aspirations.
If in doubt, five years after starting an entry-level job is generally the time that professionals begin to develop management responsibilities towards more junior team members. Saying that you will have developed your expertise in the company/industry, along with your interpersonal skills, sufficiently well enough to begin to take on management responsibilities at this point is probably not a bad idea whatever you’re applying for!
Ultimately, the interviewers are looking for ambition grounded in what’s realistically achievable. Your answer does not have to be rigidly specific, not least because no one expects that kind of foresight, but also because it implies that you’re not the most flexible of candidates, and might not be willing to take on different roles or responsibilities as they arise. Try to emphasise that you want to build your career, not just for your own benefit, but also so you can make a positive contribution to the company or the industry you’re working in.