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How to answer the 'five years' question

Q. Wondering what you think a proper answer is for: "Where do you plan to be in 5 years?"

A. Before I give you a suggested response, let me offer why I think the interviewer may be asking this question.

First, they may be looking for a candidate that is committed to joining a company for the long-term, not just the short-term. The interviewer may want to ensure that a candidate is not using this position or this employer as a short-term “stepping stone” to another role or until a better offer comes along.

I still find it surprising how many people will respond to this question (or a similar one) with an answer like, “I just want to get my foot in the door because I need the benefits but I am hoping to move into another role soon because this isn’t really what I want to do. But I need an income and the benefits.” The interviewer may then be thinking, “Do we really want to spend time and money on orienting and training this candidate when they plan to move onto another role?”

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Second, the interviewer may want to determine if a candidate has thought about their career beyond this present step. I have found that those who have set reasonable and achievable goals are often very motivated and worthy of serious consideration. These job seekers are often willing to take on a less than ideal role initially and perform beyond expectations, with the hope of advancing into a higher level position if such a position becomes available within the company.

Third, candidates should critically review their employment history. Are there some short-term stints that need to be explained? Are there gaps that raise yellow flags? The interviewer may be probing to better understand what motivates that candidate and to identify any concerns about his or her background.

Before I offer a suggested response, I always encourage job seekers to be authentic and truthful. So while I can provide you with a specific response to this question, you should not use this response verbatim or it will sound “canned” and probably disingenuous. Also think about examples from your past professional experience that demonstrate that you are a committed employee. Interviewers often weigh past experiences as very strong indicators of future performance.

One way to respond to this question is as follows:

As you can see from my resume, I am not a “job hopper.” In fact, when I commit to a company and a specific role, I truly commit to both my role and the organization. My shortest tenure at a company was two years from 1992-1994 when I worked for ABC Inc. As you probably know, they were acquired by XYZ Inc. and all the software engineers were let go. When I first joined ABC Inc, I was hired as a Software Engineer and then promoted to Team Lead after 18 months. I enjoyed the challenges at ABC Inc. but I understand their decision to eliminate the software engineering team since XYZ had their own team of software engineers. I still maintain a positive relationship with my former manager and many of my colleagues from ABC Inc.

For my next role, I hope to join a company that will again allow me to grow within my role and expose me to new technologies or leadership opportunities. One day I hope again to return to a Team Lead role but I understand that I may have to demonstrate those skills and the aptitude again here at QRS, Inc. if I am fortunate enough to be offered a software engineering role here.

I hope this sample response is helpful. Again it is important to use some specific examples from your background that illustrate your commitment to both the role and the organization. And most importantly, be authentic and truthful.

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