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How to Answer This Common Interview Question
Five years? If you're like most people, you're probably thinking that you don't know what you'll be doing five days from now, not to mention five years. It's smart to be prepared for the question, though, because many interviewers like to ask it. It's a favorite question for several reasons. Your answer gives the interviewer clues as to how you think: whether you're a strategic, long-range planner or not so much. But how you respond also can indicate whether you still plan to be with their company if you get the job, so be careful what you say. In any case, if you have an answer to the question at all, you show that you prepared for the interview because you knew it would probably come up. And that's a point in your favor.
Resist Answering With Humor
The question almost begs the answer, "In your job!" followed quickly by a "just kidding," but don't do it. Many people believe―rightly or wrongly―that an element of truth is always in such comments. The same goes for, "On a beach in Tahiti." Don't risk the interviewer seeing you as a rival for her job or as a free spirit who would rather be self-employed. Interviewers are looking for a straight, thoughtful answer, so give them one.
Tell Them You'll Still Be Here
Companies invest money, time and resources in training new employees, so they don't want to hire someone who clearly plans to use the position as a stepping stone. After all, if you end up liking the job and do well at the company, you'd prefer to stay there, right? Gear your answer toward the company by stating goals you could accomplish there. Do your homework in advance, so you know the company's products and services and what this job involves. So instead of saying, "Move up steadily to management," which could apply anywhere, say,: "Become an expert on XYZ products and learn to lead projects promoting XYZ products." Think about where this job might lead within the company and how that fits with your goals in forming your answer. If you're in a financial setting, for example, you might say, "I know I enjoy working as an actuary (or whatever your specialty is), and I'm looking forward to becoming more adept in dealing with the types of clients you have."
Show Your Understanding of the Company
Of course, you should always research in advance the company you're interviewing with. If the job involves working with specific products or services, dig deeper to find out lesser-known facts about them. Think about what you could do in the job to increase sales of the product. Then you can comfortably and sincerely say, "I know that ABC service was designed for your less technical customers, and I envision reaching out to them with...." Be careful of being too specific, so you don't come off sounding as if you plan to come in and change everything, bucking the way things are done now. You want to sound like someone with ideas to share who will be part of the team. Giving several examples of your ideas is one way to sound creative and flexible. If you're a sales professional (or want to be), you could say, "XYZ is a fantastic product, and I'd like to increase its sales by expanding its target market to...."
Answer According to Experience Level
Your answers will differ if you're a new college grad than if you have several (or many) years of experience in your field. A new nursing grad would sound naive to say, "I definitely want to stay in the ER," because although she's passionate about it now, she may find it too stressful or perhaps realize she's more drawn to the pediatric patients who come in. Who knows? On the other hand, a physician's assistant has more knowledge about various fields and, thanks to internships, probably has some solid five-year goals to discuss. in the same manner, with five years of experience, an IT pro will be eons away from where she's starting out. It's also OK to say you're not totally sure, because that's an honest answer.
Just be sure your answer demonstrates your flexibility and open-mindedness. "I know I love coding for PQ language, but I plan to continue learning any new languages, too, so I'd like to become expert in those as well," shows your drive to learn and update your skills without knowing exactly where that will take you. The best answers will be unique, based on your knowledge, your goals and your ideas, and will therefore make you stand out from the crowd.
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Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.