“Where do you see yourself in the next couple of years?”
At some point in your career, you are likely to get asked some version of this question by curious parents, well-meaning strangers or hiring managers.
Your answer can reveal a lot about your priorities, and your potential fit for an industry or role. But if you don’t know what to say, you’re in luck: Some reflection and tailored research can help you find answers.
Below, career experts share their tips on how to address the question for yourself and for others.
If you’re asked this in a job interview, understand they really want to know whether you have plans to stay if you’re hired.
Harleny Vasquez, a New Jersey-based career coach for social workers, said that job interviewers asking this question are often trying to figure out if you are invested in growing your career with the company.
“It’s really asking, ‘Why do you want to work here?’ And it’s really about, ‘Does this candidate see themselves in this organization?’” Vasquez said. She said it can reveal misalignment for the role if you talk about wanting to one day work in a different role or industry, rather than the one you’re interviewing for.
Vasquez gave the example of a job candidate who is targeting marketing jobs and is applying for an associate role. In that scenario, “You can say something along the lines [of], ‘Well, in the next five years I hope to be in a leadership role within this marketing department, helping the company enhance their goals or employer branding,’” she said. “It’s showing that like, ‘Hey, my brain and my goals are thinking five years ahead, and I really believe in the company’s mission and values.’”
Ideally, you’ll do your research beforehand to see what kind of skills and career trajectories are valued by the company where you want to be hired. This is also good homework for answering similar open-ended questions like “Tell me about yourself.” Closely read the job description for key terms to mention, review staff bios, and read press that involves the team you are applying to join, so you can tailor your answer to fit the goals of what the team is trying to accomplish.
But if you are totally caught off guard by the question, you can still save yourself by going with the safe answer of wanting to be a subject matter expert, said Sweta Regmi, a career coach based in Canada.
You can say, “I want to mentor, I want to be training people like me. I really want to be take on more tasks. I want to be cross-trained for something else as well, so that way I can make an impact to the work I’m doing. I want to be known as an expert,” Regmi said. “These are certain kind of answers that [are] safe.”
Once you state your intention to be an expert, Regmi said, it can open the door to job candidates asking clarifying questions like “Can you help me understand how do you develop your people?“
Your “Where you you see yourself?” answer doesn’t need to be a long-winded reply that lasts more than two minutes. Vasquez suggested timing yourself, so you can practice delivering a concrete, concise response.
In general, keep in mind that job interviews are a two-way street. You’re not just telling an employer what they want to hear; you’re also figuring out whether a role matches with your own long-term plans. To that end, Regmi said, you don’t have to wait until the question to get clarity on this front. If you are talking about personal development already, she suggested you can segue into asking “Where does this role branch out to?” or “What are the [key performance indicators] for a high performer?”
Outside of job interviews, this is a common question that can prompt helpful reflection.
If you’re a new graduate or are making a big career switch, you are likely being asked about your future career plans with this kind of question, too. Don’t be alarmed if you’re stuck on what to say.
Some people know from an early age exactly what they want to be, and are driven by that goal. But if you don’t have a clear vision of where you want to be, that’s OK too.
Vasquez said if you’re in that state of uncertainty, you can first lean into your “why” to figure out what energizes and motivates you, and seek more information from there. For graduates, that could mean asking yourself why you initially sought a particular concentration or degree, or reflecting on what brings you joy or makes you feel confident, she said.
“What led me into social work is that I always knew that I wanted to help others. I always found the brain to be very fascinating,” she said. “So I kind of leaned in with that, and that led me into psychology and then through exposure, and speaking to people, and even working in the field, that led me into social work.”
Networking at industry-related events and speaking to people with jobs that interest you can also help you get clarity on what futures are available to you, so you can chart your career path.
If you’re already in a job, try making short-term goals to see if it’s a longer-term fit. Regmi suggested that if you want to be a manager, for example, you can ask your boss if you can sit in on a team meeting to see what goes on behind the scenes among leadership.
“It first starts with a self-awareness … identifying your strengths first and your skills before being able to pinpoint a specific industry,” Vasquez said. “Once you identify those skills and strengths … then you can go on Google, go on LinkedIn, you know, explore different industries or job roles or even different career paths based on those interests.”
Even if you have not yet identified your “why,” networking events still offer a chance to find representatives of an organization and lean in on talking about their mission. You can do this with language like “I’m an upcoming new grad. I’m very interested in your company’s mission to provide trauma-informed care to children and families,” Vasquez offered as an example.
“It still shows that ‘Hey, this person did their research and they want to learn and they want to grow,‘” she said. “That answer is going to be way better than ‘I don’t know.’”