“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Or it may be phrased somewhat differently. “What are your short term and long term career goals?”
It is a relatively common interview question, favored by highly trained HR professionals and less highly trained headhunters. You can expect to hear some version of the query over the course of a long job search, especially at the beginning to middle levels of your career.
For the candidate who has not anticipated the question, the answer might be similar to the seven-second “ummmmmmmm” generated by my wife during a stressful job interview situation. This is why it is helpful to anticipate and prepare for this and other difficult questions before, not during the actual interview.
While this might seem to be a trick question setting up a “gotcha” moment, most hiring managers are not trying to trip you up. Rather, they are truly interested in your short term and long term career objectives. Your answer may help them establish whether you will be happy in a given role and/or if that role will help you or hinder you in achieving your stated goals. For instance, an individual who really wants to advance to a creative marketing role might not want to accept a position where his/her responsibilities, visibility and mobility are limited to the finance department. As most of us with many years of experience know, one position can set the course for a whole career.
If, however, you are not completely committed to a specific career path and really want the job for which you are interviewing, here are some broad recommendations: Your answer should always reflect ambition and the desire to grow within your field. Your answer should NOT indicate a desire for a radical shift in career direction.
A very generic answer (which can be adapted to a specific situation) would be “I would like to have accomplished enough in this role to be eligible and considered for the next level.”
As you reach the highest levels of an established career, this question becomes much less relevant. For example, in a recent CFO search, if any of my candidates had been asked the question, my recommended answer would have been simply “In five years, I would like to be celebrating my fifth anniversary as your CFO.”