No matter what field you're in, if you're interviewing for jobs, you're likely to encounter interviewers who ask, "Where do you see yourself in five years?"
It might sound like a straightforward question on the surface, but job seekers routinely struggle over how to best answer it. Often the struggle is because they have no idea where they see themselves in five years. Or they have some hopes about where they'll be, but are acutely aware that even the best-laid career plans can change, and so they feel odd about giving an answer that implies certainty. Or they feel that their goals aren't very specific; they want to do interesting work and hopefully make more money doing it, but most figure that's not a strong answer and that the interviewer is looking for a clear plan with commitment behind it.
So let's start by translating the question. "Where do you see yourself in five years?" is another way of saying, "How does this position fit in with your overall short-term and medium-term career goals for yourself?"
In other words, interviewers who ask this question aren't asking you to write your plans in stone or commit to them with certainty. They're asking you how you see this job fitting in with your overall plan for your career. If it helps, you can also think of it as, "How does this job fit in with where you see your career going?"
Interviewers want to know this because they want a better understanding of your overall goals for yourself and how this job is a part of that. That matters to them because they want to hire someone who will be excited about the job and where it will lead them, whether that's to a higher-level position or just increased accomplishment or satisfaction. They want to know that you're not just applying for jobs randomly and taking whatever you can get, because if you are, you're more likely to get bored or leave as soon as something else comes along. By showing your interviewer how the job fits in with your overall goals, you can show that you'll be excited to do the work and aren't likely to leave prematurely.
So what might a good answer sound like? Here's one example: "In five years, I'd love to have increased my skill level enough that I'm able to train others how to do this work. I love this work, and I've found that I really enjoy mentoring colleagues, so I'd be thrilled to be able to combine the two--continuing to work in a role like this one, but with a training or mentoring component to it."
But to be clear, that's just one example--not a suggested answer if it's not true for you. Your answer should speak to whatever is really true for you, while still making sure the interviewer will be able to see how the open role fits in.
And if you're really not sure of the specifics of what you'd be doing in five years, it's fine to say that, but talk about what you do know you'd like to do. For instance, you might say, "You know, I don't have a specific plan, but I do know that I want to stay in this field, doing work at increasing levels of responsibility and skill, in an environment where I feel like I'm playing a meaningful role. One of the reasons this position excites me is because I think it will move me in that direction."
In other words, be genuine and help the interviewer understand why this position would be a great next step to you on your way to wherever you're going--even if that destination isn't mapped out in detail yet.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.