How to focus on your career goals: a bulls eye

'What are your career goals?' Tricky graduate interview question

Interview questions about career ambitions frequently stump graduates who haven’t necessarily thought beyond getting their first job.
The best answer shows that this role will help you on your way to success.

Graduates can find interview questions about their career aims stressful to answer. They may not know where their next month’s rent is coming from, let alone be clear about the future direction of their entire career. Many candidates are unsure about how much detail they should give in their answer or, conversely, whether it is OK to say that they haven’t got a clue about what they want long term. To know how to approach this question, you need to understand why graduate interviewers are asking it in the first place.

So what are the recruiters really asking?

Interviewers aren’t asking you this question to stress you out – honest. They are primarily asking it to find out whether the job and the employer will help you to get where you want to be. They want to be sure that they will be a good fit for you because, if they are, you’ll be more likely to stay with them for the long term. That’s why interviewers often follow up this question with ‘…and how will working with us in this role help you to achieve your goals?’ and, even if they don’t, you should tackle the topic in your answer.

An additional reason for asking the question may be to find out how much you know about the sector you are applying for, how much research you have done into the employer and how committed you are to your future career. This is particularly the case if the career will require a lot of your time and energy: for example, if you will need to study for professional qualifications or be required to work long or unpredictable hours.

This question covers similar territory to the classic ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ and it is likely that you will be asked either one question or the other but not both. However, the career goals question is broader in scope, potentially allowing the interviewers to get to know you better.

How to answer the question ‘what are your career goals?’

Think of your career in terms of short- and longer-term aims. In ideal circumstances, the job or graduate programme you are interviewing for will correspond to your career aims completely and you will be able to explain how. This will be the strongest possible answer. Just make sure that the details and any timescales you give are realistic.

However, if you haven’t got your long-term goals worked out yet, it is perfectly OK to admit that, as long as you stress how your short-term goals involve working in this particular sector and, preferably, for that employer. You could say something like: ‘At this point, I am open about how my career progresses but I know that I want it to be within X sector and the reason that I applied to you is that your training will enable me to progress in the future.’

If you are open to working in a number of career sectors, should you mention it? It largely depends on the type of opportunity you are applying for.

  • If you are applying for an internship, a graduate placement or a short-term fixed contract, it is entirely acceptable for you to say something along the lines of: ‘I am considering careers in X and Y sectors. This opportunity will help me to decide between them’. This is because, at this stage, recruiters expect you to still be considering your options.
  • If you are applying for a broad rotational graduate programme that allows you to try out different roles or sectors before choosing a specialism, it is entirely acceptable for you to say something along the lines of: ‘The reason that I applied for this graduate programme is that I will experience working in X, Y and Z; I am not certain what my exact career goals are but I am certain that working with you organisation will help me clarify them’. This is because this type of broad graduate programme is designed to help you to figure out what you want to do in the long term.
  • If you are applying for a very specific graduate job it’s best to show that you really want this particular job. You could say something along these lines: ‘I had initially considered working in X sector but have decided that I want to work in this sector because of Y and Z’. This is because, at this stage, recruiters are seeking candidates who are committed to the sector.

Whatever answer you give, strengthen it by explaining how the role will help you with your career goals. You could mention the work you would be doing, the training you would receive, the mentoring programme the employer runs and/or the opportunities for career progression within the organisation. If the company’s chief executive or a member of their board of directors started there as a graduate, you could say how inspiring you’ve found this. It’s plain to see that you need to have done some research into the employer in order to answer this question effectively.

How not to answer interview questions about your career ambitions

There is one answer that it would be wise never to give: that you really want to work in a different sector or for a different employer altogether. If you do give this answer, you might be able to save it if you can explain how applying for this job or this sector will help you get there – but the truth is that your interviewers will prefer a candidate who has a clear preference for their sector and for their employer.

The clichéd answer to this type of question is 'to be doing your job’. Traditionally, it was thought to convey a sense of ambition but over the years has come to be associated with arrogance. If you give this answer, be aware that you will probably be questioned closely on what you think the interviewer’s job actually is and why you want to be doing it.

Remember: the best answers show that this role will help you on your way to success – and that you will be committed to making a success of your time with the company.

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