If you haven't defined short-term and long-term career goals before a job interview, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage. "What are your career goals?" is one of the most common interview questions and likely one that is going to come up.
If you've set career goals before, this might sound like an easy question — after all, you know yourself better than anyone. However, it's a little more nuanced than that. If your professional aspirations don't align with what the organization is looking for, this can reflect poorly on your chances at a job offer and even make you look like a bad fit for the role.
Often, the most honest answer is going to be along the lines of "not working at this job". For obvious reasons, this is going to be a red flag. The good news is you can be honest, while still giving hiring managers want they want to know!
This job interview question helps hiring managers understand your career aspirations, professional goals, and ultimately if you're a good fit for the job in the long term. It pays off to spend some time thinking through your answer and tailoring it to the job you're applying for to ensure you make a great impression.
You might be thinking: How do I set specific goals? What if I don't know what my future plans are? Do I include my personal goals?
Don't worry! We'll cover everything you need to know to help you stand out from a sea of job seekers. In this article, we'll cover:
- What are career goals and why they are important
- What hiring managers are looking for when they ask "what are your career goals?"
- How to set SMART goals, short term AND long term career goals
- Plus, examples answers to "what are your career goals?"
Let's get started!
What are career goals and why are they important?
Goals give us something to aim for, like a target. They can also give us a sense of purpose in life and help us achieve our potential. As the saying goes, "what gets measured gets done."
Career goals are goals specific to professional aspirations you have and can be particularly valuable. Not only do they provide focus and clarity on what you want, but good goals give you a framework and a specific timeline to achieve milestones. We'll get into this deeper later.
If you find yourself floating in your career without a path forward, setting career goals can also instill a sense of purpose in your work and get you back on the right track. When you achieve goals, it can be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. This compounds to even greater success as you learn the power of goal setting.
What are short-term career goals?
Short-term career goals are smaller milestones that are set and usually set you up to achieve your larger, long-term career goals. A good way to approach short-term career goals are as stepping stones; think about what can I do now to get me closer to achieving my long-term career goals?
As the name suggests, short-term career goals usually follow a short timeframe. Depending on the specific goals, these are usually anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
A few examples of short term career goals:
- Complete this online course on web design by the end of this month.
- Learn the basics of React this week.
- Book in a 30-minute call with my manager to share my ideas about programmatic SEO for the site.
- Get the best NPS score in the Customer Success team this month.
- Write a blog post on how we approached setting up a Figma design system.
All of these goals are achievable over a relatively short period. They also snowball and contribute to the completion of your long-term goals.
You will use what you accomplished in the short term to complete your long-term goals.
What are long-term career goals?
Long-term career goals are larger goals that are usually more difficult to achieve. The purpose of setting long-term goals is to establish "north star" goals that you can continue to work towards, setting short-term goals and milestones along the way.
Just like short-term goals, there are no specific timelines on how long these should take you to achieve. It all depends on how lofty the goal is and a myriad of other factors.
In general, long-term career goals usually take several years. Sometimes decades. Don't be overwhelmed by these timelines! By clearly defining your long-term goals, you've already started planning how to achieve them as fast as possible. You'd be surprised by how much you can achieve with focused and effective goal-setting.
A few examples of long term career goals:
- Switch careers from sales to web design and land a full-time job.
- Master frontend development and get a job at Stripe.
- Grow organic SEO and blog traffic to 1M visitors per month.
- Get promoted to Head of Customer Success.
- Grow my UX design blog newsletter to 20,000 subscribers.
Notice anything familiar about these long-term career goals? They map exactly to the short-term career goal examples above. None of these long-term goals are going to be achievable in a short time, but with focus, discipline, and the right short-term goals, they're super achievable.
Why interviewers ask "What are your career goals?"
"What are your career goals?" and common interview questions like it, are screening questions that are likely to be asked at every stage of the interview process. Whether you're on an initial call with a recruiter or interviewing with your potential manager, it pays off to understand why interviewers ask this question and to prepare an answer to this question ahead of time.
Important note: you may be asked this question indirectly in an interview in the form of another question. The interviewer is usually looking for the same answer. Here are a few examples:
- Where do you see your career going?
- What do you want out of this role?
- What are your future plans?
- What's your ideal career path?
- Do you have an ultimate goal for this job?
Regardless of how this question is framed, what interviewers are really asking is "What are your career goals and why is this job a good fit for both of us?"
Your answer to this question provides insight into a few things, mainly if you have certain traits and whether you're a good fit for the position and company. Here's what hiring managers are looking to learn from your answer:
- If you are self-motivated: Just by being able to articulate your career goals demonstrates whether you're self-motivated, ambitious, and organized. You'd be surprised how many job seekers don't prepare to (or simply can't) answer this question. Employers know that it's hard to career plan for years ahead and that you realistically don't know where your career is going to lead. That's not the point. What they're looking for is an indication that you're at least thinking about it and laying down plans to achieve your goals.
- If you're going to be committed to this job: This one is important, but it's easy to oversee in your answer. If your career goal is to get a job at Wealthsimple as soon as you have experience, that's not going to look great to the potential employer. In their eyes, you're just using the job you're interviewing for as a stepping stone to the job you really want and will leave as soon as the opportunity presents itself. When you add everything up, the average cost of a new hire can be anywhere between $3,500 to $5,000. Aside from the cost, it can take up to 6-months to properly onboard a new hire. Both of these are substantial investments, so employers are looking for job candidates that are likely to stay for at least 2 years. If your answer suggests otherwise, it'll be harder to get a job offer.
- If you're passionate about the job, industry, and company: Similarly, your career goals provide an insight into what you're passionate about. If they revolve around the job and industry you're interviewing for, that's a great signal to the interviewer that you're committed to this path you're on and will be motivated to grow and improve in your role. If your career goals align with and tie into the company's goals, even better. So if it's your dream job or if you're excited to learn from their team, let the interviewer know!
- If your career goals match the job: When interviewers ask this question, they're assessing whether this job is going to be a good match with your professional aspirations. This goes both ways: if your career goals are drastically higher or lower than what the employer is expecting and planning for, then chances are you're going to underperform or won't be satisfied with the job. Both of these lead to problems down the track.
- If your career goals match what the employer can offer: Similarly, sharing your career goals in the interview process can flag a mismatch early on. For example, if you're applying for a Customer Success role but one of your primary career goals is to transition into Product Management as soon as possible, the employer can discuss whether this would be possible before hiring. If there isn't a mutual fit, this can be disappointing as a job seeker. However, in the long run, it'll work out for the better and save headaches and time for both parties.
Interviewers are looking not only for signals that job candidates are technically qualified to do the job, but that they're self-motivated, have goals that align with the role and company, and will be committed to stick around for long enough to do their best work.
How to answer "What are your career goals?"
Firstly, don't try to make your answer to "What are your career goals?" up on the spot. This might seem obvious, but as we've discussed, the interviewer is looking for specific things above, and beyond your professional aspirations, which requires a little more thought.
When considering your response, remember that the interviewer wants the best for you and the organization. They have the same motivation as you do and want to find someone who is the right fit for the job. They want it to be you so they can progress as fast as possible; all you have to do is make it clear that you'll be committed to the job and have professional goals that align with the role and company.
There is no simple formula for getting this question right, but it's easy to address all the right points with a bit of preparation. If you follow these steps and the example answers below, you'll dramatically increase your chances of making a great impression and getting a job offer:
1. Write out SMART short term and long term career goals
Answer this question for yourself first. At this stage, don't think about how this can add value to the company or role you're applying for: that comes later.
Do you want to change careers? To transition into a management position? To work for a particular company? To learn new skills or advance the ones you have?
For now, it's important you establish what you want in your career in the short term and long term. Getting these down on paper is a great exercise to think and see more clearly about what you want and how to get it.
Use the SMART goals framework
Research shows that when goals are specific and challenging, they lead to higher performance 90% of the time. As an example, your goal may be "to learn SEO by the end of the year." While this may be challenging, it's not specific enough. Its vagueness makes it hard to commit to.
Instead, you should frame the goal as something like "For the next 12-months, I'm going to learn technical SEO by writing one 5,000+ blog post per week and completing one module of this SEO course every month."
The second example is much clearer because it is more specific. It might seem like overkill, but when you have clarity around your goals, it's much easier to stick to and achieve.
To maximize your chances of success when deciding on your career goals, a useful framework to follow is the SMART goals system. All your goals should satisfy the following:
- Specific: Be as specific as possible, even for short-term career goals. Vagueness breed confusion and is the enemy of commitment. Narrow the focus of the goal or split it up into smaller goals if necessary.
- Measurable: Add metrics to the goal if possible. Think of how you will measure the progress and success of your goal — what gets measured gets done.
- Attainable: Make sure you're setting realistic goals. Hyper-ambitious goals are great, but if they're impracticable, you're more likely to lose faith in them and give up. Realistic goals should be a challenge, but also achievable.
- Relevant: Make sure your career goals truly align with your values and personal aspirations. If they don't, you don't really want to achieve them and you've lost the battle before it begins.
- Timely: Ever found you work best against a deadline? It is no coincidence: deciding clearly when you want to finish something creates urgency and a bias for action. If it's a large goal, break it up into smaller milestones and set specific time frames for each step in the process.
2. Learn more about the company and role
As we've covered, employers are looking for answers to "What are your career goals?" that align with the job and company.
Even if your career goals don't align perfectly, all you have to do is make sure you frame them in a way that instills confidence that it's still a good fit and you'll land a job offer. To do this, spend some time learning as much about the company and role as possible. This will not only help you tailor your SMART career goals to this job, but will help prepare you for almost every other common interview question you're likely to be asked.
Start by reading the job description thoroughly and look for skills that the job requires and would require you to learn to excel. Weaving these skills into your career goals when you answer this question is a great way to demonstrate that your professional goals align with the challenges and skills this role entails.
Similarly, spend some time researching the company website, about us page, mission statement, and blog. Look for anything relevant to what the company is trying to achieve and other more senior roles they have or are hiring for. Think about how these could be aligned with your professional goals.
For example, if the job you're applying for is a startup in a growth stage, career goals around upskilling in advanced SEO or career aspirations to grow into a marketing management role will look pretty enticing to the employer.
A good place to start is with our remote company database where you can read more about the company and what their tech stacks are. If the company has a public employee handbook, you've struck gold. Not only will this knowledge help you shape your reply, but it'll help you prepare some insightful questions of your own.
3. Identify where you can add value and make this clear in your career goals
Once you've researched the job and company, you'll have a deeper understanding of what's involved, what the hiring manager is looking for, and what the goals of the company are. This is where you bring it all together!
Consider your career goals and weigh them up against the role requirements and the company's goals and trajectory. By now it should be pretty clear what they're looking for, so you just need to write down some ideas on how this particular role and this company align with your own career goals and trajectory.
Chances are there's already a lot of overlap, but there's always going to be room to improve. Having a clear understanding of what technical/soft skills are required and the company's mission allows you to align your answer to "What are your career goals?" with exactly what they're looking for in a job candidate.
To a hiring manager, this is a win-win relationship because it'll demonstrate that you're already sharing the same career goals as the company and can grow with the team.
Remember: The goal here isn't to completely change your career goals to better suit what you think they're looking for. You want to instead frame your career goals a little in such a way so they're more aligned with the job and company. This will help you stand out as the top 1% of job applicants.
Use these prompts to help frame your career goals for the interview:
- Specific technical or soft skills: Are there any specific skills that the job description and company value highly? Are there any skills that will help the company in the future? Include these specific skills in your own goals!
- Qualifications and upskilling: Are there any industry certifications that the role or company values? These make great career goals and are a positive signal to employers that you're switched on and keen to learn.
- Incremental or adjacent job titles: What career opportunities are there for you within the company? Are there any more senior roles in the organization that make sense for you to progress to? Employers will almost always look to promote internally and indicating you're already interested in these roles in your career goals is a positive signal. For example, if you're applying for an entry-level customer support role, it's a great sign if you're keen to develop your leadership skills and have future career goals to become a customer success manager.
- Specific metrics: Try to look for specific metrics that you can include in your answer. For example, if you're researching the company and learn they've grown their website traffic to 50,000 visitors per month, a smart career goal could be to improve this by 50% in your first two years. That might be a challenge, but it's an attainable goal and sure to make an impression if you can back it up with ideas on how to get there.
4. Prepare an action plan and practice!
Don't be caught off-guard by this interview question. With all the work you've put in, make sure you spend a little time rehearsing it so you can deliver it confidently.
It's also a good idea to think through a rough plan to accompany each goal you identify, particularly with long-term future career goals. Simply reciting a list of career goals might come across as a little unconvincing, but if you can explain how you plan to achieve them with smaller short-term goals, that shows you've thought out your goals diligently and are committed to achieving them.
Rehearse your goals out loud until you're comfortable answering this question. You're not going to get it right the first time and that's okay. As long as you can confidently discuss your goals when pressed by the interviewer, you'll get comfortable with a bit of practice. Rehearsing in a mock interview scenario is a great way to practice — ask a friend to help and make sure you're prepared for follow-up questions such as "how do you plan on achieving that goal?"
Example answers to "tell me about yourself"
As we've covered, how you answer the interview question "What are your career goals?" will depend largely on two factors:
- Your own personal goals and future career goals
- What the job entails and what the company's goals are
What matters is that you've spent some time thinking about and researching both, so you can articulate that you're a good fit for the role.
Use these sample answers to "What are your career goals?" as a base and adapt them to suit your specific situation.
"Happy to! I've been thinking more deeply about this lately. In my last role at Canva, I started as a customer support advocate but always had aspirations to transfer into their content team. I didn't know much about SEO, but I knew how to help people, so I made it my mission to complete half a dozen SEO courses and practiced by rewriting outdated articles with Clearscope. After 6 months, I joined their technical content writing team and have learned a lot!
Now I'm focused on becoming the best in the industry at technical and programattic SEO and to develop my leadership skills. SEO is fascinating, always changing, and still so undervalued by most companies.
That's what caught my eye when I saw your content writer role. From what I understand, Descript is growing fast and looking for someone to take ownership of your organic growth. This ticked all the right boxes for me. I love working in fast-paced startups and I'm keen to help take your content and SEO to the next level.
I had a look at Ahrefs, your blog is bringing a bit of traffic but there's a huge opportunity there. There's a bunch of foundational content and optimizations I'd love to tackle first to get the ball rolling — I can go into much more detail with this?"
Why it works: This answer is perfect because it is genuine, honest, and your personal development is perfectly tailored to the company's goals and trajectory. It also shows the interviewer you're already deeply invested in mastering the technical side of SEO (something that the company needs and is looking for) and that you understand Ahrefs and Clearscope from Descript's tech stack and how your skills and prior experience could help.
"I've been following VEED.IO for a few years now and love everything you're about and how you're making video editing more accessible. It's super impressive you've managed to grow so fast with such a small team...
The last few years, I've been working on large-scale projects in agency land, mainly working with React and Webpack as a frontend developer. One of my main career goals at the moment is to develop my leadership skills so that I'm able to transition into management more.
I need a bit more backend experience before then, so I've been volunteering for more of this work and project manager responsibilities, plus diving into it in my spare time with a few courses on Codeadcademy and Udemy. I hope after a few years and some more experience, I'll be able to manage a team which is what drew me to this role! I learn best by doing and this fullstack role sounds like my dream job. Hopefully I can grow with the company and help bring on mode devs to help out!"
Why it works: You are clear on your career plan and what you want in the long term (to transition into engineering management). You also acknowledge what new skills you're lacking to get there; primarily backend development and leadership role skills. This answer is great because you've researched the company and are clearly passionate about the company's values and growth trajectory — something hiring managers always look for. You're also invested in your own personal development and have taken the initiative to upskill in your own time.
"I have a few goals I'm working towards at the moment. In the long-term, I'd really love to transition into product design but I know I'm not quite there yet. I started using Productboard back when I was working in the brand design team at Mailchimp and it really made a big impression on me.
That's what drew me towards the company and I've been admiring the work of your design team from afar since... When I saw you had an opening in your brand and content design team, I had to apply. I'm good at what I do at Mailchimp and lead the content design team, but I'm interested in a new challenge as it can be a little slow — Productboard looks like it's growing fast.
I'd also love the opportunity to work more closely with your product design team and learn from the best. I've got a bit to learn still, but I've been working through a few UX and Figma courses in my spare time to get more familiar with the tools."
Why it works: You've articulated what your career goal is and while you understand you're not ready for that role just yet, you're working towards it with smaller short-term career goals and learning new skills. It's also great that this answer ties in your previous familiarity and admiration for the design team at Productboard, and one of the reasons you're attracted to the role is to learn from their team. It also highlights that you're more than qualified for the brand design role you're applying for and that there are plenty of opportunities for you to grow within their design team.
As you'll see by these examples, your answer to "What are your career goals?" depends largely on your own career goals and the role/company you're interviewing for. All that matters is that you align the two together the best you can. Don't be afraid to get creative with your response! Employers understand that career paths are fluid and change, just by showing the initiative and foresight to think through your answer to this question will put you far ahead of most job applicants!
Possible follow-up questions
- Do you have any questions for me? Read our guide on the best questions to ask in an interview.
- Why are you interested in this position?
- What can you contribute to this company? This question is similar to "Why do you want to work here?" And will only be asked as a follow-up if you weren't able to articulate your value in your answer.
- Any number of behavioral interview questions. Be sure to use the STAR method when answering.
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