When you’re in a job interview, a question like “What are your career aspirations?” could catch you off guard. You likely prepared to answer common interview questions about your past experiences and whether you have the skills needed for the job. You might even be ready to answer questions about your life outside work like “What are your hobbies?” But “What are your career aspirations?” gets more to the core of what really matters to you professionally, and you may be wondering what sort of answer you should give and how honest you should be.
What Career Aspirations Are
Career goals and career aspirations aren’t quite interchangeable: “Aspirations to me are loftier, big dreams. Goals are more measured and targeted,” says Muse career coach Tara Goodfellow, owner of Athena Consultants. Additionally, career goals tend to refer to a shorter timeline, says Muse career coach Jennifer Smith, founder of Flourish Careers and former recruiter, while career aspirations generally mean you’re looking ahead more than a few years. For example, a career aspiration could be to eventually take on a senior communications role at a mission-driven company you’re passionate about, while a career goal for the same person could be to master writing press releases.
Why Interviewers Ask “What Are Your Career Aspirations?”
When interviewers ask about your aspirations, they’re trying to learn about your longer-term career wants. Interviewers are looking to see how well your answer matches up with their needs, the position, and the company. They “want to know if you’re planning to remain loyal and grow with their organization,” Smith says. “Using the interview process to get a sense of whether or not someone has plans to stick around is important to a company’s bottom line.”
For example, if you share that part of your career aspirations are to become an independent financial advisor who gives a high level of attention to a few individual clients, but you’re interviewing for a job where you’d be part of a team advising a large number of small businesses, the interviewer might think you’re unlikely to stick around for long. They might also think twice if you say that you’d eventually hope to lead sales for a health tech startup but you’re interviewing for an account management role at a big gaming and entertainment company.
That doesn’t mean that employers expect you to spend your entire career with them. “The days of staying with one company for 35 years are over,” Smith says. So interviewers aren’t expecting you to pledge that you’ll never leave. Rather, “They want to know if you’re planning to stay for a reasonable amount of time.”
But don’t lie because you think it’s what the interviewer wants to hear. It’s not just about the bottom line. This question is a chance to get to know you better, too. “I never asked it to trip up an interviewee, I genuinely was interested,” Goodfellow says. Smith offers another reason an interviewer might ask: “Hiring managers...want to feel as though someone is going to put the effort in to be great at their job.” And your answer to this question can also show an interviewer that you’re motivated and have a vision for your own future, Smith says, which are both desirable traits in a candidate.
Remember that it’s in your best interests as well if a position lines up with your aspirations, because this match will help you get where you want to go and increase your job satisfaction.
How to Talk About Your Career Aspirations in an Interview
Here are a few steps to follow as you prepare to answer “What are your career aspirations?”:
1. Get Clear on What Your Aspirations Are
It might seem obvious, but before you can answer questions about your career aspirations, you’ll need to figure them out for yourself. This involves thinking through what you’re passionate about and what sort of career would make you excited to go to work each day. Unlike goals, aspirations don’t need to be very specific.
Ask yourself a few questions, such as:
- What kind of work cultivates your energy (vs. draining your energy)?
- What tasks are you doing when you lose track of time?
- How do you love to contribute to a project, team, or workplace?
- Who/what kinds of people do you love helping?
- What kind of company would you be most excited about working for?
- Is there a more senior colleague whose work really appeals to you?
- Do you prefer working solo or collaborating with a team every day? Or a mix?
- Do you prefer sticking to routine in your workday or changing up your day-to-day tasks frequently?
- Are there any parts of your current or past jobs that you really dislike or dread?
- Does managing and/or training people appeal to you?
- What would make your career and professional life fulfilling to you? Earning a high salary? Finding a good work-life balance? Mentoring others? Learning new things? Doing something new that no one’s done before? Being well-known in your field? Doing work that helps others?
Once you’ve laid out what energizes, excites, and fulfills you (and what doesn’t), consider which aspects matter most to you and think about what careers, industries, companies, and positions have the best combination of what you’re looking for.
For example, if you really thrive while working with others, you might want to consider a career where you’re always or frequently interacting with clients or collaborating on a team—maybe a role in management, customer care, or software development. If being creative gets you energized, maybe you want to aim for a role where you’re thinking of new product or marketing strategies or brainstorming content initiatives. If you want every day to feel a bit different, perhaps working at a smaller startup is a better choice for you than a large, established company where people rarely go outside their job description. If your passion is making sure that everyone has access to healthcare, you might aim for a job in an industry like public health. If you care about your career, but what really matters to you is having plenty of time to spend with your loved ones, work that demands long hours—like investment banking or starting your own business—might not be a fit for you.
2. Connect Your Aspirations to the Company and Position
Once you know what you’re aiming for in your career, you can search for jobs and companies that are a good match. Or you can make these connections before your next interview. In either case, you should look over information about both the position and the company.
For the position, the best resource is usually the job description, unless you happen to know someone at the company who has more knowledge. If you’ve already had a phone screen or other first round interview, you can take into account anything you learned during that conversation. When researching the company, take a look at their website, social media, any news mentions, and their Muse profile if they have one.
As you comb through all of this, see how the company and position align with your career aspirations either directly or as a stepping stone for the future. For example, maybe you’re passionate about finding innovative ways to increase financial literacy and stability for marginalized populations and you’re interviewing for a fintech company whose mission is to leverage technology to help people manage their finances. Or perhaps you’d like to eventually become a product lead and this is a position where you’d be coordinating a small team of coders as part of a larger product and engineering team, so it will help you get some leadership experience.
3. Put Your Answer Together
When you’re constructing your answer, be sure you hit on what your aspirations are, why those are your aspirations, and how this job relates to them. When you’re talking about the why, don’t be afraid to make it personal, Goodfellow says. This can help your motivation shine through. For example, “My dad was a surgeon and my mom [was] an RN, and that exposure really has shaped my passion and drive to pursue a role in healthcare administration,” Goodfellow says.
Take it a step further than just saying what you’d like to do in the future and talk about how you’ve started working toward realizing your ambitions. This will allow you to highlight how the skills and experience you’ve gained already will help them and their company. “Showcase the value you bring to the organization,” Smith says. “Construct your response in a way that the interviewer can feel your excitement and energy for the role, and in a way that they can visualize you achieving your aspirations with their company.”
As you plan your answer, be honest and “realistically ambitious,” Smith says. For example, an entry-level candidate once told her that they wanted to be a CEO in three to five years, which isn’t a very feasible timeline. A more realistic answer would have been saying they’d like to gain leadership experience over the next several years so that they can eventually become a CEO at the helm of a tech company whose product makes people’s lives easier.
4. Avoid Common Pitfalls
As you answer or plan to answer “What are your career aspirations?” there are a few mistakes you should steer clear of:
- Just saying “I don’t know”: If you’re early in your career, you might not know what you want yet. In cases like this, it’s best to be honest while still showing that you’ve thought about your future. For example, Goodfellow says, “It's fair to say, ‘Honestly, I just graduated X with a Y degree. At this early stage in my career, my focus is more short term. I really want a role as a Z, and to just do well and learn from my colleagues and bosses.’”
- Talking about aspirations that aren’t related to the job you’d be doing: Don’t talk about what your ambitions are outside of work in this answer. Interviewers are looking for career aspirations, not life goals. So your quest to run marathons in every state, while admirable, probably isn’t relevant. And avoid focusing on aspirations that make it seem like you’re only interested in the job for something that is not the job, Smith says. For example, you shouldn’t say that your aspirations are to earn a high salary, live in the location where the job is, or have plenty of flexibility to spend time with your family or on other pursuits. These might be part of your career aspirations, but they’re not helpful for a hiring manager and may make them think you’re not excited for this particular job, just for a perk or benefit that it and many others offer.
- Implying that you’re going to leave the role quickly: “As a recruiter, my goal is to find someone who wants to genuinely contribute to the company’s mission, not use the company to learn something” and then leave, Smith says. So don’t say that you want to start your own company in a year and a half (which has happened to Smith!) or otherwise imply that your aspirations will have you walking out the door before you’ve had a chance to settle in and make a contribution. But you can and should still find a way to be honest. For example, instead of saying you want to switch jobs every two to three years to build up your skill set, Goodfellow suggests using what you currently know about the company and position to say something like, “At this point, I really dream of being X or utilizing Y skills and strengths in Z capacity. However, I’m young so anticipate those changing as I learn more about myself, opportunities, and other key factors.”
What Your Answer Could Sound Like
What will this advice look like in action? Here are a few examples.
A project manager interviewing for a role in the food and wellness industry might say something like:
“After growing up in a food desert, my biggest professional aspiration is to help make healthy food more widely available and accessible regardless of where you live. I also love solving complex problems. Currently, as a project manager, I specialize in strategic planning and combine it with a natural ability to engage critical stakeholders—resulting in on-time and under-budget delivery. This role would help me use those skills to work on a mission I’m passionate about. I am determined to use these skills to help your organization guarantee our community has access to affordable, nutritious food and information to make healthy decisions. In the next five or so years, I would love to take on additional responsibility and be in a decision-making role to drive the mission beyond our community and support even more families in gaining accessible and nutritious food options.”
A marketing research analyst might say something like:
“Ultimately, later in my career, I’d love to be in charge of marketing for a tech company whose products and services really help people. There’s so much technology now that can change people’s lives for the better, but because there’s so much, customers don’t always know what’s out there and what might be the perfect thing to solve their problems. I’ve always been passionate about connecting people with products and services that will help them most. I also love working with numbers. That’s why I’m so interested in this position. I’d love to use my analytical skills and market research skills to help your company identify the right markets for its many products and product lines. And the number of products you sell will help me to learn about what groups gravitate toward different products and why. Over the next few years, I’d also like to move into a more strategic role where I’m using data to conceptualize marketing campaigns that speak to the target audience, so I was excited to hear your company has a strong culture of promoting from within.
An account executive looking to move into an account management role might say something like:
“I’d love to eventually be in a role where I’m helping provide people with the tools they need to grow their businesses over time—and teaching others to do the same. I’ve been in SaaS sales throughout my career and my favorite part has always been building relationships with customers throughout the process of making a sale. In my current role, account executives also served as account managers and I discovered that the ongoing relationships with customers are even more rewarding to me than those I make during the sales process. And my customer satisfaction scores showed that clients enjoyed and benefited from my guidance when it came to new features from our software products. So I think my next step toward my goals is really a role where the entire focus is on account management. This role, where account managers work with small business clients to find the right software solutions as they grow, would allow me to build relationships with clients, help them find the software they need to move forward, and watch their businesses evolve. In the next few years, I’d also like to take on more leadership responsibilities so that I can help mentor those on my team and pass on what I’ve learned.”