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Ask the Administrator: Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

A perplexed correspondent writes:

April 21, 2011

A perplexed correspondent writes:

Right now I am a Community College Adjunct who is applying for some full time positions for Biology Faculty. I just had a phone interview which I think I tanked on badly but I want to use it as a learning experience so that I perform better next time. (It didn't help that they called me without any warning for the phone interview but at least now I am becoming someone who is in an ever ready state of phone interview preparedness!). One of the questions that I think I did not do well on is "where do you see yourself in 5 years?". What is a realistic progression for a new faculty member like me over the course of 5 years?

My first thought is that a ‘surprise’ phone interview is staggeringly unprofessional. Phone interviews are fine in and of themselves, but they’re scheduled in advance. A ‘pop’ interview suggests either cluelessness or a fundamental lack of seriousness. Don’t beat yourself up over your performance; you shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place.

That said, the “five years” question can lead in any of several directions.

For a tenure-track faculty position, the absolutely wrong answer is “I hope to have published my way out of here by then.” Whatever else your answer involves, it should involve still being at the place you’re interviewing.

The better answers to that question suggest a desire to grow within the job. “I hope to have developed a new curricular option in...” or “I hope to have a student club in x-and-such up and running” or “I hope to be a key player in improving student success in biology...” would all be good answers.

From a hiring perspective, it can be hard to distinguish the folks who will just do the job from the folks who will see the bigger picture and make themselves useful in other ways. The second group is far more valuable, so any indication you can give that you’re in that camp should help.

Just be careful not to overshoot. Depending on local culture and circumstance, an answer like “I hope to be chairing the department” could be either very good or very, very bad. But something like “I hope to take a key role in growing the program, such as by...” will almost always be good.

For administrative roles, questions like that are more ambiguous. I once interviewed for a vp position (at an undisclosed location) in which I answered the “five years” question in the usual way, only to discover that they answer they wanted was “President of the college.” They wound up hiring someone about twenty years older than I am, who could step into the Presidency at a moment’s notice. In that case, they saw the position as a sort of on-deck circle. That’s not uncommon for certain kinds of administrative roles, but it’s rare for junior faculty.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, is there a more elegant and/or effective way to answer this question?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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