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Alexander Raths

If you want to know what my five-year professional plan is, ask me what I do on a Sunday afternoon and not what's ticking on my career clock.

I was in a job interview last week that was going well. I was connecting with my interviewers, I'd done my research on the position, and the job sounded like it would be a good fit for my writing skills and desire to mentor undergrads.

Then came the killer question: "Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?"

This question really only has three answers, and when posed to an ambitious Gen-Y candidate, none of them will make you look good. Here's what I mean:

Potential Answer 1: I see myself doing this same job in five years (Translation: I'm un-ambitious)

Potential Answer 2: I see myself doing this job as long as it takes to catapult me to a better job or department (Translation: I'm not sticking around)

Potential Answer 3: I see myself doing your job in five years (Translation: I'm here to ladder-climb, regardless of who's in the way)

I improvised a vague answer about my aspirations to work in academia, but as far as interview questions go, it was tricky to respond without either lying or being evasive. I answered truthfully – I could see myself working in academia in five years – but it was a two-person department, so my five-year track plan hovered somewhere between option two and option three. As a result, my nonspecific reply sounded dispassionate as I tried to steer clear of enemy waters.

Questions about your five-year plan, your strengths and weaknesses and how you resolved a conflict with a co-worker are unlikely to be dashed from interviewers' clipboards anytime soon, so it's smart to come up with a safe answer. If you're a mid-career professional in a similar field, you can dodge a bullet by sticking to what you know is non-threatening territory, but if you're less experienced and don't know the "right" answer, then what?

You do have a few options. Tap contacts in similar fields for a safe five-year job description that sounds motivated but not bloodthirsty, or do what I did: Be generic. But if you're so busy playing it safe, what is the recruiter really learning about you? Nothing of note – and it's a safe bet that you won't be a memorable candidate, either.

While it's valid for a recruiter to probe for information about a candidate's long-term dedication and motivation within the field (not to mention to gauge a personality fit) here's what I wish interviewers would ask instead:

- What I'm passionate about

- How I finance and make time for the things I love

- How I'll tailor this job to play up my strengths

Here's why: Telling a recruiter that you're passionate about the arts, travelling, writing and creative thinking proves that you're cultured, adventurous and innovative; it's a good getting-to-know-you question, but it's mostly irrelevant. If a recruiter wants a real answer to the five-year plan question, he should listen to how a candidate finances or schedules the things she loves into her life.

Does she save every penny for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New Zealand? Start work at 6 a.m. in order to spend more time with family on the weekends? Volunteer to guest-blog for an outdoor adventure company in exchange for a rock-climbing trip? If she's willing to make sacrifices for the things she loves doing, it's a safe bet that she'll be a dedicated employee and be motivated to find innovative solutions to professional problems in the same way she does in her personal life.

Finally, ask her how she'll realign the duties of this job to play to her strengths and complement her passions. If she can tell you how writing the company blog dovetails with her lifelong love of journalism or how brainstorming brochure copy sparks her love of travel – and mean it – then it's probably a good fit for the company and the candidate. If a new hire is happy and challenged, the question of a five-year career goal is largely irrelevant, whether you've been promoted to CEO in half a decade, or are still in the entry-level position where you started.

If you want to know what my five-year professional plan is, ask me what I do on a Sunday afternoon. And if you can't find a way to incorporate the things you're passionate about into the job description, you're better off thanking the interviewer and moving on.