Dr. Joseph Barber
It is a hard question. You are pretty sure it is going to come up, but like most other people, you are probably not very comfortable with any of the answers you have been thinking about for this question. No-one wants to talk about weaknesses in an interview setting, after all. So, here are just some of the suggestions that I have for people thinking about this question.
First of all, there are different types of weakness question you might get an in interview, and some of the common ones include:
- What is your greatest weakness?
- If we spoke to your supervisor today, what would they say is your greatest weakness?
- Based on the job description, what can’t you do, or where do you lack experiences or skills?
- What are your skill competencies that you need to work on if you were selected for this position?
It is definitely a good idea to have a well-thought out answer that you might be able to use for these types of questions. Each of these questions is slightly different, and can be tackled in slightly different ways, but there are also some general approaches that can be useful for each one. Let’s start with the general advice first.
Pause, think, and respond: If you are asked the much nicer “what is your greatest strength?” question, then I would advise answering quickly and confidently, without much of a pause, and definitely without any “ummm-ing” or “ahhh-ing”. You should definitely know what the greatest (and most relevant) strength is that you bring to a job to which you are applying. In essence, the answer to this question is one of the main reasons you have for someone hiring you. When it comes to weaknesses, you don’t want it to seem like you have so many, and that they are so obvious, that you can immediately think of 4 or 5. Even if you have a well-rehearsed answer to this question, take a thoughtful moment before answering.
Don’t linger: For any negative-leaning question, your goal is to spend as little time as possible talking about negative aspects of yourself. Be able to talk concisely about your answer, and when you have said what you need to say, practice the art of not talking. Practice how to stop talking confidently. Practice being comfortable with a little bit of silence as the interviewer prepares to ask their next question. Your brain and mouth will be tempted to fill in silence with anything, and in most cases, this filler will make what might have been a great answer into a much more wishy-washy type of answer.
Don’t be a cliché: If your greatest weakness is one of the following, then you are probably coming across as a bit of a cliché, and not showing an employer that you can effectively self-assess your skills or develop as a professional:
- You are a perfectionist
- You work too hard on your projects
- You are just never satisfied and always want to be better or do better
- You have never really had any weakness
You want to identify an honest weakness, making sure not to pick an area that would be an obvious obstacle to you being able to perform the job for which you are interviewing. Think about tangible skills or knowledge areas…, because the trick to this type of weakness question is to be able to end you answer on a more positive, upbeat note.
End on a positive note: See…, I told you. Ending on a positive note does not mean saying “ahhh, but that actually means that it is also my greatest strength”. Your actual weakness might be a useful attribute in certain settings, but have you been able to work on it so that it is helpful (or at least not unhelpful) in all professional settings? If you end your weakness answer by saying that your weakness is something you hope to address in the future, and you’ll work hard on improving, then you are basically saying that the weakness you have identified is and will always be a weakness. After all, if you haven’t addressed this yet, what is going to change in the near future that will make it more likely that you will? So, your main goal is to show that you have been working on whatever weakness you have identified, and to provide an example of how this approach has allowed you to be successful in the work that you have done without the weakness holding you back.
I’ll end today by just mentioning some of the specific strategies you might be able to use to answer the four specific questions that I listed above. There is no right way to answer these questions, though, so incorporate this advice with all of the other advice you are sure to have read about when preparing for your interviews.
What is your greatest weakness? Try to actually answer the question “what WAS your greatest weakness?” by separating your weakness from you by time. You might say “when I first started by PhD I found that I wasn’t good at communicating my ideas to people from different disciplines, and it made it difficult for me to…”. Of course, now that you might be at the end of your PhD, you can say “…but since then, I have taken the opportunity to work in cross-functional groups to be able to better practice my ability to translate my work for others, and in my latest collaboration, I am working closely with researchers from three disciplines, and we have a successfully co-authored paper in press”. Even though you are not really answering the question being asked, I think this approach is close enough to satisfy the interviewers. Also, if they ask for one weakness, don’t give them four! I’ve seen this happen in several mock interviews.
If we spoke to your supervisor today, what would they say is your greatest weakness? For this question, you can’t really focus on what has happened in the past. You will need to think about what your supervisor might actually say, because they might actually say this in their recommendation letter too. In this case, pick something that your supervisor said that you could do better, rather than something that you do poorly. So, “my advisor recently told me that to be a better problem-solver I should try to incorporate even more perspectives into the way I look at the problem in front of me…”. Obviously, you’ll need to talk about some honest feedback you received relevant to you. The way to end this on a positive note is to talk about the ways you have been thinking about to do be better. So rather than just saying “…and I hope to work on this in the future…”, you might try to come up with a specific example of what you could to that would illustrate that you have given this some thought. You could also state that you really valued hearing this feedback from your advisor, because you respect their expertise and judgment, and that you believe that good mentoring is very important for professional development (again, only if you actually feel this). This has a positive feel to it.
Based on the job description, what can’t you do, or where do you lack experiences or skills? Don’t start off with “although I can’t do X and Y, I can do Z”. Instead, start off talking about being able to do “Z”. You could also mention that you are quick learner, and provide an example of this skill in action (both the learning and the application of that knowledge/skill). Talk about how much you are looking forward to working with and learning from your future colleagues and mentors to get up to speed on all of the skills and knowledge areas they are looking for.
What are your skill competencies that you need to work on if you were selected for this position? This isn’t actually such a negative question. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your understanding of what skills are needed for the position, what you know the organization already provides in terms of training, mentoring, hands-on experience, and so on, and for you to show that you are eager to grow as a professional within the role.
As always, feel free to schedule an appointment with an advisor if you have questions about how to answer tough interview questions like these. You’ll also want to schedule a 1-hour mock interview before your next actual interview – you will find it very helpful!