Do you really have to talk about your weaknesses?

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
  • Kryptonite
  • Chocolate
  • Garlic

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!

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Passion? What Passion?

Students, if you can see the end of your Penn years looming in the not too distant future, this post is for you. It concerns passion. You may have been asked or are asking yourself what your passion is. You may even be tired of hearing well-meaning friends and relatives say, just follow your passion.

If you actually have a passion, carry on. You are fortunate. You are also in the minority. Most undergraduates (and many graduate students as well) do not have anything resembling a passion. So don’t feel bad or inadequate if you don’t yet have a passion that is leading you to a particular kind of work.

In my experience after watching the careers of numerous Penn alumni unfold, graduates discover their passion through the development of skills, and this frequently happens in the workplace. It is through the daily discipline of a job that you develop the skills and expertise you need to feel like you are really making a contribution. You feel good about yourself when you do something well. You become excited about the work, and your strong performance on the job. In this way you develop a passion for this work (and perhaps the industry), and you seek positions in the future where you can use and continue to develop these important skills that you can now demonstrate.

What if you do have a passion, but it is for a political candidate, or a charitable organization, or a sports team, or any number of other things? You would do anything to work for that candidate, or that non-profit, or that team. This can be hard. The positions available may be volunteer, or extremely low paying. They could be routine, and give little opportunity to develop skills or to advance. But if by working in the organization you are meeting people, observing the roles they play, learning about the field and developing a vocabulary, then give it a try. After all, if you can’t take a risk at 22, when will you ever be able to do so?

If you can’t make it happen (or can’t afford to), don’t despair. The world is full of people who pursue their passions outside of work as volunteers. In the meantime, you can be working someplace where you can make a living, develop expertise, and perhaps find a new passion, one that is potentially more authentic and long-lasting.

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Career Exploration Lessons from the Cheshire Cat

I’m definitely not the first to compare Lewis Carroll’s  character of Alice lost down a rabbit hole to the career exploration process. However, sometimes as a career counselor I feel a little like the Cheshire Cat, if slightly less cheeky. With that said, I do feel this particular sassy feline has a lot of good advice to offer, particularly as it relates to looking for that first job after graduation. Here are some of my favorite quotes of his and how they apply to life after Penn:

alice-with-cheshire-catAlice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Alice: “I don’t much care where –”

Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Before you start applying for jobs, it is important to have some direction because what you want greatly influences how and where you look for those opportunities. Once you identify a goal, we in Career Services are happy to help you develop a strategy to get there. However, if you aren’t sure what you want and you’re not ready to decide (a topic for a whole different blog), then you open yourself up to possibilities, which can be as exciting as having a more concrete goal.  Just like Alice picking from different possible paths, if you aren’t sure of what your long-term plans are, just about any first job will help you get there. This is because any role will help you develop new skills that you can use in future positions as well as give you a better sense of what you want (or don’t want) in future jobs. The trick is to take advantage of all experiences put in front of you because you never know which path they will help illuminate next. You might even think of it as an adventure…

And, as the Cheshire Cat also wisely said, “Every adventure requires a first step. Trite, but true, even here.”  In other words, don’t be afraid to test yourself and explore new things. Even in the nerve-wracking and stressful process of figuring out life after graduation, each small step along the way, whether that’s updating your resume or doing an informational interview with a Penn alum, can help you get there. Or, taking a risk on an unusual first job may also be that first step towards an adventure.

 “Only a few find the way, some don’t recognize it when they do – some… don’t ever want to.”

Thicheshire cattrees quote could be interpreted many ways but in this instance I take it to mean that very few people find careers about which they are truly passionate. And even fewer are passionate about something as a senior in college. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for it and some never find it. For those lucky few who seem born to do what they do (think Steve Jobs, Jim Henson, Jane Goodall), they have typically taken the path less traveled or more risky to get there. So it’s okay if you’re not passionate about something now. That’s not what your first job is all about. It’s just the first step along your adventure. But as you travel on your own winding path or tumble down a rabbit hole, be on the lookout for the Cheshire Cats in your own lives. We may be frustrating, or even cheeky, but hopefully we will help you ask questions of yourself, what’s important to you, and which way you want to go.

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Leaving Your Legacy

By: S. David Ross, Associate Director

My colleague Sharon Fleshman wrote a great blog on the topic of legacy a couple of years ago. As another semester ends at Penn, I would encourage everyone to take some time to really think about the lasting legacy you want to leave. Whether you are employed in an internship, work-study job or working full-time, it’s easy to become consumed in day-to-day activities without thinking about the big picture. While many people may reflect on their job duties and tasks for resume writing purposes, ask yourself what you want to be remembered for as a member of an organization. As Sharon mentioned, your legacy does not always have to be defined by a formal achievement on a grand-scale. But your legacy can be a proxy for your reputation and influence future opportunities. Ultimately, what you hope to leave as your legacy can also serve as a useful guide to keep you focused on what you want to accomplish and making an impact.

Happy holidays everyone!

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Bring on the Career Joy!

By Barbara Hewitt

We recently added a new addition to our household – Carmen, a cute Shi Tzu/Yorkie mix (who knew they were called “Shorkies”?) from a local animal shelter. It has been fun having her around, as can be evidenced by the very happy picture with one of my daughters below!

CarmenDuring the weeks since Carmen joined us, we’ve come into contact with a variety of individuals who have chosen careers working with animals and I’ve noticed how much they all seem excited and engaged by their work. The workers and volunteers at the shelter from which we adopted Carmen were incredibly upbeat and thrilled to welcome prospective adopters to their shelter. The atmosphere was a little crazy, as it was rather crowded with prospective adoptive families and volunteers along with (as you might imagine) lots of barking dogs. Even in the hectic environment, the staff took plenty of time to answer our questions to ensure that the transition went as smoothly as possible for Carmen and our family. The staff followed up a week or so later to make sure everything was going fine. I mentioned to one staff member how impressed I was with the entire upbeat environment, and she smiled broadly and said “Yes, we love our animals!” Clearly she had found her passion.

A few days later we took Carmen to a groomer and again I noticed how incredibly positive and excited about working with dogs the staff was there….Same thing when we visited the vet for a check-up a few days later. The vet and assistants were happy to meet our new addition and again spent lots of time getting to know Carmen and even let my kids check out her heart rate with the stethoscope. We’ve enrolled Carmen in a training class and the instructor is an incredibly energetic owner of two amazingly well-trained boxers…she is wonderfully enthusiastic about her work and the opportunity to meet and work with new dogs on a regular basis.

I can’t imagine that any of these individuals chose their professions because of  huge paychecks, but rather because they love the work. While we all consider the benefits and “perks” we receive when considering a new job (the pay, the benefits, a short commute, flexible work hours, etc.), the most important thing to consider is the intrinsic nature of the work – do you like most of  things you will be doing on any given day? Does it give you energy instead of leaving you drained? Many individuals find “mission-oriented” work extremely fulfilling, when their work is aligned with a cause that is important to them, often in a nonprofit setting. But I’ve also spoken with plenty of individuals who find deep fulfilment in other sorts of work, depending on their individual values. I’ve spoken with students who interned in consumer product marketing who have told me they find it incredibly gratifying when they are at a store and see someone purchasing their product ….and I’ve also had students tell me that they realized they were in the wrong career entirely when they came to the realization that they couldn’t care less if more consumers bought the new potato chips they were promoting. It all boils down to what is important to you as an individual and what you most highly value. Pay close attention to what makes you tick and brings you joy….there are plenty of career clues embedded in that joy.

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