Breathe: The Importance of Self-Care (Revisited)

By Sharon Fleshman

For the most part, Penn is a fast-paced place and it’s easy to pick up even more speed as the finish line (whether graduation or just the end of the semester) draws near.  Slowing down enough just to reflect on the day or think a thought through to completion can be a challenge.   In anticipation of the flurry of activity associated with this time of year – final exams, papers, job search concerns, and preparation for graduation, I have reposted some of my tips for self-care.

Begin with the basics. Eat healthy food. Get sufficient exercise and sleep. Make sure you get regular physical checkups. These steps are obviously important, but often so easy to neglect.

Debrief with others and with yourself. Process your experiences from a given day by speaking with a mentor or peer and journaling your reflections. Such debriefing can allow for shared insight and the closure to put the events of the day behind you, especially if they were stressful.

Turn down the volume. If you are especially busy with interactive classes and activities which involve a lot of conversation, winding down might mean establishing a space where there is less chatter. I’ve heard some students speak of prayer, meditation, yoga, or deep breathing as ways to do this. If you are engaged in lab research or other work that requires intense focus, taking a walk on campus for a change of scenery can replenish you.

Enjoy creativity in its many forms. Whether you are on the giving end or the receiving end, creativity can have an energizing impact. Read a novel or biography and immerse yourself in someone else’s story.  Write some poetry.  Listen to music that inspires you. Learn how to knit, crochet or quilt. Take up pottery, woodwork or photography. Check out an art exhibit at a local museum.

Maintain a solid support system. Don’t hesitate to get additional help from helping professionals, such as counselors, to address stress or any other concerns. Keep in touch with family, friends, mentors, advisors and others who have your best interest at heart. Cultivating a support system is a practice that you will need to continue beyond your time at Penn.

Send to Kindle

Tough Interview Questions: Tell Me About A Time When You Failed At Something.

By: S. David Ross, Associate Director

It’s time for another feature on tough interview questions. This time, let’s consider the popular question – tell me about a time when you failed at something. Now, technically this is not a “question” but if you encounter this statement in an interview it can be difficult to share an experience that did not end well. However, with a well-thought out response, you can make a favorable impression on your interviewer.

There are several elements to articulating a strong response to this interview “question.”  First, keep your story fairly succinct – mention relevant details, but try not to get too focused on extraneous information.  Next, choose your example wisely.  Your story should be authentic but try not to give an example that may suggest or imply you will have difficultly performing the tasks required in the job.  The “trap” to this question is just that – describing a failure that is closely related to the duties or responsibilities of the position.  Providing an example of failure that is similar to a task you may be asked to perform on the job may cause great concern for the interviewer.  I would also suggest explicitly stating that you take some level of responsibility for the failure – the more you try to blame the outcome on extraneous factors out of your control, the less likely you will make a favorable impression with your answer.  Finally, be sure to indicate what you have learned from the experience and how that has improved your skill set, approach or thought process moving forward.  This is a sign of maturity which is always a great thing.

At some point in our lives, we all fail at something.  For some people, the instinct may be to simply forget about it and it can certainly be difficult to talk about the situation at a later time.  If you are ever asked to discuss a time you have failed at something during an interview, keep the aforementioned tips in mind so you can be confident in the delivery of your answer.

Send to Kindle

March Madness

bballIt’s that time of year again for . . . figuring out what to do after the semester ends. Oh, and basketball!

Some of you have already found and committed to your upcoming summer internships or full-time jobs. Others are scanning the sites, looking for teams, studying their histories, trying to pick what might be a winning combination for you.

Upsets? Perhaps the position you wanted didn’t come through? Keep searching—use our resources and come see us.

Seedings? Perhaps your top choice didn’t turn out to be as interesting as you had hoped when you did an internship, talked to recruiters at a career fair, or networked with alumni? If you are changing direction and now focusing on different career fields, use our resources and come see us.

Cinderellas? Perhaps you’ve received unexpected interest (or even an offer) from a recruiter or networker you met at a career workshop or panel? If you need negotiation tips, use our resources and come see us.

Pairings? Perhaps nothing or too many things interest you, and you are finding it difficult to make choices? If you need to begin exploring ideas and think it would be helpful to really think about what you want, use our resources and come see us.

One of the fun aspects of tournaments like the March NCAA national championships for men’s basketball and women’s basketball is the unexpected results. When your curiosity takes over and you’re intrigued by a professor’s or presenter’s experiences, a friend’s story about a past internship, or a company highlighted in a news article, explore it!

Finally, don’t panic. It may feel mad, but it’s not too late! Many students find their internships and jobs in the spring. Check our surveys to see when students in your program found their positions last year. Depending on the industry(ies) you’ve targeted, hiring may be done in the fall . . . or winter . . . or spring . . . or just in time (right before anticipated start dates). March is as good a time as any!

Whether you’re committed to your national-champion pick, or whether you’re ready to consider all the options, upsets, and possibilities along the way, Career Services can help.BlankBracket

Send to Kindle

It’s that time of year again!

By Anne Reedstrom

No, I’m not referring to the beginning of spring or men’s and women’s NCAA basketball (Go Big 10!), but to Advance Registration.

Over the next couple of weeks, you will be pondering what the future might have in store for you, at least through next fall. If you think that future might include health professions school, there are things that you need to keep in mind.

Juniors: Get ready to embark upon your final year of undergrad! Think about the classes you need to take in order to finish things up – not just your pre-health requirements, but any classes in your major or pesky sector requirements that remain. The time may have come to finally face the monster that is Organic Chemistry Lab, but don’t let the dread ruin your senior year – you’ll do just fine. Lots of you will even end up liking it by the time you are done. No, I’m not kidding. This is also the time to make room in your course schedule for that irksome second English class – anything in the English or Comparative Literature Departments (or a cross-listing) will take care of it.

Sophomores: Soldier on, you’re halfway there. If you haven’t already had a semester where you doubled up in the sciences, now is the time to consider it. You’ve got a good handle on how to study for those hard classes and know about the multitude of resources available to help get you through, so go ahead and schedule something alongside Physics or Organic Chemistry. You will be juggling multiple science classes in medical or dental school, so this is good practice for the future, as well as a chance to show admissions committees (and yourself!) that you can handle it. Luckily, you’ll be able to balance your schedule with the really interesting upper-level classes in your major, now that you’ve declared one.

Freshpeople/First Years: You’ve almost made it through one whole year of college! Congratulations! Planning for the second year is pretty straightforward – take some more science. That’s it. No…that’s not it. Yes, you should take more science classes – move on to whichever one you want to take next; there is no specific order in which you should take them, excepting, of course, General Chemistry before Organic Chemistry. I like to point out the obvious. Beyond that, you should think about finishing up with whatever math might remain or scheduling a writing seminar if you didn’t already take one this year. Keep exploring those subjects that are interesting to you and knock out some more sector requirements while figuring out just what is exciting enough to make you want to major in it. The most important thing to remember, though, is to be reasonable in what you are expecting of yourself in a semester. If you’re still not really confident in your science classes yet, don’t double up or increase your course load to 5.5+ c.u.s. As far as being pre-health goes, you’ve still got a lot of time and it is better to take things slowly and do well than to rush and perform below your expectations and abilities.


While there are a great many things to think about when planning your schedule, there are also a lot of resources here at Penn to help you out. If you want to talk through or develop your plans go and see your advisor, a peer mentor, a sympathetic faculty member, or your friendly, neighborhood pre-health advisor! We have walk-ins weekly on Wednesday afternoons from 2.00-4.00pm and there will be a special session of walk-ins on Thursday, April 3rd from 12.00-1.30.

Send to Kindle

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!

Send to Kindle