Hosted By

Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Chief Executive Officer Cheeky Scientist

Join us as we talk about…

In this week’s episode…

  • Don’t give glib responses like “I work too hard”
  • Tell a story using the STAR method
  • Talk about a weakness you had in the past and how you collaborated with someone and engaged in continuous learning to overcome it

I hate candidates who give me b.s. answers when I ask PhDs what their biggest weakness is. I reject them immediately.” I was talking to a talent acquisition specialist friend at a very large biotech company and this is what she responded with.

I had started asking her about what questions seem to make the job candidates she interviews the most nervous. “The biggest weakness question by far” she said. I said “really, still?”. I mean, I was surprised. After decades of this question being asked, people still get nervous? “Absolutely, she said, they freeze right up, stumble along.” Most still give lame answers like “working too hard?” and so on.

What do you want to hear from these candidates I asked? Something real. Tell me about a weakness you had and how you fixed it or a weakness that you currently have that doesn’t affect your work. Answering the “biggest weakness” question can feel like navigating a tightrope; you want to be honest without undermining your candidacy.

Let’s demystify this question and explore 5 effective strategies to answer it. A common mistake candidates make is trying to disguise a strength as a weakness (e.g., “I’m too perfectionistic”). Interviewers can see right through this.

Instead, pick a genuine weakness that doesn’t critically undermine the role you’re applying for. For instance, if you’re applying to a research role but NOT vying for a role with a strong graphic design component, you might say: “I often find that my design skills could use improvement. While I can create tables and figures well, complex graphic designs can sometimes be a challenge for me. However, I’ve been taking online courses to bolster this skill.”

Secondly, you can showcase a weakness you’ve recognized and are actively working to improve. This not only displays self-awareness but also highlights your proactivity and commitment to personal development. For example, you might say, “Earlier in my career, I noticed I was spending too much time on details, which sometimes led to missed deadlines. Recognizing this, I’ve since implemented time-management techniques and set interim checkpoints for tasks, which has significantly improved my efficiency.”

You can also discuss your ability to create a feedback loop. For instance, try emphasizing a weakness that was pointed out to you, preferably in a previous professional setting, and how you’ve taken steps to rectify it. This approach demonstrates your ability to receive feedback positively and act on it. Say, “During a past performance review, my supervisor mentioned that I could enhance my presentation skills. I took this feedback to heart, enrolled in a public speaking course, and have been practicing my presentations with mentors. It’s made a significant difference in my confidence and delivery.”

You can take this a step further by really diving into your ability to take external feedback by saying, “I’ve often asked colleagues for feedback to understand areas of improvement. A consistent feedback point was that I could be more assertive in group settings. While I’ve always valued being a good listener, I realized that I could contribute more vocally. I’ve been working on this by ensuring I voice at least one key point in every meeting.”

Finally, if you’re applying for a technical role, it might be safer to highlight a soft skill as a weakness and vice versa. This demonstrates self-awareness without immediately disqualifying you from the role. Here you could say, “While I’ve been deeply involved in the technical aspects of my past roles, I’ve found that my team leadership skills could be stronger. I’ve been seeking opportunities to lead smaller teams and projects to hone this aspect of my professional skill set.” Alternatively, for a non-technical role: “My background has been primarily focused on communication and team management. However, when it comes to advanced data analysis, I often rely on my team’s expertise. I’ve started familiarizing myself with basic data tools to have a more rounded skill set.”

When confronted with the “biggest weakness” question, the goal isn’t to present yourself as infallible. Instead, it’s to show self-awareness, humility, and a commitment to growth.

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