Human Resources Manager: "Tell me, Susan, your strengths are all laid out very nicely on the résumé, but I wonder what you would consider to be your greatest weakness?"

The Applicant: "Well, let me think a moment. I guess one of my weaknesses is that I work too hard. I spend too much time in the lab and need to get some balance going with other important parts of my life."

Human Resources Manager: "Yes, many of us have that problem." (Translation: "A lightning bolt should come down and nail this applicant for being the 10-billionth person to use that line.")

Why human resources managers wear hip boots

It gets pretty deep in those interviewing rooms. There are many people who literally memorize their responses to questions--who end up focusing on things that they think the interviewer wants to hear.

Have you seen those books that have titles like Snappy Answers to Tough Interview Questions? If so, then you know that there are lots of ways you can prepare for just about every type of question that someone could throw at you during an interview. Even certain columns from our Tooling Up series on Science's Next Wave could be misunderstood as fodder for interview responses. Although it is important to be prepared, it is my view that this kind of obvious overpreparation is too easy to see through. Don't get caught in that trap!

A better approach is to use books and columns like these as a map to what the interviewing process might be like. As you start to experience interviewing for yourself, you can adapt your view of how the process works. Always keep in mind this important point: Interviewers need to see the real you. They don't want to see a walking, talking interviewing machine.

The first step is to understand your strengths and weaknesses

This sounds too simplistic. After all, if you have entered the job market, you've certainly written a résumé or CV that shows your strengths. No one really wants to even think about weaknesses! But it isn't as simple as it sounds. In fact, analyzing strengths and weaknesses is something most people skimp on.

Large corporations do an annual SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, and this is highly recommended for individual employees as well. To do a good SWOT analysis requires at least an hour or two and a quiet place to think. It is best to do this free-form with paper and pencil so that you can avoid the restrictions of your computer. (Looking at words on a screen doesn't get the creative juices flowing as well as doodling on a notepad. Keep both sides of your brain stimulated!)

Here are some questions that will assist you in writing up a SWOT analysis:

Strengths: Your strengths are more than a list of lab techniques. Because this isn't for publication, you can go in any direction you think is truly a part of what makes you special. What made you go into science in the first place? What factors and influences motivated you? Do these areas still represent some of your inherent strengths? To what do you attribute your success? Don't forget about all of your important personal characteristics: persistence, creative abilities, etc.

Weaknesses: This is the area that needs the most digging. Start with your technical abilities (as you most likely did with your strengths) and list those areas that could be perceived as a shortcoming. Think about the goals that you have developed for your next career move--are there bits and pieces missing from your professional "toolbox"? On the personal side, what weak areas do you see in your life that might have an impact on your career? Do you allow your emotions to take over while on the job? Is there a "hot button" issue that stands in the way of your career progress?

Opportunities and Threats: These are two sides to the same issue--your future. On one side, there are huge opportunities being developed by trends in science and business. What do these mean to you? Make a list of every opportunity that you might have, and don't restrict yourself to the "normal" careers for a scientist. Are there opportunities being created for you because of the current revolution in drug discovery, or biology and computers?

On the other side of the coin, are there possible threats to your future career choice because of some potential development? Are there too many people available in the job market within your area of interest?

Using what you learn in the interview environment

We've had columns in Science's Next Wave on the interview process and on the importance of presenting yourself in an upbeat, positive manner. This involves a certain amount of self-promotional ability, something that not everyone is comfortable with. But because it is so crucial to your interviewing success, I believe that you must go in armed with your strengths from the SWOT analysis and be prepared to use them liberally. Of course, there are good and bad ways to do this.

The single most important thing to remember about discussing your strengths is to be succinct and to frame your strengths along with some appropriate accomplishment. When describing that success, use only these three critical elements, unembellished. Those three elements are the challenge, the approach, and the results. In other words, describe the problem that you worked on, your approach to the problem, and the results that occurred. I cannot tell you how important it is to be brief in this discussion--because you can always go back and elaborate when requested.

Presenting your weaknesses is a whole different game. Judging from the comments and questions that I get in my seminars on job interviewing skills, this is one of the scariest moments in the interview for the scientist.

Going back to my opening example of the HR manager interviewing the applicant who responded with a "canned" response, what is it that you think the interviewer was looking for with that question? Do interviewers really expect to get an accurate portrayal of weaknesses when they ask this question? My past experience shows that not only can you make a positive impression by showing some of the "real you," but you can make great strides toward landing that job by taking control in this area.

Here are my recommendations on how to answer questions about your weaknesses:

  • First off, know your real weaknesses by doing some self-analysis like the SWOT analysis. But in addition, have a game plan that you relate along with each weakness that shows you are aware of it and that you have a positive plan to move past it.

  • Always think about what your weaknesses might be in relation to the job you are interviewing for. Never volunteer a "deal killer" weakness. Use weaknesses that the interviewer most likely has already assumed. That way, you can use this as an opportunity to make the problem weakness a nonissue.

  • Technical or experience weaknesses are usually deemed repairable. Be much more careful when describing weaknesses of a personal sort, as the interviewer may see these as issues that the company cannot help you with.

  • Avoid getting into a protracted discussion about a weakness. Interviewers appreciate open communication, and they are just as uncomfortable as you are when asking these questions. (Well, maybe not quite.) Remember, the "tip of the iceberg" is all you need to expose when relating a weakness.

In conclusion

Every one of us has our own unique mix of strengths and weaknesses. Although you will indeed be asked to discuss your weak points in the interview, all successful applicants seem to be able to turn these moments around and move into more positive conversation. Don't be consumed by your weaknesses. Learn what it is that you do well, what it is that you need to improve upon, and build your career plan on your knowledge of both.

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.