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A common interview question is "What is your greatest weakness?". Having done some online research on this, there are lots of articles on how to tackle this with generic job interviews, and the idea is to turn a negative into a positive. Some examples have been: "I'm not great at public speaking, but have been attending evening classes to improve", "I have trouble managing my work-life balance, but have recently been working on a more careful personalised timetable", and "I have not been great with deadlines, but I now give myself a personal deadline of 24 hours in advance".

However, academic interviews are often very specific, and focus on research, publications, collaborations, outreach, teaching etc. What are some examples of how to answer this question well, which are specific to academic interviews (e.g. for a postdoc / lectureship / professorship)?

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    Does anyone actually ask this question in academic interviews? There are many different departments/universities/countries out there, so I can't guarantee anything, but I've never seen this question asked to a job candidate, or even heard of anyone being asked it elsewhere. Unless you have some specific reason to think you are likely to be asked this, I wouldn't worry about it or bother preparing for it. I think it's very unlikely to come up, and even if someone did ask you I'd bet their colleagues wouldn't take the question or answer seriously. – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 11 '16 at 7:33
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    I agree with @AnonymousMathematician - this isn't a likely question for you to be asked. – Jack Aidley Aug 11 '16 at 9:33
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    "I'm willing to take stupid interview questions like that one seriously." or "Kryptonite". – JeffE Aug 11 '16 at 12:16
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    "My greatest weakness, you ask? [stare affectionately into the interviewer's eyes] Beautiful {interviewer's eye color} eyes." – MonkeyZeus Aug 11 '16 at 12:39
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    You: "Honesty." Them: "I don't think that's a weakness." You: "I don't give a damn what you think." – Jonathan Carroll Aug 12 '16 at 3:06
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I would answer it as recommended. The best strategy is probably to admit a real weakness that is relevant to the work (which shows honesty and the ability to be self-critical), but focus on how you are working to improve. There's nothing really academia-specific about this.

Your examples seem largely fine to me, except "I have trouble managing my work-life balance" is too vague and could be interpreted as a very serious issue. So I would avoid that or make it more specific.

I wouldn't spend too much time preparing for this question. Its reputation as a common interview question is greater than the reality. I've never been asked it (at interviews in and out of academia).

It's a poor interview question, really, because it's unlikely to lead to genuine insight on the candidate. Good interviewers don't ask it. Your main task is just to avoid a big mistake. Don't say your biggest weakness is plagiarism or stabbing colleagues in the back, and you'll be fine.

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    I've never seen this particular question either, but I have seen many poor interview questions. (Well after one SLAC interview I commented to that department's chair that I didn't see how you could learn very much from those questions, and the chair agreed with me.) – Kimball Aug 11 '16 at 9:31
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    @djechlin many people might mess up and give a dumb answer. All that proves is that they aren't a perfectly polished interviewee. But it's going to be a very rare candidate that inadvertently reveals a major weakness you wouldn't otherwise discover. – user24098 Aug 12 '16 at 6:42
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    @dan1111: to the extent that it's a trap question, the secret weakness that it's hoping to reveal is "I am hopelessly un-self-critical". The candidate inadvertently reveals this by trying to blag perfectionism or working too hard as their greatest weakness. It's such a cliché that like you I question how many people will fall for it, but my partner interviews a lot and she has seen that kind of behaviour in interviewees. She doesn't use "what's your greatest weakness" AFAIK, though, she uses "give an example of a problem you've faced and how you overcame it" sort of thing. – Steve Jessop Aug 12 '16 at 9:41
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    @SteveJessop but it doesn't really reveal whether they are self-critical, only whether they think it is ok to admit that in an interview. Because it is an obvious "gotcha" question, it invites calculated answers rather than honest communication, and you only end up measuring how adept of an interviewee the candidate is. – user24098 Aug 12 '16 at 9:51
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    Well, I suppose at the very least you identify candidates whose greatest weakness is that they think an interview is a series of lies or defensive half-truths told to specification ;-) I'm not saying it's a good question, I don't think it is, but in fact it does reveal some weaknesses. True, by un-self-critical I meant unwilling to discuss it, not necessarily that they're deluded. – Steve Jessop Aug 12 '16 at 10:18
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I have been asked this question in interviews and have asked it during interviews. I actually think the question is pretty informative for academic positions. When I am reviewing a CV prior to an interview, I have thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate. The CV provides information about areas the candidate is going to need to work on to get a promotion to the next level (e.g., a tenure track position or tenure).

It is a bad sign if the candidate answers with an area that is either unimportant for the job (e.g., publication record for a teaching position) or not an obvious weakness. This suggests to me that the candidate does not understand the position they are applying for and what needs to be done to get a promotion. Further, it makes me worried that if they do not see something as a weakness, that they will be less willing to accept criticism regarding it.

If a candidate simply blows off the answer (e.g., I am really bad at golf), then the interviewer learns that the candidate does not want to critically assess their strength and weaknesses. Again this is a bad sign.

If the candidate answers with a weakness, this is a good sign. The best, however, is if a candidate and can answer with a strength and talk about how this strength can be used to address a weakness. For example, a candidate with a strong funding record and a weak publication record might answer with my greatest weakness is my success obtaining funding which has slowed my publication rate. For a teaching oriented position, a candidate with a strong publication record but limited teaching might answer with my greatest weakness was succumbing to pressure by my supervisor to publish and ignoring my desire to teach.

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    Your "best" answers seem to be more along the lines of "my greatest weakness is that the cards always seem to be stacked against me despite all my glory, but my strength is that I always persevere". I agree it sounds good, but really, are we talking about weaknesses at all here? – user541686 Aug 11 '16 at 23:07
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    This seems backwards. If it's a teaching position, isn't it better (all things being equal) if their greatest weakness is their publication record? – Tom Church Aug 12 '16 at 0:44
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    The responses you get illustrate why this is a bad question. People don't understand what you want because you asked a broad, ambiguous question instead of clearly communicating what you want to know. In addition because it is such a negative question, people treat it as a bullet to be dodged and may feel it is a tactical mistake to admit a real relevant weakness. Why not ask something like "what area do you most need to develop in order to excel in this post?" rather than excluding possibly great candidates who couldn't guess your intent? – user24098 Aug 12 '16 at 6:14
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    Yeah, it's a crapshoot. StrongBad wants you to say "my greatest weakness is my success obtaining funding which has slowed my publication rate", whereas other people would see that as a profoundly dishonest spin, and if you're going to use that example would want you to say "my greatest weakness is that while I'm pursuing funding I tend to let my publication rate slip". It's one thing to get your excuse in there, it's another thing to be pathologically unable to say "here is something I do wrong". – Steve Jessop Aug 12 '16 at 9:48
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    That said, if the interviewer already knows what the candidate's greatest weakness is from the POV of this role, then the more direct approach would be to say, "so what about your lack of teaching experience then?" rather than hoping to nudge the candidate into raising it themselves. Like StrongBad says though, there's some value in knowing whether the candidate is capable of assessing their greatest weakness in the context of the role they've chosen to apply for. So to some extent the question is, "do you understand why you're here today?" – Steve Jessop Aug 12 '16 at 10:01
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"What is your greatest weakness?" is a bad interview question. It's in the same category as "If you were an animal, what would you be, and why?", and the classic "Where do you see yourself in five years?".

In my opinion, these type of questions warrant a dry, sarcastic simple answer or just "I don't know". Your interviewer(s) won't learn anything important about you from such questions anyway.

But whatever you do, please don't tell you interviewer(s) things like "I have trouble managing my work-life balance" or "I have not been great with deadlines", even if you plan to try to somehow turn these into positives. I've seen candidates dropped for less. As a student (at the very least) you've had many years to learn how to manage your work-life balance and how to deal with deadlines, and you really have no excuse as to why you can't yet do these things at a sufficiently good level.

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    This is bad advice. While it is a poor question, "I don't know" is an even worse answer. The fact that the interviewer asked it means they think it is important, and therefore you ought to take it seriously. This means having a real answer about a personal weakness. I'm not as worried as you are about the examples the OP gave, but if one is, one could respond with something that is more minor or more in the past. – user24098 Aug 11 '16 at 6:52
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    @dan1111 "The fact that the interviewer asked it means they think it is important". That's generally not the case. Most often, such questions are asked by HR people, who either have some sort of a check list, or have been trained to ask such questions, or simply think these questions are okay, because they are so popular. In any case, they don't really think it's an imporant question, and besides, "I don't know" is a perfectly valid answer, especially in academia. – 101010111100 Aug 11 '16 at 7:03
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    I agree that "I don't know" can be the right answer in interviews. But as an answer to this particular question it will come across either as a serious lack of self-awareness or a refusal to respond. Neither is good. Also, I think an interviewee should assume that the interviewers care about the questions they are asking. Assuming that it is an HR-dictated question that nobody cares about is a bad idea. And even if true, candidates who take the question seriously will come across better than you. – user24098 Aug 11 '16 at 7:07
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    The correct response to a vague question is asking for clarification. The correct response to not being comfortable talking about something is saying so (though, this question is hardly "out of bounds" as many personal strengths and weaknesses are highly relevant to your job performance). – user24098 Aug 11 '16 at 7:53
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    @101010111100 I have never in my life been interviewed by HR people for an academic post (many hiring committees contain HR staff which sit in the meetings etc, but in my experience never as decision makers, only as observers of correct process). – xLeitix Aug 11 '16 at 8:53
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I have been asked this in an interview for a lectureship in pure mathematics. At the time I was quite junior so I just said that I didn't much have much administrative experience. They then just moved on.

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I think you should interpret it as: Name a personal weakness related to the position you are applying to.

The point is to see (a) whether you have insight into your relative strengths and weaknesses, and (b) whether you have a plan of using your strengths to get around those weaknesses.

It's normal and expected that you will do (and enjoy) some parts of your job better than others, and you need to reassure the hiring committee that you won't get stuck on the parts that aren't your favorite.

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