Darcie Cook: Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current Position: 6th year PhD candidate in Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis

Program Start Date: 2011

Institution: Emory University

One of the most important tools that the BEST program gave me was the Birkman personality assessment. The Birkman is similar to other personality assessments in that it gives you a framework to understand not just your own personality type, but others as well. It is different in that it provides more dimensions and information about the way you approach the world and how you respond to stressful situations. The final report phrases your strengths and weaknesses in such a way that could easily be used in a cover letter or interview. It gives you the language to frame your weaknesses in a more positive light: you have identified them, you know that you have these tendencies in certain situations, but you also know how to deal with them when problems arise.

A lot of the information I got from the Birkman were things I pretty much knew about myself, but had never put into words in an articulate way. Under the category of structure and organizing, my results told me that I am flexible and have a “readiness to try out new methods” with the “strength of [a] self-starting, self-motivating approach”. However, in a stressful situation, I can respond with “weakened follow-through” and “resistance to routine”. These are aspects of myself that I am very familiar with, but hadn’t really thought about in the context of strengths and weaknesses. With this in mind, I have started adding things to my calendar weeks in advance. This ensures that important things don’t get forgotten about when the rest of my life gets a bit crazy.

There were also a few mentions of things that I hadn’t previously identified about myself. My report told me that while I don’t desire excessive praise, I do like to be acknowledged for the work that I have done. I’ve never really thought of myself as one who needs praise, but once I started thinking about it, I realized that I very much do enjoy being publicly acknowledged for my contributions. It was eye-opening to read details about myself that I wasn’t fully aware of.

While not everyone has the opportunity to take the Birkman, there are other ways to identify your own strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few useful ways I have found that have worked for others:

  • Use free online tools. There is a website developed by AAAS called my Individual Development Plan (myIDP) that has three assessments about interests, skills, and values to help you identify areas in which you excel and some that may need some improvement. There are also a handful of personality tests that can be accessed for a small fee that can get you started.
  • Do some personal reflection. Sit down and make a quick list of skills you know you have and ones that you would like to develop. Ask yourself some of the following questions: What types of things do people come to you for help? In what circumstances do you tend to ask others for help? What activities get you really excited? What projects tend to leave you exhausted and spent? How do you react to stressful situations? Really be honest with yourself when answering these questions.
  • Talk to people you trust. Ask friends, family, and co-workers if they have noticed anything that you are particular good at or areas in which you need more development. If you feel comfortable, ask your PI if they would be willing to sit down with you and discuss the strengths and weaknesses that they have seen throughout your time in their lab. These conversations can be very helpful in identifying aspects of yourself that you may not previously have been aware.
  • Reach out to professional development centers on your campus. Many universities offer funds to students for professional development. It might be worth asking if you can use these funds to take the Birkman or another personality assessment. These might also already be offered on your campus, you just need to talk to the right people.

Identifying your strengths and weaknesses is only half of the battle. Once you have a good handle on what they are, you can use this information to craft a great answer to the very popular “What are you strengths and weaknesses?” interview question (hint: no one has zero weaknesses). You want to be able to highlight what you are good at while at the same time being realistic about the areas that could use improvement. Having weaknesses is not a bad thing. Not knowing what they are or how to go about improving upon them is a bad thing. Armed with an honest assessment of where you excel and struggle, you can develop strategies for improvement, ace your interviews, and thrive in your career.

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