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Career Tracks: ‘So, Tell Me About Yourself’: How to Survive and Succeed in the Physician Job Interview

Shaw, Gina

doi: 10.1097/

By the time they are ready to apply for career positions with a neurology practice or in the neurology department of an academic medical center, senior residents and fellows have already gone through countless trials by fire: medical school interviews, residency interviews, rounding with senior physicians, and being grilled by their institution's toughest professors.

But all that doesn't necessarily provide adequate preparation for the unique challenges of the physician job interview. Career coach Sharol Tyra, BSN, saw this firsthand when she conducted mock job interviews via Skype during the AAN's Career Week in October 2011.

“I interviewed more than a dozen people, all highly educated, completing fellowships in neurology specialties and subspecialties. They'd been in school for a long time and are very accomplished,” she said. “But they were scared and hesitant about job interviews. They're used to grand rounds and talking about the patient, but they don't know how to apply that to themselves.”

Tyra and other career coaches specialize in teaching physicians — at all stages of their practice, not just newly minted residents and fellows — how to prepare for job interviews and present themselves in the best possible light. They shared some of their insights with Neurology Today.

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Before you even walk into the room — or in front of the Skype camera — for your interviews, start by organizing an excellent CV, advises Janet Bickel, a career and leadership development expert and formerly the associate vice president for medical school affairs at the Association of American Medical Colleges. Even at the early stages of a physician's career, when the CV is relatively short, it's helpful to have some sort of summary of accomplishments at the top of the CV, or attached, that is easily scanned.

“Think about what makes you special,” Bickel said. “What about your history, accomplishments, and goals might lift you above the average candidate? Doing the extra work it takes to have done that demonstrates a career savvy.”

Bickel recommends a summary document that begins with your career objective — for example: “To obtain a faculty position in a leading department of neurology.” The “objective” line should be followed by short sections for qualifications, accomplishments, and goals — bulleted items are usually easier to scan.

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The single biggest mistake young physicians make when it comes to job interviews is lack of preparation, the coaches agree. “I found that they hadn't taken the time to reflect on their own life,” Tyra said of the Skype interviews. “They're so busy and they move from the assignment to the fellowship to the paper, but they don't take the time to reflect on themselves, their values, and their calling.”

In virtually every interview, the person doing the interviewing already has your CV or resume in front of them. “Often, they'll ask you an opening ‘softball’ question, like ‘Tell me a little bit about yourself,’” said physician executive coach David Bachrach, formerly an executive in several physician-led academic health care organizations, including the University of Michigan Medical School and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “For some reason, people are surprised by this question and often stumble on it.”

The “tell me about yourself” question” shouldn't be seen as an invitation to recite the CV stats that the interviewer already has. Instead, said Bachrach, tell the interviewer something that's not apparent from your documentation. “For example, a headache specialist might say, ‘You have my CV in front of you and I'm happy to answer any questions you may have. But let me tell you why I'm so passionate about neurology and managing headache. This is one of those presentations that is often difficult to treat, and when I can help a patient get results and find a treatment that they can respond to, I find it very challenging and rewarding.’”

Tyra advises physicians to organize their thoughts before the interview, and think about things like where to place a story during the discussion. “Grand rounds is pure story, every day,” she said. “So make that connection. For example, many interviewers will ask you how you dealt with a conflict and resolved it, or what you learned from a particularly stressful or high-pressure situation. Plan ahead with stories from your residency and fellowship that shows how you addressed a difficult situation and what the outcome was.”

Have a catalog of specifics, Tyra added. When the interviewer asks you about your publication record, for example, don't just say “I've written lots of articles in peer-reviewed journals.” Instead, say something like, “I've written more than one dozen articles, but this is one that stands out for me, and let me tell you why.”

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Preparing for a job interview doesn't just mean thinking about what you'll say about yourself, your experience, and your aspirations. It also means learning about the practice or department and institution where you hope to work.

“Especially if you're interviewing for an academic position, everyone is profiled online,” said Bachrach. “Even with private practices, you should be able to at least get some sort of commercially-sponsored profile and learn things like where they went to school.”

This preparation will serve you well in an interview. For example, you might be meeting with a panel of several physicians from the neurology department. From your online research, you know that Dr. Jones directs the residency training program. If he hasn't spoken yet, you might ask, “Dr. Jones, I was wondering if you could tell me about faculty involvement with residency training? I'm very interested in teaching younger physicians.”

But preparation is not just about selling yourself to the practice or department — it's also about making sure that the practice or department is right for you. “Learn as much as possible about the organization, and whether you'd be a good fit there,” said Bickel. “Try to find out things like faculty attrition rates, the recent history of the partnership or the hospital, the environment of the whole organization — not just the neurology area.”

Then, if you find out that the program has had four directors over the last ten years, or there has been a lot of faculty attrition, or a problem was uncovered with their Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education accreditation during the last site visit, you can ask questions about those issues. “If you ask in a respectful, open-minded way, that signals to the interviewer that this person is really thinking organizationally and has a broader perspective,” Bickel said.

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What if your interviewer asks you about something you have no experience with? That's where “reframing” comes in, said Bachrach. Reframing means shaping the question in a fashion that allows you to respond.

“Politicians reframe the question so much that you'd never recognize it. That's not what we're looking for,” he cautioned. “Don't just answer the question you want to answer. You have to answer theirs. But you can reframe it.”

Bachrach offered an example from a high-level type of interview — someone interviewing for a deanship who is asked about curriculum design. “If he hasn't done this, he could say, ‘Frankly, I've never worked on curriculum design in a medical school. That's not my area of expertise. However, I'm actively engaged in teaching and have been through the teach the teacher process, so I know how to develop outcomes-based learning and I have won a teaching award.’”

After reframing, ask your interviewer, “Was that responsive to your question?”

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Whether it's in front of a mirror or with a friend or a career coach, practice these answers and the others that you might be asked. “Practice answers that are both authentic and respectful and professional,” said Bickel.

Expect some sticky personal questions like “What are your plans regarding starting a family?” or some other questions that will get at your estimate of how full-time you intend to be for the next few years. It's not illegal to ask such questions, said Bickel, as long as the responses aren't used to discriminate against the respondent. But many candidates hedge about their family plans because they don't want to sabotage their chances at a position.

“There is a tendency to lie,” Bickel said. “For example, to say that they intend to be full time when they know very well they intend to start a family. But this is about establishing a relationship, and the program director will remember your response.”

So if you're thinking about having kids soon, you might say, “My partner and I really hope to start a family in two or three years. We have family in the area and we're confident that between the two of us we'll be able to manage child care after maternity leave. I'm absolutely committed to building my career and we intend to find a way to make it work.”

If you know you will need to be less than full time for a period during your early career, it's even more important to be authentic, Bickel noted. “You want to find out how family-friendly the practice or program is. If you're not a good fit for the program, you need to know that.”

And remember that the interview is a two-way street. “It's okay to reveal your own questions, and even your own ambivalences. Be courageous enough to say, ‘I'm really interested in a faculty job in neurology and in your hospital and this is why. At the same time, I love research and education and I have questions about whether, given your clinical expectations, I would have time to dedicate myself to those missions in the way I'm hoping to.‘”

The interviewer wants to know who you really are, Tyra said. “Be your natural self in the interview. Let your values and most important features shine through.”

©2012 American Academy of Neurology