6 questions to ask in your medical job search (with tips)
The job interview process involves a lot of questions. You’re trying to find the best match for your experience, work style and skills. Meanwhile, your future employer is trying to find the best match for its company culture and staffing needs. But the most important questions you ask throughout the process may be the ones that you ask of yourself. In a job market flush with opportunities, it’s important to direct your job search, narrow your options and quickly determine what setting is best for you.
David Hass, M.D., is course director for the Young Physician Leadership Curriculum for Connecticut State Medical Society/Yale New Haven Hospital and a physician with Gastroenterology Center of Connecticut. He explains, "You can’t cast a wide net and hope that every opportunity that draws you in is going to be the perfect opportunity. Instead, you need to set parameters for yourself as to what you think will really make you happy both personally and professionally."
Start with these six questions to help clarify - then achieve - your goals.
Question 1: What do I want out of my job?
As you start looking for opportunities, consider who you are personally as well as where you’re headed professionally. Focus not just on your strengths and weaknesses, but also on your personality and preferences. That will help you define what practice type, size, configuration and culture will work best for you.
Ask yourself: What do I want my work and private life to look like? Would I thrive as an employee or as an independent practitioner? Do I prefer working with other specialties or just my own? What would make me happy, confident and energetic at work?
"I tell residents, ’It’s both a good and bad [thing] that you basically can go anywhere because there are so many job options,’" says Heather Gavitt, provider recruiter for AtlantiCare in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Zeroing in on a practice type can narrow the virtually unlimited choices. "It can help you cut down on the places that you’re looking at so that you have a manageable pool before you move further and overwhelm yourself."
When Joshua Cohen, M.D., wanted a career change, he took inventory of his skills and asked colleagues and friends for input. They told him he had a knack for taking charge and would thrive in a leadership role.
Cohen came up with two goals: 1) to help a lot of people, and 2) to tackle a variety of challenges in his day-to-day work. "I wanted something that was going to be different every day," he says. "I wanted a challenge or project that I’d have to learn how to do and then integrate into my job."
He found the perfect opportunity at Teva Pharmaceuticals in Frazer, Pennsylvania, as global medical director and medical lead for migraines and headaches.
This role allows Cohen to be involved in leadership and tackle new challenges every day. Most importantly, he can focus on his passion: improving the lives of migraine sufferers. "I really wanted to do something that would be meaningful to the patients I had treated for all of these years," he says.
Question 2: Is the work environment at this practice right for me?
Your search isn’t over once you find a practice that matches your criteria. You need to evaluate the offer - beginning with the work environment. Do administrators foster a supportive environment? Will you be able to flourish as a physician and maintain a healthy work-life balance? You can get a sense of the workplace dynamic from your interactions and observations throughout the interview process. If prospective colleagues are genuinely content, you’ll feel, see and hear it.
You can ask a few questions to help assess the environment. For starters, why is the practice hiring? Longevity speaks volumes about the practice leadership, as does high turnover.
"Sometimes physicians are blinded by the things that look good," says Wanda Parker of The HealthField Alliance in Danbury, Connecticut. "But why have six people, for instance, left this practice? There could be some red flags."
You should also ask about workload and policies. How much time will you be spending at the office, and will you have enough time left over to enjoy your personal life? Is it a democratic environment where everyone has a say, or is the decision making top-down? And what about the management style? Whatever the case, you want to know that the structures and environment will suit you.
Michael Antolini, D.O., asked these sorts of questions before accepting an offer for a family practice position with Access Health in Lochgelly, West Virginia. Lochgelly is near Beckley, where Antolini had completed medical school rotations and had family. Antolini enjoyed the practice’s collegial atmosphere, and he had met several of its physicians during his rotations. "It’s always been nice to walk down the hall and bounce ideas off of people who you know and trust because they taught you what you know," he says. "I now participate in training other residents the same way."
Parin Patel, M.D., is targeting her job search by looking for an academic or hospital setting. She’s now a fourth-year obstetrics and gynecology resident at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She’s excited to merge clinical duties with teaching, and she also wants to motivate younger doctors to become leaders in their specialties. As president of the American Medical Women’s Association resident division and an active participant in American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Patel enjoys being a voice for the profession.
Wherever she ends up, Patel hopes to find a practice with colleagues who share her commitment to the underserved. "I want to work with people who understand and are supportive of someone who wants to provide care to patients potentially not able to find it anywhere else," she says.
Question 3: Can I be professionally successful here?
For a profitable, satisfying career, you need to find a position where your skills are in demand. Consider the local community and its patient population. You’ll want to know not only how your competition stacks up, but also basic information about the local economy. Will it support a stream of patients for your specialty?
Examine the professional opportunity at the practice itself. If you’re replacing another physician, you’ll likely have a patient base ready when you arrive. But if administrators plan to use your skills to grow the practice, you’ll likely have to start building your patient base from scratch.
In either case, make sure you understand how the group intends to launch you, and if they’re willing to invest in equipment and support services. If you’re a surgeon with expertise in robotics, for instance, you don’t need to bother with a practice that won’t purchase the equipment for you to do your job. "You have your skills," explains Jane Born, CEO of Born & Bicknell in Boca Raton, Florida. "You want to bring them to a facility that truly wants and needs them."
You should also ask about travel. If you’ll be practicing at more than one facility, consider how that travel time might affect your ability to see patients. Productivity impacts compensation, and splitting your time among several locations might reduce your efficiency.
"You need to ask yourself, ’How much time am I spending in my car or away from the office?’" says Patrice Streicher, associate director and professional development coach at VISTA Staffing Solutions in West Allis, Wisconsin. "How much of my life will be spent doing that compared to what I really love: practicing medicine?"
Zach Lopater, M.D., considered these sorts of questions in his last job hunt. Since radiation oncologists depend on referrals, he wanted to make sure his future employer had enough connections with other providers for him to attract patients. He knew he’d need physicians to send patients his way in order to produce consistent numbers. "The key was: ’Am I going to have enough patients?’" he says. "’Was I stepping into a hostile practice that was going down the drain, or was it a strong practice?’"
At Radiation Associates of Macon in Georgia, Lopater found exactly what he was looking for. The practice already had a close relationship with a medical oncology group in the same building, so sharing patients and information was an established routine. "It’s been a very strong practice with very good relationships," Lopater says. He now enjoys a steady stream of patients and sees a variety of cases, from breast, lung and prostate cancer to head and neck cancer.
Question 4: Is this the right community for my family and me?
It’s natural to focus on your employer during a job search, but you shouldn’t overlook the town you’re moving to. If the area is a total mismatch to your personality or your family’s personality, it can deplete your energy and drive - and make everyone unhappy.
Ask yourself and your significant other how the setting will work for you and your family. Are there professional opportunities for your spouse or partner? Plenty of activities for your children? Do the schools in the area offer what you’re looking for? Finally, does the place offer the lifestyle you want? "One exam room looks just like the next," Streicher says, "so your questions should be based on what occurs in your life and your loved ones’ lives outside of that room."
As Patel and her husband, Nikul, look for their next home, they are prioritizing proximity to a major airport nearby. And while they’re willing to live outside the Northeast, they want visiting family to be relatively easy.
It’s also important for them to be able to worship their Hindu faith as members of a BAPS temple. BAPS congregations are scattered across the country, and Patel is using their locations to direct her search. As a result, she’s expanded her options to cities that she hadn’t previously considered.
Because the denomination is closely knit, Patel anticipates knowing people already or meeting people who are familiar with her temple in New Jersey.
Question 5: What do I want my future to look like?
Think about your job not only in the short-term but also in the future. Having a sense of where the position might take you can help determine if it’s truly the best fit. Will the environment sharpen your skills? Do you expect to stay put, or is it a stepping stone to another place?
"Physicians should ask themselves, ’Where do I want to be professionally and personally in five and 10 years?’ says Emily Glaccum, recruiting principal at The Medicus Firm. "Then they need to figure out what characteristics of a practice opportunity will most likely help get them to those goals."
Lopater, for instance, put autonomy and partnership at the top of his wish list. He not only wanted a pleasant work environment but also some control over business decisions. His biggest must-have was a written guarantee that he’d make partner in two years if he showed his worth. "I wanted a position where I could stay long term and not have to uproot my family once I settled in," he says.
Other opportunities offered higher initial pay, but Lopater believed Radiation Associates had a long-term interest in him. They were willing to make a firm commitment. In turn, he was willing to make a little bit less at first because he was confident he’d be a partner in year three. It was a busy organization, and the practice recently made good on their two-year commitment by making him partner.
Question 6: What’s my fallback plan if this job doesn’t work out?
As you enter the home stretch with an offer, you’ll likely have high hopes for the future. You’ve done your homework and made informed choices. And if your initial vibes are positive, it’s hard to envision everything crashing around you. But what if things don’t unfold as nicely as you envision? Do you have a plan B? It’s smart to anticipate your next steps if your new position doesn’t live up to your expectations.
"Physicians should do what I call ’fear setting,’" says Streicher. "They should ask themselves, ’OK, if I take this job and it isn’t what I was told it would be - or the people aren’t what they appeared to be - what would I do? What are my outs?’ I think that’s really a very practical step in making a decision."
Your backup plan should lay out your options if you leave the position you’re considering. Where would you go next? What sort of practice would you look for?
If you want to remain in the same community even if you leave your job, make sure your contract has a favorable out clause. And if you’re not excited about an opportunity from the get-go, perhaps you should reconsider your acceptance. "Chances are it’s not going to work for whatever reason if you already have those feelings," says Parker.
Even if you love your job and don’t plan to look elsewhere, it’s smart to have a contingency plan. Since starting his job, Antolini has sought additional leadership roles. As medical director of four nursing home facilities, he sees 80 elderly individuals each week in addition to his clinic hours. He loves his job and the location, but he wants to have options if his circumstances change. With geriatric medicine on his CV, he’s confident.
"If it all came crashing down tomorrow, I feel good about just presenting what I’m doing," he says.