Bore no more!

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Sending a written thank-you note is a great way to stand out after an interview, says Nicholas Jones, M.D. - Photo by Kris Janovitz

Sending a written thank-you note is a great way to stand out after an interview, says Nicholas Jones, M.D. – Photo by Kris Janovitz

By the time you reach residency, you’ve done your fair share of interviews - first for colleges, then for med schools and once again for residency programs. As your job hunt begins, you may dread the prospect of enduring even more. After all, once you’ve done a few interviews, they all start to seem the same - especially if they happen virtually. Interviewers ask questions you’ve heard a million times before, and you find yourself giving the same answers over and over.

If it feels that way to you, imagine what it’s like on the other side of the table. Physician recruiters and other hiring managers have to sit through even more interviews than candidates do - season after season, year after year. So when they hear rehearsed answers from candidates, it’s only natural that their eyes glaze over and they tune out. If you want to make a good impression, it’s essential that you stand out with thoughtful, authentic answers.

So how do you avoid dull conversations and formulaic responses on the interview trail? Read on to hear tips from three seasoned physicians who know what it’s like not just as interviewees but also as interviewers.

Study up on interview skills

For most physicians, med school and residency involve virtually no training on the job search or the business side of medicine. That leaves a gaping hole in an otherwise exhaustive education, and it makes many physicians feel unprepared. From billing, human resources and marketing to salary negotiations and navigating interviews, there are all kinds of topics physicians entering today’s workforce have to figure out on their own.

That’s why Atlanta-based plastic surgeon Nicholas I. Jones, M.D., says doctors have to prepare for interviews outside of their residency training. "Physicians are so focused on learning how to operate and take care of patients that we don’t spend time doing anything but that," says Jones. "If you do pick up those skills, it’s because you actually sought them out on your own."

Travis Ulmer, M.D., an emergency medicine physician and the chief clinical recruiting officer for US Acute Care Solutions, agrees with this assessment. He says traditional medical training leaves little time to work on one’s overall career skills. As a result, he finds that most of the applicants he interviews are apprehensive about being themselves.

"They tend to stick to more robotic and canned answers," says Ulmer. But he’s optimistic about bridging the skills gap, explaining, "Getting additional interviewing practice through the use of mock interviews or talking to residency training mentors - especially the ones that interview new doctors - can go a long way."

In 2007, Ulmer completed his emergency medicine residency at Ohio State University Hospital, where he served as chief resident. He says he had to rely on natural instinct and wing it when he interviewed for his first position. He readily admits that he could have presented himself better than he did back then. "The internet and YouTube had not gotten to where [they are] today," he says. "More resources exist now to help people with many aspects of interviewing."

Top five interviewing questions

Every interview is different, as is every interviewer. But a standard set of questions is pretty common. No matter what kind of practice you’re looking at, what job you’re applying for or if the interview is virtual or in person, you can bet some of these questions will be asked:

  • Who are you? Tell me about yourself.
  • Why are you interested in this practice?
  • Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
  • What are your greatest strengths?
  • What are some of your weaknesses?

Now that he’s on the other side of the interview table, Jones says he views the standard questions with a grain of salt. "Those questions facilitate answers that are definitely rehearsed," he says. "When I interview people, I like authenticity." As a result, Jones doesn’t pay as much attention to cliché answers, but says the questions are still part of the interview ritual. And though a standard answer may not impress him, he does take note if he gets the sense that an applicant isn’t being genuine in his or her answers.

By preparing for these five questions, you’ll start out calm, confident and composed. That will help you even when the interview transitions to more difficult questions. And if you come prepared, you’ll be less likely to give lackluster responses that make your interviewer’s eyes glaze over.

"Getting additional interviewing practice through the use of mock interviews or talking to residency training mentors...can go a long way,

“Getting additional interviewing practice through the use of mock interviews or talking to residency training mentors…can go a long way," says Travis Ulmer, M.D. – Photo by Simon Yao

Avoiding cringe-worthy responses

You want to wow hiring managers with your wit, experience and charm. But that’s a lot more difficult if you consult the internet for the so-called right answers instead of using self-awareness to find an original response. Dig deep to find out what truly makes you shine, then base your answers around that. But as you’re doing so, be careful you don’t seem too candid - or worse, unprofessional.

For example, Ulmer says new physicians often make the mistake of thinking that everything will change after they leave residency. For example, some think they’ll no longer have to deal with certain types of presentations or populations. But Ulmer says difficult patients exist in every practice and in every environment.

"It’s a big red flag to hear an ER physician say they hate drug-seekers or taking care of patients who should be treated at lower levels, like urgent care," he says. "This idea of a perfect patient population is unrealistic and stands out to me as something that is going to be a problem down the line."

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Ulmer says candidates open up about their strengths and interests, but they often shy away from discussing their weaknesses. Instead of speaking candidly, they try to answer the question as positively as they can. However, Ulmer warns, "There’s only so many ways to do so without drawing some type of attention to yourself."

Giving a good response when an interviewer asks about your weaknesses requires self-awareness. It’s better to explain what you’re working on than to act as if you have no flaws. Ulmer explains, "We all know that we are not perfect clinicians. It’s a continuous journey toward that your whole career. I appreciate the younger clinicians that are aware of their weaknesses, aren’t afraid to admit them and show interest in getting better." In his opinion, only physicians who acknowledge their shortcomings can start working on them.

Jones says he encounters the most cliché responses when he asks about weaknesses. The worst offenders include: "I don’t know how to tell people no," and "I’m a perfectionist and work too hard." Saying that you don’t have - or can’t think of - any weaknesses is also cringe-worthy. That type of response indicates a serious lack of personal insight.

Tell me about yourself

This icebreaker question from hiring managers can trip up interviewing newbies. Some applicants launch into long soliloquys about their life stories. If you spend too long answering this question, you’ll use up a good portion of the interview slot talking about your personal life instead of your qualifications.

The best response to this question is an elevator pitch. Craft a succinct, informative answer that describes you in a nutshell. If you need inspiration, look at the way entrepreneurs describe their startups. Think of it as a persuasive brief to pique an employer’s interest. Then move on to the rest of the interview, so you can highlight your medical skills and experience.

Why are you interested in this practice?

Employers almost always ask this question, so you should carefully consider your answer ahead of time. A good response not only requires extensive background research on the practice and its staff but also self-reflection. You should be able to articulate how the position aligns with your skillset and personality.

Jones recognizes that new physicians often have limited information about the practice before the interview. If that’s the case, he says honesty is the best policy. If you don’t have a specific response, it’s OK to say something like: "I just really wanted to come back home, and of all the practices that I researched, you had an opening. I went to your website, saw some of your pictures, talked to some of my colleagues, and it seems like a good fit for me for these reasons."

Clive Fields, M.D., co-founder and chief medical officer of VillageMD, says he uses this question to make sure the doctors he hires have the same priorities as his organization. "I want to hear about a physician’s commitment to practice and live in the communities that we serve," explains Fields. Since VillageMD emphasizes community building, he wants doctors who will get to know everyone from the cashiers at local grocery stores to the chiefs at local fire stations.

For example, if a candidate wants to live on the north side of town because it has good elementary schools, Fields says that’s a sign it’s not a good fit. The office is 40 miles away on the south side. "Doctors may say they won’t complain about the commute, but they will complain because it is the wrong place for them to be," he says.

A compelling answer to this question can move you to the top of an employer’s list. But if you don’t have a good answer ready, it can be the kiss of death. After all, if you don’t know why you want to work somewhere, the employer doesn’t really have a good reason to hire you. Spend some time before each interview evaluating why it’s a good fit. That way, you’ll be ready to articulate a clear answer.

Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

Yes, this question has been done to death, but it’s essential for helping managers hire candidates who match what they’re looking for. An honest answer may not always land you the job, but it will almost certainly prevent years of unhappiness if you’re not a good fit.

Jones illustrates this exact point with two hypothetical scenarios: "Let’s say I work for a practice [that is] basically looking for low-paid interns for a hospital contract that pays the practice X amount of dollars to provide hospital coverage." These types of practices, he says, don’t expect you to grow a patient panel or do any of the cases. They simply need physicians to fill some shoes and may not be as worried about retention. "If that’s the case, and someone says that in five years they want to have their own practice, then they may actually be a great fit," he explains.

If, on the other hand, the practice wants to eliminate high turnover rates, someone who plans to settle down might be a better option. "If someone says that in five years they and their spouse want to settle down in the area and start a family, that sounds like a much better fit than the physician who says that in 10 years he wants to become this reality TV host doctor with his own show that earmarks him as the plastic surgeon of Atlanta," Jones explains.

Curveball questions

In other industries, interviews sometimes involve oddball questions to test critical thinking skills, problem-solving and working style. Managers lob questions like "What’s your superpower?" and "If you were an animal, which would you be?" or ask employees to tackle puzzles and challenges. For the most part, medical interviewers steer clear of this rigmarole. Instead, they tend to gauge candidates’ clinical decision-making skills with scenario-based questions.

Still, physician candidates may encounter one or two off-the-wall questions along the way. Refrain from rolling your eyes or putting up a protest. Instead, play along as best you can. There are no right or wrong answers. These questions simply exist to give hiring managers information about how you approach difficult, unexpected or high-pressure situations.

Ending with a firm footing

At the end of almost every interview, you’ll be asked if you have any questions. You might want to ask about salary, vacation, 401(k) matching and insurance coverage, but you’re better off using this time to show you understand what the practice needs and how it fits into the broader health care industry. You can do just that by:

Confirming that your skillset is a good match for the organization. You can gain valuable information by addressing some of your limitations and seeing how an employer responds. For example, you might say something along the lines of: "I did my training in a private institution and didn’t get much experience in some of the procedures you do regularly here. I’m really interested in how you will help me fill that gap."

Displaying your intellectual curiosity. Fields says he looks for candidates who ask real questions. He wants to know that a physician understands what big shifts in the medicine landscape mean on a day-to-day level at practices like his. He says well-read physicians want to learn about things like chronic care management programs, transitions of care and other coding support around clinical documentation and quality measures.

Exhibiting your commitment to the practice’s goals and mission. An interview isn’t just about your skillset. Your outlook and personal mission are also important. Show employers what you care about by asking questions like: "What kind of reputation are you trying to develop in the community?" and "How can I contribute to that effort?"

"We are looking for physicians that are asking those kinds of questions and when they do, it shows a certain amount of preparation for the organization for which they are interviewing," explains Fields. "Culturally, the kind of intellectual curiosity that we would like to see from our young doctors shows us that ultimately they are on target for becoming our old doctors and will lead our practice in the future."

How to deliver your answers

Saying the right things is only part of the equation. Your delivery and demeanor also matter. Jones, Ulmer and Fields all agree that once you have your responses down pat, it’s time to double check the five basics of physician interviews:

  1. Maintain eye contact
  2. Project appropriate body language
  3. Be articulate and specific
  4. Project confidence
  5. Dress appropriately

After the interview, Jones says there’s one more essential step. Send handwritten thank you notes to each and every person you spoke with. These should be written with pen and paper. "It goes way further than any email," he says. "If you send me an email, I may not even read it. However, if you send me a handwritten note, I think, ’This person really wants this job.’"

Marcia Horn Noyes is a frequent contributor to PracticeLink Magazine. She is a former television news reporter, newspaper and magazine journalist. She writes about health, fitness, career and frugality.

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