Ace that interview: It's all in the details

Preparation is key. Make sure you know all about the practice or organization -- and about yourself and your needs.

By John McCormack, amednews correspondent — Posted Nov. 12, 2007

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Ever been on an interview where you get asked one of those questions that make you squirm in your chair -- "If you were a tree, what kind would you be?"

You know that you need to do more than roll your eyes and shrug it off. The problem? You can't come up with a quick answer.

If you don't prepare for a job interview, you could miss out on opportunities, receive less than the optimal compensation package and, perhaps worst of all, get stuck in a position that simply is not a good fit, says Jack Valancy, a health care consultant based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Doctors need to learn to sell themselves in job interviews -- and that means lots of preparation, says Beth Ross, PhD, a New York-based executive coach.

Valancy suggests that you zero in on the following areas and come up with a list of must-haves or must-have-nots:

  • Patient cases. Will you be taking care of the types of patients that you want to take care of? Will you be getting the types of cases that you want?
  • Organizational culture. Do you want to work in a fast-paced environment, a work culture that places an emphasis on research or in an entrepreneurial atmosphere?
  • Location/lifestyle. Do you favor a small rural community or big-city life? If you have a family, how are the schools? Are there recreational opportunities nearby?
  • Compensation. Will the salary provide you with the means to maintain or improve your lifestyle? Will the benefits meet your needs? Do you think the compensation is competitive?

Antoinette Caldwell, MD, has learned the importance of making sure she knows what she wants before taking a position. Just out of her residency about 15 months ago, she was interviewed by -- and landed a job with -- a pediatrics practice in a small Kentucky town. "I wanted to do rural medicine in a community in need," she says.

But after practicing for about a year, she realized it wasn't a good fit personally. "It was a lot harder than I imagined it to be. No movies, no restaurants, no malls," she says. "During the interview process, I was focused on the job and what I could do for the community, and I didn't even consider what I wanted for my personal life outside of work."

When Dr. Caldwell decided it was time for job No. 2, she approached the interview process a little differently. "I knew what I wanted out of the job and I knew what I wanted outside of the job. So I knew what questions to ask in the job interview."

Once you know what you want, the subsequent steps are all about making sure you know whether you're right for the job and how to sell yourself to the people responsible for giving it to you.

Experts say that before you start talking, you need to know what you can offer to the practice or organization interviewing you. Dr. Ross suggests that you write out and study the following:

  • The main reason the employer would want to hire you.
  • What you have to offer in the way of experience, credentials and personality.
  • Two key accomplishments that support your interest in the position.
  • An answer to what you think might be the main objection to you as a candidate.
  • A statement of why you want to work for the organization.

Before the interview, learn as much as possible about your potential employer. Do research on the Internet, talk to colleagues, talk with friends -- and friends of friends. The more perspectives you can get, the better, says Carole Martin, principal of The Interview Coach in Burlingame, Calif., and a longtime interview expert for

If you are interviewing for an advertised job, read the job posting to get a handle on what the organization is looking for, Martin says. Make sure you can match your skills and experience to the qualifications requested.

And while preparation is paramount, it's also important to perform.

Ask the interviewer to tell you about their medical group or hospital. Then listen carefully. Take note of what the interviewer is talking about -- patient care, productivity, financial success or clinical research. As the interview progresses, tailor your responses to mesh with what is important to the organization, Valancy says.

Always remember that it's your show -- and keep bringing the conversation back to specific job skills and abilities that set you apart from the pack, Martin says.

How you present yourself during the interview should vary depending on who is talking to you.

When the interviewer is another physician, make sure to emphasize your medical and technical knowledge. Talk about past cases and how you were able successfully treat certain patients, Dr. Ross says.

When the interviewer is a financial executive, stress your ability as a revenue generator and cost-cutter. Talk about the services you could provide and the bottom-line results that you could bring to the organization, experts say.

When the interviewer is a practice partner -- and you are looking to join the group as a partner -- make sure to talk about all of the clinical and business experience that you can bring to the group. But it's important to emphasize that your experience will complement what already exists in the practice, Dr. Ross says.

It's also helpful to assess the interviewer's style. Many interviewers now use a "behavioral" technique that aims to determine how successful you will be based on your past.

To succeed in this type of interview, be ready to respond with very specific stories or anecdotes. "For example, if the interviewer asks you about dealing with difficult patients, offer a very specific example of what you did when an irate parent complained about the way you treated her daughter's upper respiratory infection," Martin says.

The trick is not to sound rehearsed, experts say. All the preparation you have done is to ensure that you have a bank of knowledge to draw on once you sit down with the interviewer. You won't need to use all of it. The point is to make yourself more comfortable and confident entering the interview, and to make the interview itself feel more like a conversation than a question-and-answer session.

"No matter what direction the interviewer is taking, you need to transform the interview into a true dialogue, not just a one-way interrogation," says Stephen Rosen, PhD, chair of Celia Paul Associates Inc., a New York-based career management firm that specializes in working with physicians.

Although a robust dialogue is great, you also need to know when enough is enough, according to Jackie Sill, a physician recruiter with Divine Savior Healthcare in Portage, Wis. Even though you want to establish rapport, offering too much personal information can backfire. "If you are in the midst of divorcing your spouse, you don't need to offer the personal details," Sill says.

Talking negatively about past employers or co-workers is also a real turn-off.

"During an interview, I once had a physician candidate say that she didn't like working with women," Sill says. "Things like that are a red flag."

Follow-up often clinches the deal for job candidates, experts say. Dr. Ross suggests sending a thank-you letter after the interview that emphasizes all your key strengths and overcomes any objections that might have been raised during the interview. She recommends that you bring index cards to each interview. Right after the interview -- whether you are in your car or sitting in the hospital lobby -- jot down the objections that were raised during your meeting. That way you will be able to craft a very specific letter.

No matter what stage of the interview process you are in, "it is always about trying to articulate why you are the best deal," Dr. Ross says.

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What's that? The real meaning behind the questions

According to interviewing expert Carole Martin, an interviewer might ask one question, while really fishing for something else. Here are some common interview questions:

Tell me about yourself: Here, the interviewer wants to learn about your job skills and work ethic -- particularly what sets you apart from other candidates. While you might have many fascinating stories to tell about growing up in a family with 12 siblings or traveling in Europe for two years with your beatnik friends, save those for after you get the job.

What are your strengths and weaknesses? Although it is easy to talk about strengths, the interviewer is likely to be more interested in hearing about your weaknesses -- and why they should not hire you. Thus, you should always present your answers so that your weaknesses appear as strengths.

Where do you see yourself in five years? With this question, the interviewer wants to know what your goals and passions are -- and if they mesh with the organization.

Name the last book you read. Why did you read it and what did you think about it? The interviewer is trying to figure out what you are really interested in. It's important to answer this question with enthusiasm and insight. Responding by saying that you can't remember the last book you've read is a mistake.

What do you like to do outside of work? On the surface, this question seems like an innocuous attempt to get to know you. But the interviewer could be trying to find out if your outside interests will interfere with work. For example, while you might be tempted to talk about how involved you are with your son's soccer team and how you sit on numerous community boards, such information could be construed as a negative by potential employers because they might think you have limited time available for work. If you are talking about your family, it might be better to talk about how supportive your spouse is and how you have a great family situation, not how demanding your family life and outside interests can be.

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? -- and other off-the-wall questions. An interviewer may use such questions to see how you react to unusual situations. It's best to quickly come up with an answer. then try to steer the conversation back to your job skills -- all without letting them see you sweat.

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Mistakes to avoid

Arriving too late, or too early: Showing up late might seem an obvious no-no, but being too early can be just as bad. Show up, say, 20 minutes early, and you're likely to be stewing on a chair while the interviewer scrambles to get ready.

Dressing inappropriately: You know better than to wear a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. But dressing inappropriately also means wearing ill-fitting clothing, or attire that might seem a bit garish. Interviewers are still used to seeing candidates in crisp, conservative business wear.

Bad-mouthing others: This trap is opened when the interviewer asks why you want to leave your current position. Even if your partners are really insufferable or your hospital is a micromanager, keep it to yourself. Instead, focus on the positives that are attracting you to the position.

Being rude: You might not bad-mouth others, and might have shown up on time, but you still can look rude if you don't seem to be taking the interview seriously. Leaving your cell phone on, looking at your watch, fidgeting in your seat, rarely looking the interviewer in the eye -- all these can have a negative effect on the rapport you and the interviewer are seeking.

Being unprepared: With all the information floating around the Internet, there is no excuse for not having researched the organization and the people interviewing you. A failure to anticipate common questions, such as career goals, practicing style, skills at working with others, and the often-asked "describe your strengths and weaknesses," also could leave you stammering and flat-footed.

Asking no questions, or the wrong questions: When the interviewer says, "Do you have any questions?" -- you shouldn't say, "No." You should have some questions in mind beforehand, or you should make a mental note during the interview of issues that haven't been discussed. Questions signal that you've been paying attention and that you're detail-oriented. But asking questions that appear to have nothing to do with the job, or are too much about what the practice can do for you and not vice versa, can be just as problematic as no questions.

Talking too much, or too little: A question about your past accomplishments should not develop into a 30-minute recitation of every gold star you've received since kindergarten. But that question, or any question, shouldn't elicit a one- or two-word answer, either. Make sure your responses are appropriate for the question, and for the amount of time needed to answer it.

Not being truthful: The Internet can help you find out a lot about a potential organization, but it also helps that organization find out about you. If you're asked a difficult question about your professional past, it's better to acknowledge it, and discuss what you learned from it, rather than deny it or blame others.

Being too rehearsed: While you should be prepared, you're not memorizing a script. You want the interview to develop into more of a conversation than an interrogation. If you prepare correctly, and listen to the interviewer, you should come across as natural and personable rather than clipped and stilted.

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Money talks -- but don't let it talk too soon

In a job interview, money can be a touchy subject -- and one on which you want to keep mum for as long as possible.

Although it's often helpful to get a general idea of the compensation range before going into an interview, offering a specific dollar amount can back you into a corner and limit the potential offer, according to job interview experts. While you might want to know what you'll get paid, or how the compensation formula works, experts say being the first to bring it up could be considered rude, or could hurt your own leverage.

"My rule is to let them fall in love with you first. You want to postpone putting a number on the table for as long as possible," says Carole Martin, principal of The Interview Coach in Burlingame, Calif.

If an interviewer asks to hear your money expectations, experts say you're better off saying you expect "fair" compensation rather than stating a dollar amount.

Once an offer is made, take ample time to evaluate the deal in its totality, considering benefits, working conditions and organizational culture, not just the salary. It's also a good idea to have a second party, most likely an attorney, provide feedback on the offer as well.

Be wary of employers or recruiters who pressure you to decide on a deal too quickly or who offer a higher bonus if you make a decision by a certain date, says Jack Valancy, a Cleveland Heights, Ohio-based health care consultant. "Tell them that you need to have time to evaluate the offer and make sure that it's a good fit."

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