Acing the interview

January 8, 2001

All the cliches about first impressions apply, so don&t just walk in and hope potential employers like you. Prepare, rehearse, and show them you&re a solid professional.

 

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Landing the job you want

Acing the interview

Jump to:Choose article section... Advance preparation Questions you'll be asked Questions you should ask Before you leave How to size up a practice Tip:

All the cliches about first impressions apply, so don't just walk in and hope potential employers like you. Prepare, rehearse, and show them you're a solid professional.

By Toni L. Goldfarb

"Dr. Johnson will see you now." For a job interview, that is, not a medical exam. But darn the luck: At the very moment you were hoping to be your sharpest and coolest—you don't want to blow this, after all—anxiety kicks in.

What you may not realize is that Johnson and his colleagues are probably as anxious as you. They're physicians, not professional recruiters, and they may have little or no experience in interviewing and evaluating a job candidate. They've reviewed many CVs and thought yours stood out. You could be the right choice for their practice. They don't want to blow this, either.

So relax. Your objective is to make the interview a win-win encounter for both parties. A win for you means you get a job offer and enough information to decide whether you want to work at the practice. A win for your interviewers means they learn enough about you to calm any apprehension about hiring you.

Advance preparation

How do you give yourself the best chance to win? Start with some legwork. Request a brief bio about each person you'll be seeing, and a full agenda of the meetings you'll attend. Learn as much as you can about the practice and how it's organized, to determine where your abilities and skills might fit in. Identify any information gaps, and assemble a list of questions you still need to ask.

"Don't hesitate to bring your list to the interview," advises internist Patrick C. Alguire, Director of Education and Career Development at the American College of Physicians­American Society of Internal Medicine in Philadelphia. "That shows you're interested and you've done some homework."

Next, prepare to sell yourself. Learn to articulate your good points. List the reasons you'd be an asset to this particular practice. Many interviews begin with a broad, open-ended question: "Tell us about yourself" or "Why do you think you'd be a good addition to our group?" This is no time to formulate an answer; have one ready.

For example, if you currently have a job or have held a previous position, give concrete examples of how you've achieved positive results. Emphasize what you've done and what the outcome was, to give the interviewers a better idea of how you function.

Another particularly strong selling tool is the "value added" concept. Steve Korinek, a vice president at Merritt, Hawkins & Associates, a health care recruiting firm in Irving, TX, explains: "It's not enough to say you can see this number of patients and work this number of hours. You've got to go beyond the basics, to serve the practice and the community. It's about adding to the value of the practice."

For instance, many practices now have Web sites. If you're a budding Web wizard, that skill may let you add more value to the practice than most other candidates could. If you speak Spanish, explain how you could do community outreach to help the practice grow. Develop some personal value beyond doctoring.

Preparing for a successful interview also requires attention to the little things. Get detailed travel instructions, for example. Being late to an interview is inexcusable. Pack your attache case with bios, agenda, travel directions, your list of questions, notes regarding your conversation fillers, the selling points about yourself, several extra copies of your CV, some pens, and a notepad. A tape recorder is not appropriate at an interview.

Questions you'll be asked

Whether or not you think this is the perfect job opportunity, your goal is to get an offer, so put your best face forward. Bring energy and a smile. You'll be judged first on your personal impression, then on the intelligence of your conversation. So try to strike a balance between formality and friendliness. "The interview should be about 70 percent social and only 30 percent professional," says Steve Korinek. "If you're truly prepared for your visit, it's mostly an opportunity to see how well you'll relate to the people on the staff and in the community."

Adds Eileen Duffy, owner of Trapani & Associates, a physician search firm in New Orleans: "The interview is largely a subliminal thing. After you leave, you want their minds to retain the picture of a solid professional."

It's easy to predict many of the questions you'll be asked: Why do you want to join our practice? What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? You should prepare standard answers that you can deliver in a conversational manner, says Lorna Lindsey, director of academic affairs for CompHealth, a medical staffing firm based in Salt Lake City. "Rehearse your answers by saying them out loud," she advises. "Role-playing with a friend who will ask you tough questions—and who'll follow them up with even trickier questions—can help. It increases your comfort level, so your answers come out more naturally. You'll do better than if you just go in and wing it."

Strengths are easy enough to think of, but be specific. Mention them, and, if you can, offer an example. Don't be afraid to note any special recognition, awards, or honors you've received, as well as the clinical areas in which you shine.

What about your weaknesses? Here's where many interviewees stumble. The traditional but often unsatisfactory approach is to mention a "weakness" that's actually a disguised strength. For example, "I'm never satisfied with my medical knowledge, so I'm constantly reading." According to Alguire, that response won't get you into trouble, but it's unimaginative, and you may be perceived as slick and evasive.

An alternative is to mention an honest weakness that the interviewer can identify with, but include a plan to manage it. For instance, "When I'm too busy, I tend to get disorganized. But I've learned to make checklists of things to do so I'm sure everything is attended to on time."

Another minefield question is "Why do you want to change jobs?" Resist any urge to trash your current employer, says Sue Cejka, founder of Cejka & Company, a physician recruitment firm in St. Louis. If you say your current practice is a zoo or call your boss a jerk, the interviewer may wonder whether you're a chronic complainer. Instead, take a positive approach, such as, "It's a good practice, with good doctors, but I'm looking for better opportunities for advancement." If you can't be positive, give a neutral answer: "We have philosophical differences," for example. Just be ready to discuss them.

One weakness many physicians would rather not discuss is a malpractice claim. "It doesn't matter whether the claim is frivolous or justified. You should mention it anyway," advises attorney Nancy J. Rudolph from the risk management department at Frontier HealthCare in White Plains, NY. "It just isn't smart to begin a new job hiding information that may come back to haunt you."

Other common interview questions include: What are your clinical interests and proficiencies? How do you deal with managed care? How many patients do you generally see each day? How do you score on patient satisfaction surveys? Are there any patients you hate to work with? Think carefully about how to answer, then run your answers past your mentor or a colleague you trust.

Questions you should ask

You want to present yourself at an interview in the best possible light, but you also need to elicit answers to some difficult questions. If you don't ask them, the interviewer may conclude that you're not interested or not well prepared.

Your list of questions should include:

• What specific qualities are you looking for in a new associate?

• Does the community need physicians in my specialty?

• How many patients will I be expected to see daily and weekly?

• How will you help me build my patient base?

• What hours will I be expected to work?

• What's the call schedule?

• What percentage of the practice's payers are managed care, fee-for-service, Medicare, and Medicaid?

• How long have doctors and clinical and administrative personnel been with the practice?

• Have any of the senior partners announced retirement plans? If so, what is their timetable? When do senior partners plan to retire?

• Does the practice plan to expand, and could I play a part in that?

• What's the timetable and formula for buying into the practice?

• How are income and expenses divided among physicians?

• What is the benefits package?

Notice that questions about compensation come last. Otherwise, you'll seem mercenary. It's more important to learn about the practice and its patients, to determine if this is a place you'd want to work. If you get some private, one-on-one time with a doctor, you might ask, "What do you like best about working here?" Or "What bothers you most about this job?"

If the practice's goals match your own, you'd probably be happy in that environment. If so, don't hesitate to express your positive feelings, Cejka advises. "When it's a choice between two equally qualified candidates, an organization nearly always makes its offer to the one who shows the most interest in the position and who seems most likely to accept it."

The end of the interview is the time to find out about the starting salary, signing bonus or productivity bonus (if any), income guarantees, and any costs you may be expected to assume, such as malpractice insurance premiums.

Personal situations may prompt other questions. For example, if you're a woman and the practice is male-dominated, ask about other women physicians there. Find out whether any have left the practice, and why, Alguire advises. Also ask, if applicable, about employment opportunities for your spouse and area schools for your children. According to Patrick J. Molloy, a career consultant in Manhasset, NY, surveys show that dissatisfaction with local schools is a major reason physicians leave a practice.

In addition, ask about local entertainment, community activities, and organizations that you and your family might participate in, to become a part of the community. "One of the comments we recruiters often hear is 'We're looking for someone who wants to be here long term,' " says Korinek. "So questions that show an interest in the community make the candidate stand out in an interviewer's mind."

Before you leave

After the formal interview, candidates usually get to tour the facilities and meet with other physicians and administrative personnel. Following that, you may be invited to dinner with staff members. Don't let down your guard—you're still in the interview process.

"Recruiters call this the 'restaurant test,' " Korinek says. "They want to see how you relate to colleagues and to people at all levels, even the wait staff. They're looking for a team player, not just someone with medical credentials, and this is an indication of how you'd act with referring physicians and patients."

If you really want the job, don't make them wonder whether you do. Say so in no uncertain terms: "This seems like a wonderful place to practice. I know I'd be happy here." Don't be discouraged if that doesn't bring an immediate job offer, however. Practice members may need time to evaluate other candidates or to discuss the terms of the contract they could offer you.

Before you leave, Alguire advises, establish a clear understanding of expectations. If both sides remain interested, will you contact them or will they contact you? And when? What other information should they send to you, and you to them? Will they require a second interview?

Finally, be sure to thank everyone you've met for the opportunity to speak with them. And don't forget to send a thank-you note afterward, to restate your interest and reiterate why you'd be right for the position. Even if you don't want the job, a polite note is a must. "You never know if you'll be in contact with that practice again sometime down the road," says Eileen Duffy. "If you didn't send a thank-you, they'll remember!"

The author is a freelance writer in Teaneck, NJ.

How to size up a practice

In a presentation she made to senior residents, Phoenix pediatrician Prabodh A. Hemmady included this advice on how to investigate a practice opportunity. Here are five categories to consider, along with suggested questions:

Philosophy and mission. What are the goals of the practice? Does it have a mission statement? Ask senior people what they value in this practice.

Resources. Human resources—physician partners, nurses, front office staff—can truly make or break your workday. Is the staff large enough? Is morale high? Do staff members get along with each other?

Physical resources also tell a great deal about the practice. Look into the examination rooms. Find out where patient charts are kept. Are all areas neat, fully stocked, and well-organized?

Environment. Walk through the entire practice site, including the waiting room, the staff lounge, and physician offices. If you were a patient, would you feel comfortable?

Daily operations. How long do patients wait before being seen? How are they triaged? How are patient calls handled? How is paperwork and billing handled? What are the weekend hours?

Technology. Are computers used for making schedules, storing laboratory data, or maintaining electronic medical records? Does the practice have a transcription system? Are these systems working well?

 

Tip:

 

Toni Goldfarb. Acing the interview. Medical Economics 2001;1:69.