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8 Insider Tips for Acing that Attending Job Interview

Dan Cremons
03/15/2023
8

Once upon a time in the magical land of Medicineville, there lived a Chief Resident named Dr. Fumbles. Dr. Fumbles had spent years toiling away in the hallowed halls of med school and the trenches of residency, learning her craft—knocking down every board exam and crushing every clinical along the way. She was a doctor-extraordinare in the making.

The end of residency drew near, and Dr. Fumbles was about to turn the corner into the attending world. The years of hard work were about to pay off. And the only dragon left to slay—the only barrier standing between her and the attending role of her dreams—was...

The interview. (*Cue the dramatic music*)

"No big deal," Dr. Fumbles thought. She had the med school grades, the residency recommendation letters, and a golden smile to boot. She could recite medical literature chapter-and-verse. So as the interview approached, she self-assuredly thought, "Pshhh... it's in the bag."

Armed with a well-polish resumes and a crisp suit jacket, Dr. Fumbles rolled into interview day with the confidence of a Madison Avenue ad executive.

But on that interview day Dr. Fumbles' brain suddenly decided to take a vacation to Bermuda. And as the interview ensued, the words stumbled out of her mouth like clumsy acrobats, forming a tangled mess of incoherent sentences. The more she tried to impress, the more she managed to bewilder the interviewers with confusing anecdotes and rambing answers. She spilled coffee on her shirt, mispronounced the name of the hospital she was interviewing at, and even managed to accidentally knock over a potted plant while attempting to shake the interviewer's hands.

It was a a comedy of errors, a symphony of calamity. And it was on that day that Dr. Fumbles' dreams of landing the attending job of her dreams were dashed, her career aspirations on life-support thanks to a career-threatening case of overconfidence and underpreparedness.

The morale of the (admittedly overdramatized) story: Don't be Dr. Fumbles and flub the interview. You've worked too hard to get to where you are.

Want to ace your attending interviews? This article will help.

The Problem with Interviewing

If you’re a physician who is still in training, but about to turn the corner into the attending world, you’ve worked your tail off to get to where you are. And you want to make sure the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears pay off when you become an attending. You want to land a great job... and when you do, you want to make sure you earn what you’re worth.

Doing this comes down to doing 2 basic things:

First, nailing the attending interviews—which we'll share 8 insider tips for doing in this article.

And second, negotiating well, so you can ensure that the offer you’re accepting reflects your value—which we'll cover in a separate article.

As you get out and start doing interviews for attending roles, this is the 1-2 punch that will help ensure you earn what you're worth.

The problem for many physicians in-training is: med school and residency don't prepare you well in these areas. This is a bummer, and a bit ironic. Med school / residency is nothing if not intensive, and most good programs go to great lengths to prepare you for the high-stakes realities of being a practicing attending. But when it comes to the gating factor to actually becoming an attending— the INTERVIEW—the preparation is sorely lacking.

And as the tale of Dr. Fumbles illustrates, being a good student or a good resident doesn't automatically translate into being a good interviewer.

When my wife was at this stage of her career—finishing her training and interviewing for attending roles—she’d always say that med school and residency did very little to prepare her for actually interviewing and negotiating a job offer offer.

But fear not: I’ve hired interviewed hundreds of people in my career outside of the medical world, and negotiated dozens of offers and employment agreements.

And my co-founder at Equitta (the vice Chairman of a successful surgery program) and my wife (a practicing radiation oncologist) have together interviewed dozens of doctors over time.

So we put our heads together to come up with this short field guide for physicians who are or will be interviewing for attending roles. Between the three of us, we've seen every interview mistake in the book. In this article, I'll share the gnarliest, costliest, and most common interview mistakes physicians make, and exactly how to avoid them.

Ready to ace the interview so you can land the job of your dreams and earn what you’re worth? Let's get into it!

8 Common Interview Mistakes... and How to Avoid Them

Mistake #1: Failing to Prepare

Ever heard the old Benjamin Franklin quote, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." In no place is this more true than in interviewing (or maybe doing a life-or-death surgery).

Now, I’m sure as a physician who has been preparing for years—for exams, for boards, for clinicals—this one is pretty obvious. But first things first: don’t go into an interview cold. Be sure you prepare. I recommend preparing in a few specific areas:

Study up on the institution or practice you’re interviewing at. The history. The treatment types they’re known for. Know everything you can about the institution or practice... and about the people who will be interviewing you. The internet is a wonderful thing! 

Practice common interview questions. Off the bat, a few questions you’re almost guaranteed to get are: "Tell me about yourself" // “Why did you choose this specialty?” // "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" // “What’s the most challenging case you’ve faced, and how did you deal with it?” Prepare thoughtful, concise, and honest answers to these types of questions in advance, and practice these. You don't want your answers to seem scripted, but you do want to feel like you have a strong command of the key points you want to hit.

Assemble a list of questions you have. We'll come back to this shortly.

Mistake #2: Failing to Establish Rapport

The reality is: in interviews and life, first impressions matter. And like it or not, your interviewer is likely to make snap judgments about you based on the first minute or two of your interaction. This is just human nature.

Because of this, if you want to win the interview, you have to win the first few minutes of the interview. You want to aim to demonstrate warmth and competence early on in your interactions with an interviewer. Doing so comes down to some basic things that often get overlooked in the nervousness of the moment:

Nail the greeting. Greet your interviewer with a firm handshake, eye contact, and enthusiasm– which signals interest in the position… and in the person.

Use the interviewer’s name. As Dale Carnegie said in the self-development classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, "Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language."

Be interested. The best way to become interesting is to become interested. Demonstrate interest in your interviewer by asking about them. An easy question that establishes rapport and breaks the ice is, "So Doctor Smith, how long have you been with this group?"

These simple things can go a long way towards establishing good, foundational rapport with your interviewer, which sets a good tone for everything that follows in the interview.

Mistake #3: Forgetting Your "Why"

Two of the questions you’re almost guaranteed to get in an interview—and which together can have a big impact on your overall candidacy—are “Why did you want to go into this specialty?” and “Why do you want to work here?”

If your answer is authentic, clear, and compelling, it can go a LONG way in the eyes of the interviewer. If your answer is unoriginal or boring, you've missed a golden opportunity to set yourself apart from other interviewees.

So get clear on your "Why"—why you chose this specialty, and why you're attracted to this hospital or practice. To do so, look within. Reflect. You could have done anything with your life and career, so why did you choose this path? And then consider: is there a story that brings to life why you wanted to be a doctor? Or was there a specific inciting moment when you knew you wanted to go into your specialty?

Vague, generic answers like “I love helping people.” are sure to weaken your case. The fact that you got into medicine to "help people" is admirable, but unremarkable and undifferentiated.

Stories are a great way to bring your Why to life, and differentiate you from the scores of candidates who will probably give a more generic, uninspired answer.

Mistake #4: Rambling

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, and let me tell you: nothing will lose an interviewer’s attention like long, rambling answers. Now, I'll admit: I don't have the longest attention span (as my wife will attest). But by failing to be succinct and pithy in your answers, you're bound to lose even the most patient and attentive interviewer's attention.

Clear, to-the-point communication is important in virtually any job, but it's especially for positions in medicine in which being able to communicate quickly and effectively is essential for patient safety. So, you want to demonstrate your ability to do this within the interview setting.

My advice, when it comes to responding to interview questions is to keep your answers short and sharp, like a scalpel.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re asked what your greatest strength is. Here’s a simple formula you can use (practice this!):

Start with the "headline." For the "strengths" question, your headline might be: “Others who I’ve worked with will tell you I’m great at keeping calm in stressful situations.”

Share a piece of supporting evidence. Something that will make this claim credible. Here, you might say, “My co-residents used to call me ‘Steady Eddie’ because of this.”

Share a short story or anecdote. Nothing brings an answer to life like a short, illustrative story. The key is short. In this example, you might say, “One example where this attribute came in handy was when the ER lost power and the backup generator didn’t kick in right away…”

Mistake #5: Failing to back up your answers

This one relates to the point above, but is worth calling out separately. The best way to stand out in an interview is to back up your skills and experiences with cold, hard evidence. Stories that illustrate where you excel. Anecdotes that highlight how you’re unique. Data that demonstrates what you’ve accomplished.

On the flipside, the best way to fade into the crowd of other applicants is to say the do the same ol’ thing most others do: share these kind of generic assertions—like "I’m a hard worker." or “I’m a team player.”—without any real evidence to back you up.

Skilled interviewers see right through this. Anyone can say they're a "team player," and for an interviewer, this is likely to go in one ear and out the other... UNLESS you bolster this point with something like: "My colleagues will tell you I will often stay late or come in on Saturday's to help the younger residents prepare for board exams."

This is much more compelling, believable, and powerful than just saying, "I'm a team player."

Mistake #6: Acting like a know-it-all

Let’s be real folks: no one likes a know-it-all, am I right? Sure, confidence is important in an interview. No one wants to hire a shrinking violet. But there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

Arrogance is a generally unattractive quality, and gives the impression that you are unwilling to listen or learn—which isn't a signal you want to send if you're interviewing for a physician role where listening and learning are critical to success. It is important for candidates to demonstrate their knowledge and experience, but also be aware that they may not know everything—especially in the vast and dynamic field of medicine.

Being self-aware of the areas where you're focused on improving and growing—and and being able to demonstrate a desire to grow and improve in the interview—is going to signal employers that you are self-aware and willing to learn. As an interviewer, counter-intuitively, few candidate qualities are more attractive than self-awareness and humility.

Mistake #7: Failing to ask thoughtful questions yourself

Most interviewers will give you a chance to ask questions at the end of the interview. Asking good questions is a chance to demonstrate your thoughtfulness and diligence—and, of course, get answers to the things you need to know to know if the job is a good fit for you.

There are some common questions that interviewing doctors should ask (but often don't) including questions about call schedule, rounding, types of patients and procedures, patient volume, expectations in the job, and the department’s biggest priorities. These are all things you'd probably want to know about to be able to determine whether the role and the setting are a good fit for you.

And asking these questions demonstrates a quality that is very valuable in a physician: diligence.

So, create a list of questions ahead of time. Things like: Can you describe the types of patients I would be working with in this role? // How does this organization prioritize patient care and safety? // What is the team dynamic like within this department?

Mistake #8: Failing to follow up.

Assuming you've nailed the interview using the pointers I've shared above, the final step—the icing on the cake—is to follow up thoughtfully and proactively after the interview.

This is the easiest part of the interview. It is a total gimme, but ironically, doesn't happen often enough.

Some things I'd suggest including in your follow up note to interviewers: 

Thanks. Reiterate your gratitude for the interview and the interviewer's time

Reiterate the connection. Reference any personal connection you had with them. If you both have a passion for research on head-and-neck cancer, say "I especially enjoyed hearing your take on the head and neck cancer study you're working on."

Reiterate your interest. Assuming you're actually interested in the role, reiterate your interest, and share why. Don't just say, "I continue to be interested." But say, "I'm very interested in the position because of your department's focus on patient safety, the sense of teamwork, and your unique approach to treating head and neck cases."

Make sure they got what they need. Ask them, "Were there any additional questions I could answer for you about my candidacy?"

Pro-tip for your follow-up: you'll earn major bonus points if you put this into a short handwritten letter. Over 15 years of interview hundreds of people, I've received <5 handwritten follow-ups. But I remember them! This is a great way to stand out from the crowd—which is what interviewing is all about!

Important Note: This blog post is intended to provide general information and should not be considered as professional advice nor investment advice. Please consult with a qualified financial or insurance professional for personalized guidance based on your specific circumstances.

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