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Tips for the First Interview

by Patrick C. Alguire, MD, FACP
Director, Education and Career Development, ACP


The interview is an opportunity to "sell" yourself and learn about the practice. It's a crucial step in acquiring a position, and one of the best opportunities to determine if you are making the best, or worst, decision of your career.

First, some general rules for the interview. You'll need to dress and act in a manner that exudes confidence and professionalism. Arrive rested: never schedule an interview after you have been on call. Dress well, with shoes polished, a clean, pressed suit for men, and comparable business attire for women. Avoid using overpowering perfumes or colognes. If a scent is used, it should be subtle: when in doubt, avoid it altogether. Bring extra copies of your CV, carrying it and your other papers in an attaché case: leave the backpack at home.

Prepare yourself for the interview ahead of time. Its easy to imagine the types of questions you'll likely be asked. Increase the aura of confidence about you by having well thought-out answers to commonly asked questions. Anticipate inquiries like "Why do you want to join our practice?" and "What makes you think you'll fit in here? What experience have you had in..." or "What are your strengths?" and of course, "What are your weaknesses?"

Responding to questions about one's weaknesses is always tricky. The traditional, but somewhat hackneyed approach, is to turn the weakness into a strength. For example, "I am never satisfied with my medical knowledge, so I am constantly reading." A response like that, while unlikely to get you into any trouble, is also unimaginative and often perceived as not really answering the question. Another strategy is to honestly identify a weakness, one that the interviewer might identify with, and present it along with a plan. A more mature and sincere reply might be "I am short-tempered when stressed, and now I exercise during my lunch hour to reduce my stress and control my emotions." Albeit, this is more risky, but also more interesting and insightful than the watered-down version.

Be prepared to ask questions. Despite the fact you may be very well informed about the practice from previous phone conversations, correspondence, and personal knowledge, asking intelligent questions denotes interest and enthusiasm. Generally speaking, unless brought up by the interviewer, the first interview is not the time to discuss salary, benefits and working hours. Your job at this interview is to determine if you will like working with the group, if you will fit comfortably into their style of practice, and if you'll be treated as a valued and valuable colleague. Additionally, you'll need to collect enough information to determine if this opportunity has a high probability of providing career satisfaction.

Organize your thoughts into a systematic review of information you need to answer these questions. Don't hesitate to write your questions down, and bring the list with you to the interview. You may wish to gather information about practice philosophy, a typical working day, anticipated responsibilities, medical student and resident teaching, and opportunities for practice growth. You may wish to learn about your expected role in the practice, and what will be done by the practice to help make you successful. Getting an idea of staff, including physician, turnover, and length of employment can reveal much about the workplace atmosphere. If you are a woman joining a male-dominated practice, talk with the other women physicians. If there are none, find out if other women have left the practice: track them down and speak to them about their experience.

At the beginning of the interview, greet the interviewer with a firm handshake, maintain eye contact, and use the interviewer's name early and frequently. Memorize the names of the other associates and staff you have met or communicated with, and use their names during the conversation. Maintain your focus. When asked a question, despite the fact you have previously thought out answers to common questions, answer what is asked without digressing into areas unrelated to the question. Concentrate on making your points concisely and coherently.

By the end of the day, make sure you have met all members of the practice. If you have not, insist, politely but firmly, that you need to meet with the remaining members at some time in the near future. Over the lifetime of your career, you will see more of the practice group than you will your own family, so it's best to know all of the members as well as possible before you make any decisions about joining. Before you leave, establish a clear understanding of expectations. Will you contact them if you remain interested, or will they contact you? If so, when? What more information do they need from you, or you need from them? How and when will this information be forthcoming?

Finally, the first interview should include some information about the surrounding area. Many practices can provide you with information about housing costs, school systems, cultural activities, and entertainment. A short tour of the area can be included, if you ask. If you are invited back for a second interview, ask that your spouse or significant other be invited. Most practices will support this additional expense.

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