Career Focus

How to be interviewed

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 21 September 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:S2-7059

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There are two sides at every job interview. Mark Sudlow, research training fellow and experienced candidate, and veteran appointments panellist Peter Toghill, the director of continuing medical education at the Royal College of Physicians, offer advice to candidates from opposite sides of the table

The candidate…

We are people of many parts, used to projecting the required competence and personality. Doubtless the parts you played yesterday (action hero in casualty, well informed academic at the lunch time meeting, bemused innocent with x ray) were all genuine, but, nevertheless, you played them consciously, and you played them rather well. Job interviews are a time to employ this talent for method acting.

The interview has two aims; to establish your professional competence, and to explore your personality. Nowadays, whatever your grade, it will usually be carried out by a committee of 6-10 people and be fairly standardised. They will have in front of them a “person specification.” You need a shrewd idea of what is on that piece of paper. Your task is to fit the description, and then to add extra to get ahead of the other shortlisted candidates.

You need reliable information about the job itself. Some may be present in the job description, but the best source of information will be the person doing the job at the moment and those around them. Visit the unit and talk to these people.

You want some facts: what conditions the unit sees most frequently, what it considers itself to be good at, what the current postholder does with his or her time and his or her specific skills. If post holders perform procedures or treat particular conditions frequently then you must find out whether they did this from day one, or whether they learnt about them during the appointment. Secondly, you want to know about the personality of the unit and of the staff there.

The subjects that come up at interview are predictable. Thought is difficult under stress, so prepare the content and delivery of your spontaneous answers in advance. If you have the chance to practise then take it.

There will be some searching questions on your experience in the field and especially on your experience with conditions seen, and procedures performed, on the unit. You should know what these are likely to be. Almost always the answer is either to provide clear evidence that you can do the thing, or to provide evidence of the experience you have, look interested and look forward to more exposure to whatever it is. Lying is pointless (and leaves you in a difficult position if they appoint you), but you can portray yourself positively.

Certain questions seem to arise regardless of the post. Experience of organisation and management is increasingly regarded as something important, so at the very least look interested in the issues. Teaching and research skills come up frequently, especially on academic units.

Personality is usually the tie breaker between candidates and often more. You want to come across as the sort of person the interviewers would like to work with. There may be specific features for the unit, but generally this means being bright, stable, and controlled, with good interpersonal and leadership skills, while being reasonably relaxed, conscientious and warmhearted. These are characters you play regularly, and are probably not difficult for you. The enemy is fear. I am prone to interview nerves. Deep breaths before going in, deliberately relaxed body language, and recalling that “the interviewers are pretty similar to me except a bit older,” seem to help.

Frequently there are direct personality questions; your strongest point, greatest weakness, ability to deal with stress and so on. Interviewers are making notes under “personality” at this point, so as well as preparing a good answer, you must deliver it in a way that reflects other positive aspects of your character.

Finally, you need to be remembered when it comes to the reckoning. It would be ideal to be the candidate who came out with outstanding experience or personality on the standard questions, but if you have a useful skill or experience, an outside interest or unusual qualification, then try to flag it on your CV or application, and mention it if the opportunity arises.

“Failure” is no matter for self reproach. Try to learn from the process, but remember that factors beyond your influence may have clinched the decision.

The interviewer…

The interview really starts with the preparation of the shortlist. This can be a formidable exercise and requires all members of the interviewing committee to scrutinise curriculum vitae submitted in support of the applications. Candidates for posts at all levels tend to forget that a stylish, concise and accurate curriculum vitae is more likely to appeal than a turgid document padded out with irrelevant material. Doctors are often uncertain how much non-medical information can be inserted. This needs discretion but carefully chosen vignettes may prime questions at subsequent interview. Playing in orchestras, travel through Patagonia and possession of athletics blues all provide talking points and often indicate well rounded personalities.

Each committee member is asked to prepare a shortlist, usually of not more than six, and the consensus view is obtained. This is not always easy and it may be necessary to hold a special shortlisting meeting. It is a waste of time and resources calling unsuitable candidates for interview just to make up numbers.

There are statutory requirements for the composition appointment committees, which consist of 6-10 people with representatives from the appropriate royal college, specialist interests, local consultants and administrators. The chairman is often a lay person.

Hopefully the local administration will have arranged for the candidates to arrive at intervals, say every 20-30 minutes. Speaking from personal experience as an interviewee, it can be an exasperating experience to be asked to attend for interview at 2pm and, after the usual alphabetical procession of candidates, to be called in at 4.30pm. The chairman must apportion times and agree the order of questioning; it is customary to move the starting point round the table. It is not necessary for every panel member to ask questions of every candidate and there is no merit in stringing out a particular interview if it soon becomes obvious that the candidate is unsuitable.

Now for the interview itself. The chairman should do his or her best to put candidates at ease and should introduce members of the committee. While a relaxed atmosphere is to be encouraged this is not the time or the place for the interviewing panel to be drinking tea or eating sandwiches.

The two aims in an interview are to establish professional competence and to explore an individual's personality. Many interviews start by the the candidate being asked to describe the development of his or her career. This will, of course, be summarised in the curriculum vitae which, hopefully, everyone will have read. The primary object of this initial approach is to break the ice and to get people talking. One candidate that I interviewed replied testily to such a question, “Haven't you got all those details in front of you?” Tact is sometimes a valuable commodity and that was not a good start. Incidentally, because this first question is so predictable, it is a part of the interview which candidates can rehearse with friends or colleagues.

When questioning is taken up by other members of the committee they must consolidate the assessment of professional competence. Candidates who attempt to bluff or bamboozle their way through interviews are usually quickly exposed. I often feel that too much emphasis in interviews for clinical posts is placed on research. One outpatient clinic per week and a night on call every month by a research fellow cannot be equated with full time clinical work even though it may be described on the CV as an “honorary registrar.”

Sometimes, as an interview progresses, a candidate may begin to sow doubts in the committee's mind about his or her commitment to or enthusiasm for the job. If it is not the right job for that person then a decision must be made there and then. Nothing is worse than making an appointment, only to hear that it has been turned down two or three days later. At more senior levels candidates are always asked about research and long term developments. Answers need to be carefully prepared and committees are not impressed by unrealistic schemes or ambitions blurted out on the spur of the moment. The interviewing panel should not ask questions on race, religion or personal matters.

After the candidate has left the room the references, usually three, are read out by a member of the administrative staff. They are not recirculated and should be destroyed after the interview. Sadly, references are often not particularly helpful, sometimes reflecting too powerfully the personality of the writer. Some are so enthusiastic that they resemble citations for a Nobel prize; occasionally they are unnecessarily scathing. “Here comes the kiss of death,” a colleague always used to say as we listened to references from a professor of medicine at one university.

Most appointment committees try to reach a conclusion and make a recommendation for appointment immediately after the interviews. Technically the appointment committee can do no more than recommend to the employing authority but its decision is rarely overturned. Having accepted an appointment the successful candidate is expected to keep his word. Finally, a few kind and sympathetic words to the unsuccessful candidates from a member of the panel never come amiss.

BMJ 1983; 286:706-7.


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