Intended for healthcare professionals

Career Focus

Consultant interviews are different

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 13 August 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:s73
  1. Michael Harrison, medical doctor and trainer
  1. info{at}


There is a huge gap between specialist registrar and consultant roles. As Peter Reynolds and Michael Harrison explain, this is reflected in consultant interviews

Advance preparation for consultant post

  • Ensure CCST (Certificate of Completion of Specialist Training) date is confirmed and relevant paperwork is completed

  • Personal development plan and portfolio are current

  • Do you meet the essential criteria for other posts being advertised within your specialty? If not, you'd better do something about it!

  • How many of the desirable criteria are you able to meet? Could any more be quickly gained by going on a course or a training day?

  • Network with colleagues to find out what posts are likely to be coming up, and to let them know that you are likely to be interested

  • Involve family in life changing decisions

“Don't worry about it. Practically everyone fails their first consultant interview.” How many times have you heard this? And more importantly, if it's true, why is it happening? Why are highly trained, interview-experienced professionals failing to impress a panel consisting at least in part of their potential colleagues? Or is it just another part of the mythology that surrounds senior interviews?

Part of the problem is that it's different. No longer are you being interviewed for a job lasting six to 12 months—you're being interviewed for a post that may last 35 years. It's imperative that you can work well and get on with colleagues; even with the new consultant contract you might well be spending more time with them than your family. So you need to make the right choice, and need to make it quickly. Time between an advert, closing date, the interviews, and appointment may only be a few weeks. So you need to start preparing yourself many months in advance. (see box)


This puts lots of pressure on you and your family, who have supported you up to this stage. Lifestyle changes, moving house, changing children's schools, and moving away from local friends and support networks are major causes of stress. Perhaps it's the weight of these responsibilities that causes doctors to fail. Perhaps, but we're doctors—we should be used to making decisions and dealing with pressure.

The pre-interview visit

A pre-interview visit allows a trust a chance to consider your suitability for the post, and allows you an opportunity to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your working life there, or at least a large chunk of it. You can go for a pre-application, pre-shortlisting informal visit. This should be exactly what it says. No commitments expected, and while there you should check out the locality for houses, what you get for your money, access to motorways, local schools, and any other number of factors that will have an impact on living there. If you decide to apply for the job and are shortlisted you will often be given a list of people to see. Depending on who you are steered towards, the best person to start with is either the lead consultant or the clinical director. You will also see the chief executive, the medical director, and the directorate manager and will need to meet other consultants, relevant senior nursing staff, and also the lead clinicians from allied specialties. Typically, a cardiologist should see the cardiothoracic surgeons; the obstetrician should see the paediatricians, and almost everyone should consider seeing the anaesthetists. You may also be steered in other directions to meet key administrative people.

When you are researching the post, information is vital. Get hold of the annual report, look at the hospital star ratings, financial status, any current publicity, and so forth. A night spent on Google can be profitable provided you don't get sidetracked.

At the interview

It goes without saying that this may be the most important interview you have ever attended, so getting properly prepared is critical. The panel is likely to include the chairperson, chief executive, medical and clinical directors, college and university representatives, potential consultant colleagues, trust manager and human resources representation. These panel members have fairly predictable interviewing roles, which means you can prepare yourself for many of the questions they may choose to throw at you.


Most questions fall into two categories. They are either fact based (which can be learnt), or problem based, which require insight, maturity, and experience. One particular subset of questions that doctors often answer less well in senior interviews relate to personal attributes or attitudes.

In feedback from our interview skills training course, and our personal experience, we have numerous anecdotes of interviews where doctors have done well, and others where they have tripped up.

One consultant was asked, “Is there anything you would like to add or remove from your CV before we start?” The candidate was completely thrown. He thought that the implication was that his CV was dishonest. Yet all that was implied was if there was anything new to be added since he had been shortlisted. In this case the doctor had attended a resuscitation course refresher where the college representative had been an instructor.

A colleague was asked by a chief executive, “As a rower of repute at university did you prefer competing alone or in the eight, and why?” The answer, “Alone because I could always rely on myself doing a good job and not have to risk the possibility of being let down by my team,” was probably not the answer being looked for.

Another consultant showed how humour and quick thinking can impress the panel. On being asked what she remembered most about her managerial course she answered, “Being seven months pregnant on the top of a pinnacle of rock, in the pouring rain and pitch dark, with a huge flashlight communicating to my colleagues in another valley a grid reference, all so that we could find an imaginary ghost on Dartmoor.” The panel went on to ask her how she might apply that to her NHS practice. She was appointed.

In summary, a great CV, thorough preparation and research, a bit of luck, and you'll get the job you really want. And you may even get it first time. ■

Further information

Peter Reynolds and Michael Harrison run training courses on interview skills for doctors of all grades—

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