Go answer, Alice!

That might just be the dumbest post title I’ve ever thought up.  I suspect I’ll live to regret my inability to resist it.

Anyway… Alice is a final-year medical student in the USA, who is currently facing ongoing/imminent interviews for her first training programme (which should probably be ‘program’, since it’s in the US).  About four months ago, she wrote about trying to prepare for the interviews.  Being my usual interfering self, I immediately thought of a whole bunch of advice I could give her, but, being my usual disorganised and procrastinating self, I didn’t get round to giving any of it until she recently mentioned that she’d been to her first interview, which made me realise that if I was ever going to pour forth my pearls of wisdom I should possibly get a move on and do so.  Then I realised that what I was writing was getting way too long for a comment on her blog, and she doesn’t give out her e-mail address.  So I’m posting it here, which is probably going to make for a bit of an odd post, but the hell with it – someone else somewhere might also find it of fleeting use.  Even if not, then at least it’ll get my post count up.

(By the way, I did ask her whether she actually wanted any of this advice, and she said she did.  I may be interfering, but I’m trying not to be too interfering.)

Trying to tell people how wonderful I am makes me so nervous. I
understand a popular interview question is, Why should we hire you
rather than the other applicants? Honestly, I don’t know why; I don’t
think I’m much use at all, and I’m sure there are tons of better
applicants.

From reading your blog regularly,
I can think of some excellent reasons why you’d be the sort of junior doctor
I’d want to take on to a training programme. You’re passionate about what
you do, totally dedicated, look for any opportunity to learn more, and focus on
keeping patients’ interests foremost. What you have to do is have enough confidence in these strengths to be
able to put them across at interview; and to recognise that having confidence
in your strengths is not the same thing as arrogance or boasting. It’s recognising that there are jobs that
need doing and that you are one of the people who can do those jobs and should
– for the ultimate benefit of others as well as yourself – be there doing them.

But something tells me that honesty/humility is not high on their list
of requirements during the interview, and that surely I can put an
optimistic perspective on it: I may not know much, but I’m ready to
learn. . . ?

Well, if you get into the habit of cutting out everything before the ‘but’, then you’ll be on the right lines there.  You are ready to learn.  You’re dedicated.  You want to accumulate as much experience as possible, and you’ve worked extremely hard at medical school to do this and continue to do so.  Now, practice looking people in the eye and saying those things as if you believe them – with no ‘buts’!

I’m looking at my application and thinking, I can see so many sticky questions coming out of this.

The questions you mention – do they come from examples of questions you know have been asked of other people, or from your own fears?  It’s important to distinguish between the two, because otherwise you’ll start hearing questions they aren’t asking you.

What I mean by that: When they ask you something, don’t immediately start working out how it could be a first step on a path with a trap set for you at the end.  If you do that, you’ll start getting defensive and over-explain.  So, for example: If they ask you whether you have a significant other, don’t immediately assume that the next question is going to be "You don’t?  What’s wrong with you?" and start trying to answer that one.  Just stick to the question you’ve been asked.  Instead of assuming that they’re trying to trip you up, assume that they’re trying to give you a chance to show your strengths – because, if they’re a half-decent programme, that’s exactly what they will do.  If you meet every question with that attitude, it’ll make a real difference to how positively you come across.  And it’ll enable you to give them what they want.  (I used to wonder what the hell interviewers were getting at when they said "Talk us through your CV" – wasn’t it all there in front of them?*  These days, I see it as a chance for me to bring out my strengths – to explain to them how all the jobs I’ve chosen to do have been aimed at the single goal of making me the best possible GP that I can be, and how the experience I’ve had has contributed to that.)

However, it’s possible that they will try to ask you sticky questions as a deliberate strategy – almost certainly not all the ones you thought of (can’t imagine anyone in this day and age getting away with asking a woman at interview what’s wrong with her for not having an SO), but some.  So, here, I have to tell you a quick story from my own medical school days.  We had some bigshot doctor come talk to
the medical students’ society about his life in medicine, and one of the things
he talked about was interviewing students for jobs. (Or maybe it was interviewing for places at
medical school, I forget which – but the point I want to make is the same.) He said that he used to ask women who were
interviewing “Suppose I said to you that I didn’t think there was any place for
women in medicine – what would you say?” The reason he said this, he explained to us, wasn’t because he actually
thought so, but because he wanted to see how women coped with the
question. He felt that if a woman went
into a flap when faced with a thorny question at interview, she’d do the same
when faced with an emergency on the wards. 

I have to say that I think this is a lousy method of
interviewing, and I don’t agree at all with him that a person’s response in one
situation would necessarily predict their response in the other (and I say this as someone
who’s effectively the other way round – I would make extremely short work of that question in an interview, but an emergency situation on the wards is much more likely to send me into a flap).  And, again, I can’t imagine that anyone would dare ask that particular question these days.  But that’s all by-the-by. The point I’m trying to make is that if they do ask you
thorny (non-medical) questions, it’s not because they care about the answers.  It’s because they care
about how you answer – how you handle being put on the spot. They probably don’t care exactly what your opinions are on homeschooling or single-payer systems – what they want to know is
whether you can look ‘em in the eye and come up with an answer that sounds
calm, confident and collected, regardless of what that answer is.

When I asked my husband (who’s not a medic, but, unlike me, has been on the other side of the interview desk) what his advice for this post would be, he said the single most important piece of advice he could give was: Be honest.  Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not, because if you can only get the job by doing this, it’ll be the wrong job for you.  I totally agree with this and have always based my job interviews on this principle, but I also want to say that it’s possible to be positive as well as being honest – even when it comes to your weak points.  They’re not expecting you to be perfect; what they want to know is that you’re aware of your weaknesses and prepared to put in the work to improve them. 

It’s possible to put a positive slant on just about any answer.  If you have a weak point, then it’s something you recognise and are working on.  If there’s something you don’t like, then there’s something else you like better.  When I was being interviewed for my current job, I was asked how I felt about the administrative side of the job.  I wasn’t about to pretend to them that I love administrative work – I knew they’d either see through that in a second and dismiss me as a phony, or, worse, employ me under the impression that I was going to want to do lots of something I actually hate.  However, I figured that although "I loathe it with every bone in my body" was a perfectly honest response, it might not be the best response I could make.  So I said "It’s part of the job,
isn’t it? I’m not going to pretend to
you that I love it, but it’s part of the job, and I’ll do what I need to
do.”  Also a perfectly honest response – just a better one.  And, yes, I got the job (and they stated in the letter confirming the job offer that they were impressed with my ‘honest
responses’ at interview!) 

Some specific examples of answers to the questions you mentioned (and, by the way, if you don’t feel these fit then tell me what your actual honest-to-goodness answers would be and I’ll translate them into Interviewese for you):

"Homeschooled? Have you recovered from your lack of socialization?"

"You know, it’s funny how many people think that homeschooling means living the life of a hermit.  We saw plenty of people at [whatever sorts of examples you can think of of places where you saw people].  I wouldn’t say I’ve had a lack of socialisation at all."  Or (smiling, jokey tone): "After four years of medical school, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to meet people!"

"You don’t like a
single-payer system?"

"Oh, I don’t think any system’s going to be perfect [hee-hee, pre-empted their counter-arguments].  But I do prefer [whatever the alternative to the single-payer system is], because [short summary of reasons]".  If they then ask you further tricky questions, start out your answer with: "Yes, I do agree that there are definite disadvantages to any system.  But I do feel that… [further short answer to whatever point they made].

(By the way, one of the best lines I’ve ever come up with for an interview was for the aforementioned interview, in which they asked me what I thought of the new GP contract – I don’t know whether you’ve read anything about that in Grand Rounds at any point, but let’s just say it’s a highly contentious issue in British primary care today!  I replied that the contract reminded me of the old joke about capitalism – the only thing worse than this system was all the other systems that had been tried.  They thought that was highly amusing.  If you want to borrow that line, I promise I won’t charge you royalties…)

"No research experience?"

"Not as yet.  Since your department is so strong in that area, I’m hoping that working for you will be the perfect chance for me to get more involved."

"You don’t subscribe to the NEJM?"

"No – I prefer [whatever it is you do prefer reading] because [give one or two reasons].

"How many hours do you sleep a night?"

"Normally seven, but on an on-call night when the adrenalin’s pumping I can get by on a lot less."  (Damn – you don’t call it adrenalin, do you?  Epinephrine?  This English-to-American translation is harder than it looks.)

"What other programs have you applied to?"

Just listing them would be a perfectly adequate answer to that one – after all, they know you’re going to be applying to more than one program, so it’s not as though they’re going to take it as a deliberate rejection.  A slightly more positive twist to put on it would be to start out by telling them the common theme behind your choices: "I’ve been looking for the ones that will offer me the most hands-on experience [or whatever], so, besides your program, I picked X, Y, and Z."

"What would you like to ask?"

The standard response to this is to use it as a subtle way to reiterate your main interest.  "I want to get as much hands-on experience as possible [or ‘get more experience in X subspecialty’, or ‘get involved with student teaching’, or whatever] and I understand, from the people that I’ve talked to, that your program will really give me a great chance to do this.  Would you say that’s so?"  (Alternatively, it’s perfectly legitimate to say "Thank you, but your department were marvellously helpful when I spoke to you during the application process, and I think really I’ve covered everything I wanted to know already.")

I think those are the main points I wanted to tell you. Hope that’s of some help – give me a shout if
I can answer anything else. By the way,
I expect you’ve been told this already – but, if you get turned down by anyone,
do get back in touch and tell them that, as you’re trying to improve your
interview technique, you would welcome any feedback they can give on the
reasons why you didn’t get the job and what you can improve in subsequent interviews.  While the answer usually just comes back as "Oh, you were perfectly OK and it’s just that the candidate we appointed was better", it’s always possible that they might tell you something useful.

*Sorry.  A CV is what you’d call a resumé.  Told you this English-to-American translation was tricky…

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2 Comments

Filed under The doctor is OUT. To lunch.

2 responses to “Go answer, Alice!

  1. This English-to-American translating is hilarious. 🙂 Usually people say resume here, but when you’re applying inside the education system, such as to med school or for residency, you call it a CV. We inject patients with epinephrine during a code, but when we’re pumped up, we call it adrenalin still.
    Thanks for all of your advice. It’s very encouraging. I’m glad you think saying “your staff/residents answered all my questions wonderfully” is a good way out. I’ve been using it, and hoping it didn’t sound too bad.
    On my PDA I’ve been reading a Victorian book in which the poor orphaned heroine is obliged to move with her unsympathetic older brother and two small sisters to America. They spend several weeks in a boarding house, and the heroine laments how coarse the manners of the American girls are, and what a bad influence they have on her littlest sister, who starts demanding to be allowed to go to school with all the other children, and to go for walks in the city by herself, unprotected by her elders, the way the indelicate Americans do. Of course, our books are full of English stereotypes too. I think it’s delightful that our two countries exist as a kind of through-the-looking-glass reflection of each other.

  2. When I interview for academic positions and they ask me if I have any questions, I always ask what they like best about working/teaching in xxx university. I get some really revealing answers, and I think the same would hold true for medical positions.

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