Interviewing 101: Tips for Landing Your First Post-Fellowship Position

Oncology Fellows, December 2011, Volume 3, Issue 4

Like all the other skills you've honed so finely over the years, interviewing can be mastered with the help of some solid tips, ample preparation, and a good dose of practice.

Been to your college reunion? If so, you probably spent some time basking in the admiration of your classmates, all of whom were, no doubt, quite impressed (and maybe a bit envious) that you’ve become an oncologist. And while that admiration is certainly well earned, it’s quite likely that your nonphysician classmates have something you probably do not: interviewing experience.

Think about it. While you were slaving away in medical school, your classmates were interviewing for, and securing, their first “real” jobs. And as you embarked on your internship, residency, and fellowship, many of those same classmates probably changed jobs, or even careers, all the while racking up even more interviewing experience. There is, however, some good news. Like all the other skills you’ve honed so finely over the years, interviewing can be mastered with the help of some solid tips, ample preparation, and a good dose of practice.

What to Expect

Your interviewing experience will depend upon a number of factors, including the type of position you’re seeking and the type and size of facility or practice with which you’re interviewing. In general, however, plan for a busy, all-day affair. In an academic center, for example, be prepared to interview with several individuals, such as the division director, medical director, and facility administrator, as well as the department head and other faculty members from your subspecialty.

Once you’ve survived day 1 of the interviewing process, be prepared to wait. Most academic centers have selection committees, the members of which meet with several candidates over a specified time period, and then decide which of those candidates to bring back for a “second look.” Depending on the number of candidates being interviewed and the schedules of those doing the interviewing, it could be weeks or even months before you’re called back for a second (and, hopefully, final) round of interviews. In most cases, that second session will involve additional meetings with individuals higher up the chain of command (such as the cancer center director) and might also include beginning negotiations and initial discussions about laying out a proposal.

What Your Interviewers Look For

There’s no better way to prepare for an interview than to find out what your interviewers will be looking for during those all-important face-toface meetings. To that end, Oncology Fellows spoke with Marc Stewart, MD, medical director of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and Steven J. Cohen, MD, fellowship director for the Fox Chase/Temple University Hematology-Oncology Fellowship Program, about how they separate the wheat from the chaff while interviewing candidates for positions at their facilities.

Question: How do you decide which candidates to bring in for interviews?

Dr. Stewart : This is usually based on our personal experience (if, for example, a fellow has trained in our program). Otherwise, the decision is based largely on the candidate’s CV, along with later discussion with the program directors at the applicant’s training site.

Dr. Cohen : We start by looking at where the fellows trained, mentors who can vouch for them, and what they’ve accomplished in their area of interest, such as clinical trials and projects of their own that could potentially translate into successful careers and meaningful research findings.

Question: What are the must-haves that you look for in potential candidates?

Dr. Stewart : We look for candidates who have a focused area of interest and a solid vision about the direction and future of their career and potential contributions. We also look for academic productivity and excellent clinical reviews. Good interpersonal and communication skills also are important.

Dr. Cohen: The most important quality we look for is a true commitment to the candidate’s chosen career path, along with solid ideas about how to move that commitment forward and build upon what’s already been accomplished. We also look for individuals who will work well with others. Stated differently, we’re looking for people whose egos won’t get in the way of their willingness to be mentored and work as part of a team.

Question: What, in your past interviewing experiences, have been some of the qualities that have set candidates apart and made you want to hire them?

Dr. Stewart: Two such qualities would be publications in outstanding journals and funding.

Dr. Cohen: Nothing strikes a better chord than a candidate who knows about the center at which he or she is interviewing, and can articulate what it is that attracted him or her to that particular center. But what truly impresses us is a fellow’s ability to demonstrate and discuss his own work and his unique role in generating the data from his research.

Question: What are some common mistakes made during interviews that might result in a candidate losing an opportunity for a position?

Dr. Stewart : Failure to show a focused interest in research would definitely be considered a negative attribute.

Dr. Cohen : As alluded to previously, simply describing research conducted by a mentor rather than being able to discuss the details of a candidate’s unique role in his or her research is disappointing. We’re not looking for a literature review or a summary of the field. Instead, a candidate needs to be able to discuss the details of any research and articulate a vision for the direction that research might take in the future.

Interviewing Basics

If all of this still sounds a bit daunting, the following tips will help to position you for success during that all-important “face-to-face.”

Get your materials in order.

Most larger facilities will have very specific instructions about what materials to send prior to your interview and which materials to bring with you. When in doubt, it’s always better to ask than to guess. While a curriculum vitae, letters of recommendation, and all material related to research and funding are must-haves, different centers will likely request different types of materials.

Do your research.

This is no time for a cold call. Well before your interview, take some time to research not only the practice or center but also those with whom you’ll be interviewing. Doing so will allow you to ask relevant questions and demonstrate your interest in the facility to which you’re applying. The center’s Web site is a good place to start, but keep in mind that the site’s information is written by media specialists rather than medical staff members and may not have been recently updated. For this reason, a search for publications about the facility and by the physicians with whom you’ll be interviewing is a must. Whenever possible, talk to physicians who have already interviewed at the facility or, better yet, have already been hired.

Anticipate questions and ask your own.

Be prepared to discuss your strengths and even your perceived limitations (described as areas you’d like to improve)—and to do so with candor. And, as stressed by Dr. Cohen, anticipate detailed questions about your role in research and the direction you’d like that research to take. Just as important as your ability to answer the basic “What would you bring to our facility?” questions is your ability to ask questions about the center or practice and your role as a staff physician or scientist. Failure to ask questions conveys a lack of preparedness or, even worse, a lack of interest.

Ask your friends, ask your mentors.

Don’t be afraid to pick the brains of friends and colleagues who have already been through the interviewing process. Who better to tell you what to expect than someone who has already “been there, done that”? And while you’re picking brains, be sure to include your mentors, who can tell you first-hand what they, and their colleagues, look for in potential candidates.

Conduct a mock interview.

More likely than not, your fellow fellows are dealing with their own interviewinduced anxieties. Talk to your colleagues about getting together for an evening of mock interviews, in which each of you has an opportunity to play the role of both candidate and interviewer, and then ask for and accept constructive criticism. This little exercise will, at the very least, give you a sense of what to expect before the big day and, even better, likely provide you with some pointers from those who will judge your interviewing skills with objectivity.

Dress for success.

The rule of thumb for dressing for an interview is to wear what you’d normally wear to work once the job is yours. This, however, doesn’t mean you should go to your interview in scrubs or a lab coat. Instead, choose attire that conveys a sense of professionalism.

Be genuine.

Impressive people don’t need to try to impress. Keep in mind that a successful candidate conveys confidence and an eagerness to learn. Keep your ego in check and let your work speak for itself.