ACOG Menu

How to Prepare to Answer Tricky Interview Questions

In his article Tested Tips for Interviewing in Physicians Practice.com, Bob Levoy wrote:

“I've asked countless physicians, practice administrators, and office managers to share interview questions (beyond those related to knowledge, skills, and experience) that they've found most helpful in evaluating job applicants.”

Based on that research he advised interviewers to "take it one step further:"

"Please give me an example." These are the five most important words in an interviewer's arsenal, and they can't be used often enough. There is nothing worse than ending an interview and finding an extraordinary comment in your notes—for which there is not a shred of supporting evidence.

What does that mean to a physician preparing to answer tricky questions? It means an interview is an opportunity to share concrete examples that illustrate his or her claims. The candidate prepared with specific responses will have a distinct advantage.

San Diego job coach and author Carole Martin put it this way: "The interviewers will talk about you when you leave. What do you want them to say?" Prepare that in advance and make sure it's part of your presentation, she said. "Think of your answer compared to four other candidates'—would your answer stand out? Tricky questions need some pre-thought," Martin said. "Coming off the top of your head could be dangerous."

Three indisputably tricky questions are examined below:

  1. Why do you want to leave your job?/Why did you leave your job?
  2. What is your weakness?
  3. What is your salary (or wage) expectation?

Why Do You Want to Leave Your Current Job?/Why Did You Leave Your Last Position?

It's crucial, said Chana Anderson, director of human resources at San Francisco's Jewish Senior Living Group, for the candidate to avoid omissions and false information. "Health care is a small world where information can easily be verified," Anderson said. "A succinct response is ok," she added, if it is complete and truthful.

Martin said anyone currently unemployed should explain that circumstance in the most positive context possible. For example, "I managed to survive two rounds of hospital mergers, but my job was eliminated in the third round."

Job Interview Perfection author Barry Golds said preparation for this question is straightforward, a candidate should create (and commit to memory) a list of reasons why they are interested in the job and the organization.

With that list in mind the response to this tricky question can look forward more than back. A doctor might say, for example: "The hospital where I work now is a great place and I've been happy there. But it's always been a career goal of mine to also be involved in research. I know your hospital leads clinical trials, and that's compelling for me." This type of answer shifts the focus to features and advantages of the position under consideration.

Other time-tested responses, Golds said, touch on some combination of the following five categories.

  1. Challenge: “I am looking for increased responsibility/a more dynamic organization”
  2. Traveling: “The commute to work became unworkable/I was being assigned to undesirable locations”
  3. Career: “There was no room for advancement/I'm seeking greater opportunity for professional development”
  4. Money: “Salary/wage/benefits were unacceptable”
  5. Security: “The organization became unstable”

And of course, all three experts agreed that a candidate should never complain about a prior boss.

What is Your Weakness?

Dr. Kathy Hansen is an organizational behavior expert and creative director of Quintessential Careers, where she wrote:

“The conventional wisdom about responding to ‘What are your weaknesses?’ used to be that the candidate should spin a weakness into a strength. For example: ‘I'm a perfectionist and don't believe anyone can do the job as well as I can, so I sometimes have a hard time delegating.”

That type of response has, however, worn out its welcome with interviewers.

It's more effective, she said, to frame a response as a professional growth experience. For example, the perfectionist answer above becomes: "I tend to be a perfectionist who has had trouble delegating tasks to others, but I've come to see that teamwork is much more effective."

Alternately, a candidate might offer a weakness that is inconsequential to the job, said Hansen, who is an organizational behavior expert.

Martin said using the sandwich technique can help. For this, the candidate names a weakness but "sandwiches" it between two positive messages. A physician, for example, might say:

  • I'm good at getting along with all kinds of people.
  • Sometimes a co-worker will get testy with me and I can feel myself getting ticked off.
  • I've learned to take a deep breath and try to see the situation from their perspective. Anyone who works with me will tell you that I'm even tempered.

Never cite a personality trait, Martin warned, recounting a management applicant who described himself as "shy."

"What's the chance he's going to change 'shy?'" she asked rhetorically.

Further, she explained, as a manager he would need outstanding people skills. Just like someone in a patient-facing job! So describing oneself as "shy" is not likely to be an asset for clinicians.

Stating a commitment to providing excellent patient care may be just the "bread" a physician candidate's "sandwich" needs. For example:

  • I'm committed to providing the best care possible.
  • Sometime a patient or family member asks a lot of questions and I can begin to feel overwhelmed.
  • But I remember that when I'm a patient, I ask questions too! And I find a way to address their concerns. That's important to my practice of medicine.

The goal is to set oneself apart. In an interview "you have to leave something behind," Martin said. "'Is he the guy who went out of his way for patients? Is she one who said she gets along with doctors?' You want them to remember you."

What Are Your Salary Expectations?

Physician recruitment executive Bob Collins said to prepare for this question it's important to learn the community's norm as well as the norm for one's area of specialization. A physician might ask about the referral chain, particularly if s/he is interviewing in a new geographic area.

He encouraged candidates to thoughtfully assess their true needs in advance of any interviews, and to remember the aspects of compensation beyond salary.

An increasing number of physicians are accepting "employed" positions. AMA members can access an annotated Model Physician Employment Agreement. 

Healthcare Employment Consultant Jack Valancy, quoted in Employment and Partnership Contract Negotiating 101, recommended candidates "consult colleagues, health care consultants, and lawyers for their perspective on what's considered reasonable for your market. And have your attorney identify items in your contract that may leave you exposed."

Indeed, Valancy wrote, some of the terms in your contract may be deal breakers, such as base salary, tail premiums for malpractice, or the geographic scope of your non-compete clause.

But "negotiations should always be amicable," he wrote. "These are people you're going to be working with."

Article Originally Published on ACOG Career Connection