Make a Good Impression

July 15, 2001

What physicians do wrong and do right when applying for a new position


Kathleen Music remembers the doctor who blew her interview simply because she wasn’t forthcoming about her past.

The physician was applying for a position in a pediatric practice. The interviewer began probing about a gap in the physician’s curriculum vitae. The physician hedged around the question and said that she just needed some time off. Not satisfied, the interviewer asked more questions, causing the physician to break down, lose emotional control, and admit that a traumatic event had caused her to go into deep depression. The interviewer concluded that the physician had unresolved issues and didn’t hire her.

Physicians need to be ready to explain any employment gaps in a convincing manner, says Music, a principal with Denver-based JKM Consultants, which offers healthcare recruiting services. “Usually that gap tweaks a little uneasiness. There is a concern about hiring an impaired physician.”

The most positive thing a physician in that situation can do is to be up-front. For example, Music recruited one doctor knowing that he was in a drug treatment facility. When asked about it during the interview, “this physician stepped right up to the plate,” Music says. “He told me, ‘I developed an alcohol problem after my divorce. I have been participating in the state medical board program and don’t anticipate that to be a problem.’”

A new dimension

Honesty may be the best policy, but in today’s business environment, administrative and people skills are paramount - even for physicians, who have traditionally focused on their clinical skills. In the new economy, physicians are applying for positions that don’t involve patient contact - as dot-com medical directors and content reviewers, for example. “We have a lot of physicians who are now salespeople, executives, CEOs, and presidents of corporations,” says Dan Friend, PhD, managing director at Lee Calhoon & Co., a Philadelphia-based company specializing in executive healthcare recruiting.

“Doctors are trained in an algorithmic approach to medicine: symptoms, symptoms, symptoms. They get to thinking almost inside the box. That’s exactly what you want on a clinical side, but if you’re in a sales department you need to be quick on your feet because the conversation might go in an unanticipated direction,” Friend says.

Know the vernacular of the industry, for example. A physician who would be required to work with ASPs (application service providers) would likely lose points if he has to stop the interview and ask what they are. Friend and other recruiters do mock interviews with many physicians, and find that a little practice can go a long way. After all, “the Gores and the Bushes of the world don’t walk into the debate and hope it works. They spend hours getting grilled by their confidants,” he observes.

Music agrees that doctors can generally be confident that their clinical skills are going to be accepted, but they will need to sell their administrative side. They need to be able to discuss how they use their time efficiently, and their ability to handle paperwork, for example. If they don’t have a lot of experience in those areas, it helps to admit that they don’t, but are willing to learn, she adds.

Finally, candidates should provide background information that corresponds to the type of job they are seeking. Friend suggests that those who go for medically-oriented positions bring a CV, which presents medical education, published articles, board certification, and medical positions. Those in the corporate arena should have a resume, which offers much of the same medical information, and also presents the candidate’s management activity, communication and time management skills, and ability to work in groups.

Answers ... and questions

“As much as possible, listen before you speak,” urges Jeffrey Gruen, chief medical officer of Personal Path Systems, a case management firm in Upper Saddle River, N.J. “Those people I’ve most enjoyed interviewing and those times when I’ve been most successful during the interview, I’ve approached the situation trying to learn as much possible about the person I’m speaking to. If you can understand who is interviewing you, then you have a much higher chance of having a conversation go in a direction that best highlights how you can help that person,” he says.

In the same vein, plan ahead, suggests Geoff Staub, director of marketing for St. Louis, Mo.-based Cejka & Co., a healthcare consulting and search firm. Bring a list of questions to the interview, such as: What is the practice philosophy? How does the practice assign patients? How many hours will I be expected to work? Then, ask questions of the interviewer, such as: What do you like about working here? What is your biggest challenge in the job?

Positive projections

Your appearance is another important consideration. ‘Dress for success’ is not just a cliché: You can’t go wrong in a clean, pressed suit and tie or dress. “Walking in with Birkenstocks, jeans, and a tank top - which we had a physician do - is not going to send the right message to the employer. This person is going to represent the employer’s group,” Staub says.


While those in the dot-com world might work in khaki pants and golf shirts, it’s never appropriate to come to the first interview dressed like that, according to Friend. “Appearance is 90 percent of not getting any job,” he says.

Attitude is as important as appearance. Music recalls a physician who was qualified for a position but didn’t get it because of his less-than-serious outlook. He mentioned that all his friends worked at the facility and, therefore, he thought, “‘It would be a fun place to work and we would have a lot of fun here,’” according to Music. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was the approach that ‘I’m just going to hang out with my buddies’ that did not sit well,” she says.

It’s also wise, she adds, for physicians not to assume that administrative types don’t have any say. “Sometimes physicians think that only physicians are going to have anything to say about their fate and that’s not true - not in today’s world.”

Money talks

According to Staub, it’s fine to talk about money during the interview. “I don’t think it should be necessarily the first thing you bring up,” he says. “We typically advise physicians to bring it up last. But to leave an interview without talking about compensation would be a mistake.”

Address starting salary, signing bonuses, productivity bonuses, income guarantees, and what you can expect to make in five years, but don’t negotiate actual numbers until later interviews. “If it’s a multispecialty group, it’s important to find out how the income is distributed within the group and what kinds of costs are involved,” Staub says. “Ask how long it will take to become a partner and what the buy-in is.”

Friend suggests asking how the company or practice is doing financially. “You don’t necessarily have to get a Dunn & Bradstreet report and go into huge depth,” he says, “but why go and spend your time and effort interviewing at a company that might not be there tomorrow because they haven’t gotten their latest round of financing?” Physicians can find the needed information by asking their recruiters, looking on the Web, and asking those in the industry.

On your toes

“We had one physician ask a candidate, ‘who is the last person who gave you a fruitcake?’ What they were trying to do was get at whether it was a patient, to see what kind of rapport the physician had with the patients,” Staub explains. “They might ask: ‘Describe a clinical error that was your fault.’ Physicians should understand that everybody makes errors. To say that you’re faultless - they’ll know that isn’t true. The way that you get around it is to address how you were able to rectify the situation or what you learned from it.”

Finally, realize that there probably are a lot of other people vying for the same job. Getting hired is anything but a sure thing, so make yourself stand out. Music says she often gets up to 200 applicants for one healthcare job. Cejka & Co. has 100,000 physicians in its database who are actively seeking jobs, according to Staub. This year, about 26,000 physicians will graduate from residency and fellowship programs, according to the American Medical Association. “Think of it as a privilege to be hired for a job,” Gruen concludes.

Lisette Hilton can be reached at editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Physicians Practice.