Are you prepared for your next job interview?
In 2010, I had the privilege of publishing an article in the Psychiatric Times aimed at assisting clinicians to prepare for getting a new job. In addition to advice about preparing curriculum vitae and application letters, the article also covered common mishaps that can occur during the interview. The article also listed 10 points of advice—“The 10 Knows”—that aid in preparing for a job interview. Now, some 13 years later, the purpose of the present article is to take stock of the “10 Knows” again now in this contemporary era of Zoom interview meetings, heightened social media communications, and the invariably refinements in the interview process and candidate appraisal.
The “10 Knows” are…
1. Know elements of the organization.
Not knowing basic details (which today are more easily retrievable from the web) about an organization is not a smart introduction to the search committee. Although an interviewing candidate might present a compelling application, the search committee can easily become wary of the candidate who appears to be “job shopping” and has only vague knowledge about this job. Conversely, being able to recite key components of the organization’s strategy or some recent events (eg, new program accreditation, national or local research awards, recent major research grants) goes a long way to help the search committee understand your level of interest in this specific position as opposed to the search committee thinking you will leave your current job for any opportunity, and not specifically this position at this institution.
2. Know about the position.
When a job is posted, often the search committee (with assistance from a search firm) have revised the job description in response to some perceived weakness in the role from the last time around. Alternatively, the job title may be unchanged from before, yet the scope and expectations might be changed as a result of an organization changing, such as a merge or new relationship with a community hospital. Since much of the information is now readily available on the web, it might be possible to get access to the prior job descriptions and to compare this with the present job description. The job description will often list challenges/opportunities for the role. Spending time in preparation for questions about each of these challenges/opportunities is important, particularly as sometimes these may form the basis for some of the questions that will be posed by the search committee.
3. Know the area/location.
Pride in the city where you live is a common expression and the search committee members are often eager to “sell their city” as well as to promote the job. Candidates who are serious about a position should also acquaint themselves with the city by reading the local newspaper and perhaps even visiting the city in advance of the actual job interview. The latter sends a powerful message to the search committee members.
4. Know a friend or colleague that works at the institution.
It can be enormously helpful to gain the perspective of a friend or colleague who currently works for the organization. This approach of “doing your homework” can add depth to a candidate’s answers and enable them to hone in on key current issues. It can also help to better understand the culture of the organization and what the search committee is really looking for in a candidate for the job. On the other hand, the search committee may be wary of a candidate who appears as if they have been in receipt of “insider information” about the job and the interview process. Moreover, the opinion of the friend might be just that of a single person’s opinion which may or may not be representative of where the organization is coming from.
5. Know the challenges of the job.
As mentioned previously, a candidate’s ability to understand the challenges facing the organization is important to resonate with the search committee. It is impressive when a candidate can rattle off strengths and accomplishments of an organization. It is, however, even more compelling when a candidate can speak confidently about the challenges that are facing the organization. As with all aspects of the interview process, humility is essential. Inadvertently, representing yourself as someone that knows all the answers is a turnoff at an interview. Thus, your recommendation about how to address the organization’s challenges should be prefaced by remarks like “While I would need to know more about the organization, my impression at this stage is…”, “Based on my current level of understanding of your organization, I would suggest….” It is always welcomed to state what your prior experience has been as you address whatever challenges that you may be asked about during the interview. After all, you are being considered for this position based upon your prior experience and how that will benefit the organization through bringing an external fresh perspective to contemporary challenges.
6. Know who is interviewing you.
Again, in the era of the web and social media communication, it is easy to get a sense of the professional identity of the colleagues that are interviewing you. All of us tend to have pet peeves and/or area of distinct interest. Knowing something about the individuals in front of you in the interview will help you connect better with the search committee. Also, as obvious as this appears, the composition of the search committee can tell you about the organization’s leadership culture, based upon the roles and representation of the search committee. Most search committees are comprised of 10 to 15 individuals, and you can be sure that the organization has put effort in selecting who serves (and does not serve) on this search committee. Even more key is those who you might expect to be on the search committee but are not represented. Absence of a key leader could also mean that they are also under consideration as an internal candidate for the position.
7. Know the logistics for the interview.
If you can, it is preferred to check out the site for the interview in advance of your interview. It can bring to light some transportation or other related difficulties that might not otherwise be apparent and that could cause disruption to you on the day of the interview. Being late for an interview is a real turnoff for a search committee. Everybody understands that situations can arise, and travel is not controlled by the candidate, and yet, search committees are evaluating the candidate. If they are disorganized and arrives late (or even misses the interview), it invariably raises other questions as to whether the candidate will be late and disorganized on the job too.
It is also important to be prepared now that organizations are most often conducting first visits (formerly airport interview) by Zoom. Interview by Zoom should be easy… but it is not! The same basic preparation is still important whether the interview is in person or by Zoom. It is important to check the web link for the Zoom before the interview. You will already have the meeting codes and so, if you join the Zoom late, the search committee might suspect that you are disorganized. Also, be careful about what Zoom background you use or not. Showing off your messy bedroom during an interview by Zoom is not a good idea. You should consider a background that is appropriate, not provocative, and ideally blends in. I remember that a colleague at work typically had a reoccurring mini video of a barista preparing coffee on his background and it was highly distracting. Another colleague had an image of painter at work on a canvas. It too, was very cool, but highly intrusive. Play it safe. Ideally, you should use an image of your current institution. Doing so, it reminds the search committee members of where you work and your pride of the institution. Another obvious practical consideration is to ensure that you interview by Zoom in a quiet and professional place where you are comfortable. Also be careful that you sit close to your computer/camera; if you sit at the end of a long table, the committee will have more difficulty connecting with you as they will be unlikely to properly see your facial expressions during the interview.
8. Know how to dress and how to present yourself.
It has been observed that post-COVID dress code at work has become more casual (especially with employees working from home). That said, an interview is an interview and casual clothing is not appropriate. Also, in the Zoom interview era, be sure that your entire outfit is presentable and appropriate. We have all heard about—and occasionally seen—the colleague that appears well dressed by Zoom but actually has a casual shorts on. You should avoid wearing colors of the institution that you are interviewing with—while it is a cute touch to wear the colors, you will look like you are begging for the job. Always be professionally dressed. It is better to err on the side of conservatism than the alternative.
9. Know your story.
It is highly likely that your interview will start with a question that goes like “in a few minutes, please summarize your career to date and how it has prepared you for the role you are interviewing for.” OK, so this is an easy question… and this question or some variation of it is a topic that you can almost guarantee will be asked. You know how to answer this question well. And yet, at least from my experience in serving on multiple search committees over the years, it is surprising how frequently some candidates can botch this simple question. They talk for far too long and provide irrelevant and/or extraneous information about a prior experience earlier in their career. They leave out formative experiences, even those experiences that may be directly pertinent to the job under consideration. Perhaps the most common error in response to this question is that the candidate fails to make the link between their prior experiences and the competencies that the search committee are seeking in this new role. The astute candidate will avoid repeating the details of their curriculum vitae or also what has already been written in the application letter. The interview is an opportunity to dig deeper and to explore whether they have the background and experiences that the institution is looking for. This is best achieved when the candidate tells the story about their career and experiences that (inevitably) leads up to how the candidate prepared for this job and interview. Doing this and doing this well is powerful. Conversely, if the candidate does not come across on this first easy question, it sets a bad tone for the rest of the interview. It also risks losing the interest of the search committee right from the beginning of the interview. Candidates should be well prepared and well-practiced to answer this (obvious) first question thoughtfully and with vigor to get the interview off to a good start.
10. Know why you want the job and what you will do with it.
Earlier in my career while I was a dean interviewing to become a second time around medical school dean, I got asked the following provocative questions. “You are already a dean. Why do you want this job?” “If you got it, what kind of baggage would you bring with you?” “Why should we give you the job anyway?”
Just as you should be well prepared to answer the question about your career and how that relates to the job application, you should also be ready to answer explicitly, “Why do you want the job you are interviewing for?” There are, of course, a wide range of reasons why someone wants a new job. You should articulate with confidence 3 to 5 reasons that are specific to your situation. It is reassuring to the search committee to be able to understand the longitudinal arc of a career (“This job is now where I can apply all that I have learned over the last 20 years to work on challenges at your institution”) and how the candidate views this position as a great fit for them. It is also important for the candidate to make explicit why this is the right time for them to consider this position. It is also helpful to the search committee if the candidate explained at the end a little about the city and why the city is an attractive place for them to move. All of these recommendations above are obvious. Yet not all candidates express themselves well enough on these simple questions. Additionally, there may be a concern among members of the search committee as to the candidate’s motivation for interviewing. The committee may be wondering whether the candidate is motivated to interview because of some troubling situation in their present job rather than the opportunity for which they are interviewing. Is the candidate just interviewing to see what is out there? Are they going to use this leverage to improve their situation at their current institution? Is this job just one of several that they are looking at, or is the candidate truly interested in this position?
The job interview process can reveal to candidates what opportunities might be before them in a new position. While this evolves throughout the interview process, candidates should be able to at least articulate some specific thoughts at the interview about what they think they could achieve if they were given the opportunity of this appointment. The more specific the candidates can express these details at the early stage, the more powerful they will come across to the search committee.
As clinicians, we have received meticulous training on how to practice our specialty. We received surprisingly little guidance about how best to prepare for an interview which is key to advance one’s career and work. Interviewing by Zoom has added nuances to the process of selecting candidates for further evaluation in person and on campus. Moreover, search committees have become more discerning and they ask tough questions. If you want this job, you should come prepared. It can be a lot of work to prepare properly for an interview. Accordingly, this is my sound advice: if you are not prepared to be prepared, do not interview!
Dr Buckley is a psychiatrist and serves as Chancellor for the Health Sciences at University of Tennessee, based in Memphis and with Health Science Campuses and Affiliated Partnerships across the State of Tennessee.