How to Stand Out: Tips for a Great Job Interview

Written by: David H. Johnson, MD, MACP, FASCO
Published on: Aug 11, 2017

As you near the end of your fellowship your thoughts will naturally turn to your future employment options. Whether you are considering an academic position, governmental work, a job in industry, or employment in a community setting, formal job interviews are in the offing. The good news is you are by now very experienced with the interview process. At a minimum you have successfully completed college and medical school admission interviews as well as interviews for residency and fellowship positions. Your interviewing skills should be well honed. So why worry now? Possibly because you recognize that your professional happiness and career success may very well depend on your next interview and the job you take! Naturally you want to get it right. To that end there is no shortage of how-to books to prepare you for the job interview process. What follows are a few random tips derived from personal experiences obtained on both sides of the interview process.

1. Know Your Career Goals.*

To experience a great job interview you must know what you want to be and what you want to do. As one might imagine, it is impossible to perform well in a job interview if you cannot articulate your career goals. In fact, if you do not know what you want to do you are not ready for a job interview, much less a job. Once you know your career goals it becomes relatively easy to discern the potential fit of a particular job offer. I might add that the clarity by which you describe your career goals may occasionally prompt those recruiting you to craft a position that closely aligns with your career aspirations. That is particularly true if you possess a strong track record. That said, it is not the interviewer’s responsibility to create a completely new position on the fly—one that makes you say, “Oh yeah, that’s what I want to do! Why didn’t I think of that?” Understanding the job you want and eventually accept is ultimately your responsibility.

Moreover, once you have landed a job, you must accept responsibility for and take the lead in your professional career development.1 Career development cannot be outsourced.

* Stephen Covey—“...begin with the end in mind”—in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

2. Choose Wisely.†

No job can be truly fulfilling unless you are working with people you like and respect. To that end you should seek out future coworkers who are “normal” and “happy.” As physicians we are reasonably good at detecting “normal.” However, just to be clear on this point, “normal” people act and behave in a socially acceptable manner and treat their colleagues with respect (i.e., the way your mother taught you to behave‡).

One should always avoid getting weighed down by the complaints of unhappy people. The easiest way to do this is to find a job working with happy people; however, identifying happiness requires some effort on your part. Start with a simple question: “What is it like to work here?” Because happy people tend to be positive people2 they will usually respond in a positive manner, carefully balancing the pros and cons of their current position. By contrast, an unhappy person seemingly cannot resist unleashing their negative feelings, usually early on in the conversation. Almost every workplace has at least one such person, but if you encounter several unhappy people during the course of your interview day, you should look elsewhere for a job.

By the way, I do not mean to suggest your future workplace should be devoid of all conflict. Even the best workplaces have to deal with conflict. It is how the group deals with conflict that matters.3So ask!

Jim Collins—“’Who’ questions come before ‘what’ decisions...”—in Good to Great.

‡ Disclaimer: Since I don’t actually know your mother I am making an assumption that she is a lot like my mother.

3. Distinguish Job vs. Opportunity.

Do not confuse a job with an opportunity. A job is something a person is expected or obliged to do. Opportunity is a situation or condition favorable for attainment of a goal or a good chance for advancement or success. The job for which you are interviewing may or may not provide opportunity—it is up to you to decide.

Imagine you are being recruited to lead a melanoma clinical research program at an academic medical center. The job of program leader carries with it a set of expectations and responsibilities largely defined by the employer and typically outlined in a formal job description. The opportunity resides in your ability to play a meaningful role in program design and setting programmatic expectations. To assess opportunity you will need to ascertain the available institutional resources. Is there an existing melanoma patient population? Are there dermatologists, surgeons, pathologists, and basic scientists interested in melanoma with whom you can interact? If these resources are in place, or largely in place, the opportunity is readily apparent. If none of these resources exist, opportunity may still exist but the likelihood of programmatic success is considerably less.

Suppose the job proffered is not to lead the program but to join an existing clinical or research program. Again, you will need to assess the opportunity. Is there a niche within the extant program you can fill? Does the role fit with your career goals? In short, long before you inquire about salary, laboratory resources, office space, call schedules, and the like, you should carefully examine the opportunity afforded by the position. Said opportunity should permit you to build a clinical practice or laboratory program that is enjoyable and allow you to develop your scholarly interest and excel professionally. Simply becoming a cog in the larger operation is not what I view as opportunity—that would be a job.

4. Check The Track Record.

One should always ask how recruits who preceded you fared under the person who is now recruiting you. Is that individual committed to the career development of junior colleagues? Is he or she a person of integrity and trustworthy? The latter qualities are really important and relatively easy to determine, although I’m shocked at how few people do it. The people working under the leader will usually tell you verbally—or via body language—if their boss possesses these traits. But you have to ask.

Remarkably, some recruits spend more time on Yelp checking out restaurants in the city where they plan to interview than they spend assessing the character of their future employer. Big mistake. If the individual is not trustworthy or lacks integrity, no contract will fill the void.

5. Listen and Observe.

As a young boy I enjoyed reading Sherlock Holmes adventures. Like his famous sidekick Dr. Watson, I was fascinated by Holmes’ deductive reasoning ability. A delightful scene from A Scandal in Bohemia forever sticks in my memory. Watson asks Holmes why he himself seemed incapable of making the same deductive insights made by Holmes in spite of their comparable intelligence. Holmes responded: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” On the interview trail too many of us behave like Watson—we see but do not observe. While it is true you are the one being interviewed for a position, you are also interviewing potential future colleagues. So, in addition to judicious listening, be sure to carefully observe the body language of those who are interviewing you. Through these visual clues potentially crucial information is provided.

By the way, as physicians we should be especially good at identifying and utilizing this information (think history and physical exam). Unfortunately, all too often we fail to utilize these skills in our daily lives.

6. Be Prepared.

Do not go to an interview without first checking out the background of the people who you know will (or are likely to) interview you. Failure to do your homework suggests a less-thansincere interest in the position and a tacit lack of respect for those whom you will meet during the course of your recruitment visit. It also says something about the conscientiousness with which you approach matters of importance—like your career! If nothing else, doing a little homework may help you avoid the embarrassment of speaking with the person who developed the cure for [fill in the blank] cancer and you don’t know it!

7. Be Confident.

Every new faculty recruit represents a major financial investment on the part of the recruiting institution.3 Accordingly, the institution is seeking a return on that investment. It is to your benefit to convey what you bring to the table in a clear and confident manner. You are (and must be) your best advocate. You are selling yourself. If you are an introvert, this can be really hard and anxiety-provoking. To help mitigate your anxiety and potentially improve your performance, Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School offers a helpful tip: Before going into your next interview, strike a Wonder Woman pose. (I realize this may sound silly but it really can work.4,5) As Ms. Cuddy tells us, this is not a matter of “Fake it until you make it!” It is about “Fake it until you become it!”

One final comment: There is no perfect job. There are many good and even some great jobs. What makes a good job a great job is the opportunity it affords you and the people around you. Ultimately it is up to you to discern the nature of both.

It is my hope these personal reflections will prove of some use to fellows preparing for job interviews. If you prepare well, odds are your interviews will go well. After all, you are an experienced interviewer. If your interview goes well, chances are you will land a satisfying, professionally rewarding position. Good luck!


  1. Coleman TA, Buckley PF, Fincher RE. Fostering the professional development of medical education leaders. In: Pangaro L, ed. Leadership Careers in Medical Education. Philadelphia: ACP Press; 2010:73-100.
  2. Johnson DH. J Oncol Pract. 2014;10:115-8.
  3. Schloss EP, Flanagan DM, Culler CL, et al. Acad Med. 2009;84:32-6.
  4. Cuddy AJ, Wilmuth CA, Yap AJ, et al. J Appl Psychol. Epub 2015 Feb 9.
  5. Carney DR, Cuddy AJ, Yap AJ. Psychol Sci. 2010;21:1363-8.

Published April 28, 2015 online issue of ASCO