Preparing for a Job Interview

Jun 27, 2011

Dr. Jae ParkBy Jae H. Park, MD
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

In April, this column offered tips for beginning your job search. The natural next discussion is how to prepare for a job interview to successfully secure that first job. Whether you are looking for a position in academics, private practice, or industry, the process can appear daunting. Despite years of professional training, very few of us receive institutional guidance on how to prepare for a job interview.

As a third-year oncology fellow who just went through this process, I want to share with you some helpful insights based on my own experience as well as the career development lectures that I attended at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) and ASCO Annual Meetings. While the bulk of my experience is in interviewing for academic positions, I have also included discussion on looking for jobs in private practice and industry, based on advice from colleagues. Some of the recommendations are applicableto interviewing in any career path.

Research the institution

Learn about the institution’s faculty or staff and anticipate who will be interviewing you and how your research/vision fits with theirs. Consider who among the staff might serve as a future collaborator and/or mentor. Plan for discussion topics and have some thoughtful questions to ask about the position and the institution.

Prepare for the seminar

Most academic institutions will ask you to give a seminar during your visit. This is an opportunity for you to highlight your work and for interviewers to assess how you will fit into their team/departments, so it pays to be well prepared.

  1. Attend presentations of other candidates at your institution and learn what they do (or don’t do) well.
  2. Practice, practice, practice: Present in front of your department or your colleagues.
  3. Know the timeframe and audience, and plan accordingly.
  4. Never go over your allotted time, even if you’reinterrupted with questions during the talk. This means that you will need to be flexible with your presentation.
  5. Stay organized, focused, and clear. If the interviewers can’t understand what you’ve done for the past 2-3 years, it will be very difficult for them to get excited about you.
  6. Spend more time discussing your results than your tasks.
  7. Be clear on what is your work versus your mentor's. You don’t want to claim others’ work as yours.

Craft a thoughtful career statement

As important as your seminar is, your career plan and how you will contribute to or complement the place where you’re interviewing is critical. It’s your job to tell the interviewers why you’re right for the job. In my opinion, this is the most difficult task, but a well-planned career statement that you can clearly communicate in 3-5 minutes will impress your potential employer and make you stand out from other candidates.

Interview day structure

Certain standard elements comprise the interview day:

  • Individual meetings with keymembers of the service/department/team
  • Meetings with the departmentchair
  • Meals with faculty
  • Tours
  • Seminar or chalk-talk

You’ll receive your itinerary beforehand. Expect a very full schedule for one to 1.5 days. Each interview will usually last about 30 minutes. Always be in “interview mode”—remember, your interview day starts the moment you arrive at the institution. Dress code should be conservative business attire (it’s hard to be overdressed but easy to be underdressed).

What interviewers want

Although your interview experience may differ depending on the positions and career paths you’re considering, there are common characteristics that employers seek in candidates:

  • Expertise, intelligence, work ethic (usually assessed by research accomplishments, publications, recommendation letters, etc.)
  • Collegiality and adaptability (someone who will fit with their group/department, both in research interests and in personality)
  • Indicators for future success (leadership record, ambition, energy, etc.)

Questions to expect

Anything on your CV is fair game. Most interviewers will try to assess your interest level at the institution/practice and your personal needs, such as your preference on location and work environment as well as the needs of your family/spouse. Expect to be asked questions about some or all of the following topics at the interview, depending on the job opportunity:

  • Academics: Your research, teaching interests, short- and long-term research goals and career plans, strengths/weaknesses, and how your research interest will synergize with the department’s vision
  • Private practice: What you can contribute to the practice, your ideal practice situation, and your preferred practice structure (e.g.,affiliated with academic practice, solo versus group practice, corporate medicine, number of physicians)
  • Industry: Why you are making this transition, how you deal withchallenges, your ability to work effectively in a team setting

Questions to ask

Asking thoughtful questions about the institution, practice, or company during the interview demonstrates your level of interest. Considerusing some of these examples and tailor them to the specific job. Note that questions about salary, consulting opportunities, and coverage of moving expenses may not be appropriate during your first visit.


  • Can you tell me about your research, teaching load, and service commitment?
  • What can you tell me about the availability of research support and faculty mentors?
  • What is the long-term vision for the department?

Private practice

  • What is your corporate philosophy and mission statement? How is the financial health of the practice? Can you tell me about your service area?
  • What is the five-year plan for the organization? Do you have anyplans to increase the number of offices, physician staffing, or add new services/acquisitions?
  • How is the staff morale? What about turnover?
  • How is the practice perceived by the local medical community? Can you tell me about your referral sources and patterns?
  • How long has the position been open? Is this a new position or are you replacing someone? What was their reason for leaving?


  • What role would I play in the organization’s mission? What are the goals for the position?
  • Who would be my team members and what roles do they play in the team structure?
  • Does this position have opportunities for growth within the company?

Next steps

After the first interview, you may be invited back for a second look, which will give you more time to learn about the organization and discuss the details of the position (including salary and benefits). However, it’s not over yet. Once the offers come in, make sure you take enough time (but not too long) to understand what you’re being offered and get advice on how to negotiate the offer.

My final advice to you is to be honest with yourself through the entire process in order to be happy with your decision. After all, you’ve waited years to find this job. Feel free to share withme your experience along the way, and good luck!

Dr. Park, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is a member of ASCO’s Professional DevelopmentCommittee and Career Development Subcommittee. In 2010 he received an AACR-Astellas USA Foundation Fellowship in Basic Cancer Research.

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