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Interviewing Then and Now: How Job Interviews Differ from Fellowship Interviews

Published on: Jan 21, 2020


If you’re a medical resident or fellow, you may have wondered if your future job interviews will be any different than the interviews you participated in for your current role. After all, both situations use roughly the same cast of characters: the candidate (you), a department chair or other management-team member, and possibly someone from a recruiting or HR capacity. And it’s still a medical setting, of course. So how different could it be to interview for a job than it was for your postgraduate training?

Not only is the process different, but so are the stakes. Consider this: When you interview for a fellowship, it’s only for a year or two. Everyone involved tries to make the best match possible, but even so, it’s understood that the time will pass quickly. So it’s not the end of the world if the fit isn’t just right between the candidate and the organization. But when you interview for a permanent position, your future employer is taking the long view. Suddenly it matters very much if he or she likes you as a person, believes you’ll fit with the team, and trusts your ability to move forward with the organization’s goals. And sometimes those goals won’t even be clearly defined. That’s quite different from a fellowship, where the structure is evident from the outset.

Here’s what Judy Rosman, president and CEO of Rosman Search says about the two processes: “When you’re interviewing for a fellowship, it’s very clear what your job is. And the people are there to train you. In some ways, they’re there to serve you. But when you’re interviewing for a job, you have to demonstrate that you’re ready and eager to serve them. And it’s often less clear what they want you to do.”

Stephen M. Sergay, MB BCh, FAAN, managing partner of Tampa Neurology Associates and former president of the American Academy of Neurology (2007–2009), agrees that at least some fellowship hiring strategies differ from those for a job. For one thing, both parties in the conversation know what the candidates’ interests are before interviews are even scheduled. “With a fellowship,” he notes, “you’ve already declared your hand: ‘I want to work with seizure disorders.’ So you might expect to be asked, ‘What attracts you about seizure disorders?’” 

By contrast, Sergay says interview conversations for permanent positions are necessarily more layered, at least when he conducts them for Tampa Neurology Associates. “We have a general neurology practice with some subspecialists,” he explains, “and I believe that being a clinician is a calling, not a trade. It’s challenging to be with patients all day if you don’t enjoy being with people.” With that in mind, Sergay says that is he is watching for a combination of skills, approach, personality, and chemistry. Each criterion can be difficult to discern from a single point of reference so he relies on a number of steps: phone interviews, followed by conversations with the references the candidate provides, followed by conversations with his partners to confirm their comfort, and finally, daylong interviews for a final few. It’s an intensive and expensive process with a high stakes outcome: The chosen candidate is employed with the group’s understanding that there is a high likelihood that this candidate will continue to partnership. “We all do better with continuity than with continual change” he said. 

With so much on the line, Sergay and his partners are highly invested in finding the right fit, on all levels. For him, that means conducting conversations with candidates that reveal as much as possible about the individuals and their goals. “First, I talk to somebody on the phone when I get their name,” he says. “I try to spend an hour or so to get to know them: what they’re interested in, if they have family needs and how they see spending their time going forward. I’d like to know about the relationships they have had with patients, referring docs and with the nurses on the floor, and other “human stuff.” I hope our interviews allow candidates to look into their hearts and define how they want to spend their working days and we try to match this by making them aware of exactly how our practice works. The last thing we would ever want is a surprised employee when she arrives for work. Our hope is that our candidates will be able to look into themselves and articulate their hoped-for future while we talk, so that we can ensure a high likelihood that our goals match.” 

While Judy Rosman dislikes stock answers as well, she’s careful to advise candidates she’s recruiting for open positions that they need to thoroughly research potential employers so they can better frame the answers they give. “In order to demonstrate that you’re able, eager, and willing to meet their needs,” she says, “first you have to determine what their needs are.” With this research, Rosman is hopeful that the candidate can avoid common pitfalls of interviewing, such as answering “What’s your perfect job?” with an over-abundance of idealism. “I had one person answer, ‘Well, ideally I’d like 12 weeks off so I can do mission work in Africa,’” she recalls. While that response might lead to an interesting conversation, it could also scare off an employer who perceives that the candidate would prefer the mission work over the daily tasks of the position. “Before you answer the question of what would be the ideal job,” Rosman advises, “you need to understand what the employer thinks would be an ideal candidate. If you don’t take the time to do this, you might rule yourself out the first time you open your mouth.”

Which, of course, is Sergay’s point: He’d prefer that candidates rule themselves out rather than try to win a job that might not fit them well. Coming from a slightly different perspective, Rosman holds a similar philosophy when it comes to “fit”: “I think it’s very important for candidates to understand the job for which they are applying. I don’t coach candidates but I do make it clear to them: The job that we’re representing is the job. If the employer wants an EMG specialist, they don’t want someone who will just do a little EMG.” 

So to recap: Do interviews for permanent jobs differ from those for fellowships? By now, you’re probably convinced that they do. But you may also be a little intimidated. No need, according to both Rosman and Sergay. According to Rosman, “Once people really understand the job, they generally don’t have a problem with the phone interview,” which is the entrance point for later in-person meetings. And, from Sergay, this word of confidence in neurology candidates everywhere: “I believe that people coming out of medical school and neurology residencies and fellowships are highly trained and resilient. They have embraced remarkable challenges at a young age. I believe if you’re lucky enough to be a neurologist, you will shoulder unbelievable responsibilities and are on the brink of a life of deep relationships with your patients and understanding of mankind. I believe that people know what they want really; they just have to express it.”