Common consultant interview questions and how to answer them

Authors: Kathy Oxtoby 

Publication date:  31 Jan 2017


Becoming a consultant is a pivotal point in a doctor’s career. After years of study and training, there is still a major hurdle to overcome—the consultant interview. Kathy Oxtoby looks at what it takes to succeed

Preparation is essential to making sure that you have a successful interview.

The starting point is making connections with the consultants in your specialty, perhaps through committees or social activities. During the course of your training you will have become known by consultants in the different hospitals that you have worked in. It is worth making contact with the deputy clinical director towards the end of your training to ask about possible opportunities.

Getting to know your interview panel will help you to prepare. Alexandra Cope, a consultant general and colorectal surgeon at Wexham Park Hospital, recommends meeting with everyone on the panel, if possible, as a way of anticipating the questions they may ask.

“When you do meet with people on the panel they will ask you the types of questions that they are likely to ask you at interview. Consider their thoughts on issues and think about what you need to build into your answers,” she advises.

As part of the preparation process, Cope recommends looking at details of recent board meetings to inform you about the trust's considerations and concerns, and to consider what you can contribute to help them achieve their vision.

She also believes that it’s important to know about the plans of the organisation so you can highlight your ideas and show how you would fit into its “bigger picture.”

“Most trusts will have a five year plan so you can tap into their ideas at interview. For example, if you know they are developing a new emergency department you can talk about your interest in this area and what you could offer,” says Cope.

When preparing material for an interview, it is useful to break down the information into key points. “This helps to avoid your responses sounding like a recitation, and gives you the confidence to comment on key issues,” says Jim Bolton, a consultant psychiatrist in London.

Responses should show that the candidate has reflected on their experiences—that they have learnt from them, and that they have gained expertise they would therefore bring to their new employer, Bolton advises.

Rehearse your interview

Having prepared your responses to likely questions, asking colleagues and friends to do rehearsal interviews is a valuable way to gain feedback and to find out how you perform under pressure.

Cope recommends lots of practice interviews before the main event. “My friends grilled me before my interview—they asked me lots of questions and helped me to rehearse answers. Being put under the microscope by your friends can be uncomfortable, but it really helped me to prepare,” she says.

Common questions and how to answer them

An interview will not be purely focused on clinical experience. “Remember, senior managers, and possibly a lay person, will be on the panel and they will be interested in different parts of your CV, such as your management experience or ability to improve the quality of services,” says Tom Bourke, a consultant paediatrician at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Areas you are likely to be asked about will include your experience of teaching and research, and activities outside work, says Bolton.

Olivier Picard is managing director of ISC Medical, which provides interview training for consultants at all medical grades and CV writing and application form services. He says that a typical mistake interviewees make is to reel off their CV, giving standard rather than specific answers. “For example, when asked the question ‘how do you know you’re fit to be a consultant?’ rather than responding ‘I am well trained,’ you need to demonstrate that you have the clinical confidence to work independently and can take charge of a team.”

He recommends having a “strong structure” to your answers, making three or four points at most and giving personal examples. For responses to have the maximum impact he suggests using “power words” that demonstrate your experience and describe the impact of your actions. Use “led” and “introduced,” rather than “was involved with” and “exposed to.”

Consultant interviews often start with a broad question, but you should also be prepared for a direct question such as “what specifically qualifies you for this position?” Bourke points out that the risk with these opening questions is to “start telling your life story, when you should be focussing on the highlights of your career, and how your experience relates to the job you are applying for.”

Typically the next question is a clinical one. This is usually easy for clinicians to answer because “they have spent years training and it is usually related to the job they are applying for,” says Bourke.

Interviewees should expect questions about clinical governance, safety, and audit. These questions may cover your experience of challenges, what went wrong, what you learnt, and what you would do to make improvements. “These questions are best answered by drawing on your own experience, so prepare to sound bite your responses,” advises Bourke.

Teaching experience is another area you can expect to come up at interview. Bourke recommends that you “draw on every experience of teaching, and give examples of the different types of teaching you have been engaged in.”

Managers on the interview panel will often be interested in your experience of service development, asking candidates about how they manage change or how they would like to develop a particular service should they be appointed to the post. In response you can talk about your experience of implementing changes to improve services.

“For example, I noticed that patients were waiting for drugs before they could go home. So we decided to order them the night before so they could go home once they were discharged, and this shortened their length of stay,” says Bourke.

What doctors would do differently at interview

No matter how well prepared you are there will usually be at least one question you weren’t expecting, or wish you had answered differently.

Cope recalls finding it difficult to answer how she responded to feedback as a junior doctor, and wishes she had been more specific with her example. “I talked about a quality improvement project, but it would have been better if I’d talked about improving a specific care pathway, and how I’d improved on waiting times.”

Many of us are uncomfortable highlighting our attributes and achievements, and doctors are no exception. But Bolton says that clinicians can’t afford to be modest. “You need to demonstrate why you should be appointed over and above other applicants.”

Some of the skills you have developed during your training may seem unimportant, such as being able to deal with difficult relationships between colleagues, or knowing how committees work or how to represent a colleague’s views. But Bolton says that these skills “show that you are likely to be a reliable consultant colleague so it’s important to mention them.”

He says: “While the consultant interview is not about bragging, it is about making sure you demonstrate your positive attributes and experience.”

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

Kathy Oxtoby

 kathyoxtoby@blueyonder.co.uk

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: