After completing medical school and the demands of residency, looking for a job should be the easy part, right? Unfortunately, you may not have received a lesson on how to market your hard-earned skills as part of your training.
To complicate things, perhaps your picture isn’t so rosy. What if you’ve had some gaps or rough spots in your early medical career that might not appear marketable at first glance? How do you address these flaws and still sell yourself to a potential employer?
Don’t give up yet. Even the worst career mistakes—if handled tactically—don’t have to spoil your hiring potential.
Building an honest CV that works
Your job search begins with the development of a concise and effective curriculum vitae (CV) that markets you and your skills. “The CV is the first impression the hiring person will have of you,” says Martin Osinski, president of Nephrology USA, a division of the Miami based recruitment firm American Medical Consultants, Inc. “It’s about using your CV to present yourself in the most positive light. And it is important that you do not attempt to cover anything up.”
If you happen to have skeletons in your closet, the worst thing you can do is to try to mask them because they will eventually be uncovered. In most cases, your CV will be thoroughly reviewed during the screening and interview process and you’ll undergo a background check, at which time problems such as bad loans, felonies, lawsuits, sanctions or disciplinary actions will reveal themselves. In some cases, you may even be asked to fill out disclosure forms.
Background checks and the physician job search
“Background checks are a very necessary part of the screening process,” says Debbie Gleason, a physician development administrator for The Nebraska Medical Center, a 689-bed academic medical center in Omaha, Nebraska. “The average candidate will interview with three physicians and several executives while they are here. That is a large financial investment when you consider the cost to bring them here and the opportunity cost of everyone’s time. To be cost-effective, we need to ensure that the candidates we bring in for interviews are very qualified and that we have done our homework and investigated all red flags.”
If there is a chance potential employers will encounter sticky issues, prepare yourself by doing your own background check. Kristen Heffernan, a marketing manager for Locum Medical Group in Cleveland, recommends that a physician check his or her own credit and malpractice information so that he or she knows exactly what a potential employer will see and can prepare him/herself appropriately.
According to Patrice Streicher of Fox Hill Associates, a physician recruiting firm in Milwaukee, today’s shortage of physicians may provide a false sense of security for some individuals. This over-confidence may lead applicants to think physician groups will be more apt to overlook problems. “Despite the supply and demand issue, doctors, administrators, and physician groups are as discerning as ever about who they hire,” she says. “They would rather wait to hire the right physician rather than hire the wrong person.”
That means one of the most important things a candidate can do during the job search is to “be accountable,” says Streicher. If you have had a gap in your training or other undesirable situations, you need to “name it and claim it,” she says. “If you don’t hit it head on from day one, then it will look like you’re trying to hide it. The more you hedge on an issue, the more you will lose credibility.” Remember—word travels fast. “It never ceases to amaze me in the physician specialty markets how doctors on one side of the country know about the reputation of another doctor at the other end of the country,” Streicher says.
Never tell a lie
“The good news is that America is a very forgiving nation,” says Christopher Kashnig, the manager of Physician Services at Dean Health System in Madison, Wisconsin. Kashnig has 22 years in the physician recruitment business and says, “Red flags are not necessarily deal-killers. The best approach is to be upfront, honest and sincere. The recruiter or employer will respect someone who is upfront about issues.” Background checks can sometimes even unveil information that may benefit a candidate.
Kay Gerth, the associate vice president of HCA Physician Recruitment in Brentwood, Tennessee, recalls a situation in which a candidate was flagged as a sex offender. “He was just as shocked about the finding as we were,” she says. “When we investigated further, we found out that it was actually another person with the exact same last name. Had this come up later, while he was practicing, it could have seriously tarnished his career.”
Recruiters say they see numerous situations that could potentially taint a physician’s marketability, but handled in the right manner, the impact may be minimized. Physician recruiters from across the nation shared some of the more common red flags they’ve encountered and their recommendations about how to present yourself in the best possible light, should these apply to you.
Common red flags in CVs
Time gaps in a CV are a big red flag that will almost always be noticed. There are often good reasons for these gaps that may not have a negative impact on your marketability, but the key is to make sure you mention the gap in the cover letter so the recruiter doesn’t come to his or her own conclusions. For instance, in some cases, a physician may choose to leave a job or take some time off to live near aging parents. Maybe you served in the military or reserves, suffered an acute illness or decided to take some time off after the birth of your child.
Other scenarios that might raise a red flag include:
- multiple moves in a short time span
- changing programs in the middle of medical school
- residency or fellowship
- longer than normal time for completing medical
- school or residency
- career changes
- locum tenens right out of residency
- Disciplinary action taken by a licensing board
- civil or criminal records
- failing to list all active and inactive licensing
While experts recommend that most personal faux pas be mentioned in the cover letter, even then, it’s not necessary to provide a lot of detail. Save the details for the phone or personal interview. “Your CV will likely be shared by many people from the hiring body, and therefore, it may not be a good idea to elaborate about negative personal situations,” says Kashnig.
Gerth agrees and suggests you protect your personal information by requesting confidentiality within the recruiting organization in your cover letter. “You can request that the recruiter not send your CV on without your permission, although an ethical search firm would ask permission to send out your CV in advance,” she says.
Streicher says career changes are a common topic that may be addressed briefly in the cover letter. If the topic should arise during the interview, be brief and to the point. For example, you could say something as simple as, ‘We shared differences in our practicing philosophies,’ if that was the case.
In some situations, even the CV or cover letter may not be the appropriate place to address extremely sensitive topics. In such a case, the topic should, at the very least, be mentioned in the first conversation with the recruiter. For instance, problems like alcoholism or drug addiction may require some additional explaining, but if you are beyond it, the story may actually be put in a positive light, says Streicher. Be prepared to demonstrate solid work experience after your recovery as well as to provide references from colleagues in the medical community.
One touchy case Gleason remembers involved a candidate whose license had been suspended due to a question about narcotic prescriptions. “He brought it up right away in the interview,” Gleason says. “He was textbook perfect in the way he handled the situation. Everything checked out just as he explained and he was later hired.”
The Omaha, Nebraska physician Gleason refers to now says, “I’ve found the more honest and upfront you are, and the more information you can provide—the better impression you make. I brought all of the proper documentation to the interview and also had references from co-workers who could substantiate my story,” he says.
Immediate employment in locum tenens is another area that may raise concerns among recruiters and physicians. While locum tenens may be a great option for transition periods mid-career and a great twilight career option, many recruitment professionals say taking such a job right out of residency has the connotation of “not being a real job.” Supposedly, it is often difficult to place these physicians because the average hiring decision-maker is a 50-year-old male family physician who founded the practice. He likely did not take a couple of years off and has the generational mindset that needing to do so is a red flag for issues that will surface later.
For instance, one recruiter recalls a physician whose CV listed three jobs in just 18 months after residency. The candidate had intentionally chosen locum tenens work after residency and showcased the different environments and skill sets she believed made her a stronger physician. However, her cover letter simply said, “Hello! I am interested in your practice and would like to know more.”
The brevity of duration of the jobs and lack of explanation likely left prospective employers drawing their own conclusion-problems. Solution? Paint yourself in a more positive light.
This physician, Sapna Bhatia, MD, still works in locum tenens in Denver. She says the key to recasting her CV was to identify the locum tenens firm rather than each individual assignment she worked. To present a more positive side to her situation, she also began explaining in the cover letter that she chose locum tenens as a way to work with underserved populations before settling into a private practice job.
While the revision did not completely eliminate private practices’ misgivings about hiring a candidate with only locums experience, the recasting secured interviews with practices that would not have called the candidate at all based on the original correspondence, according to the recruiter.
Addressing issues in your CV
How you address potential issues or shortcomings in your cover letter is key, according to Kashnig. Address problem areas in the second or third paragraph, he says. The first paragraph should be your hook—the unique interests and qualifications you bring to the particular job for which you are applying. For example, if you are applying for a job in geriatrics, mention that you did a rotation at a nursing home.
The second paragraph, says Kashnig, should address something unique about your training, whether you trained in a hospital or university setting and/or a positive comment about the training program or school you attended. This is also the place to mention any unusual points about your education or training; for instance, why you chose an undergraduate degree of art instead of microbiology and how this has benefited you as a physician.
Finally, the last paragraph can address any issues or problem areas in your CV—time gaps, family or personal issues.
The type of information as well as the method in which you organize and present your training and experience may also make a difference as to whether you are noticed. Prashant Krishnan, MD, who recently secured a private practice position near Denver, learned the importance of having a succinct CV. His first version was four pages long. Instead of including only the most relevant experiences, Krishnan tried to cram every job, volunteer activity and hobby into a narrative format. “My thought was that the more I put in, the better,” he says. “I was trying to show off every attribute.”
His recruiter for one particular job suggested he streamline the CV by cutting out information, such as jobs as far back as high school and college, which were no longer relevant to his career and his list of interests, which ranged from martial arts to being a singer in a rock band.
Krishnan reformatted his CV using a bullet format in reverse chronological order. He highlighted the biggest accomplishment of his training—serving as chief fellow. He shortened his descriptions to three or four words that could be expanded upon during an interview. When deciding what to keep and what to eliminate, Krishnan weighed whether the information would make him more marketable. In the end, he finished with a CV that landed him a job in his city of choice.
A clear, straightforward objective statement is another important component of the CV to help you stand out among other job candidates. For example, a statement like “I want to be the best and most caring doctor,” is vague, while, “I am seeking to affiliate with an internal medicine practice with the potential to grow and become a partner. I have a special interest in bariatric medicine,” is clear and shows you have thought about what you want.
Industry insiders also encourage candidates to learn as much as possible about the practice you seek to join and to customize your CV to meet the specific needs of that job. When Maja Rudolph, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist in Denver, interviewed for a medical director position, she was missing one key piece of information—that expanding the program was considered of high importance, so marketing skills would be a plus. When she was later tipped off about this detail, she followed up with a thank you letter that included some ideas for such expansion, which ultimately won her a second interview and helped her clinch the position.
You might also consider including a section on published works, research and prestigious awards. “This helps distinguish a candidate with some additional ‘wow’ factors, such as whether a physician was tops in their residency, part of a research team responsible for a medical innovation, or has co-authored three book chapters,” says Heffernan. “Keep it brief and limited to those accomplishments that really make you stand out—unless you’re applying for an academic position. Then it is more appropriate to list them all.”
And last but not least, don’t overlook the personal section of your CV. Deciding what to include here may be a little trickier. For instance, including too much sensitive information—such as your religious or political affiliations—might jeopardize your potential employment if your views and preferences are drastically different than those of the employer, says Kashnig. Even though the law prohibits discrimination based on such criteria. In interviews, employers are not allowed to even ask about such issues.
In addition, listing too many hobbies or interests might give the appearance that you are not committed to your professional career. If you mention that you are an avid snow skier in an application for a job in Florida, you may have to explain how this doesn’t conflict with your commitment to a job in that region.
On the other hand, providing some relevant personal information adds dimension to you as an individual, contributes a connecting point between you and members of a practice and serves as an icebreaker during an interview. Most recruiters agree that including information about your family is important because it allows employers and recruiters to gather information about how the community is likely to be relevant to you and yours. In addition, it may bring to light similar areas of interest between you and the physicians in the practice with whom you are interviewing.
When in doubt, everyone agrees that being honest and forthright will always get you further than being deceitful. “Our lives are the product of the things we say and do—things we should have said and should have done,” says Streicher. “And, when striving to achieve a goal, it is what we learn from such actions that results in success. Winston Churchill once said, ‘All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.’”