Interview Preparation for Medical Physics Graduate, Post-Doctoral and Residency Programs

August 24, 2009 · Written by ·

interviewWhether it’s getting admissions to a medical physics graduate or residency program or securing a position as a medical physics post-doctoral fellow, one thing is for sure: it’s competitive–and it’s only going to get more competitive with time. There are many top-notch students vying for a spot in these programs. Having a strong academic background (e.g. good grades in relevant coursework) and stellar recommendation letters are definitely a must, but they’re not everything when the applicant pool is both large and well-qualified. Strong interviewing skills is one (often overlooked) way to set yourself apart from the rest of the applicants. Being well-prepared, confident and articulate at your admissions interview will not only put you in serious contention, but can also often seal the deal when it comes to admissions.

The first rule when it comes to interviewing is answer honestly.

The second rule is be yourself and answer naturally–don’t memorize answers and then try to recite them verbatim during the interview. If they wanted to hire a robot, you wouldn’t have been called in for an interview. Memorizing answers to interview questions also has a way of backfiring in most cases. For example, what if the interviewer decides to ask you a question for which you didn’t memorize an answer? You can bet that your impromptu answer to this unexpected question will sound extremely different from your other rote responses; as a result, the interviewer will realize you’re a “memorizer”–and that’s not a good thing.

The third rule of interviewing is practice, practice, practice (but, again, don’t memorize). Practicing is immensely helpful in articulating your thoughts and just plain getting your comfort level up. Practicing is also helpful in cases when the interviewer decides to throw out a question that may have taken you 10 minutes to answer had you NOT practiced. Because of the importance of practice, it’s absolutely vital to go over sample questions (the more, the better).

As you progress through your interviews at various institutions, you will start to realize that (more or less) the same questions are asked of you. The reason for question recycling is not necessarily because interviewers are unoriginal creatures that cannot think of unique things to ask you, but rather it’s because the questions being recycled are particularly good at evaluating you as an applicant (your abilities, your skills, your personality). As a starting point for you, here are a list of questions from a pamphlet I received a while ago by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Howard Hughes Medical Institute:

For evaluating experience and skills:

  1. What is (are) your most significant accomplishment(s)?
  2. Describe the part you played in conducting a specific project or implementing a new approach or technology in your department/lab?
  3. I see you have worked with [a specific technology or technique]. Tell me about its features and its benefits.

For evaluating commitment and initiative:

  1. Why do you want to attend (or work) at this university/institution/department/in this lab?
  2. Where do you see yourself in 5 (or 10) years?
  3. What kinds of projects do you want to do? Why?
  4. Tell me how you stay current in your field.
  5. Describe a time when you were in charge of a project and what you feel you accomplished.
  6. Describe a project or situation in which you took initiative.

For evaluating working and learning styles:

  1. What motivates you to work?
  2. Would you rather work on several projects at a time or on one project?
  3. Do you learn better from books, hands-on experience or other people?
  4. Describe a time or project when you had to work as a part of a team?  What was the outcome of the team’s effort?
  5. How would you feel about a leaving a project for a few hours to help someone else?
  6. If you encountered a problem at work/in the lab, would you ask someone for help or would you try to deal with it yourself?
  7. Would it be a problem to work after hours or on the weekends, should the project need it?

For evaluating time management:

  1. How do you prioritize your work?
  2. How do you deal with multiple priorities competing for your time?

For evaluating decision making and problem solving:

  1. What is the biggest challenge in your current job?  How are you dealing with it?
  2. Describe a time when you had to make a decision that resulted in unintended/unexpected (good or bad) consequences.
  3. Describe a situation where you found it necessary to gather other opinions before you made a decision.

For evaluating interpersonal skills:

  1. How important is it to you to be liked by your peers/colleagues and why?
  2. If you heard through the grapevine that someone didn’t care for you, what would you do, if anything?
  3. Describe a situation in which your work was criticized–how did you react to and address the situation?
  4. Name a scientist whom you like and respect.  What qualities do you like about this person?

Feel free to share your medical physics interview experiences with the other readers by leaving a comment on this post. Also, add your interview questions to this list by leaving a comment so that those with upcoming interviews for medical physics grad school or post-doctoral/residency positions can get a bit more practice.

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