Know A Good Doctor? We Do.

Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

Don’t Let Your Strengths Hold You Back

You’d think that it would be enough to be really smart, talented, hard-working, and determined. By the time Client entered medical school, she’d been at the top of her class all her life.

But it wasn’t enough to land her a residency in her dream specialty. Her biggest strengths — outstanding academics, natural giftedness, and the drive to succeed — were exactly what she had in common with everyone else.

CLIENT It’s a competitive specialty, but I was shocked that I didn’t make it. Everyone around me thought I’d make it, too. When I asked what happened, I was told my interview was “lackluster.”

It was a tough spot to be in. Client’s quiet confidence and sheer competence had gotten her through medical school with flying colors, but her career was at a dead end without a residency.

Unfortunately, how to portray your best self in a 15-minute interview isn’t something that’s emphasized in medical school, according to my other medical student clients. “You’re supposed to just know how to do that.”

ME That’s total BS. How to promote yourself under pressure isn’t something that comes naturally to most people, maybe even less so for those in highly technical professions.

I should know. My corporate career involved working with technical professionals in finance, IT, engineering, and law. Along the way, I did a psychology internship working with executives and professionals who had been “downsized” or “out-placed” into a career transition they didn’t expect. I worked with plenty of deserving candidates who succeeded once they got a better handle on how to sell themselves in an interview.

It’s also what happens when medical students run smack into the business side of medicine: There aren’t enough residencies to go around.

Client didn’t match to her specialty, but she wasn’t ready to give up or settle for something else.

CLIENT I know that I’m a good doctor. And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the residency I want.

Welcome To Your Discomfort Zone

ME The residency interview is more ‘tell me about yourself.’ They already know you’re qualified, but will you be a good fit, someone who’s good to work with? The competition is intense for only a few spots and the decision-makers don’t want to waste a spot on someone who isn’t excited about coming to their program. The interview is your chance to show why they want you in their program. You want to show them why they’d be making a mistake not to pick you.

CLIENT But I’m not good at bragging about myself.

ME Good communicators don’t brag. They don’t sell themselves short, either. This is about how to show them who you are in a way that dramatically increases your chances of a match in your chosen specialty. Interviewing skills are the last thing many technically or scientifically oriented people consider a high priority. That’s why a standout interview will be a huge competitive advantage for you.

Client looked less than enthusiastic and I can understand why. All this talk about interviewing, interpersonal communication skills, and influencing others was just enough to quickly escort her right out of her comfort zone. But I had research on my side.

ME The research suggests that interpersonal skills are highly correlated with success, including having a good job and good relationships.

CLIENT Okay, I like the idea of communication skills and influencing others better than “selling” myself. But how do I do it?

ME Actually, you already know how to influence others with your communication skills. You do it very naturally when you persuade your friend to go see a movie or your husband to marry you. So it’s a matter of transferring that already-in-place skill set to an interview situation.

You can think of interpersonal communication skills as just another kind of intelligence. It’s one of many types of intelligence humans possess: logical-mathematical, creative, kinesthetic, spatial, and linguistic intelligence. It’s entirely possible to raise your interpersonal skills I.Q. at any age and stage of your career to increase your personal happiness and career success. It’s a natural part of lifelong learning.

Here’s the best part: You don’t even have to get very good at it. You don’t have to transform yourself into a talk show host or the life of the party. You just need to get good enough. So they pick you.

How to Get Smart-er in a Different Way

CLIENT If a med student talks often and forcefully, they’re a player. Those who don’t get marginalized. But when my voice sounds normal to others, I feel like I’m shouting.

ME Up to now, you’ve done very well in competitive environments. You’ve demonstrated your competence in your own quiet way.

But in an interview, you have to speak up about your competence. What if I could show you how to get better at interviewing in a way that doesn’t feel like bragging to you? It won’t feel like you’re forcing or willing yourself to be someone you’re not.

CLIENT Even though I’m an introvert?

ME That’s the best part. We won’t be trying to force or push your inner introvert into changing into someone gregarious and extroverted. First, I must send a clear message to your inner introvert that I’m not trying to “fix” it or change it in any way.

CLIENT (looking very relieved).

ME Your inner introvert may be a primary part of your personality, but it’s not the only committee member in your head. I’ve noticed how engaged and enthusiastic you can get in our sessions. What would it take to lean a little into the part of you who is naturally quite passionate about a residency in this specialty? So that part of you also gets a chance to express herself during the interview?

CLIENT Are you sure? I don’t know how to just trot that part of me out on demand, especially into a room full of strangers.

ME I understand. We’ll have to consciously draw it out in a way that doesn’t freak you out. We’re in a safe, private environment here where you can afford to be a little awkward. You can try things out and fumble around until you get your footing. I have some easy exercises that may help.

Exercise 1: Avoid the Trap of Thinking the Only Option Is to Go to the Other Extreme

  1. ) How do you act naturally? Think of this as Door #1: This is me.
  2. ) How do you think you need to act in the interview? Think of this as Door #2: This is not me.
DOOR #1: This is me. DOOR #2: This is not me.
Introverted Extroverted
Quiet Loud
Cooperative Competitive
Modest Braggy


Exercise 2: A Sub-therapeutic Dose Is All You Need

ME A sub-therapeutic dose of Door #2 is all you need.

CLIENT (looking puzzled): I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

ME Think of it this way: As a doctor, you might prescribe a super-small dose of a tricyclic antidepressant to a patient who isn’t depressed but needs help with insomnia and chronic pain. That sub-therapeutic dose isn’t enough to relieve major depression, but that’s not what you’re after. You know that a low dose of a tricyclic antidepressant is effective in promoting sleep and alleviating pain.

Here’s how this applies to you: I’d say that a sub-therapeutic dose of a loud extrovert would look a lot like you when I hear you talk about your career in medicine — excited, enthusiastic, and very passionate. When I think of a super-small dose of someone arrogant and bragging, I see someone like you, who exudes confidence without saying a word.

CLIENT What about a sub-therapeutic dose of competitive? I can’t even imagine!

Here’s what Client came up with when we finished the exercise.

DOOR #1: This is me. DOOR #2: This is not me. DOOR #3: .05% of Door #2
Introverted Extroverted Curious, Engaged
Quiet Loud Enthusiastic,
Cooperative Competitive Passionate
Modest Braggy A Contributor, Helpful Quiet Confidence

Exercise 3: Pick Door #3

Next, we did two rounds of practice interviews.

Round 1: Answer the question from your Door #1, your “comfort zone” committee member in your head.

Round 2: Answer the question from Door #3, the “engaged, enthusiastic, passionate” committee member in your head.

Here’s an example of how this played out for Client as we practiced:

CLIENT I believe I have a lot to offer our profession, and I want to have a chance to be part of this specialty. I want to make a contribution.

ME Did that feel like bragging to you?

CLIENT No. Not at all.

This time it worked. The interview went well and Client got the residency of her choice.

CLIENT You showed me how to look at my strengths and weaknesses and phrase them all to my advantage in an interview!

You Did It Because It Worked. But Now It’s Not Working…

Now what? Life is complex and challenging. We need to be able to adapt in order to stay relevant, vibrant, and keep our edge. When we overuse and overdevelop certain parts of our personality, we can find ourselves stuck or sidetracked.

Many of the professionals I encounter are so smart and capable that it takes a while to hit a wall.

No big deal — it’s just life’s way of letting you know it’s time to “up your game” and become more of who you already are.