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Can’t be a Doc: For Now (Interview Advice Column)

Created July 11, 2008 by Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
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Another summer is upon us. As you enjoy the warm days and break from classes, let’s consider another commonly encountered interview question. This one is almost certain to pop up during your interview conversation.

What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?

I’ve seen this question take many an applicant aback. When asked this question during my interviews I recall being confused and wondering whether there was a hidden meaning. Here’s what would go through my mind: “Why do they want to know what I’d do if I wasn’t able to be a doctor? Are they somehow trying to see if I’m really serious about my career choice? Is it appropriate to say there is no other option and that becoming a physician is the only reality for me?”

Perhaps you’ve already faced this question. If you hesitated or felt uncomfortable don’t feel badly –most of us have been there! In this article we will discuss how to give the interviewer a succinct, informative answer.

The Question Behind the Question

Often times an interviewer is looking for specific information but will ask the question in such a way that is not necessarily obvious. There is a question behind the question. Think of these questions as “fronts” for something else. Some common examples are listed below:

  • What symbol or object describes you?
  • If you could invite one person, living or dead, to dinner, who would it be, and what would you discuss?
  • If I were the president of my town’s chamber of commerce and you were a new doctor here, why should I recommend you?

These “front” questions can be completely hypothetical, physically impossible and seemingly unrelated to medicine. These characteristics can make them easier to spot. The key to these questions is to determine what information the interviewer is trying to “get at” and answer accordingly.

For example, the interviewer asking the second question in the list does not really care whether you choose to have dinner with Albert Einstein or Madonna. She doesn’t necessarily care if you talk about the theory of relativity or the perks of being a rock star. What she wants to know is what characteristics you posses (likely typified in the person you select) and what aspects of this person you find most interesting. It’s a question about character and values.

“What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?” is a classic “front” question. I think the two items of focus behind this question are:

  • What are your interests outside of medicine?
  • What are your personal drivers? (What motivate you?)

Outside Interests

Your outside interests are more than casual hobbies. They may be indicators of your passions. Perhaps you volunteer time to a specific organization or there is a business venture you’d like to pursue. Or perhaps you assist in an area of research that you find captivating. Although volunteer jobs may not necessarily relate to being a doctor they are important to you. They help to show the admissions committee who you truly are … the depth you possess.

Motives

More important to the interviewer are your personal drivers. What is it that causes you to get out of bed every morning? Maybe you’ve never thought about this but it’s an important question to ask.

The answer to “What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?” is a clever way to determine what drives you. Simply put, your motives shouldn’t change just because your career does.

Sometimes it can be tricky to determine what motivates us. These questions may help in your discovery.

  • If you had the day off and didn’t have any responsibilities to attend to, what would you do?
  • What activity would you choose to do, even if you weren’t going to be paid?
  • What discussion topic really gets you fired up?
  • Is there a particular injustice that is very upsetting to you? If so, why?

For example, I know someone who loves to build. Furthermore, he loves to incorporate new technology into his projects. With or without a paycheck he would choose to design buildings. He loves investigating new, better materials and construction techniques. He is constantly interested in ways to be more environmentally friendly. If he had his way he would devote the majority of his time to this area of interest because it’s what drives him.

What drives you? This is important for you to know and equally important to convey to the admissions committee.

The Approach

Once you know the information the interviewer is actually trying to obtain it becomes much easier to answer the question. Try this three-step approach as you prepare:

  1. Express sadness over the possibility of not being able to practice medicine.
  2. Share the things that motivate you and would make you a good physician.
  3. Answer the question in the context of an important outside interest.

Express Sadness

Remember, the interviewer just took away what you believe is your life-long goal and passion. It would be inappropriate to say, “That’s cool. I’d just go work at my dad’s warehouse until something else popped up.” The goal is to play along, but to also convey your conviction that medicine is the best place for you.

Motivation

Discover for yourself those things which motivate you and would make you a good physician. Character traits and values such as compassion, discovery, strong work ethic, diligence, creativity or social justice are good examples. In an interview these would be expressed in the context of certain activities ( e.g. building a new house, volunteering, research, etc.).

Outside Interests

This allows the interviewer to get to know more about you and to remember you long after the interview. It is a great opportunity to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your character. Your passions and the time you devote to them are important to admissions committees. They make you unique and memorable and are glimpses into your inner person.

In Action

A sample answer might look like this:

“Wow, I’d be pretty upset not to be able to practice medicine, because I really believe it’s the best profession for my talents and personality. However, if I couldn’t be a doctor, I would probably go into R&D (research and development) at a biotech company. I love to figure things out. New discoveries excite my imagination. During a summer internship at _____ I really enjoyed the analytical, research component of the work. It was very demanding and required a high level of commitment, but my enthusiasm stayed. I felt excited about my work. Also it was nice to know we were working on projects that would eventually help people.

This would likely satisfy my passion for science, but I would still feel something missing. I really need meaningful human interaction. I’d likely do volunteer work abroad. Some of my travels have opened my eyes to the extreme hardships people face in other countries. [Perhaps tell a quick story of a personal experience]. It’s important for me to stay close to people in need and to develop strong, meaningful interactions.”

From what this applicant said I see that she would be saddened by not being able to practice medicine. She is analytical, diligent and likes to solve problems. This is someone who has a strong need to connect with people on a fundamental level, in order to help them. To an interviewer, that’s valuable information.

Summary

Don’t be thrown by the question, “What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?”. Now that you know what the interviewer has in mind you can take advantage of this opportunity. Use this question as an excellent way to demonstrate important aspects of your character and personality, as well as your drive to become a physician.

Please email your medical school questions to Dr. Fleenor at: [email protected]

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