Archive for the ‘For Career Planners’ Category

Preparing for Medical School Interviews

Q.  I have an interview coming up for a Degree course in Medicine and I really want to succeed.  What can I do to prepare well for the interview?

A.  Admissions tutors for Medical courses have the difficult job of sifting through many very academically well-qualified candidates to find those best suited to a career in Medicine, so you are right to be preparing well for the interview.  The majority of people who are called to interview will have (or be predicted) straight As or A* at A-Level, so the interview is used to distinguish those who have the right skills and attitude.  Most Medical schools also use the UKCAT tests to identify a candidate’s mental abilities (e.g. problem solving, verbal and logical reasoning) and behavioural characteristics.

The interview is used to get a fuller picture of the candidate, their interests, achievements, skills and attributes.  Admissions tutors will be looking for:

  • A good understanding of what is involved in the career (including being prepared for long hours, shifts, a long training period, geographical mobility) but also  operating within a Code of Conduct and with limited resources.
  • A genuine interest in health, medicine and people
  • A lively and well-rounded personality
  • Skills in leadership, communication, decision-making, problem solving, organisation, observation, team-work
  • Excellent academic skills – the ability to self-direct your study, research independently, use IT proficiently, present your findings verbally and on paper, analyse data and memorize large amounts of information for exams.
  • A strong sense of ethics
  • Confident (to communicate, make decisions and take responsibility) but not arrogant – they want people who are prepared to admit when they don’t know all the answers and can learn from mistakes

In preparation for Medical applications,  it is a good idea to do as many of the following as you are able:

  • Carry out a formal period of work experience/observation with a doctor (perhaps your own GP or a local hospital) and reflect on what you learnt from it.
  • Do some voluntary or paid work in a relevant field (e.g. paid work as a health care assistant, voluntary work in a hospital, voluntary work with elderly people, voluntary work with a health/medical support group, St Johns Ambulance/first aid roles)
  • Take on a leadership role (e.g. Student Union rep, School council member, school prefect, football captain, college magazine editor, science society secretary)
  • Take part in extra-curricular activities (e.g. Duke of Edinburgh Award, sports, music, student media, student societies) and think about the skills that you are developing through these activities.
  • Take an interest in current affairs and read the papers, particularly anything related to medicine or health.  New Scientist is also worth reading.
  • Do as much research into the career as possible e.g. the different specialisms, the training involved, the way the NHS is organised, the typical “day-in-the-life” of a junior doctor etc.  You can do a lot of this research on the internet but it is also good to talk to people who actually work in the NHS to get more personal views.
  • Look at the GMC website, particularly Tomorrow’s Doctors and the Principles of Good Medical Practice, as this has really informed the way that doctors are now trained and the ethical environment they work in
  • Choose options within your academic courses that enable you to do some independent research into a medical topic of interest.
  • Find out as much as you can about the specific course and university you are applying to e.g. the teaching methods, the structure of the course and anything that makes it unique.
  • Re-read your UCAS personal statement and be prepared to talk about it.
  • Find out what help is available from your school or college careers service – mock interviews can be very helpful. is a very useful website.

In the run up to the interview, think about the kind of questions you will be asked, and the possible answers you might give.  You can’t be prepared for every question, but there are some key areas that you should prepare for.

Why do you want to be a doctor?  Why would you be a good doctor?  Why should we offer you a place to study Medicine?  What kind of person makes a good doctor?

Use this question to outline the skills and interests you have and how these relate to Medicine.  Back up your answer with some practical examples of things that you have done to test out your commitment (e.g. work experience and what you learnt from it) and to demonstrate your skills and interest.

What are the health implications of the water-shortage in Northern Ireland?  What do you think the impact of the this governments changes to the NHS will be?  Why do you think TB is on the rise in the UK?  What do you think is the most important health-issue worldwide?  Is obesity a class-issue?

Keep yourself up-to-date with what is going on in the world, as you may be asked something about current affairs.  If you don’t know the answer, think about it and make some suggestions as what you think may be relevant, as there may not be one correct answer.  Admissions tutors may be more interested in how you approach the problem than what you actually know.

If you were treating a child who needed a blood transfusion, but her parents refused to allow it on religious grounds, how would you react?  Should smokers who refuse to give up smoking be given expensive medical treatment when money is short in the NHS? Should an obese patient be expected to lose weight before being given an operation?  Who should make the decision not to resucitate and elderly patient?

You will often be asked about an ethical situation, and again, there may not be a right  answer.  Admissions tutors will be more interested in how you approach the problem and show an understanding of issues like: respect for the patient’s dignity and autonomy, safety, informed choice, consent.

What did you enjoy most about your work experience/voluntary work?  What did you find most difficult?  What did you learn about yourself?  What skills did you see doctors using?

Admissions tutors will be looking for a genuine interest and enthusiasm for the job (both the medical problem-solving and the contact with patients), but also a realistic view of the challenges of the job.  A willingness to self-reflect and address your weaknesses is important (as long as your weaknesses are fairly minor!).

What have you enjoyed most about your course?  What have you found difficult?

Show how the things you have enjoyed most relate to your decision to do Medicine.  Make sure you demonstrate the ability to study independently.

Can you give an example of a time when you have had to take the lead and organise other people?  Can you think of time when you have had to work as part of a team?  Can you think of a time you have had to help someone who was very upset or emotional?  Can you think of a time you had a set-back and how dealt with that?  How do you deal with stress?

These questions give you an opportunity to talk about your achievements outside academic life and to show another side to your personality.  You can use examples drawn from your home life, part-time work, course, extra-curricular activities, school/college responsibilities, work experience etc.

What would you contribute to the social and cultural life of this medical school?

Admissions tutors like candidates who are keen to take part in sports, drama, arts and culture.  This is partly because they like a lively medical school, but also because having outside interests can relieve the stress of the job.

On The Day

  • Dress smartly (e.g. a suit,  shirt and tie, shirt and skirt) – it shows you have made an effort and creates a professional impression.
  • Be early and use the time to look around, check your appearance and take a few deep breaths.
  • Keep calm, and remember to listen carefully, smile at the panel, speak slowly and calmly.  Don’t be afraid to ask for a question to be repeated if you need it.
  • Give full and detailed answers, using specific examples of what you have done and what you have learnt from it, but don’t waffle!

Good luck with your interview!  If you have prepared well, you have given yourself the best possible chance of succeeding, so you should feel confident.

It’s always advisable to have a back-up plan, however, and there are many interesting related jobs that are worth considering if it doesn’t work out, from medical research to the professions allied to medicine (occupational therapy, radiography, physiotherapy etc).


How To Make Yourself Lucky

Chance and luck play a huge part in the direction our lives take, not least when it comes to finding jobs and opportunities to work.

One friend of mine, who had been frustrated with her lack of progression at work, finally found her perfect job as the training manager for a group of Care Homes, by chatting to an acquaintance at the school gate.  Another friend, a university Careers Adviser who liked her job but had become rather fed up with the long commute, just happened to be chatting to a colleague in the canteen and he mentioned that one of his students was applying for a Careers Adviser post down the road from where she lived.  She applied – and got the job!

In the last month, I’ve come across:

  • a sixteen year old client who was offered an apprenticeship with his uncle who happened to be building a house (he’d never thought of construction as a career before)
  • an adult client who set up a wedding planning business after having been asked by two friends to plan their weddings,
  • a young woman who happened to be shopping in the local corner shop when she noticed a sign saying they needed a part-time assistant.  It just happend to fit perfectly around her family responsibilities!
  • a computer programmer who was under notice of redundancy, and happened to mention this to a client who then offered him a job in their IT department, doing more practical work that he thoroughly enjoyed

Ask a random group of people how they got their current job, and the chances are, many of them will have got their job through a friend or acquaintance.  In fact, the CIPD estimate that 70% of jobs are found through informal means – through friends and family, proactive networking, speculative applications and cold calling.  There is always a huge element of chance involved in this – whether we happen to meet that random stranger, make the right phone call at the right time (just when gap in the organisation has appeared) or  get chatting to the right person at the school gate. Of course, the more approaches you make, they better your chances of succeeding.

Even in more formal job search methods, there is still an element of chance – whether we happen to buy the right paper, visit the right agency or look on the right internet site on the right day.  These chance encounters can lead not just to a new job, but to a whole new occupation that we might never have considered if we hadn’t happened to see a particular advert or meet a particular person.  Like it or not, most of us are not particularly rational when we choose an occupation.  We don’t research the full range of occupations; we stick to what we know about.  We don’t carefully match our likes and dislikes against the demands of the job; we take what happens to be available and looks vaguely suitable.  Chance plays a very big part in this.

So, if luck and chance play such a big part in career choice, is there anything we can do to make ourselves luckier?  I came across some descriptions of psychological experiments designed to find out just this.  In the first, some volunteers were given a newspaper and asked to go through it counting the photographs.  Unbeknownst to them, the researcher (Howard Wiseman) had inserted an ad which said “Win a £100 by telling the researcher you found this”.  People who rated themselves as lucky before the experiment were more likely to see the advertisement – perhaps because they tended to have their eyes on the bigger picture and spot opportunities that the unlucky people missed.

In another experiment, he asked people to help him get a letter to a random person – say Kate, an events manager, in Cheltenham – by passing it on to someone they knew by name, who might be able to pass it onto someone else who could get it to her.  Amazingly, many people around the UK could get it to her through just 4 contacts.  Some people who had volunteered for the experiment, however, didn’t pass the letter to anyone at all.  When questioned about this, they said it was because they didn’t know anyone who they thought could help.  These people also tended to be those people who rated themselves as unlucky before the experiment began.

He concluded that lucky people tend to have a wider social network and to see that network as being full of people who could help them.  Lucky people are living in a “smaller world” and are more socially connected to other people around the country.  When they need a plumber in a hurry, a new client, some good advice or a new job, they are more likely to know someone who can help them.  Happy coincidences are a frequent occurence, because of their wide social network.

So, if we want to improve our luck, the key seems to be in widening our social networks – taking the trouble to talk to people, being friendly and interested in the random strangers we meet, smiling at the neighbours we recognise, starting conversations with people around the coffee station, using social networking sites and getting out and about in our communities.

This is not a new conclusion.  There is a whole approach to career planning known as Planned Happenstance, which suggests that rather than setting ourselves an end goal, we should keep an open mind, and develop the skills and attitudes necessary to generate positive chance encounters and be prepared to make the most of them when they present themselves. The “Happenstance” refers to the luck element in this approach, while the “Planned” refers to planning to maximise lucky events and our ability to make the most of them.

Attitudes such as curiosity, enthusiasm for learning and willingness to take risks are a key part of this approach, as are networking skills.  Advocates of Planned Happenstance suggest taking part in lots of activities that interest us, developing new skills and trying out many new experience (work, travel and leisure), which will generate many chance encounters, and thus increase our chances of something really lucky happening to us.

Being too focused on an end goal can actually blind us to seeing opportunities when they do present themselves.  Two people might read the same newspaper, but one person will pass right over the job adverts, on the grounds that they aren’t looking for work, while another will, just out of curiousity, scan them and their eye might be caught by something, even though they hadn’t thought they wanted a new job.

So, if you really do want to improve your luck and improve your career prospects at the same time:

  • Be curious and look at the bigger picture
  • Chat to people everywhere you go, including random strangers
  • Do the things you enjoy doing, particularly when it involves meeting others
  • Seek out new experiences
  • Develop your skills – you never know when they might come in handy!
  • Expect the unexpected – you never know when good luck will strike, so be ready to recognise it!

The Decisive Moment

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by Jonah Lehrer, “The Decisive Moment”, which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in how people make decisions or wants to make better decisions (about anything from shopping to playing poker to career planning).

“The Decisive Moment” summarises all the latest research from neuroscientists, who can now track which parts of the brain are being used in different types of decisions, and mixes this with really interesting anecdotes about good and bad decisions made, taken from sports, gambling, airlines, firefighting, shopping and financial planning.

It’s clear from the evidence that he presents that there is an important place in good decision-making for both intuitive “gut feelings”  and the more  rational decision-making processes, and they work best when used together.

Our intuitive responses to situations and decisions are based on the analysis made by the unconscious mind, which can compute thousands of factors, consider all our previous relevant experience and learning and put it all together, communicating this to the conscious mind with an emotional “gut feeling”, which we can then choose to follow or ignore.  This unconscious mind is an amazing thing, and we ignore it at our peril!

However, it is vulnerable to making certain kinds of mistakes and is easily taken in by clever advertising or sales techniques.  It favours instant gratification over long-term benefits.  It also looks for evidence to support beliefs already held, rather than being open to the unfamiliar.  It’s also rather “loss averse” so when a decision is framed in terms of loss (e.g. the money you will lose if you buy something) it tends to avoid the loss.  Intuitive decision-making works best when the decision-maker has a lot of relevant experience for the unconscious mind to draw on.

We can either act immediately on our intuitive feelings, or we can choose to stop and use the conscious, rational part of our mind (the prefrontal cortex) to analyse them further, looking at the pros and cons of the decision.  The rational part of our mind is very good at logical and mathematical decisions, and is less vulnerable to being taken in by advertising or pressure from others.  However, unlike the unconscious mind, which can analyse unlimited factors, the conscious mind can only look at a limited number of factors (about seven), so is less able to deal with very complex decisions.  It also finds it harder to put a value on how important certain factors are (for example, in buying a house, the conscious mind might not know which was of more value – a short commute or an extra bathroom).  Using the rational brain for complex decisions can lead to poorer decision-making.

So what is the best way to make really complex decisions?  Lehrer suggests that we should first do some work with the rational bits of our brain – listing all the options, listing the important factors, researching the options, gathering all the relevant information, doing the maths.  Then we should go on holiday, or do a relaxing activity that allows the conscious mind to forget about the decision, and let it “marinate” in the unconscious mind, so that an intuitive feeling can come to the surface.

Lehrer doesn’t mention any career decisions in his book, but there is clearly lots of relevance for career planning.  Most career decisions are very complex.  Choosing a university involves choosing the right course (both interesting, realistic and leading to the right career), choosing a good environment and making financial decisions.  Changing jobs involves a new job role, new colleagues, a new journey to work, changes in pay and conditions.  These are certainly complex decisions that the rational part of the brain would find difficult to accomplish alone.  To make these decisions, we need to make good use of our intuitive feelings and let the unconscious mind to a lot of the work for us.

However, that is not to say that we should unquestioningly go with our gut feeling, because intuitive feelings can lead us astray.  If intuitive feelings tend to prioritize short-term gratification over the long-term, we should be aware of this.  For example, if you are sixteen and you are offered the choice between a job in fast food place, paying the minimum wage, and an apprenticehsip with a mechanic leading to a qualification, but only paying a training allowance, you may  intuitively favour the instant gratification of the job and the better money.

The intuitive mind is also “loss averse” and if taking on a new job role or going to college is framed in terms of loosing friends, the intuitive mind may not go for it, preferring to keep the security of existing friends rather than leaping into the unknown.  Lehrer doesn’t talk much about peer pressure, but I am guessing (from his descriptions of how we respond to sales and advertising) that peer pressure may influence intuitive feelings about a decision, and again, this is something we should be wary of.

Lehrer suggests that if we want to get better at decision-making, we need spend more time analysing the decisions that make, so we can become better at knowing when to trust our intuitions and when not to.

A key part of a careers interview is often looking at past career decisions made, to see what can be learnt from them.  Were they made on the basis of gut feeling?  Was it a logical, pros and cons analysis?  Or did the client just “go with the flow” or follow advice from others.  If previous decisions haven’t worked out too well, the careers adviser may ask the client what they would do differently next time.  Typical answers include finding out more about a course or subject before choosing it, or paying less attention to what friends say, which suggests that some poor career decisions (particularly from younger people who have less experience to draw on) are based on using gut feeling without enough rational analysis and research to draw on.

However, many adult clients are very satisfied with “gut feeling” career decisions, perhaps because they do have more life experience to draw on and use.  The most common flaw that adults seem to find in their previous decisions is too much “going with the flow” rather than taking control of things.  This may be because the intuitive mind favours the instant gratification of the familiar rather than plunging into the unknown.

Another aspect of the book which I found interesting is the research into how the intuitive mind handles complex tasks well, when the performer is very experienced ~(Lehrer uses the example of an opera singer) – and when that experienced performer starts to think more consciously about what they are doing the performance goes down hill.  Inexperienced performers, however, do better when they use their conscious mind.

This got me to thinking about the training of Careers Advisers, and why it is that when experienced Careers Advisers start to analysis what they do in Careers Interviews, they often do less well than when they just get on with it.  In contrast, trainee Careers Advisers (and Careers Advisers learning new skills) do need to use the rational, conscious part of the their brain to introduce the skills and tactics they are taught, because they are not embedded in the unconscious mind.  It’s a bit like driving a car – once you start thinking about parallel parking, you just can’t do it any more!

I found this book really thought-provoking and it got me to thinking about all sorts of decisions I have made – from moving house and changing jobs to the more trivial shopping choices.  It should be required reading for Careers Advisers and anyone who is interested in making better decisions.

I wonder if anyone has done similar research specifically on career decision making (if they haven’t, then it would be really interesting area for further research).

How To Work Out What You Would Love To Do

Struggling to work out what you would really love to do? A lot of people come to career guidance wanting to do something different, but not sure what they would enjoy and wanting a sense of direction.  Even if you do already really enjoy your work, a bit of reflection can help you think about which direction to head in.

The obvious places to start are to write lists – lists of your interests, lists of your skills, lists of your lifestyle priorities, lists of your values.  But sometimes the answers are not immediately obvious and you need some different questions to dig a bit deeper.

Here are a few of my favourite questions:

When you were a child, what games did you love to play?  What books/TV programmes did you enjoy? What were your favourite toys?

Childhood games and themes can often give you clues to things you are naturally drawn to, but have perhaps suppressed as you grew older.  We are often under pressure to be realistic and to make a living, so we compromise.  Sometimes we are (consciously or unconsciously) trying to please others and following advice from others, so we ignore our natural inclinations.  Many people find themselves on a mental sausage factory – GCSEs, A-Levels, university, graduate training, career ladder – and it’s only some years into their career that they realise they are on the wrong track.  Going back to childhood themes helps us to tap into what enjoyed before we felt all these external pressures.

As an adult, which bits of the newspaper do read first?  What TV programmes do you watch?  Which websites you surf most?

Again, this may give you some clues as to your interests.  If you tend to watch soap operas, are you interested in people and their problems?  Maybe there are certain types of documentaries that hold your attention – about the environment, the economy, sports, social issues, young people – and this is likely to be an area you are naturally drawn to.  Perhaps it’s computer games – think about whether you prefer speed and excitement, or problem solving games.

If you asked your best friend/partner/work colleague, what would they say your skills and talents are?

We often think our own skills and talents are quite ordinary, so it helps to look through the eyes of someone who knows you well and thinks highly of you.  Maybe others see you as creative and full of good ideas.  Maybe you are always super-organised.  You might be intuitive and aware of other people’s problems.  Perhaps you are very tenacious.  People tend to be happiest and most fulfilled if they are using their talents to their full capacity.

When have you been happiest at work?

Think about what it was in this work situation that satisfied you.    Was it great colleagues?  A pleasant environment?  Or a certain type of project?  Maybe it was having the opportunity to give advice, to teach others, to be creative, to organise something, or to be out and about.  Or might have been something about the way the work was organised or the sort of results you were achieving.  If there are a number of work situations in which you have been happy, what did they have in common?

What do you get so absorbed in  that you forget about the time?

For some people, it might be a work task that you get so absorbed in that you end up staying late, forgetting the time.  Or it could be a hobby – perhaps sport, gardening, music, a game?  I know people who would happily play backgammon for twelve hours at a stretch, work on their garden until it is completely dark or browse a market looking for unusual treasures long after everyone else has lost interest.

Who do you envy?

You first response might be a celebrity or well-known person.  But think about your friends and acquaintances as well.  Envy is common (but rarely talked about) among friends.  You might envy them their size eight figure or their well-behaved children, which is interesting but might not tell you much about possible career directions.  Who do you envy for their working life?  And what is it that you envy about them?  It might be money, lifestyle, the respect they get, their freedom, their expertise – maybe something quite different.  Envy is an interesting way of tapping into feelings that we don’t always acknowledge.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Your initial thought might to enter the lottery, but what else would you do?  Once you have won a few million pounds, taken all your friends and family on holiday and travelled round the world, what will you do next?

Maybe you would set up your own business or invest in some other business – something that you are really interested in (a casino, a cinema, the stock exchange, a pizza restaurant, property development, a fashion shop)?  Maybe you would do some creative project – music, art, poetry or writing a book?  Or you might be drawn to some kind of social enterprise – a community centre, a mentoring sheme, a micro-credit bank, fundraising for the third world or promoting green energy.  Perhaps there is social or environmental problem that you would aim to solve.

If you were on your deathbed, with just one day to live, what would you wish you had done more of?

Sometimes we realise we are spending most of our time on things that we don’t really value or care about.  Maybe we are working long hours and not spending enough time with the family, or working in a job we hate, and putting off doing something about it.  It’s easy to get sucked into working hard in a job that you don’t much like, thinking that you’ll make enough money to do what you enjoy at some point in the future.  Only you never quite get to the future – that point where you can start enjoying yourself.

Some of these questions are worth pondering, because the answers don’t always come straight away.  It might take a few weeks, and the answer may come to you when you are the middle of the washing up, sitting on the bus or walking the kids to school.  Write things down though, and see what you end up with.

It might just be some seemingly random ideas, and that’s fine, but it might also be that over time they form into one big idea!  Even if they don’t it doesn’t matter – you might enjoy doing some things at work and some things in your leisure time.

Right, I’ve worked out what I would love to do – now what?

Of course, working out what you would love to do is only a start.  Then you have to work out how to do it!  And sometimes you have to make compromises.  But at least if you know what you would love to do, you can be on the look out for opportunities – maybe a new role at work will bring you closer to what you want, a chance meeting can spark a new project or you can make more leisure time on what you love. By focusing on what you really want, you are better able to spot opportunities when they present themselves.

And sometimes knowing what you really want to do is enough incentive to make radical changes – make a complete career change, go to university, set up a small enterprise or move to a new place!  Who knows where the new ideas could take you?

A good Careers Adviser can help you through this process, so don’t be afraid to look for professional help when you need it.