Securing an assistant psychologist or clinical research assistant post

06 January 2021

As an interviewer for NHS-based posts, I want more than anything for candidates to navigate the interview in a way that conveys the tremendous experience, skill and passion many of them possess. ‘You know this, you’ve done this’, I think: ‘just say a bit more, show us what you understand, do yourself justice’. I feel frustration, a sense of sadness that people maybe don’t realise that they are selling themselves short. 

Preparing to give this feedback to individual candidates afterwards, myself and colleagues discussed how we felt similarly about the process. I had always shared my suggestions with anyone I was mentoring or who asked for help securing a post. But wouldn’t it be better if everyone had this information prior to interview, in an attempt to level the playing field somewhat? Not everyone has easy access to willing mentors; not everyone has experience of the NHS, not everyone tends towards a style of interaction that suits the interview process. Sharing these impressions is an attempt redress that, and hopefully an impetus for other interviewers, supervisors and mentors to do the same.

1)     It's good to have an outline of common themes and be familiar with key points or useful examples prior to interview, and yet always make sure you answer the specific question that has been asked in the specific context of the role you are applying for (think objectives, setting, population).

2)     Have a practice interview. Some things that you know might be harder to articulate than you thought. Saying them out loud can help them feel easier to say when in the heat of the real thing. It can also be a kind of graded exposure to feeling anxious and uncertain, taking the sting out of it on the day. Ask your practice interviewer to treat it like the real deal to help with this. 

3)     Do whatever helps you ground yourself prior to the interview; fresh air or breathing or movement. It’s a nerve wracking thing; that’s to be expected. The interviewers will be aware of this and no one expects you to be calm but anything you can do to ease yourself in will help move you out of threat mode and support your capacity to think, reflect and connect. 

4)     It’s fine to ask for a question to be repeated or clarified. With your mind racing at 100 miles an hour and lots of things to juggle (the question, your answer, your interaction….) it’s inevitable you might miss part of it or lose track. Re-setting yourself with a repeat question can help and give you space to pause. 

5)     It's not enough to have a correct answer, you have to have a full answer; your interviewer will have a framework to score your answers and this tends to be graded in levels (rather than right/wrong).  

6)     When you've finished what you’re saying, *pause* (it'll feel like a lifetime… it's not… interviewers will understand… we've all been there!). You can even say ‘I am just going to take a moment to review my answer’. Then, consider: have I answered this drawing on all my knowledge and experience? Have I considered all points of the questions? Have I commented on all possible angles of the answer? Can I think of an example that I could share or will alert me to any blind-spots?

7)     Scenario questions (e.g. what would you do if….): it’s important to consider all layers of the answer: broad context (policy, procedure, stakeholders), immediate response, follow up or longer term action, use of supervision/ reflection, liaison/team/sharing, recording and reporting, understanding/ making sense, review/ impact/ learning.

8)     If you don't say it, we can't give you the points for it (no matter how much we are rooting for you!) – be comprehensive while being tailored to the question. 

9)     Finally – take care of yourself; this is tough. Use the support you have, ask to practice if you can, take rest and space and live your life in all its facets – the NHS needs people with a diversity of approaches and skills.

10)  The interview process doesn't suit everyone equally and that could do with being changed to incorporate other styles. When you are in a position to change the process or support applicants, pass on the good karma.

Dr Samantha Hartley is a clinical psychologist working with young people and NIHR/HEE Integrated Clinical Academic Clinical Lecturer. @HartleySamantha 

- Coming soon: our collection on getting on to clinical training / being an Assistant Psychologist