Revamp your CV and interview skills to land your next job
Funding cuts are threatening many NHS jobs, so now is the time to think about ways to give yourself an edge during the recruitment process — an engaging CV and solid interview skills are vital
It may seem like a seller’s market when it comes to getting your dream job as a clinical pharmacist — but in the “credit-crunched” NHS there is no room for sloppy applications or poor interviews.
For most pharmacists, the first step on the road to a new job will be to submit their curriculum vitae. Unfortunately, for many, this can
also be where the road to employment ends.
Make your CV stand out
Richard Heys, advanced clinical pharmacist at Shelton Hospital in Shrewsbury, says that, all too often, pharmacists adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach to their CV. Although this saves the applicant time and effort, it does little for the recruiter — particularly one in a specialist setting who will be looking for relevant qualifications, experience or, at the very least, an interest in the specialism.
At a minimum, the CV should highlight relevant qualifications and experience in the recruiter’s essential criteria areas. Ideally, the CV will also demonstrate the candidate’s ability to take initiative, for example, by pointing out his or her role in the development of a relevant project.
“At band 7, we are not expecting to see extensive management experience, just an indication that the candidate has some initiative,” says Mr Heys, who has been trying to fill a specialist mental health pharmacist post (see Box below).
Also essential is to get the grammar and presentation right. Mr Heys says: “Some applicants don’t spell-check their CVs, or look over their grammar. Nor do they check to see what their CV actually looks like before they send it off, particularly by email or via websites.”
Recruiters also baulk at applications that arrive incompletely or inaccurately addressed, or addressed to a generic job title (eg, senior pharmacist) rather than to a named person.
Mr Heys believes that pharmacists need to think about the impression this gives. “This is particularly worrying when you consider that pharmacy is all about accuracy and professionalism,” he says.
The staffing situation
Shelton Hospital in Shrewsbury has been advertising for a band 7 specialist clinical pharmacist for mental health since the middle of May. According to Richard Heys, whose promotion to advanced clinical pharmacist caused the vacancy, it is a rewarding and diverse post within a small yet progressive team — and it is in a nice part of the country.
However, unable to fill the role, the pharmacy team is now considering downgrading the vacancy to a band 6 position. Mr Heys knows that this is far from ideal. “We are a specialist hospital so the training we can give would be specialist which, perhaps, is not the ideal situation for a newly qualified pharmacist to find themselves in.”
Mr Heys’s pharmacy department is not alone in its difficulties filling vacant posts; according to the 2009 “National NHS pharmacy staffing establishment and vacancy survey”,1 vacancy rates in England are generally on the up — from an average of 12.5% in 2007 to 14.5% in 2009. For band 6 posts, vacancies have increased year-on-year since 2007. For band 7, vacancy rates also remain high (18.4%). Band 8a, the level at which PCTs are likely to recruit pharmacists, has a vacancy rate of 8.6%.
But, before pharmacists rush to send off their CVs, they should talk to Susan Sanders, director of London Pharmacy Education and Training, who compiles the annual NHS survey.
As an expert in the current NHS staffing climate, Mrs Sanders says that the national vacancy picture needs to be interpreted with caution. For a start, the survey is a national picture that hides regional differences. In the popular areas of the country or highly regarded trusts, she says that recruitment is definitely still a “buyer’s market”.
The survey is also a retrospective look at the NHS job market; it pays no heed to the recent cuts in public spending that will fundamentally affect NHS recruitment in the years to come.
Nor do the figures comment on the cause of the vacancies — they could be a result of poor, or a dearth of, applications or due to “recruitment freeze” policies that mean the vacant posts are effectively unavailable to applicants.
For these reasons Mrs Sanders advises pharmacists looking to move into a new NHS pharmacy post to make every effort to make their application stand out. She says: “It is difficult to conclusively say that it is a seller’s market.”
A few years ago, a survey2 was published revealing that most interviewers — 86% in fact — are inherently mistrustful of job-hunters’ CVs and application forms.
The same survey found that these interviewers were being overly mistrustful and that more CVs were factually correct than they thought. However, the interesting point is, if a job-hunter is being truthful and can convince the interviewer of this fact, he or she will have an advantage over the average competitor.
So, how do you convince a would-be employer of your honesty? The simple answer is: be open and tell the truth. Integrity is a valuable commodity and most recruiters say they prefer an honest, “solid applicant” over a “star performer” who turns out to have been “creative” when documenting their previous job achievements or work history.
Remember, interviewers will check up with referees and on the professional or academic claims being made. The most common areas for inaccuracies are:
- Employment dates
- Job titles
- Gaps between jobs
When it comes to illustrating progression through jobs bands, relevant academic achievements are important and should be well documented.
Sneha Varia, pharmacy professional development specialist at London Pharmacy Education and Training, believes that evidence portfolios are set to become increasingly important for NHS job interviews. They are currently only mandatory to demonstrate competence at advanced or consultant levels.
However, she believes that portfolios are likely to become more valuable to recruiters, particularly as pharmacists develop their portfolios of evidence for mandatory continuing professional development. She says that good interviewers already use the evidence portfolio to distinguish between those candidates who have just “ticked competence boxes” and those who have acquired — and demonstrably applied — the new competence to an area of practice.
In addition to academic qualifications, recruiters want candidates to demonstrate an appreciation of what is required to make a difference in the role. Recruiters in the hospital sector say that, regardless of the band level of the position being sought, every applicant can benefit from a site visit or, at the very least, a telephone chat with one of the department’s staff members to find out a little bit more about the hospital, its strategic priorities and its values.
“To get a job in the NHS, you need to show that you have something extra to offer,” says Susan Sanders, director of London Pharmacy Education and Training.
So, you are past the first hurdle and off for an interview. Most people get nervous during the interview, primarily because they are worried about their lack of experience or about how they will answer difficult questions.
The first thing to remember is that you have not been invited to the interview just to make a fool of yourself. You are there because your CV has attracted the eye of the recruiter and he or she is interested to find out more about you and the skills you have to offer.
If your career to date has a “black spot” it may well be raised at the interview. Successful interviewees tackle this head on. Rather than spending time trying to create a believable web of deceit, they think about what they learned from the episode.
If they failed an exam or headed up a project that was not as successful as it could have been, they are honest about it. But they also make clear to the interviewer that they have reflected on the failures and then took action to learn from the experience. By being honest, you will gain the respect of the interviewers who, in all probability, have been in a similar situation at some point in their careers.
Interviews are also, traditionally, the venue for asking “difficult” questions. A typical example is: “What do you want to be doing in two, five or 10 years’ time?”
This question is designed so candidates stumble into making over-ambitious claims about their future potential and worth. It is also designed to exclude some candidates; some job roles require high levels of adaptability, flexibility and off-the-cuff thinking and therefore will not suit candidates who, by nature, are meticulous planners.
Compared with some sectors, clinical pharmacy offers a predictable and structured career progression, so it is possible to answer this question in specific band-level terms. However, this does not really tell the interviewer much about you.
It is far better to answer in a way that reinforces your desire to make a positive and growing contribution, your positive character attributes (such as maturity, independence, self-motivation) and your understanding that reward (eg, salary, promotion, responsibility) will always be based on the quality and value of employee input.
So, your plans for the future might include:
- “To be making a more substantial contribution to the pharmacy department and to the health of the patients”
- “To have developed new skills, abilities, maturity — perhaps even a little wisdom”
- “To have become better qualified in the specialism of the department or organisation”
- “To be better regarded by my peers, and respected by my superiors as someone who can continue to increase the value and scale of what I do”
A two-way street
The interview is a chance for the candidate to find out a little more about the job and the hospital or organisation. Moreover, many recruiters consider the questions asked by an interviewee as a good indication of his or her character and potential for development.
Instead of focusing on routine terms and conditions-type questions (that will be covered at a later part of the recruitment process for the successful candidate), good interviewees ask questions that make the interviewer think: “This candidate has really thought about the role and understands the sort of issues and responsibilities we need them to handle.”
It is worth remembering that the discussion is unlikely to stop at just one question and answer.
Also, applicants at a more junior level will be dealing with interviewers with far more expertise in the subject. Admitting that your question comes from interest rather than experience in the area will demonstrate enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, rather than expose any lack of specialist knowledge.
After the event
Most employers are happy to provide feedback to interview candidates. This is a valuable opportunity to see yourself as others do. If you were not successful at the interview, feedback is an opportunity to learn, to improve on shortcomings and to impress future interviewers with your willingness to do so.
In your request for feedback, tell the recruiter how much you enjoyed meeting the interview panel, what impressed you most about their organisation and thank them for their time and interest in your application.
Reiterate your interest in their organisation and polite disappointment at your lack of interview success. Then you can invite them to give you feedback on the interview, so that you can improve your suitability for future employment there — or elsewhere.
Ailsa Colquhoun is a freelance writer and media trainer
1 NHS Pharmacy Education and Development Committee. National NHS pharmacy staffing establishment and vacancy survey 2009 (accessed 10 June 2010).
2 Chapman A. Curriculum vitae writing tips and templates (accessed 10 June 2010).
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