5 Ways to Improve your Application for Internships as a Non-American

At one of my old institutions, I routinely evaluated the international batch of candidates for our internship.  This was usually a pretty sizeable group- between 40 and 50 of 200 applications. Unfortunately for the applicants, it was one of the easiest groups to evaluate.  A short skim of most applications would reveal them to be unacceptable candidates, so a thorough analysis was not needed to determine where they might rank as a candidate.  It’s harsh but true. If you are not from the United States, and you are applying for a veterinary position here, it is a steep uphill battle.* Here are five ways to improve your success.

1) Get some time working for an academic clinical specialist.  Ideally one in the United States, but a well-regarded institution in the English-speaking world or Utrecht is better than nothing.  This is the most important point because it is ESSENTIAL. No one who hasn’t been trained in the U.S. system knows the U. S. system, so any letters of recommendation you get have no bearing on how well you would do in a U. S. internship.  If you have an application with only letters of recommendation from your home country, unless it is the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or The Netherlands, you won’t get very far. You need AT LEAST 2 weeks, but 4 weeks is better with a single specialist.  Ideally, all of your letters of recommendation will be from specialists in the U. S.

2) Figure out the visa situation.  This has become more problematic in the current political climate.  Most private practices and many universities simply cannot accept international applicants.  This may be true even if you are from Canada or Mexico. Check with the institution unless they specify it in their program description.  If you can’t get a visa, you can’t get an internship.

3) Have a native speaker proofread your work.  I realize you may be fluent in English, but English is an incredibly ridiculous language.  I have almost never read a letter of intent from a non-native-speaker which was 100% correct.  Even professional editorial services can’t always be trusted unless they are small and personalized and feature native English speakers.

4) Apply shortly after you graduate.  I see a lot of applications from people who graduated 4-5 years ago and since then have a very strange work history.  It may be a normal work history for that country but, from a U. S. perspective, doing a 7-month internship at the school you graduated from and then doing 2 months as a food inspector and then being a small animal clinician and then working for the state is weird.  Most U. S. applicants apply straight out of vet school. You should aim to do the same. If you are reading this too late to make that decision, make your professional progression CLEAR. You did this, THEN this, THEN this. Don’t muddle up your professional responsibilities and jobs.  If you did part-time work, specify this.

5) Get some time working for a veterinary practice in a country with a strong clinical training emphasis in their veterinary education.  We took interns from some European countries which do not have a strong clinical focus and it showed, and we largely stopped taking those applicants.  You need your vet school training to be on par with vet students in the U. S. in order to be competitive. You could also spend time working as a vet in a country where clinical training is emphasized.

Essentially, you need to make your application as close to a senior veterinary student from the United States as possible.  If your application can’t indicate that you are at least as competent as an average new veterinary graduate, it won’t go anywhere.  There are plenty of more qualified applicants.

*This generally does not apply to those in Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, although you still need to look at the visa situation.

Using ETC., E.G., and I.E. Correctly

This is a short, but important, PSA-style blog entry.  You are probably using abbreviations like i.e., e.g., and etc. incorrectly in your applications.  It isn’t a fatal flaw, but it is really distracting to those of us who spend a lot of time reading and writing.  So here is a quick, simple guide on the use of these abbreviations.

i.e. should be read as “that is”.  For example: I went on a long journey (i.e. a trip across the country) before I started college.  This is identical to writing: I went on a long journey- that is, a trip across the country- before I started college.

e.g. should be read as “for example”.  For example: I went on many adventures (e.g. helping a village care for its goats in Nepal) during my year before college.  This is identical to writing: I went on many adventures, for example, helping a village care for its goals in Nepal, during my year before college.

etc. should be read as “and so forth”.  For example: During my year before college, I walked, hiked, biked, flew, etc. around the world.  This is identical to writing: During my year before college, I walked, hiked, biked, flew, and so forth around the world.

It is rare that a sentence contains all three of these abbreviations, so in general I would suggest you avoid using more than one.  After you use one, go back and read it with the literal definitions I have given above and see if they make sense. These three are often confused, and it reflects a certain lack of attention to detail if you commit this error.

The Faculty Interview

Sometimes you can feel like you are lost in the desert.

I have been putting off writing this post for a while because it’s just so overwhelming.  All of your application materials have one job: to get you the interview. The interview is the high-stakes encounter when you are applying for a faculty job.  The decision by the search committee is largely based on your performance during the interview. In addition to general interview advice and preparatory research, we have to talk about what to say, how do to a great presentation, and what to ask.  I have a separate post planned for the presentation, so let’s focus on the other two domains.

What to say

In general, you want answers to be meaningful but not expansive.  If you are giving an answer longer than 2 minutes, it’s probably too long.  You can leave them wanting more and allow them to ask follow-up questions. For example, you will always get the question, “Why this institution?”  You should be prepared for this. Instead of giving an in-depth analysis based on your extensive research which touches on all the things you know about it, you can start with a highlights reel.  “Well the faculty all seem to have a good quality of life, I hear the students are keen and engaged, and the work done in my discipline by the folks here has been notable.” Now they can ask follow-up questions if they like.

Do not give excessively short, clipped answers which leave the questioner with nowhere to go.  Faculty interviews are almost never a series-of-question rapid-fire sort of affair. They are usually casual and conversational.  If you approach it like a conversation- they ask a question, you answer, you ask a question, they answer, it will be a more natural flow.

Be positive.  For god’s sake don’t say you want the job because your current job sucks.  You must maintain a positive approach throughout. I don’t care if you are being bullied in your current position- you want to go to this new job because it is great, not because your old job is terrible.  Avoid this temptation. I understand it can be hard- I have faced it myself- but you must remain positive.

Be specific.  This is up to your preparatory research and conversations you have throughout the interview.  If you meet with someone at the beginning of day one who says something which intrigues you, such as “It’s easy to do research with undergrads here because of our undergrad research office,” bring that up in subsequent discussions.  “Well, Dr. Jones mentioned your undergrad research office, and that is a distinct interest of mine as well.” Speaking in generalities will not convince the committee that you want THIS job, just A job. You have to be SPECIFIC.

You do I do.  An easy and effective formula for any interaction is: “You do this thing well.  It matches what I do well.” For example, if they have an active learning approach (or want to start one), you can say, “I understand you are encouraging faculty to engage in active learning modalities.  I taught a course last year which was primarily a flipped classroom, from which I gained a lot of experience in how to do active learning.” Take what they give you- what are they excited about- and reflect it back with how you can enhance that.

What to ask

Remember, you are interviewing this institution as much as they are interviewing you.  The goal is to find the best fit, not necessarily the objectively “best” institution. So you need to ask some serious, incisive questions which will help you get a real sense for the place.

What are your challenges?  This can be framed a variety of ways, such as “What don’t you like about working here” and “What would you change about the job”.  The point is you want to find out what existing faculty members believe the current problems are. EVERY institution has its problems. The question isn’t “Do you have problems?”, the question is, “Are the problems you have ones I can cope with or not?”  Hopefully, you know this about yourself. If not, reflect on it more.

What do you like about working here?  This is the flip side of the first question, and hopefully elucidates the strengths of the institution.  Again, the goal isn’t to hear, “Everything is perfect!” but rather to hear what specific things the current faculty and administration like about the institution.  Do these things align with what you think is important in a job?

What is your ideal candidate?  This will help you determine if what they are looking for is what you want to do.  If they say, “Someone who will really engage with the students on a personal level” and you struggle to learn students’ names and want to spend time on research, maybe this isn’t the best fit.  Follow up/alternative: What do you want this candidate to bring to the program/institution?

What is the next step of the process?  You need to know the timeline for decision-making.  They may also tell you how many other candidates there are and where you are in the order of interviews.  This is essential information if you are interviewing at multiple institutions in the same span of time. If your top pick isn’t making a choice for 3 more months, and you get an offer before then, will you be willing to wait?

The scope of the information about the faculty interview cannot be covered in a single post or even several.  I will dedicate other posts to this topic, but I wanted to get the most important elements written before drilling down on some details or expanding on what is covered here.  What do you think needs to be brought up during the faculty interview?

Podcast Episode 8 – Dr. Jason Eberhardt

Dr. Eberhardt and I were ‘middle management’ at a new institution so shared many struggles and successes. Although we lead sometimes apparently different lives, we feel very similarly about success and how to achieve in veterinary medicine. I hope you enjoy!

Learn to Write an Email Asking for a Recommendation

You may feel this small when you ask for a letter. It’s OK. Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

As we’ve discussed before, people seem to have some anxiety around asking a potential mentor for a letter of recommendation.  I used to teach an undergraduate seminar course in clinical research, and one of the assignments was for the students to write an email asking for a letter of recommendation.  I was surprised at the range in quality of these emails, so I think the topic deserves some attention to make sure you all write excellent emails.

Here is the basic structure:

  • Email title
  • Salutation
  • Introduction (if necessary)
  • A description of the position to which you are applying
  • Your ask for help
  • A closer

Email title

This one is pretty simple.  You can’t go wrong with “Letter of Recommendation”.  It is straightforward and tells the reader exactly what the email is about.  “Inquiry” is more vague but could be used if you don’t want to prime the reader about what your ask is.

Salutation

“Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X,”  That’s it. Keep it simple.

Introduction

If there is a chance the reader does not know you, this is recommended.  If you are a senior veterinary student and you just got off a clinic rotation with the person, this is not necessary.  I would suggest two lines. The first is giving your current professional role and the context of how you know each other.  “My name is John Smith and I am a senior majoring in Biology; I was a student in your research seminar course.”

The second line provides something memorable about you or your interaction.  “I did the research project comparing pricing of men and women’s beauty products.”

A description of the position

Provide enough information that they can write a specific letter.  If this is “vet school”, that’s fine. If it’s an aquarium externship in Florida, give them more details.  If there is a link to the position description, provide that. “I am applying for small animal rotating internships in academic and private practice institutions.”

Your ask for help

Just keep it simple and gracious.  Always attach your letter of intent and curriculum vitae.  “I was wondering if you would be able and willing to write a good letter of recommendation for me?  My letter of intent and CV are attached for your reference. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Closer

These commonly include “Sincerely,” “Best Regards”, and “With Appreciation.”  I personally like “Respectfully,” but you can choose what you like. “Cheers,” “Take Care,” and similar too-personal closers should not be used.

So that’s it!  If you want to put some examples together and share them in the comments, I will comment on them!

Should you Do a 4-Year Residency?

Ridiculous switchbacks at Angel’s Landing in Zion remind me of the path to residency.

Most residencies in veterinary medicine are three years, with a handful of two-year programs out there for some specialties.  In recent years, the four-year residency has become more common. This is typically a residency in a highly competitive specialty, such as surgery.  In effect, the institution is getting you for an extra year for very little pay- they get a reasonably competent specialist for resident pay as opposed to faculty pay.  The advantage for the applicant is that a 4-year residency may be less competitive, because some applicants are not willing to sacrifice another year of their life for low pay and delaying their career.  So the rub is, should you apply for a four year program?

The principle advantage of pursuing a four-year program is that there are fewer applicants for such programs than for three-year programs.  So, you may be more likely to be accepted into one than into a three year program. The consequences are that you have another year as a resident, instead of getting to start your career as a specialist.  You delay moving to your next destination. Maybe you delay finding relationships (romantic and fraternal). You delay earning Real Money. If you are fanatically dedicated to the discipline and don’t care about the consequences to your life and career, a four-year program may be acceptable.

The disadvantage of a four-year program is primarily time.  In a three-year program, you would be done and then earning a decent salary by your ‘fourth’ year.  You would also be considered a specialist, and able to apply for private practice or university positions.  A four year position is adding 33% of your residency time to your life timeline. Another year may not seem like much now, but you will never get that year back.

Ultimately, four-year residencies are designed to take advantage of the competitiveness of some disciplines and take advantage of those applicants who are desperate.  The institutions get a year of low-cost high-skilled labor from your fourth year. You get a residency you may not have otherwise gotten. It’s a difficult balance and exemplifies the principles of capitalism: a balance between supply and demand.  What you need to ask yourself is: Are you willing to be inexpensive labor for a year in order to get a residency?

Deciding if you are a Good Fit for Research

If you’re an undergrad interested in vet school, or a vet student interested in post-graduate education, research may be an important part of your educational experience.  Sadly, I would say about 50% of students with whom I talk indicate they had a terrible experience with research. Not just a not-positive experience, an actively bad experience.  How did this happen? I believe a large chunk of responsibility rests on the mentors, who didn’t create clear expectations, or who were a bad fit for the student. But it is also because these students didn’t figure out if they were a good fit for research, or didn’t know how to find out if they are a good fit.

The first step is to understand what research will do for you as an undergrad or as a vet student.  In the ideal situation, you discover that it is fun and may form a part of your future career. You may also bolster your application by demonstrating your grit, ability to work with others, and willingness to develop a relationship with a faculty member.  Once you understand the WHY to do research, you can focus on how to get a good fit.

The most important determinant is the faculty mentor.  The type of project and other people involved factor in, but are distant seconds in deciding if research will be a good fit for you.  It’s not about research at all; it’s about a human connection. I believe the two most important variables are communication style and level of direction.

Communication style.  Do you understand what this person says and do you like how they communicate?  If they insist on email, does that work for you, or is anything other than text messaging difficult for you?  Do they make you feel comfortable when you meet or do you leave confused, frustrated, or weirded-out? Ideally, you will find a faculty member with whom you communicate well.

Level of direction.  How much supervision do you need or want?  Do you want to be micromanaged or given vague directions and left alone?  Try to establish this before deciding to work with a faculty member. Of course, you have to know yourself and be honest with yourself first.  One of my greatest frustrations is when I tell students how I work (I give them some direction and then answer questions as they come up and expect them to be self-motivated), but then they turn out to not be self-motivated and require me to crack the whip to get things done.  I don’t like being a whip-cracker. Some faculty members do, and that’s fine. There’s not a right way to do things, just good and bad fits.

Once you have decided you will get along with the faculty member, then you can consider the project.  If the project isn’t interesting to you, will you be able to stick with it and demonstrate your enthusiasm and get a good letter of recommendation?  Is the project relevant to your future professional path? This doesn’t mean you can’t do something fun in social sciences (and I would argue this may be a better research skill to acquire than pipetting things in a lab), but you should be honest with yourself and your motivations for doing research.

Finally, with whom will you be working?  You want to be working primarily with the faculty member.  If you will be dumped off onto a post-doc or a grad student, that is less than ideal and may not suit your needs.  Will there be other students in the research group and do you get to work with them? Collaborating with peers can be fun and a way to improve your internal motivation.  If you’d rather work by yourself, know that and identify projects and research groups where that is the case.

Most people think they either “like research” or “don’t like research.”  I would argue that research work can be just like any other work- extremely fun and engaging or horribly tedious and soul-crushing.  I believe this is not due to the nature of the work itself, but rather the three elements of internal motivation: do you have autonomy, are you getting an interesting skill, and how does it affect your relationship with others?

Making sure you enjoy working with the faculty member (autonomy, relationships), the project (skill acquisition), and co-researchers (relationships) is the best way to decide if doing research will be a good fit for you.  What concerns do you have about doing research as a student?

How to do Proper Interview Preparation

Preparation is always the key to a successful endeavour. Photo by Melissa Gogo.

Regardless of the position to which you apply, if there is an interview, you need to prepare.  Well, you don’t NEED to prepare. But others who are interviewing WILL prepare. Do you want to be competitive with those who are preparing?  Then you need to prepare, as well. Failing to prep is prepping to fail. So let’s assume you actually want the position for which you are interviewing and let’s discuss what you need to do to prepare.

First, you have to know about the position to which you are applying.  If it is a job, get the job description down cold. If it is for vet school, talk to every veterinarian you can about what it is like.  If it is for an internship or residency, read the position description and talk to your mentors about the position in detail. I advised an anesthesia residency applicant this year by giving them a 2-3 sentence assessment of each program in which they were interested. If possible, talk to people currently in the program to get an insider’s look.

The website for the institution to which you are applying may be incredibly detailed and helpful or not so much.  You should at least know their mission statement, what the program is like based on the official materials, and any other data you can find (e.g. applicant numbers or expectations).  This should take at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours, depending on how much data they have online. Mine that data. You won’t actually know what the position entails until you have done it, but you should know as much as possible so you can interact intelligently with the interviewers.

Second, you need to practice.  You wouldn’t walk into an ice skating competition and expect to do well without practice, would you?  Unless you have been going on interviews every week for the past few months, there is no life experience that has prepared you for an interview.  So, practice. Get friends to ask you questions in a simulated setting. Studies have shown visualization activates similar pathways to actual practice, so run through questions and scenarios in your mind.  The more you practice the specific skill of interviewing, the better.

Third, you need to study.  Watch TED videos about effective interviews and discussion skills (the body language talk is revolutionary).  Read forum posts about interviews. Read this blog from beginning to end, taking notes all along.  Research potential interview questions and write down possible responses. You would study for months for the NAVLE, wouldn’t you?  How is an interview dictating the next step of your professional life any less important?

I cannot impress this upon you enough: just waltzing into an interview isn’t going to impress anyone, and it will significantly harm your chances of a positive outcome.  You’re a veterinary professional, for god’s sake; you’ve spent countless hours studying for classes and applying to programs and everything else involved in this demanding field!  Don’t tell me for one second you can’t do interview prep. If every applicant did good interview prep, I would be over-the-moon happy. Please help make that happen.

With These 5 Steps, You CAN Pass Your Specialty Board Exam

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

The road to veterinary specialization is a long, arduous one.  First, you have to get into vet school and excel there. Then you do post-graduate training: an internship (for clinical disciplines) and then a residency.  Towards the end of your residency, you have to submit your credentials to demonstrate you are qualified to take the specialty exam. Everything leads up to the exam, which, if you pass, makes you a Board Certified Specialist.

Many board exams have a pass rate around 50%.  So even AFTER all that arduous training, as well as studying for the exam, your odds of passing are like flipping a coin.  Even very smart people sometimes don’t pass boards. Some people, unfortunately, never pass their board exam. Fortunately, passing is not random, and you can take steps to maximize your chance of success.

1) Kick ass during your residency.  “Those who do the work do the learning.”  This is an oft-repeated phrase for classroom teachers, but it applies here.  If you phone in your rounds participation or your resident prep topics, you will have more to study prior to boards.  Take every opportunity to learn during your program. Notice I don’t say ‘work harder’- everyone works hard during their residency.  YOU can work smarter. You are earning low pay in a time-consuming, soul-crushing training program: get what you can from it.

2) Get perspective.  I only spent 3 weeks at a human hospital during my residency, but I learned a tremendous amount during that time.  My experiences during an anesthesia externship in Dublin and a critical care externship in Colorado dramatically improved my understanding of important, universal concepts.  As much as possible, seek out opportunities to learn from a wide spectrum of people during your residency.

3) Get time off.  Wherever you go after your residency, you NEED to negotiate for time off to study.  This should be time off from clinics, teaching, and most other responsibilities. You need to be able to dedicate a solid 6-10 hours a day to studying, and you can’t do that if you’re preparing for a classroom course or covering on call time.  This needs to be IN WRITING before you accept any job

4) Study seriously.  Get organized. Don’t blow off days.  Make progress every day. Find an accountability program or app if you need to.  It seems redundant for me to say “be motivated,” but I have met many people studying for boards who do not seem particularly motivated.  If this describes you, come up with some mechanisms which works for you. Play Minecraft and, during the Minecraft night, study. Read a Cracked article for every hour you study.  I had to go to Jason’s Deli to study because otherwise I had too many distractions. Whatever you need to motivate you, do that.

5) Practice.  Cooperate with others preparing for boards and give each other questions.  They can help hold you accountable. Ask your mentors (or former mentors) for any practice questions they may have.  When the anesthesia college used to do oral exams, my impression is that most people failed because they didn’t have a strategy, not because they lacked the knowledge.

The specialty board exam is the culmination of at least 10 years (and often much more) of higher education.  Why would you not dedicate every single resource at your disposal to successfully passing? Work smart, learn from many people, have dedicated time to study, be serious about studying, and practice.  It’s not a guarantee of passing, but it’s the best chance you have?

How to be Successful: Aim for Zero Inbox

How do you know what is on your to-do list?  Do you keep checklists on your phone or on the fridge?  How do you update/check them during the day? What about tasks that require communicating with others, often over email?  

Managing your to-do list is essential so that you can be considered reliable and dependable. If there are two individuals: one who Gets Things Done and one who Does Not, which will have a better professional reputation and be able to progress through life more successfully?  There are dozens of task management systems, but I believe there is one which is easy, free, readily available, and highly functional: your email account.

Using your email as your to-do list makes it accessible.  You can access it via your phone, laptop, desktop computer.  When I am at work, I have a window with my inbox open at all times so I can see incoming messages and handle them appropriately.  I can see at a glance who is involved in the messages and what the last date on a task was. Gmail (and most other email systems) creates threads so I can keep track of all the messages related to that topic.

Some people use different folders to manage their to-do list, rather than their inbox.  This is fine; it’s the principle which matters. I keep a folder of ‘awaiting response’ messages, because it is shocking to me how often I send out an email and never hear back from someone who should have responded.  I also keep folders like ‘Personal’, ‘Professional’, and ‘Karate’ to hold important messages to which I need to refer back for long periods of time.

The goal is to achieve Zero Inbox because that means I have taken care of all the tasks I am currently responsible for.  Once I achieve that goal, then I know I can move on to starting new projects. This keeps me from getting overwhelmed and over-committing.

Be sure if you use this system to make an email account which is NOT the one you have at your institution.  You will move on one day (if a student) or you may not be there forever, and many institutions drop your email account once you leave

You don’t have to use this exact system, but I want you to engage in the principle.  You need to keep track of what you are responsible for and act to take care of things for which you are responsible.  Don’t be one of those people who just gets tasks and never takes care of them. You will not be well-regarded professionally- it will definitely adversely affect your professional progression.