My Experience at SAVMA Symposium 2019

I had the good fortune to be able to present some topics near and dear to my heart at the 2019 SAVMA Symposium held in Athens, GA in March.  I presented on Medical Error, was on a panel about Internships, and presented Preparing For and Securing an Internship. I wasn’t sure what would happen with each talk. Here’s what did happen:

Medical Error

My main goal with this talk is to get people to realize that error is an activity intrinsic to any human endeavor.  It is particularly problematic in highly complex, tightly coupled, and obscure systems, as happens in a biological entity like our patients.  Ultimately, if an error happens, focus on What Happened, How it Happened, Why it Happened, and What to Do to Prevent it from Happening Again. DO NOT focus on the WHO.  Errors happen because of systems, not because of people. We spend a lot of time focusing on the person engaged in the error, when we should be deconstructing the system which led to the error.

I think this talk was well-received.  I tend to get positive feedback about it because most people have not gotten this message before.  A few questions were asked about how to deal with the emotional consequences of being the one who made the error.  The room was about 25% full and everyone seemed engaged, which was heartening.

Internship Panel

I was a late addition to this group because someone else canceled.  I was honored to be invited and to participate. There were three faculty clinicians and one vet from the sponsor organization.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the moderator was prepared for a panel session. Once things opened, we sat awkwardly for a little while before I proposed, “Why don’t we give a brief background on each of us?”  I felt like I had to lead the panel with questions for us all to answer. This was kind of OK- I’ve been on many internship panels over the years. I just felt uncomfortable because I felt like I was controlling the panel, which was not my role as a participant.

The room was probably 40% full, and the audience seemed engaged.  They asked good questions and the other panel members were helpful.  One spoke a bit excessively, but they were young and this was probably their first panel.  Overall, I think the attendees benefitted, but it may have been time slightly more efficiently spent.

Preparing For and Securing an Internship

I was super excited to present this talk.  I had only just launched The Vetducator blog, although I’d been writing posts for a few months by this point.  I was feeling very enthusiastic to help vet students with their next step and spent a lot of time thinking about the most impactful things I could say.  I expected to have maybe 6-10 attendees and we would circle the chairs in the room and have a chit-chat about internships. Well, it didn’t turn out that way.

By the time I was scheduled to start, the room was 90% full and people kept trickling in until it was standing room only.  My interactive format was not conducive to a room of 50+ students, so I adapted on the fly. I encouraged questions and began going through my presentation.  By the time I hit 30 minutes in, I was only 25% done with the presentation due to the great questions I got. I flew through some slides to hit on some major points and allow time for Q&A at the end.  Everyone seems engaged and interested and enthusiastic to hear my perspective. It was an extremely supportive experience as my first outing as The Vetducator.

I was extremely impressed with the organization of the Symposium from the speaker’s point of view- everything was well laid out, I had clear instructions of when and where to go, and had a moderator present to introduce me and help with technology.  I hope the students had a similar experience. Based on the experience, I contacted the organizers for the 2020 Symposium at Cornell and have arranged to present several hours there, including some topics from The Vetducator. Hopefully, I saw you in Athens and will see you at Cornell!

Do Grades Matter, or How I Came to Love My Grades

3PO is wise.

This year, I spoke at the SAVMA Symposium about internships and how to maximize your chances to get them.  I got a surprising number of questions about grades. “I hear some programs care about grades a lot.” “Do programs look at your transcripts?”  “Our classes are these amalgamated courses so we don’t get many different grades. Will that hurt my chances?” I was largely not prepared to answer these questions, because they confuse me.  Before I get to that, let me address the concerns.

“Do grades matter?”  Yes. The degree of interest will vary by program and individual evaluator, but almost all will make a note of grades and/or class rank.  When I evaluate interns, if they are in the bottom quarter or the top 3 of the class rank, I make a little note. I look at the rest of the application and base my decision largely on everything else.

I use class rank to cue me to what to look for.  If a candidate is in the bottom quarter and the letter of intent is poorly constructed and the letters of reference are not very laudatory, I would probably give them a low score.  If they are in the top 3 and the letter of intent is boastful and the letters of references do not mention they are easy to work with, I would probably also score them low.

“Do grades in specific courses matter?”  Unlikely. It’s possible residencies may look at the grade you got in their discipline in vet school, but looking through transcripts is usually not very illuminating and is time-consuming.  Again, individuals may vary- maybe the ophthalmologist on the selection committee makes sure every applicant at least got a “B” in the ophtho course in vet school. But I believe this is unlikely.

“What do I do if my grades are not good?”  “What programs care about good grades?” “What if my school gives one grade for the whole semester?”  “Do programs look at your undergrad grades?” These are the questions that confuse me.  If you don’t have good grades, that’s in the past.  You can’t do anything about it. You can’t know what programs care about grades, so apply where you want. If your school gives you a single grade for the whole semester, you can’t do anything about that.  If programs look at your undergrad grades, you can’t affect that.

Stop.  Worrying.  If you are in your pre-clinical years, yes, obviously study and try to do well.  But if it is in the past, there’s nothing to be done about it. Follow the advice I give on How to be Successful.  Be an RFHB. Aim for Zero. Show Up. All of that you can affect. The grades you got before, you cannot affect.

So, don’t think about them.  Focus on what you can control now, which is the future.  As C-3PO told Chewie, “He made a fair move, screaming about it can’t help you.”  Screaming about what happened in the past can’t help you. Please stop. Look towards the future.

How to be Successful: Be on Time

Image by annca from Pixabay

When I was growing up, my mom’s best friend was always 10 to15 minutes late to anything.  I never really understood it. There was always Something that came up last minute that prevented her from getting there on time.  This was my first encounter with people who are just tardy all the time. Other people are consistently timely. Most people are probably in the middle, and I want to sway you to be timely.  But first, why be on time?  

  1. You may miss out.  If you’re going to a meeting or presentation, you may miss out on some important information you would have liked to have.  Why go to a meeting to participate if you’re not going to get there in time to participate?
  2. You get noticed.  Trust me, showing up late to a talk turns heads. The student who walks into rounds even 5 minutes late bugs the heck out of me.  It disrupts the rounds and brings everyone’s focus to that individual. You don’t want to stand out in a bad way.
  3. It is disrespectful.  I think this is the nidus of what irritates me about people who are late.  They are implying that their time is worth more than my time. This is a very self-centered behavior.
  4. Putting the time in is how you get good.  Step number one for anything is to show up.  Show up on time to get the most out of your time.
  5. Successful people are timely.  OK, maybe the eccentric entrepreneur can get away with breezing into work whenever.  Think about the last time you went to see a physician. How long did you wait? Did that irritate you?  If a different doctor was on time, all things being equal, which would you choose? 

OK, so now you know it is important to be timely if you want to be a successful veterinary professional.  How do you get there? Here are some strategies which may help.

  1. The easiest method, which works for people who don’t have a chronic tardiness problem, is to aim to show up 5 minutes early.  Don’t aim to arrive on time, aim to arrive early. That way, if you have some slight delay, you’ll still get there on time. Also, showing up early indicates you are eager, energetic, and want to do whatever activity is happening.
  2. If you are chronically tardy, try keeping track of how late you arrive.  Then plan to arrive that amount of time ahead. This is like #1, except that it is more personalized.  If you are always 15 minutes late, aim to arrive 15 minutes early.
  3. My personal method is to set all of my clocks ahead 7 minutes.  This means if I arrive when my clock says, I am 7 minutes early.  I know there is a little flex time built into my clock, but 7 is an awkward enough number to do math in my head that it’s usually not worth it to me to figure out exactly how many minutes I have before I have to be somewhere.  I just know to aim right around the time when something starts, and statistically, I will be there early.
  4. Care about being on time.  Read the reasons why you should be on time above.  Talk to professionals in veterinary medicine.  I don’t know a single professor who likes it when students stroll into class late.  Once you BELIEVE it is important to be on time, it is easier to shift your behavior.

What challenges do you have with being on time?  Do you use any strategies other than the ones listed here?

Veterinary Academia in a Time of Uncertainty: COVID-19 Special Blog Post

I have to admit, almost all of the reading I have done the past week has been about the stock market and COVID-19.  I’m curious to know about what’s going on, and, although we have a lot invested in the market, I’m primarily bemused because I understand how the market works (Just stick to your pre-established investing strategy; the market goes up and down and buying as it goes up and down will work out great).  Nonetheless, the world is not business-as-usual right now. My posts here tend to ignore trends, holidays, etc., but I thought a post addressing the epidemic was relevant for my readers. How do you handle your professional progression in the face of COVID-19?

  • Don’t panic. “That’s easy for YOU to say, you have a job and aren’t worried about graduation or getting into vet school or an internship!”  I’m not saying not to worry- these are scary times. Having an emotional response is perfectly fine. I’m saying not to PANIC. You can make good, healthy, important decisions for your life and career, but not if you’re panicking.  So, step one is: don’t panic.
  • Be an RFHB.  Don’t yell at the airline counter agent about a cancelled flight.  Don’t yell at your physician or veterinarian for not being able to see you RIGHT NOW.  Don’t yell at your pharmacist for following insurance company regulations. Don’t yell at the admissions counsellor at the vet school.  Treat people with respect. We ALL have challenges right now.
  • Get information.  Things are in constant flux, and it’s difficult to know what will happen with the future.  The more information you can get, the more in control you will feel (even if that’s just an illusion).  A lot of information may not be available, but get what you can. Find out what the plans are for exams in your classes, when the plan is for graduation or starting an internship.  If information isn’t available, go back to step 1.
  • Go on a news diet.  I’m not suggesting cut off all news, but a lot of the news is repetitive or filled with unhelpful, fear-inducing information.  Unless you can look at the news with bemused wonder (as I do), I suggest dramatically reducing your input. Maybe check things out once a day. The Up First podcast by NPR gives news highlights in about 15 minutes, so it’s a great way to accomplish that. 
  • Reach out to others, even remotely.  Sometimes sharing our fears and concerns with friends, colleagues, and even strangers can help.  Reach out to friends and family. Ask questions on internet forums and Facebook groups. We are all going through this together- sometimes just knowing someone else is facing your troubles can help.
  • Focus on your circle of control.  What CAN you control? You can’t control if graduation will happen.  You can’t control students being dismissed from clinic rotations. You can’t control the epidemic.  You CAN control your emotional response. You CAN control your planning. You CAN control your own social interactions to minimize spread of infection.  When faced with a troubling obstacle, ask yourself what you can do about it. If the answer is, “Not much”, then shrug and move on.
  • Try not to worry.  We’re all fairly reasonable people in veterinary medicine.  We want the students to succeed. We want the best candidates for vet school, internship, and residency.  We want to support our students and colleagues. WE WILL FIGURE IT OUT TOGETHER. Believe that the people and institutions want what’s best for you and them, and we will come up with reasonable, balanced solutions.  If a school you applied to isn’t doing interviews now, try not to worry that they’ll overlook your application. They will figure out a fair system. If you got admitted to an internship in the US and live in an infected country, we will figure it out.
  • Life has challenges and isn’t fair. Although we are going to figure things out together, sometimes the outcome may not be what you wanted.  Maybe you don’t look good on paper but interview amazingly well, so missing an interview opportunity means you don’t get into vet school.  What’s the alternative- to maybe infect dozens of interviewers and other staff for your benefit? Maybe the internship in the US you got says they won’t take any students from highly infected countries.  What’s the alternative- to maybe infect the whole hospital for your benefit? Sometimes decisions made are not in your personal best interests. So, you need to consider: what do you do if the worst professional outcome happens?  Do you rend your clothes and curse the world or do you get back up and try again? This could be an opportunity for learning more about yourself and personal growth. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”Albert Einstein
  • Keep your health.“Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.” – Count Rugen.  As long as you have your health, your friends and family, and your basic finances, you will be in a much better place to succeed.  If you let stress get to you, and this compromises your immune system, you will be in a much worse place and have further to go. Try to relax, follow social distancing, eat well, and take care of your mental and emotional health.

Above all, trust that whatever happens, you will get through it.  We all will. Be excellent to each other.

Handling Conflicting Advice for your Application

Let’s say you follow my heartfelt, strongest advice and have other people review your application materials.  Congratulations, you just put yourself in the top 50% of applicants! Now, you get feedback from your friends and mentors.  Unfortunately, some of the feedback conflicts. For example, one of your helpers comments, “Be careful not to come off arrogant here,” and another comments, “I like this section- very assertive.”  You’re not sure whose advice to follow. What do you do now?

First, consider the source.  Is your mom giving you advice that conflicts with a faculty member in veterinary medicine (let’s assume your mom is not in vetmed)?  Is your sibling, who is jealous of your success, giving you advice that conflicts with your classmate, who wants you to succeed? Don’t ignore these sources of advice, because they can absolutely be useful.  But weigh the sources appropriately.

This is where you, your individuality, your own approach, and your personal choices shine.  This is why asking for advice is not cheating. Unless someone writes your letter of intent and CV themselves, YOU are making decisions about what to change, what not to change, and how to change it.  These decisions differ among individuals and speak to who you are as an applicant.

Don’t take anyone’s suggestions made with Track Changes in Word and do ‘accept all.’  You need to evaluate each suggestion/correction and decide if you want to incorporate it or not.  This is also why my services are not cheating- YOU need to have written the sentence, and YOU need to modify it if necessary.

What if you get specifically contradictory feedback from two sources you trust a lot?  Someone advises “this sentence is great!” and another says “this sentence should be cut entirely.”  You can decide on your own or you can get a third perspective to weigh in. Remember, evaluators can vary widely in what they like and don’t like.  There is no perfect application. There ARE bad applications, and you want to avoid being one of those. At the end of the day, this is YOUR application- you get to decide what gets included and what doesn’t.

Faculty Negotiations: The Phone or The Computer?

Negotiating for a faculty position can be a stressful experience.  There is a lot riding on decisions made in a short span of time. Fortunately, you can get everything in writing and make sure all is well with a simple rule of thumb: chat on the phone, negotiate via email.

Many people think of negotiations as this high-pressure back-and-forth game where you are sitting in a room, gauging their reactions, and adjusting your strategy on the fly.  That’s not the way it goes in veterinary academia. We are refined, dispassionate, and professional.

The hiring manager (typically the department chair) will either call or email you with an offer.  If they call, there will be a little chit chat and they will tell you they would like to extend you the offer.  They may or may not bring up salary at that time. Your response on the phone is: “Thank you very much, I am very excited by the prospect!  Please email me the details to look over.” Ideally, they will then send you an offer letter including commonly-asked-for items (e.g. FTE, moving allowance, startup funds, etc.).

Once you review the offer, consider what you would like to counter with, if anything.  If you are happy with the offer, you can reply via email to that effect and then a signed contract will be created.  If you want to negotiate, you can reply via email with a list of requests to made to the offer.

The phone can be used to ask or create clarification, if necessary.  If the negotiation is complex, or some items you are asking for may be controversial, a phone call to discuss your reasoning may be helpful.  Conversely, if the institution is unwilling to give you something you believe is reasonable, a phone call may help clarify things. For example, if the institution will not pay for a housing scouting visit, it may be because that is an institution-wide policy.  A quick phone call can clear up any confusion.

I strongly advise against negotiating, in real time, on the phone.  Firstly, this is stressful for you and for the hiring manager. Secondly, the hiring manager may not be able to negotiate some of the items you are asking for- it needs to get kicked up to the Dean in any event.  Finally, you want everything in writing. The most frustrating experience would be getting a verbal commitment on something important but not seeing it show up in the final offer letter.

So, the rule is simple: chat on the phone, negotiate via email.

How to be Successful: Pay the Price

“If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.” – Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert)

I read this quote in the comments section of White Coat Investor’s blog recently and I loved it so much I had to write an entire post about it.  This premise distills down the essence of what you need to be successful in life.  I hope that The Vetducator blog helps you achieve success. This is my vision for this blog and how it can help you.

Figure Out The Price – Part of the problem with people being successful in veterinary medicine is: they just don’t know what is needed to be successful.  You don’t know what’s looked for in applications, you don’t know that you need to form relationships, you don’t know that you need to act professionally. Many of the blog posts are focused on this idea: teaching you what the price is.

Then Pay It – This is the other problem with a lack of success for individuals in veterinary medicine.  They may K the price, but don’t know what to do to pay it. Now that you know what evaluators look for, HOW do you write a better letter and CV?  Now that you know you need to form relationships, HOW do you form those relationships? HOW do you act professionally? This is the other part of this blog: teaching you how to pay the price.

Now that you know what the price is and how to pay it, the question is: do you WANT to pay it?  What if the price is giving up nights and weekends with your family? What if the price is delaying the start of making real money?  What if the price is mental anguish and frustration? My wife didn’t go into medicine partly because she knew the price (poor sleep, on call, grueling days)  and didn’t want to pay it. So she went into pharmacy and is very happy with it.

You need to figure out WHAT the price is for success, then HOW to pay it, then be WILLING to pay it.  You’ve taken the first step by reading this blog. If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.

Working with Underserved/Marginalized/Low SES Populations

Image by Kirk Fisher from Pixabay

In my post giving about advice on how to maximize your time during vet school for success, I mentioned getting time working with underserved/marginalized/low socioeconomic status (UML for the purposes of this article) groups.  One of my editors said, “Why?” I thought that was a great question and deserved its own article.

As always, this is my personal opinion, but influenced significantly by many years of discussing applicants for positions in academic veterinary medicine.  Although unlikely, it is possible there are evaluators out there who would look down on an applicant who worked with UML groups. In reality, it is at worst neutral, and at best a tick in your positive column.  There are a few reasons this experience is seen positively.

1) Perspective.  Veterinary medicine requires working with a dynamic range of people.  Your staff, clients, others doctors- people come from all sorts of different backgrounds and places.  If you have worked with diverse groups of people in the past, you are at least aware of them and may be better prepared to work with them in the future.

2) Humility.  I hope that people who work with UML groups realize how amazing their life is and appreciate their great life.  I believe it is a humbling experience to work with those who have very little, and to see they can still enjoy their life and have human experiences.  Humility is incredibly important to me when looking at people who would be good in a team.

3) Adventurousness.  The willingness to work with UML groups indicates that you have a certain character of boldness which is often sought in leaders (which all veterinarians are by dint of their profession).  If you are willing to go outside your comfort zone, I have greater confidence that you will leave where you have lived, go across the country, and be in a new position somewhere you have never even visited.

4) Diversity.  Veterinary medicine is dominated by white women.  Diversity is a problem in our field.  Having some experience with other populations may reflect well on you for those who are interested in fostering diversity and the awareness of the importance thereof.

5) Stories.  Possibly the most important aspect of dealing with these communities is you can share what you learned in your letter of intent and during interviews.  These create opportunities for you to share an interesting, unique experience and what you took from it. That helps create a persona for you in letters and interviews which evaluators may remember better than a generic applicant.

It is not an essential requirement, but having the chance to work with diverse populations may improve your application.  I believe it is helpful for all applicants to have worked with UML groups, but this may not be a universal belief. What do you think?  Does this add to an application?

One Year Anniversary!

Steady progression over the past 9 months!

A year ago, March 2019, I launched The Vetducator blog. Let’s take a look at what we’ve done in the last 12 months.

I love statistics. Numbers are so wonderfully illuminating. When I am running statistical analyses, I am in my ‘flow’ state and time just drifts by. So, the numbers first!

Visitors: 28,209

Visits: 84,979

Posts: 118

Comments: 32

Podcast Episodes: 9

Paid clients: 4

The numbers are wonderful, particularly the number of visitors and visits. I am so grateful that people are reading and, hopefully, learning. I would like to spread the message and information even more broadly, so welcome suggestions on how to reach the intern/resident-bound population. Maybe in a few more years, once the students I have advised are graduating, they will come back and read the topics on internship/residency applications.

I continue to enjoy thinking up ideas and writing posts. As of this post, I have posts pre-scheduled through June 2020, have 28 written which need to be loaded into posts, and ideas for 108 more topics. WordPress continues to tell me my posts aren’t ‘optimized’ for readability. And I know blog posts 2000-3000 words are statistically better reads than my short posts, but I like keeping things simple and know the time of my readers is incredibly valuable.

What I’ve learned this year is that those interested in getting in to vet school are the most easy-to-access demographic and possibly the most passionate. I imagine those who want a residency are also passionate, but are hard to reach. I’ve also learned that it can be challenging to find good podcast guests.

This coming year, I plan to continue to post twice a week- Monday and Thursday. I am considering doing a second podcast series, maybe focused specifically for those interested in getting in to vet school. And I’d like to do more guest posting, but there aren’t a lot of people doing anything similar to what I’m doing in veterinary medicine.

Thank you for reading and participating, and I hope you keep coming back for quality content this year!

Behind the Scenes: How I Read a Faculty Application

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

You want to create the best possible application.  Providing you insight into my process of reviewing an application for a faculty position may help improve it.  Fortunately, the competition for most veterinary faculty positions isn’t particularly fierce, so you are rarely competing against many applicants.  Remember, the purpose of an application for a faculty position is to get you an interview. When I read an application, this is my primary consideration: should we offer an interview or not?

Letter of intent.  It needs to be free of obvious flaws like spelling and grammar errors.  I want to make sure the applicant knows the position to which they are applying.  If they indicate they would like a lab for a strong research program, and the position is primarily a clinical one, that suggests a disconnect and they may not be a good fit.  I don’t have high expectations for the letter, it just needs to be not terrible.

Curriculum vitae.  This needs to be organized chronologically so I can see clearly what the applicant has done from undergrad to their current position.  I want to see teaching and research productivity. For a more senior position, I want to see organization participation (e.g. with their specialty college) and journal reviewer responsibilities.  Depending on the position, publications can range from one (new resident applying for a clinical position) to many (applying at an associate professor level in a tenure-track position).  For a clinical specialist, I look for their board certification status.

Letters of recommendation.  As always, I look for evidence of collegiality, humility, and positivity.  Actually, I look for evidence that any of these things is NOT present. It may not mean they don’t get an interview offer, but it will frame the questions I ask during an interview.

Personal contacts.  If I know people at the institution where the applicant currently works, I will call them up and chat.  I am looking for the same information as in letters of recommendation.

As mentioned before, in a faculty application, I mostly look for evidence that the person would NOT be good to work with.  If they seem basically competent and collegial, unless there are many applicants, I will recommend an interview.