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.

Internship/Residency Rankings Done Right

After you’ve chosen the programs in which you are interested, sent in your application materials, and done an interview (if applicable), you are now ready to rank the programs.  The rank order list is due in early January. What does it mean and how do you do it?

The mechanics of the match are described in detail elsewhere.  Put simply, you rank the institutions and the institutions rank the applicants.  Then an algorithm runs and matches the applicants with the institutions.

Some people try to over-complicate the match process.  They think, “Well, I doubt I will get into place X, so I won’t ‘waste’ a high level spot for it.”  Don’t assign value to the actual rank spot. Instead, you should rank purely on one criteria: Where do you want to go?  Rank in order from YOUR highest picks to your lowest, without regard for your likelihood of them wanting you. The system is designed to be treated this way; you’ll mess up your chances if you try to second-guess the algorithm.

How many institutions should you rank?  It depends primarily on how happy you can be in a given circumstance.  For example, have you decided that literally the only way you can have professional fulfillment is to be a surgeon?  First, I’m sorry for you. But if so, then you have to rank every single program. On the other hand, if you’ve decided that you would very much like to do surgery, but not at the expense of your physical or mental health, then you should only rank the programs where you would be happy.  That’s difficult to know a priori, but it is possible if you do your research and talk to current or former interns/residents

The second consideration for number of institutions to rank is financial cost.  There is a substantial step up from 10 to 11 institutions ranked ($90 to $250 in 2019).  However, this is your future, the next step in the rest of your life. Even the highest step ($350 in 2019) is not particularly expensive, matched against your entire education to date and your professional future. My advice therefore is to rank more.

The next consideration is how good of an applicant you are.  If you know you will be a top choice at a few schools, you only need to rank a few.  If you are a good candidate but not sure where you stack up, you will want to hedge your bets and rank many more institutions.

The final and most important consideration is how to decide how to order your rankings.  Being an analytical sort, I made a table. It looked something like this:

Program# InternsSalaryElective TimeSpecialists% ER TimeResearch Notes

Your table may have other variables, such as: geographic location, # cases, equipment, license requirements, rounds, or % primary care time.  Some of this information you can get from the position description, some will come from your research on the position. At the end, organize the programs according to the most important variables for you.

My general advice is to rank every institution where you think you could be happy.  The cost is not very significant, it minimizes the risk of not matching and having to do The Scramble, and is fairly efficient.  Rank them in order of where you want to go. That’s it! Tell me what you think and how it goes!

Avoid the Biggest Mistakes Made during The Match

Making your professional life successful is as much about what NOT TO do as it is about what TO do.  The Match is probably the highest-stakes professional selection in academic veterinary medicine- even more so than getting into vet school in the first place.  As a result of this pressure, people make a lot of mistakes which adversely affect their professional future. This is not an exhaustive list, just the most prominent ones I have encountered.

1) Trying to game the matching algorithm.  Please don’t do this.  I know it’s tempting. I did it because I was foolish, didn’t talk to anyone wiser, and the internet was barely a thing.  Rank the place you most want to go #1 and then move on to the next.

2) Not reviewing your application materials.  How is it possible there is a misspelled word in your letter of intent?  You have spell-check on your writing program, don’t you? Run basic diagnostics and read and re-read your materials.  Simple errors like this suggest to me that the applicant isn’t really all that interested in the position. If they were, they would have spent more time on their application.

3) Not sending out your application materials.  You must get others to read your letter of intent and CV.  Preferably veterinary academics who have looked at many such applications.  However, even your friends and family can be helpful. Tell everyone to be brutally honest.  Your goal is to get the best application possible, not to assuage your ego. You don’t have to take everyone’s suggestions.  In fact, if you send it out enough, you will start to get conflicting suggestions. But you must have others review them. You would not believe the poorly written letters I have helped people improve.

4) Not getting your ducks in a row in time.  Hopefully, you strategized your time to maximize your match success.  And you did give those writing letters of recommendation plenty of notice, didn’t you?  And you have gotten all your materials in well before the deadline, right?

5) Not preparing for interviews.  If you apply to institutions which hold interviews, you must do your research and study up on how to do a successful interview.  Failing to plan is planning to fail.

6) Delaying the decision.  I know some students and interns who waffle on whether to apply to the match and then make a decision at the last second.  That is unacceptable. If you THINK you may want to apply, set up everything as if you will. You don’t have to submit your rank list until January.  If you put in applications but don’t rank any institutions, you won’t match anywhere.

It’s not a long list, but you would be surprised at the number of people who continue to make these mistakes- hence this post.  Try to avoid being one of them and let me know if you need help!

Podcast Episode 7 – Dr. Jarred Williams

Dr. Williams and I worked together at an institution and spent many a night doing colic cases together. He has insight into the world of veterinary equine medicine and equine surgery. I hope his insight is helpful to those of you interested in that path!

The 8 Steps of Writing an Application Letter

I’ve written a lot about the ideas you should express in letters of application, and even some specific suggestions on what to include.  We’ve talked about what not to do and what goals you should have, but one of my editors suggested I write an actual nuts-and-bolts-how-to-style post about writing an application letter, so here you go.  How to write an application letter in eight steps.

1) Sit down at your computer and open your word processing program

2) Write: To Members of the Selection Committee

3) Write: I am applying for <insert position>.  I am currently <your professional role>

4) Write down everything you can think of about yourself which makes you an excellent candidate.  Write down everything you can think of about your interest in the position. It should be many pages long

5) Trim.  And trim. And trim.  Take the best parts of what you have written in step 4.  It needs to be one page, no more

6) Proofread.  Edit, clean up sentences, make sure the grammar is correct.  Make sure the ideas flow from one to the next

7) Give it to friends, family, mentors- anyone whose opinion you respect.  Ask them to use Track Changes or similar to make changes and comments. Read all the comments and changes and take the ones you like

8) Read it again.  Does every sentence serve a purpose?  Is there any rambling? Do you use decisive wording or do you sound wishy-washy?  Sharpen it

Now you are done.  You have to do this for each step of your professional progression.  Don’t refer back to what you wrote for vet school when you’re applying for internships.  Start fresh. And remember Kaizen– continuous improvement. Each iteration should be better than the last.  Have fun and good luck!

Should You Commit to Working for a Company in Exchange for Getting a Residency?

The Devil’s Advocate summarizes my feelings on this issue.

In my opinion: no.  If you want a more detailed, analysis, read on.

The first time I encountered this concept, UGA had taken a radiology resident from VCA.  We later took a surgery resident from the military. We also took a surgery resident from another university.  The essential premise is the same: the sponsoring organization (university, company, military, etc.) pays for the resident’s salary (including benefits) and then the resident contractually owes that organization a certain number of years of service after they finish the residency.  Why would anyone do this?

The training institution benefits because they get an ‘extra’ resident.  Resources to find residency positions are limited, but services need to meet their caseload demands.  Residents are an effective way to enhance service delivery. Universities see residents like this as “free” residents- they get the labor of a resident without having to pay for it themselves.  So it’s a good deal for the training institution.

The sponsoring institution benefits because they get a committed specialist for a certain period of time.  Institutions that have a hard time attracting specialists may choose this route so they have a guaranteed specialist at the end of the program.  One problem is that it takes 3 years to train a resident, so if they need someone NOW, this won’t help much. Another problem is that the specialist may not stay once their contract is up, which puts the institution right back in the same position they were before.  So it may be a good deal for certain sponsoring institutions, but may not be a long-term benefit for others.

The individual doing the residency benefits because they get a residency position which they may not have otherwise gotten.  For example, if someone does not get a position through the Matching Program, and they desperately want to do a residency, they could find a sponsoring organization and then get to do a residency.  These positions exist OUTSIDE The Match and are spots in addition to the existing spots offered by training institutions. They then HAVE to work for the sponsoring organization, usually for about 3 years, after finishing the residency.  So it may be a good deal if the individual would have wanted to work for that organization anyway, or if they are basically fine working for them until the contract is up.

Naturally, my idealism clashes dramatically with this free market approach.  I don’t believe anyone should have to sell their time as a specialist in order to get a residency.  It just strikes me as unfair. In an ideal world, these organizations would have to change so that people would WANT to work for them, rather than forcing desperate residency-seekers into a deal with the devil.  In an ideal world, those most deserving of residencies would get them, and those who don’t would be happy with a different life path.

I understand it isn’t an ideal world, and the free market allows for these kinds of contracts.  As long as there are applicants desperate to get a residency, who will do almost anything to get one, these kinds of contracts will persist.  I wish people wouldn’t make these deals, because then organizations would have to improve and actually ATTRACT specialists. But I’m not in charge of the world, and you’re an adult, so you can make your own choices. Just make sure you’ve taken all the benefits and drawbacks into serious consideration before making that choice.

Exorcising Demons

I wrote more than 70 posts for this blog in 6 weeks.  That works out to 1.7 posts per day or almost 12 posts a week. I didn’t set a particularly blazing pace- I wrote an article or three whenever I had some downtime.  I also didn’t set out to write that many that quickly. My goal was to be able to publish twice a week once the blog launched. I also wanted a sufficient backlog so that if a week or two passed without inspiration, there would still be posts for you to read.  I never expected to write so much so quickly

What the devil is going on here?  Well, the posts are generally fairly short- much shorter than experts advise for blogs seeking lots of search engine optimized traffic.  I could write longer posts, but I want to make these manageable for you. I am trying to change the way a large number of applicants function- the message needs to be palatable so you will adopt the changes I am recommending

I also get fired up as I start writing.  More ideas come to me in the middle of a post and I add them to an ongoing list.  I started with about 40 ideas, and as of this writing have 70 ideas in addition to the posts already written.  And more keep coming in every day- from my experiences at work, from my editors, from reading books and websites.

My editors are also an incredible source of inspiration.  My wife proofreads all the posts and occasionally makes suggestions.  One of my best friends also proofs them and contributes his own outside-of-vetmed perspective.  Both of these help tremendously, so it’s not only my brain working, but others’. I hope to engage several of my professional colleagues in the future so they can contribute their own vast knowledge and experience to the blog

But I think the most significant reason is I feel I am exorcising some horrible pent-up demon.  For god’s sake, how can it be 2018 and this material DOESN’T exist for veterinary applicants yet?  There are some good vet blogs out there- we’ll check in with them eventually- but no, I can’t find a centralized source where you can get all the information you need from someone who’s been there and done that already.

I see applications and interviewees all the time and just WISH they had found some of this advice before applying or interviewing.  I want to help, and I desperately hope this blog reaches applicants, so you can make your future career and life as successful as possible.

How to Do Effective Research as an Intern

All internship years are clinical training programs.  That is what they are designed for and that is what they offer.  It’s an intensive experience designed to improve your clinical knowledge, decision-making skills, and procedural experience.  Most internships are not designed for you to do research. But you may want to try, as there are a couple of valuable benefits to doing research as an intern.

Being only one year in length makes it extremely challenging to start and finish a research project as an intern.  Combined with the long clinic hours you work, it’s no mystery why most programs don’t emphasize intern research. It is rarely successful.  I can count on one hand the number of interns I have worked with who got a published paper from their intern year, and all of those were either case reports or helping with an existing project.

In spite of these obstacles, trying to complete a research project during your internship year may allow you to develop a relationship with a faculty mentor and get a publication added to your CV.  Here are some steps to help you be successful:

1) Be realistic.  Do you _really_ want to give up the slight amount of free time you already have to do a research project?  Will you actually follow through and finish it? Will having a publication in submission really help your residency application that much?  If you start a project which you don’t finish, will that sour your relationship with the faculty mentor? Remember, most efforts at doing research as an intern will not be successful.  Make sure you can commit

2) Start early.  You have to start in your first month of the program if you expect to have anything useful on your CV by the time match applications are due in the beginning of December.  The only possible exception to this is a case report, but those you can’t really predict- you have to rely on them to come across your plate.

3) Find a mentor.  Hopefully you know what discipline you want to pursue after your internship.  Find a friendly faculty member and ask them about the prospect of doing research.  The best case scenario is if they have an existing project which just needs to be written up.  Other possibilities are helping with data collection for an ongoing project or starting your own.  Only start your own if you know it is easy to do, does not require extensive approvals (IACUC, IRB), and has a high likelihood for success.

4) Submit the publication before residency applications are due so you can write on your CV, “Submitted for publication”.  As noted, many interns start research, but few actually finish it. For me, a line on a CV which reads, “Comparison of This Thing with Another Thing.  Research in progress” is basically valueless. Starting a project is easy. Untold thousands of research projects are started every year. But do you finish it?  Ah, now that is something worth noting on a CV

You don’t necessarily need research on your CV to be a competitive residency applicant.  Don’t force yourself to do a research project as an intern to fill out what you think is a deficiency on your CV.  Only pursue it if you are serious, dedicated, and passionate. It can be a valuable experience, but it also has the potential to create poor feelings due to a project not being finished.  Be honest with yourself and your potential mentor, and you may be successful.

How to be Successful: Self-Reflection and Self-Honesty

One of my friends has told me she is interested in pursuing a residency because she wants to be respected by the community and be a Person of Importance.  In our study of senior students interested in internships, many of them expressed an interest in being The Expert. I applaud both of these sentiments because they come from a place of self-reflection and self-honesty.  They may not be motivations on par with “I want to help sick animals” or “I want to train better vets”, but that’s OK, because they are genuine. They are also not contradictory of such noble motivations; you can help sick animals by being a respected and important surgeon.  Having thoughtful self-reflection and being honest with yourself is essential to being a successful professional.

My friend who wants to be a specialist because of the social capital can make better decisions because of that knowledge.  Maybe she can get the same acknowledgement from being important in organized veterinary medicine (like sitting on the state board or being an AVMA delegate).  Maybe she can get it from doing a PhD in physiology and being a basic scientist. Or maybe she realizes that what she actually wants is the regard from pet owners and veterinary academics, which will funnel her more towards the path to a residency.  In any event, knowing exactly what is motivating her will make her career choices and decisions dramatically simpler.

Those students who acknowledge they want to be considered The Expert can use that self-knowledge in powerful ways.  Hopefully, they will realize that most Experts don’t put a big flashing sign saying “EXPERT” above their head; this knowledge will allow the students to Aim for Zero.  If they don’t get a residency, they may decide to find an area of clinical focus and drill down on that- maybe being the ultrasound ‘expert’ in their clinic. This insight will help them find professional fulfillment regardless of their career path.

And that’s the real key: what would you be happy doing and why?  I see countless people saying, “I HAVE to be a vet! It’s all I’ve ever wanted!” or “I HAVE to be a surgeon!  It’s the only thing I can imagine doing!” But… is it really? Why? “I want to help animals.” You can do that VERY effectively as a vet tech, wildlife biologist, or working in animal control for the county.  “I want to make lots of money.” Sure, then you should be an entrepreneur.  “I want to talk to clients all day.”  OK, a receptionist does that and is a key part of the veterinary team.

“I want the regard of my parents, who both have graduate degrees and expect me to excel in academics.”  Ah ha, good, now we’re getting somewhere. “I am scared of trying to make my way in the real world and need more time in school to shelter me and discover who I am.”  Excellent, excellent. “I want people to like me because my mother never hugged me.” Yes, yes! Once we get to this level of self-reflection and self-honesty, we can actually make some helpful, meaningful decisions about our life. Try not to be judgmental of yourself or fear others’ judgment of these motivations. You have a right to decide what to do with your own life; full honesty will help you get there.

I want you to be reflective and honest because I want you to make the best career decisions you can.  And you can only make the best decisions if you are able to decide exactly what you want and, importantly, WHY you want it.  You need to go deeper than superficial motivations. What VALUES of yours does this career path satisfy?

The easiest way to get to this is called a ‘laddering technique’.  We used it in the study cited above and it can work for you. Just keep asking “why?” until you get to a core, bedrock value which cannot be reduced.  I personally adhere to the Self-Determination Theory of core values, but you can adhere to other theories and get the same outcome. The point is that you need to know what MOVES you from a fundamental core belief level.

For myself, I wanted intense intellectual challenge, because that is a source of enjoyment for me, a decent salary, because financial insecurity was a source of anxiety growing up, a flexible schedule, because I am an iconoclast and don’t like being told what to do, and the opportunity to be in some clear leadership role, because I enjoy the regard of those whom I am in charge of as long as I do a good job.  This led me on the path to academia, but there are MANY MANY other people in academia with very very different motivations. I don’t care what motivates you, but you need to know the core values which motivate you.

What Mindset Should You Have When Applying to Faculty Jobs?

Opinions on this may differ, but I wanted to share with you my philosophical approach to applying to faculty jobs.  It can be summarized pretty easily: don’t bluff and be genuine. This can be harder to do than it sounds.

Academic institutions have interesting, but fairly consistent approaches to salaries and raises.  There is usually more money available for new hires than for existing hires. Existing hires have had to get raises through lean years and when the legislature (if a public school) is more conservative with education than other years.  As a result, salary compression occurs

Salary compression is when people who have been working at an institution for a while end up making less than a new hire.  Although uncommon, you can have a situation where a full professor makes less than a new assistant professor.  While you don’t need to make a lot of money to be happy, you DO need to make a fair amount of money to be happy.  Studies indicate that employees are generally happy with their salary if it is fair.  Unfortunately, salary compression can result in salaries not being fair among faculty members

The ‘solution’ to this problem in academia is, unfortunately, applying for other jobs, getting an offer, and then using that to negotiate with your home institution.  I put the solution in quotes because I hate this solution. I believe it is disingenuous. This may be where my sense of an idealized world conflicts with reality: you shouldn’t HAVE to resort to this, the institution should keep your salary at pace with others over time.  But I understand that isn’t always reality and this is how some people manage it

I had one colleague who was grossly underpaid at a large state school.  He was a full professor, had asked for an adjustment, and been told ‘no’.  As a consequence he began applying elsewhere. Once he got an offer from another institution, his home school was suddenly able to find money and pay enough to keep him.  Would he have actually left if he hadn’t gotten a retention offer? Maybe yes, maybe no.

What I would prefer to advise people instead is this: if salary means that much to you (I sure wish it wouldn’t), and you are genuinely unhappy because of the lack of fairness, then you should genuinely look for a job elsewhere.  It should not be a ploy or a bluff. If you are unhappy, you SHOULD look for a different job. But I believe you should only look for jobs you may seriously consider taking.

I feel that it is a disservice to the institution and, potentially, your reputation to interview somewhere you absolutely know you will not go.  Most schools dedicate significant time and energy to faculty interviews- you don’t want to waste those resources. Also, maybe there is another candidate who would LOVE to go there but doesn’t get an interview because you take up one of the slots.  We routinely interview only about 3 people on average for many faculty positions. If you know you won’t go somewhere, don’t take someone else’s spot.

On the other hand, if you believe you COULD go there, even if you’re not sure, then it is fair to apply and interview.  I have applied to institutions I wasn’t sure about and, after visiting, was favorably impressed and willing to consider moving if given an offer.  Some places I have interviewed and decided it wasn’t a good fit for me, but I didn’t know that before visiting.

My wife went on numerous interviews and got several offers, which helped refine her understanding of what she wanted from her career.  So I’m not saying don’t interview unless you’re certain you will accept an offer. You may need to go through an interview to decide if the institution or job is right for you.  I am saying: don’t interview if you’re certain you wouldn’t accept an offer. To do so is not being genuine.