Book Review: Vet School Survival Guide

Some time in the recent past, I thought to myself, “I wonder if there is a guide to help those who are applying to vet school?  If not, maybe that’s something I could write!”  I looked on Amazon and the result was this book.  The Vet School Survival Guide: Notes from a Back Row Student by Dean Scott DVM seemed like a promising start.  I asked if he would send me a copy and he did, along with the sequel (which I will review separately).

I didn’t realize what I was getting into until about 50 pages in.  Each page is either a cartoon or a series of sayings, phrases, observations, and notes on Dr. Scott’s experience and perspective on vet school.  Partly humorous, partly tongue-in-cheek, partly cautionary tale, this isn’t a book with plot or tricks of the trade.  So instead of commenting on each chapter (of which there are none), I thought I would comment on some of the points he made.

A cartoon with a kennel attendant who looks at a dog and says “Lymphosarcoma” while the vet student says “I knew that”.  The caption reads: The kennel person comes up with the diagnosis before you.

-This reminded me of an episode during my internship.  I was the overnight doctor and this medium-sized dog came in around 5am, depressed and tachycardic.  I was wracking my brain for what was going on when the tech said, “Wow, look at that stomach!  Probably got GDV, huh?”  I was thankful she said something, but embarrassed that I missed such an obvious diagnosis.

“Discovering James Herriot lied.”

-I absolutely laughed out loud.  I wasn’t one of those kids who read James Herriot- I actually read them after vet school- but, for those who did read him, real veterinary medicine today is nothing like in those books.  Any student who enters thinking otherwise is up for a rude awakening.

“You wonder why, if evaluations are considered and responded to, there are still so many poor instructors.”

-I remember in freshman year taking neuroanatomy and hating it.  I heard that professor got poor reviews every year, so why was it still bad?  I think some instructors don’t have a growth mindset or get upset or defensive about student evaluations.  I treasure student evaluations and always tell next year’s class what I changed on the basis of the feedback I get.

“After seeing the amount of paperwork that is done at the teaching hospital, you know exactly where the rain forests are going.”

-Most teaching hospitals have gone “paperless”, but the point still stands.  I am appalled at the waste we make in medicine (human and veterinary).  I’m not sure there’s a better way, but it’s nonetheless upsetting to observe.

“Someone who says, ‘Aren’t you too young to be a veterinarian?’”

– I don’t know where this trope came from, but there is definitely the idea that new vets look particularly young.  I wonder if it happens more often to female vets than male, and the gender shift in our profession has influenced this trope.

“Labs that are really three-hour lectures.”

-I understand why faculty do this- they want more time to cover content.  But it is always frustrating, both as a student and as a course coordinator.  Labs should be for practical, hands-on time, not thinly disguised lectures.

“Discovering that the rule: When in doubt, pick ‘C’, doesn’t always work.”

-I remember hearing this in vet school, too.  As a professor, I always either randomized the answers for multiple choice questions or organized them by some systematic method, like alphabetized by first letter of the first word in the answers.

A comic with the professor saying, “Oh, c’mon… you can’t all be dead!” with a bunch of students flopped at their chairs and caption, “To avoid answering questions in rounds, you pretend to be dead.”

-I tell students on the first day of the rotation that I’ll ask questions and then wait for an answer.  Indefinitely, if needs be.  I have sat in silence, waiting for some answer, for quite some time.  *I* don’t feel awkward during those times.  🙂

“You recall laughing at veterinarians who tried to warn you away from vet school.  Oh, how you laughed.”

-I really worry about students who are obsessed with going to vet school.  They are willing to sacrifice their mental happiness, financial future, and whole rest of life for this “dream”.  I don’t hear a lot of cautionary voices in the pre-vet community- they tend to get shouted down by those who say, “YOU CAN DO ANYTHING!  FOLLOW YOUR DREAM!”  If your dream makes you in debt for the rest of your life and to the point where you can never retire…. Is that really a good dream? Or can you do something else that will make you just as happy or happier?

“After much debate and research, your study group decides that an interrupted-cruciate pattern is most appropriate for sewing a button back on your shirt.”

-My sewing skills are 100% due to surgery class.  I remember thinking, after taking surgery, “How do normal people learn to sew?”  And this observation is correct: the cruciate pattern is for sewing buttons back on.

“Knowing you’ve never seen a practicing veterinarian scrambling to determine the Ideal Alveolar Gas Equation.”

-I absolutely hate that some people teach minutiae which students will never need in general practice.  Yes, if you specialize in anesthesia, you need to know this equation.  But no one in practice does.  I remember walking past a lecture hall seeing a lecture about tracheal resection.  This is such a vanishingly rare procedure, I can’t imagine why any GP needs to know about it.  I am constantly frustrated by all the minutiae people try to teach vet students.  I wish people would stick to the “Teach less, better” approach.

“You have to take classes with medical students, but they get graded pass/fail.”

-I think we need to move this way in veterinary medicine.  There is good evidence from the human medicine side that grading pass/fail does not result in worse student learning but DOES decrease student stress.

“You become a pawn in a power-struggle involving the senior radiology technician, his least favorite clinician, and an incontinent greyhound.”

-I always worry about students (or staff or residents) being put into positions like this.  I try to make sure that conflicts are always resolved faculty-to-faculty rather than going through intermediaries.  I don’t think it’s fair to stick my resident- or anyone else- in the line of fire.  But this has to be a deliberate choice- I see plenty of others who don’t follow this philosophy, and I feel bad for their students/staff/residents.

“Your courses are very thorough; what isn’t covered in class is covered on the final exam.”

-Writing exams is hard.  Ideally, they should align with learning objectives, so students know where to focus their time and energy.  This is described in the book Understanding by Design, but not many faculty know about this concept.  I feel a lot of sympathy for students who suffer due to poor exam creation.

A cartoon with a student shaking a Magic 8 ball and saying, “Should I do a dexamethasone suppression test?”  The Magic 8 ball displays, “It is unclear” and the caption is, “The Magic 8-ball doesn’t have all the answers.”

-I laughed at this one because we 100% had a Magic 8 ball in the equine anesthesia prep area during my residency.  We didn’t use it often, but it was always a good time when we did.

The book concludes with a “Final Thoughts” ‘chapter’ which is inarguably the best part of the whole thing.  I have to quote this part, “However, unless you’ve been through the vet school process, there is truly no way to prepare someone adequately for the grueling, grinding, unrelenting, unsympathetic nature of it.”  I cannot agree more.  I always try to tell students You Have No Idea.

I was surprised I liked this book as much as I did, since I’m not much for sardonic humor and cartoons.  Nonetheless, it was a great encapsulation of life in vet school.  If someone were to grok all of the statements made, they would approach knowing what vet school is like.  But, of course, doing so without experiencing it is probably impossible.  So, for those who are vet school bound, it would be a good way to create realistic expectations for what it’s like.

Going Back to School

Well, here we are, going back to school in the midst of a contagious, virulent, very bad pandemic. Just as cases are going up, thousands of students will be interacting with people inside spaces. I don’t know if that’s necessarily bad, but I understand it can be anxiety-inducing.

I think my single piece of advice is: do your best, given the circumstances. Give yourself permission not to work so hard if that would elevate your anxiety levels. Pay attention in class, come in to clinics and work hard, study when you can. Just do your best and acknowledge that maybe your best looks different from last year. That’s OK. We’re all struggling, and your better instructors will understand and be sympathetic.

Do your best to relax and focus on what you can control. If you want to apply to vet school, you can’t control what the schools do with online or hybrid courses. If those are the only ones available to you, enroll, do your best, and realize that you can’t control how schools interpret those courses. If you want to do an internship and live outside the US, realize that you may not be able to do anything about getting a visa and into the country. Focus on what you can control and try not to worry about the rest.

I am also announcing our first-ever giveaway! The next two posts will be a review of two books by Dr. Dean Scott. I will be giving these two books to one of you readers! If you want to be entered for a chance to win, post a meaningful comment somewhere on the blog. The winner will be randomly chosen next week.

You could win these two books!

Top 5 Reason to Not Do an Internship

I make no secret of the fact that I think most new graduates are better off doing an internship than not.  However, there are some circumstances where I think an individual should NOT do an internship.

1) You have family obligations.

Your family has put you through vet school, suffered through you not being there because you got called in or had to study, and you don’t get as much time with them as you would like.  An internship year will be that times two.  You will have almost no time for yourself or your relationships.  If you have children, a spouse you would like to spend more time with, ailing parents, or other family obligations, an internship may not be a good fit.  There are some programs which are slightly less time-consuming, but they are hard to identify (you can’t call up most programs and ask, “Will I typically work a 40-hour week?”- they’ll think you’re not willing to work hard so won’t rank you).  If you want family time, an internship will strain that.

2) You have financial obligations.

Most students graduate with some debt– that’s not a reason to avoid an internship.  But interns get paid substantially less than those who go out into private practice.  If that dip in pay will not be compensated for by a later increase in pay (for example, by being a specialist or a highly paid ER vet), the financial toll and opportunity costs of an internship may be too much for your finances.  If you owe 2-3 times as much as you expect to make, you may need to prioritize your financial health over your professional development.

3) You hated school.

An internship is a LOT like another senior clinical year.  You have more responsibility, more to learn, and less time to do it all.  If you couldn’t wait to Get Out, suffered through clinics, and just wanted to be your own person, don’t do an internship.  If your primary motivation is to have greater autonomy, as we found in a study looking at the decisions of those pursuing private practice vs. internship, don’t do an internship.  Although you DO have more responsibility than when you were a student, you’re still going to be told what to do.  A lot.

4) You don’t like to teach.

Although private practice interns may not teach much, those in an academic position teach routinely.  Please don’t inflict yourself on the students, residents, and faculty if you have no interest in teaching.  You don’t have to be GOOD at teaching to want to do an academic internship, but you at least have to be INTERESTED in teaching.  If you don’t, avoid an internship or, at least, an academic internship.

5) You graduated from a school which emphasized day one ready competence.

For years, I have told every graduate, “You are not done.  You are not qualified to practice good medicine.  You must do an internship.”  This was based on my experience working in an ER practice with new graduates who didn’t have an internship as well as the experiences of my classmates.  I have seen cases sent to the teaching hospital for cancer and the case only had a hotspot- but the new grad had never seen a hotspot before.  The vast majority of veterinary schools do not prepare you to be a good general practitioner (GP).  That is because most teach you in a tertiary care teaching hospital which sees all kinds of bizarre cases.  You learn about the Branham reflex, and what size plates get used in a TPLO, and what inflammatory bowel disease looks like on endoscopy.  This is not what GPs need to know.  Some schools have realized this, and are now teaching students to be day one ready competent GPs.  When I worked at one of those schools, I evaluated the students and thought, “OK, YOU may not need to do an internship.”  If you are lucky enough to go to one of those schools- or somehow carved out a unique GP-focused program at your school- you may not need to do an internship to be a competent GP.

I still stand by my belief that most new graduates will benefit from an internship.  However, if you have one of the circumstances above, you have my blessing to go out into practice and make the best of it.  Are there any reasons you have other than these?  Add them in the comments!

Top 5 Reason to Do an Internship

Committing to a one-year internship after graduation isn’t a major commitment (like buying a house, getting married, or making a small human), but it can affect your life and career trajectory.  These are my recommended top 5 reasons to do an internship.

1) You want to specialize.

This is the easiest consideration, so it goes first.  If you want to do a clinical specialty, it is theoretically possible to do so from clinical practice, but the challenges in doing so are substantial.  The traditional path is still the easiest: graduation -> internship -> residency.

2) You are unsure of your career path.

Even if you’re not SURE you want to specialize, pursuing an internship will keep that door open better than going out into practice.  If you think you may be interested in specializing or doing something other than general practice, an internship provides you with more options.  You COULD go into practice after the internship, do a specialty internship, do a residency, or maybe even go into a graduate program.  Staying in the academic system provides more flexibility.

3) You are scared of the real world.

It’s OK to be scared.  The real world is intimidating, and it’s OK to want to shelter in the confines of a program where you are more-or-less told what to do (or at least given significant guidance) for another year.  If you feel you didn’t get a great educational experience, or your clinical skills are subpar, an internship year may help your confidence.

4) You want to improve your clinical skills.

This is different from #3 because you acknowledge you will be an adequate new graduate, but you want to get GOOD.  Yes, every practice claims they will give you great mentorship, and maybe it will happen.  But there are also stories of a new grad showing up to a new job and being handed the keys as the owner leaves.  There are certainly bad internships, but most of them will give you direct mentorship with board-certified specialists.  That’s nothing to sneeze at when it comes to learning how to be a good doctor.  In a down market, an internship _may_ make you a better employment candidate.  In this market, though, it probably doesn’t matter, with the possible exception of some emergency practices that need a more experienced doctor as opposed to a new graduate to handle complex cases.

5) You like teaching.

I’ve been teaching since I was a green belt in karate at the age of 14.  I love teaching.  I haven’t always been good at it, but I’ve gotten better.  In an academic internship, you will have the opportunity to teach students, and that can be fun and very rewarding.  If you don’t do an internship, you will have opportunities to teach your technicians and maybe a visiting student, but it’s not the same immersive experience.  Being in an academic institution gives a different feel to all endeavors.  Although patient care is #1, the teaching mission is ever-present and provides a positive environment for inquiry, growth, and opportunities to teach.

Those are the top 5 reasons I would provide a student interested in doing an internship.  Do you agree with them?  Are there any reasons you have other than these?  Add them in the comments!

How to Do a Professional Scientific Paper Peer Review

I review a lot of research paper submissions.  I enjoy it because I feel like I have some expertise to contribute and I feel I can help make submissions better.  The peer-review system is an integral pillar of the research estate.  It is one check of many to prevent bad research from being published.  Realistically, with enough determination, you can probably publish almost any research paper.  But the peer review system is, right now, the way we do things in academia.  

I want to give you a short guide because veterinary academicians do peer review as an integral part of their responsibilities.  If you don’t care how the sausage gets made, move along.

What do you get out of reviewing submissions?  First, you get a peek into the newest, latest research.  Second, you get to practice your critical thinking and study design skills.  Third, you are contributing to making the world a better place, which should make you feel good.  

Finally, it goes onto your CV and is a small (but important) piece of your progression.  I’m not saying if you have zero reviews on your CV that you won’t be promoted to Associate Professor.  But if you don’t have any reviews on your CV, that will definitely come up during the promotion committee’s discussion.  Don’t give them any reason to question your CV.  Contribute to the research estate by doing peer review.  How do you do a good one?

  1. Be professional and constructive.  Your job is to evaluate if the submission is suitable for publication in that journal AND to try and improve the submission.  Your job is NOT to be an editor!  Avoid the temptation to correct spelling, grammar, typos, etc.  If you have a positive, productive, professional attitude, you will do a better job and the editors will appreciate your contribution more.
  2. Read the paper once.  Get some general impressions and get a sense for the project.
  3. Read again and take notes.  After your first read-through, read it again and make notes in a separate document as you go.  Reference line numbers.  For example, Lines 118-120: how was randomization conducted?
  4. Make your questions and comments simple, succinct, and as specific as possible.  It’s fine to occasionally write, “I did not understand the meaning of this sentence.”  But as much as possible, be specific.  For example, “I think you mean patients got treatment A OR treatment B, but you state patients got treatment A AND treatment B.”
  5. Use proper spelling and grammar.  I understand many reviewers do not have English as a primary language.  But, if your first language IS English, it should be correct.
  6. If you are unsure about something, you can ask the authors in your review, the Editor via email, or your colleagues who may have more expertise than you.  When discussing the submission with colleagues, it must be in a way that doesn’t identify the paper, the authors, or any other identifying information.
  7. I personally only tend to reject papers which have what I believe are fatal methodological flaws.  You need to decide on what criteria you will reject a paper.  Ask mentors and peers if you need guidance.  There is always a section in reviews where you can address the editor.  If you feel a paper is ‘on the fence’, you can say so in the direct comments to the editor.

There are many technical details, mostly about methodology, which could be discussed.  Those are beyond the scope of this post, though.  I want to get you to think about how to approach a review.  As always, be a professional, be humble, be willing to acknowledge if you need help, and be positive.

How to Be Successful: Be Prepared

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Most people probably know the Boy Scouts of America has the motto “Be Prepared”.  As an Eagle Scout, I obviously embraced this concept and have made numerous successful professional steps that can be partially credited to this motto.  It is similar to another saying I like, “I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”  Let’s look at some examples, and then come up with some specific strategies to make sure you are prepared.

I had a case under anesthesia going to radiology the other day.  As we started to roll the patient away from the prep area, I spotted the laryngoscope we had used left on a tabletop.  I grabbed the laryngoscope because I make it a point to always be able to readily intubate a patient under my care.  Sure enough, when moving the patient to the radiology table, the endotracheal tube came out.  Having the laryngoscope right there, I rapidly reintubated the patient and we carried on with the case.  Could we have intubated the patient without the laryngoscope?  Probably, but you never know.  I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

When my wife and I travel, we often hit breweries and brewpubs along the way.  Many of these will fill growlers- refillable containers so you can enjoy their beer at home.  After not having growlers when we wanted to fill one, I took to just keeping one in the car when we travel.  Now, if we want a growler fill, we have one with us!  Chance favors the prepared.  We are prepared if we find a place by chance that has good beer.

In job negotiations, I had two contrasting experiences.  In one, I asked for a spousal hire and they didn’t make even the slightest effort at negotiating.  I was entirely unprepared for this outcome- I thought it was a reasonable request.  I was also given a compressed timeline to make a decision, so made a decision to take the job, something I may not have done if I were prepared.  In another, I asked for a spousal hire and knew exactly what I would do if I got one (accept the job) and if I didn’t get one (keep searching).  I was prepared and made a good decision.

So, what do you need to do in order to be prepared to maximize your professional success?  Here are some specific, concrete steps you can take.

  • Always have an updated CV.  Some people only update their CV yearly or, god forbid, when they apply for a new job.  No, you should always be prepared- update your CV any time you have something to add.  Get nominated as an officer in a club?  Add it on.  Submit a paper for publication?  Put it on.  Give a presentation?  Perform a review for a scientific journal?  On it goes.  This accomplishes two goals.  One, you won’t forget something potentially important and valuable for your CV.  Two, you will be ready to give your updated, accurate CV out for any professional opportunity which crops up.
  • Plan for a variety of outcomes.  What if you don’t get into vet school?  What if you don’t match for an internship?  What if the job to which you applied will pay you far less than you thought it would?  The more you consider the possible futures, the more prepared you will be, come what may.  This is different from _worrying_ about the possible outcomes.  Once you put your application in and do an interview, there’s nothing you can do to ALTER the outcome.  But if you PLAN for a variety of outcomes, you will be ready no matter what happens.  You will be able to act and decide more quickly (particularly valuable for The Scramble).  This will give you a leg up on any competition.
  • Bring materiel you may need.  If you’re going to an interview, make a checklist and bring things you may need.  Bring business cards and extra copies of your CV.  Bring extra clothing in case your primary outfit gets orange juice on it during the first event of the day.  Have enough cash to cover exigencies.  Bring a notebook to take notes.  Have your laptop so you can summarize your thoughts at the end of an interview day.

One caveat- you CAN over-prepare and you CAN over-plan and thus be paralyzed by indecision.  I don’t walk around the hospital with bottles of norepinephrine and vasopressin in my pocket for the one or two cases a year when I need those.  Those drugs are near at hand and I can get them relatively rapidly.  Perhaps a better way to say the Boy Scout motto would be, “be reasonably prepared”.

There are dozens- hundreds- of steps you can take to prepare yourself for an awesome career.  BUT YOU HAVE TO PLAN.  You can’t show up at the end of undergrad with a 2.0 GPA, not having taken biochemistry, and think, “Ah, I’ll just pop into vet school next year.”  The earlier you prepare, I believe the better off you will be.  Failing to plan is planning to fail.

How to Choose a Specialty

Photo by Artur Tumasjan on Unsplash

I am often surprised by the specialties that people pursue, and how contented they are once they make their choice.  One faculty I know is a hard-core researcher, but started out life just helping to do research here-and-there.  Twenty years later, he’s a research professor without a PhD.  You would think it would be a deliberate decision, where they weigh the pros and cons and talk to mentors and friends and family.  In my experience, that is not the case.  

Most people seem to choose their specialty on their “gut”.  Sometimes they’ll have reasons for the choice, but it’s difficult to know if those are post-hoc rationalizations made to justify the decision or actual, genuine, well-thought-out reasons.  Understanding that most people probably won’t make a rational decision, here are some things I think you should consider when choosing a specialty.

  • Client contact.  How much do you want to interact with clients?  If the answer is “zero”, lab animal, pathology, anesthesia, and microbiology come to mind.  However, even that is a blithe answer.  In fact, pathology, anesthesia and microbiology’s clients are the other services and lab animal’s clients are researchers.  Everyone always answers to someone.  The advantage, from my point of view, is that your clients are well-educated, knowledgeable people.  If the answer is “I want my clients to love me!”, oncology comes immediately to mind.
  • Nature of busyness.  Everyone’s busy, everyone feels overworked.  So what’s the TYPE of busyness you like?  Would you rather have five referring veterinarians waiting for a consult call (internal medicine) or be harried trying to gather enough staff to help with a C-section (therio)?  Do you want to be go-go-go all day on a variety of different things (almost all), or be able to focus on one thing for a stretch of time (surgery)?  Do you want to have five reports to write up (pathology) or five student SOAPs to review (almost all)?  How do you handle stress, how do you like to work, and how do you want your day to run?  The discipline decides a lot of this.
  • Academia or private practice.  Most specialties can do either, but the relative proportion may differ.  For example, most anesthesiologists are still in academia, and most surgeons are in private practice.  For some disciplines, the choice may be between industry and academia (pathology, microbiology).  As a broad rule of thumb, academia is more likely to have more different specialists than private practice.
  • Brain vs. technical skills.  How much do you want to use your hands versus think about things?  Obviously, all disciplines have both, but the relative proportion differs.  In anesthesia, we have regional nerve blocks and catheter placement, but mostly use cognitive skills to handle problems.  In surgery, the majority of the problems are solved with surgery, which required significant psychomotor skills.  If you prefer to sit and think about things, internal medicine and E/CC may be good.
  • Salary.  Let’s be honest, a radiologist in private practice is going to make more than an equine internist.  If you have significant debts or other financial obligations, this may affect your decision.  We have this idea in America that you should follow your passion and, in general, I agree with that.  But, if you have alimony payments or want to buy a new BMW every two years, you may want to consider more lucrative disciplines.
  • Work/life balance.  Some disciplines have a lot of on-call.  Some require you to come in on the weekends.  Some you can do part-time from home.  I have done many a 2 am Sunday night/Monday morning colic to start my week off.  I can’t leave the town where I work for about half of the year because I am on backup call.  But I don’t have to go in every Saturday morning to examine hospitalized patients.  Each discipline has its own trade-offs with work/life balance.  Learn about them before deciding.

These are the most important things I can think of when you are deciding on a specialty.  At the end of the day, I believe you can be happy doing many different paths.  Don’t get too focused on a single discipline.

Book Review: Teach Students How to Learn

I acquired Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation by Saundra Yancy McGuire in a burst of purchasing designed to improve my own pedagogical approach.  It was recommended to me by someone I feel is a good educator, and then it sat on my shelf for a while until I had more time for professional reading.  My overall impression is: this was a fantastic book. I think it should be given free to every entering undergraduate student.

To be honest, the first three chapters read like some get-rich-quick scheme.  Numerous anecdotes along the lines of, “see this student’s scores go from 30% to 90%!” did not impress me.  I wish they had skipped all of that, assumed the reader was actually interested in the subject, and moved on.  I suspect these were included to engage those who were skeptical or who had randomly picked up the book without knowing what they were getting in to.  If you buy the book, just skip these chapters.

Chapter 4 finally starts to get into some useful tips and strategies.  This chapter suggests introducing students to Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I’ve been doing this for years and can wholeheartedly agree with this recommendation.  If you want students to be analytical, you need to explain to them the difference between knowledge and analysis, and Bloom’s Taxonomy is an easy way to do this.  I’m always surprised that people don’t know about Bloom’s.  Take the time to learn about it or, if you’re an educator, share it with your students.

Chapter 5 carries a heavy burden: covering 10 metacognitive strategies students can use to improve their knowledge of a subject.  They are generally straightforward, although I know vet students will balk at some of them, notably the reading strategies.  Nonetheless, I think they may be useful for some students.

Chapter 6 addresses a topic I have discussed before: having a growth mindset.  The short version is: if you have a growth mindset, you will grow, if you have a fixed mindset, you will not.

Chapter 7 looks at the relationship between mind, body, motivations, and learning.  It’s important to realize that the teacher has a significant impact on student motivation.  If the teacher BELIEVES the student can succeed, the student is more likely to succeed.  It requires an emotional belief on the part of both teacher and student.

Chapter 8 is probably my favorite since it provides 21 specific strategies for teachers to improve engagement, motivation, and learning.  I have used many of these but discovered a few I had not heard about, such as discussing the growth mindset with students and giving students easier assessments earlier to build their confidence.

Chapter 9 is aimed at students and what they can do to affect their success.  It recontextualizes the previous chapters from the perspective of the student.  

Chapter 10 covers using your campus learning center.  This is interesting but not as useful for veterinary students- most of them are already reasonably competent students and getting onto the main campus during regular business hours can be difficult.  

Chapter 11 expands teaching strategies to groups, mostly by using a canned 50-minute Powerpoint presentation and discussion the author provides for readers.  Some data is presented here from a couple of studies, but it is obvious that much more research is needed to validate these strategies.  

Chapter 12 deals with unprepared problem students, who, again, are not usually a problem in veterinary medicine.

The Appendices are terrific, summarizing the strategies described throughout for a quick-reference guide, as well as providing all of the slides for the 50-minute presentation for the students.

Overall, this was a fantastic book.  I think it should be given free to every entering undergraduate student.  Most vet students have probably figured out some of these strategies, but I think almost any vet student would benefit from learning more of them from this book.  I also think any new faculty should be given a copy of this book so they can enhance their teaching skills and understand their students better.  If you are a student or a teacher, you should absolutely buy this.  A terrific resource that WILL make you a better student or teacher if you apply the lessons from it.

Don’t Send a Weird Application

Once again, I wish I didn’t have to write this post.  But I have seen these applications, so, evidently, people believe they are a good idea.  So here it is: Don’t do anything weird in your application.

What constitutes “weird”?  This encompasses a broad range of… let’s call them “unique” decisions.  Below are some examples.

Don’t include a page of your woodworking activities.  This is an application we received and the evaluators looked over with amazement.  Three of the evaluators said, “No.” One said, “I dunno, they seem like they might be an interesting, unique person.”  When in doubt, aim for zero.

Don’t include a copy of your black belt certificate.  This can be a single line on your CV under outside activities, but no one needs or wants official documentation of this achievement. 

Why are these examples ‘weird’? They are atypical for veterinary medicine. If you are interested in joining this profession (or more advanced education and specializing), you need to indicate you have a knowledge of the profession and what it means to be a professional. You can do whatever you want on your own time. But, when you are at school or work, you are expected to be a professional. Acting like one in your application is an important step.

You may think It is relevant to the position. However, sending it marks you as someone who does not know the social conventions of veterinary medicine.  Is such a person going to be good working with other veterinary academics? Maybe, but it’s risky- why chance it when there are so many other good candidates?

And therein lies the rub.  The problem with “weird” applications ISN’T that they highlight your personality or unique characteristics of what you can bring to a position.  The problem is that they indicate you do not have appropriate social awareness of what this profession does, is about, or finds acceptable. That lack of awareness indicates that you Probably Aren’t One Of Us.  So… just…. Don’t. If you’re unsure, ask your mentors, don’t go off the rails doing your own thing.

How to Identify a Bad Faculty Position

Let’s be clear at the outset: if I knew the answer to this question, I could be a millionaire.  Untold numbers of consultants with MBAs try to answer this in the business world all the time and fail.  There is no iron-clad way to make sure that the job you are about to take is bad. However, there are some important warning flags you can look out for.

1) Leadership.  This may be the only real variable to consider.  If the Dean and other administrators are RFHBs, it will probably be a good place to work.  If they have a narcissistic personality disorder, it will not. Unfortunately, our culture tends to promote those who are narcissists and control freaks and otherwise have unhealthy management strategies.  I believe identifying if the leadership is narcissistic or otherwise unhealthy is the first step. Doing so is beyond the scope of this post- there are resources online you can refer to.

2) Promotion & Tenure (P&T) success.  Most P&T documents are deliberately vague to allow a wide variety of professional paths to be successful.  That’s fine, as long as they are consistently applied. It may be worthwhile to ask how many faculty in the past 5 years have failed their P&T step.  If it’s more than one, that may indicate a problem.

3) Unhappy faculty.  My spouse went on an interview once and, when alone with one of the faculty members, that faculty member said, “Don’t come here.  They overwork us and don’t respect us.” WOW! Obviously, if you get that, don’t work at that institution. But faculty members will rarely say that outright, so you need to infer it.  Do they enjoy their jobs and coming to work each day? If a non-zero number do not enjoy their job, what makes you think you will?

4) The focus.  Where is the focus of administration?  Is it on making money? Getting as many cases in the door as possible, or as much indirect costs from research as possible?  Or is it on student education, making a quality program, and nurturing new faculty? One of these scenarios would be a bad place to work, another a good place.  During one interview I had, the topic of external funding and indirect costs and publishing in top tier journals came up more than once. I publish a lot, but I don’t get a lot of extramural funding, nor do most clinician-scientists in vet med.  That institution didn’t seem to be a good fit for me.

5) Authenticity.  Do you get the sense in discussions that you aren’t getting the whole or actual message?  Do you feel people are holding back their true feelings? When we’re recruiting, we try to put a positive spin on things, but people at the institution shouldn’t lie.  When one candidate asked me, “So I hear there’s a tornado issue here?” I replied, “You are absolutely right. It is kind of scary.” That’s it. There was no positive spin, and I didn’t dismiss the concern.  If I had said, “Oh it’s not really an issue,” that would have been untrue, so I couldn’t be authentic to myself or the candidate. In contrast, at an interview I went on, I asked something and the people in the room all looked at each other and then prevaricated.  That was a warning sign they couldn’t be authentic.

The vast majority of veterinary schools are just fine places to work.  There are some problem institutions. For better or worse, in such a small community like vet med, people are rarely willing to call out those problem institutions.  It is left to the interviewee to try to identify them. I think the above points are the ones most relevant for identifying truly bad programs.

What else do you think we can look for to identify bad programs?  Add to the comments below!