Category Archives: Resident Applicant

Should you Do a 4-Year Residency?

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

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

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

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

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

How to do Proper Interview Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

Doing the Best Phone Interview

The Vetducator - Michael Scott from The office talks on the phone.  Don't do it like him.

By The Pharmducator

The last time I did a phone interview I was a senior vet student applying for internships.  Therefore, I do not have the experience with this format that I do with any other. However, my significant other has been interviewing like a fiend for the past 6 months and has done numerous phone interviews.  I have called her in to offer her experience and expertise to give you, our reader, the best information available.

This is the Pharmducator. Which is my way of saying that I’m The Vetducator’s spouse and my field of expertise is pharmacy, not vet med. I was asked me to write this post because he has very little experience with phone interviews, whereas I have been interviewed by phone many times during my one-year (in total) full time job search experience.

In reading this post, it’s important to understand that I HATE speaking on the telephone. I can’t tell you exactly why, but texting/emailing/in-person conversations have always been my vast preference for communication. However, when your entire job is to find a job (or internship/residency/vet school acceptance), you put up with a lot of anxieties.  Here’s what my experiences have taught me about phone interviews:

Environment: In a lot of ways, phone interviews can be easier than video interviews. You can do them in your pajamas, without removing all of your questionable artwork from the walls, in any kind of lighting set-up. You should, however, plan to be in as quiet a space as possible. If I’m at home, I’ll usually do a phone interview in my bedroom with the door closed so the cats won’t decide that they need attention halfway through my conversation. If you schedule a time during work or school, find a similarly private space. I shared an office for my most recent position, so I couldn’t guarantee I would be alone for my interview. I wound up in my lab, since I knew no one would need that space during my scheduled time. Obviously, you should make sure your phone is fully charged or can be connected to your charger if necessary. I wouldn’t recommend using speakerphone, as the sound quality is often quite poor. If you have access to a good-quality landline, that may be your best bet.

Preparation: Phone interviews typically last around half-an-hour; I’ve only done one or two that lasted close to an hour. The institution may have a hard-and-fast time limit; that is, it’s possible your time is absolutely up once that 30 minutes elapses. Some may allow for more time, but be prepared to be concise in your questions as well as your answers. Sometimes the sound quality on the other end may be compromised, so get used to the idea that you may need to ask people to repeat themselves. If you’re provided with the names of the people who will be on the call, research them ahead of time and tailor your questions or answers accordingly.

Format: Phone interviews are usually part of the screening process for candidates. The institution usually has some set questions, either from the individuals on the call or mandated by the institution. This is why it’s important to be concise in your answers; your caller(s) may have to ask you these exact eight questions, and, if you spend five minutes on each answer, the callers may be late for their next interview or class, or you may not be asked the question that’s going to prove you’re the best candidate on their list. Listen carefully to what you’re told regarding the format and be mindful of the time you have.

Aside from that, all the same preparation rules for interviews apply: look up the institution, know as much as possible about the position, and have questions prepared. Post in the comments if you have questions that I haven’t covered here!

Should you do a Residency?

The Vetducator - deciding on doing a residency.
Photo by Paola Chaaya on Unsplash

The residency is the path to specialization.  There are a handful of veterinary specialties you can earn without a residency, but, for the vast majority, a 2-4 year residency is the only path to specialization.  So, really, the question of doing a residency is: Should you be a specialist? Obviously this is a question you need to answer for yourself, but here are some considerations which may help.

Timing.  There are many paths to being a specialist, but the most common is straight from vet school to residency (pathology, lab animal medicine specialties), or from internship to residency (for most others).  Some people may be tempted to go into practice first, and then go to a residency. While possible (and even successful for some specialties- like radiology), read the post about taking time off before deciding on this path- it will be harder than a more traditional path.

Salary.  Most, but not all, specialists make more, sometimes considerably more, than general practitioners.  If you have chronic health issues or family obligations, you may be able to take care of them more easily as a specialist.  Otherwise, the salary shouldn’t factor into your decision-making.

Academia.  Although some universities are figuring out they should hire general practice vets to train general practice-bound students, the vast, vast majority of faculty are still specialists.  If you want to go into academic veterinary medicine, becoming a specialist is really your best bet. And academia is pretty great!

Expertise.  In a study we did interviewing senior veterinary students, those interested in specializing expressed the desire to be considered experts and sought after for their knowledge.  As a general practitioner, you become more knowledgeable and proficient in a wide variety of domains. As a specialist, you become an expert in a single field. Both can be intellectually rewarding, but if you want the social status that comes with being The Expert, becoming a specialist is an easy path to that regard.

Time.  Do you want to spend 2-4 more years of your life on your education?  Or do you need to get on with things? This depends on your own life situation, probably largely determined by your family life.  Along with this is the reduced income you will have as a resident relative to entering general practice. This is only relevant during the residency, though, as your salary will be much higher once you are done.

Flexibility.  As a specialist, there will be fewer places in the country you can work.  General practitioners are needed even in very small towns, but Americus, GA, does not need a board-certified veterinary surgeon.  In general, as a specialist, you will work at a university or in a private practice in at least a small city.

Dedication.  As a resident you will work long hours for little thanks and little pay.  Can you suffer through that? Are you OK being treated as a minion for more time in your life?  It is physically and psychologically tiring, so you have to be dedicated to the pursuit or you will be miserable.

There are a lot of great reasons to do a residency, but it is not without cost, and it is absolutely not for everyone.  Talk to your friends, your family, and your mentors. It’s a difficult, but important, decision.

How to Successfully Seek Assistance

The Vetducator - Be smart enough to know when you need help and brave enough to ask for it.

Do you have a hard time asking for help?  Talking to people? There are a lot of veterinary professionals out there who have a hard time with both of these.  Veterinarians are notoriously self-reliant and independent. Imagine the early days with the lone vet out there on house calls- you didn’t have a cell phone to call for a consult, you had to Figure It Out.  It’s built into the very bones of our profession. I think this must be why I see so many applications and interviews where the individual clearly didn’t ask for help, and it reflects in their work. Faculty are easy resources- they are being paid to teach you, after all.  You must ask for help. We’ll see why and how in this post.

Why you need help

1) This is a high-stakes event.  If you are applying to vet school, internships, or residencies, there are MANY others also applying for these positions.  At UGA we would routinely have 200 applicants for six intern positions, and I heard from a friend this year they had 190 applicants for a one surgery residency position.  You need the best possible application and interview in order to stand out from the crowd and secure a position.

2) You are not an expert at career progression through veterinary academia.  Heck, you’re barely a novice. It would be like someone with no training getting into a boxing ring- you’re going to get hurt.  You haven’t been through this process, so you don’t have the experience. You haven’t mentored others, so you don’t have the perspective.  Mentors and even peers can provide this experience and perspective.

3) I have evidence you need help.  I read materials all the time and think, “Did they even show this to their mother?!?”  Simple typos, bizarre sentences, odd flows of logic- all of these would be identified and helped by an outside observer.  Many applicants could dramatically improve their application and interview skills by working with mentors.

How to ask for help

First of all, don’t just limit your editors to faculty with whom you have had a long-standing relationship.  If they have supervised you on a clinical rotation, or even in a didactic course, you can ask for their help.  It’s possible you won’t get a response or will get a ‘no’, but remember: most faculty are there because of the students.  They WANT to help you, you just have to ask!

1) Ask in person.  This is usually whenever you see or interact with the faculty member.  You can also swing by their office. It’s not hard, just say, “Hey Dr. X, I’m applying for ThisKindOfPosition, would you be able and willing to give me some help with my application?”  That’s it! So simple! As always, if you get a ‘yes’, follow up with email.

2) Ask by email.  This requires less timing to figure out- you can send it at any time.  It is slightly less personal, though. Particularly if you don’t have a strong relationship with your mentor, email may be a little too impersonal.  They may not remember working with you and you may get somewhat tepid assistance if they don’t know you well. If you choose to email, take a similar tack to in-person: a short email along the lines of, “Hello Dr. X, I am applying for ThisKindOfPosition this <timeframe> and was wondering if you would be able and willing to provide advice on the process and look over my materials?  Any help you can give would be appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you so much!”

Now you know why and how.  Go out there and get help! What obstacles do you experience in seeking out help with your career?

Making the Most of a Residency Interview

The Vetducator - residency interview image.

Your application is compelling enough for a program to spend the time interviewing you- congratulations!  Many residency programs conduct interviews, and it can be a significant variable in the decision making. Sometimes these are by phone, sometimes by video, and sometimes in person.  Obviously, you should follow the general guidelines for each of those interview types as well as prepare so you can present your best self. More specifically, here’s how to make the most of your residency interview experience.

This is not only a chance for them to learn about you but for you to learn about them.  If you get matched for a program but will be miserable, you may not finish. Every year there are residents who drop out of their long-dreamed-of specialty because the program wasn’t a good fit for them.  You need to make sure this is somewhere you can be happy for three or four years. Here are some questions to ask the program directors or existing residents to help you decide:

Both program directors and existing residents:

  • What’s it like to live here?  What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it?
  • What are the students/interns like?  What are the interaction with them and the residents?
  • What are the responsibilities of the residents?  Do they do general ER duties or call or only do specialty emergency duties?
  • What is the interaction with other specialties like?
  • What is the strategy for ensuring residents successfully complete a research project?  Are there opportunities to do more than the required project?
  • Are there opportunities or requirements to teach in lab or classroom or rounds room?  What kind of support is available to help nurture resident teaching skills?
  • If you could change anything about the program, what would it be?

Program directors:

  • What do you do to ensure resident success?
  • What are the plans for program improvements?
  • What have you learned from previous residents that has caused you to change the program?

Existing residents:

  • What have been your challenges with this program?  What did you like about it?
  • Would you have chosen this program if you knew then what you knew now?
  • What would you change about this program?

Asking incisive questions will ensure that the program knows you are serious and engaged.  What else can you do to impress them during your short interview time? Remember, their goal is to determine if you will be successful in their program.  You want to assure them you are competent, dedicated, and enthusiastic.

You need to have examples from your experience that demonstrate your best characteristics.  Are you willing to come in odd hours- tell a story during your clinical year or internship when you did and had a great time.  One of my best days in vet school was 22 hours long and started with a hemilaminectomy and ended with a GDV. The resident on duty said excitedly, “Well, what else would we be doing on a Friday night?” and I was in enthusiastic agreement.  Just saying, “Yes I work hard and I would love to be your resident” is not enough. Demonstrate you have those characteristics with stories.

Each residency program is different, but characteristics that are generally looked for include (in no particular order): curiosity, willingness to work hard and long hours (no laziness or cutting corners), detail oriented, compassionate, humble, teachable and willing to accept and use feedback/criticism, able to handle setbacks, good at managing stress, pleasant to work with/positive, ethical, good critical thinking skills, knowledgeable, effective at communication, enthusiastic, dedicated, and cooperative and helpful.

The residency interview is a difficult experience to navigate.  You need to get information to make sure you would be happy there while assuring them you would be happy there and a great catch for them in a very short amount of time.  Have a plan ahead of time. If you fumble asking questions or coming up with examples of how you’re awesome, you’re sunk. It’s a fairly high stakes experience. You spent undergrad, vet school, and maybe an internship to get here.  You can’t just hope it will work out. You must prepare.