Category Archives: Success

How to be Successful: Give Timelines

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

I ask my wife to do a surprising number of projects.  Occasionally research projects, but more often household ones like, “Can you figure out if Arcadia Power covers us and how to sign up with them?” and “Can you book lodging for our next trip?”  Early in our relationship, I assumed these would be done immediately, even if I didn’t need the task completed for another two weeks. Once she made it clear that it was easier for her to complete these tasks if she knew when I expected her to finish it, everything was much easier for both of us.

I started applying this principle to co-workers and anyone whom I needed a response from and it translated into a significant improvement in response rate.  Since the way I work, I respond very quickly to asks for work, I assumed everyone else prioritized their work similarly. I came to understand that many people work on the basis of deadlines- they work on projects which have the earliest deadlines first.  I still don’t quite fully understand it, but I use the principle, and I recommend you do, too.

Providing deadlines tells the recipient a few things.  One, it tells them that their input is _required_. It is easy for people to read an email and think, “Ah, well, they are asking me, but maybe it is a courtesy or just to be complete.  I don’t need to reply.” Putting a deadline indicates you need a response from everyone involved. Two, it helps people prioritize their to-do list according to what is most pressing. Three, it gives some sense of the amount of work/effort is required.  If you give a deadline by the end of the week to most academics, it should be an _extremely_ time sensitive matter or something they can answer quickly. If you give a deadline 3-6 weeks away, that suggests you want them to actually contemplate and think about the response, and give a substantive one.

I use a variety of strategies when providing deadlines.  I have the opt-out deadline, which is usually framed as, “This is what I am going to do unless I hear from anyone by X date.”  This is usually when I don’t need input from others and am including them as a courtesy, and because if they DO have strong feelings, I want to know about it.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution short-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is what I would like to send.  Please chime in with your feedback by X date.” This sends a message that I want and need their feedback. The feedback I expect to get, because of the short timeline (less than 1 week), is usually something like, “OK” or “No, I think we should make this minor change.”  This is often done at the end of a process, where I have already solicited more complex responses.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution long-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is the current draft.  Please review and provide suggestions by X date.” This date is usually the end of the month or some similar 3-6 week window.  I want and need constructive, thoughtful, cognitively complex input for this, and know that it needs to fit into others’ schedules.  Nonetheless, providing a timeline is helpful so people can put it into their own to-do list framework.

Finally, I have the opt-in optional with a very long-term deadline, which is framed as, “I know you’re busy, and I am working on this project.  Please let me know if you want to participate by X date.” That date is usually 2-6 months into the future, as this is a placeholder for a project or an attempt to determine who may be interested in a novel project.  In this case, I am not expecting much thoughtful contribution, but providing the far deadline allows me to determine who is Actually Interested and who is not. Those who are interested will reply relatively early. Those who are not interested will never reply.

Giving deadlines can be useful at all levels of your veterinary career.  Undergraduate progressing to vet school, “Dear Dr. X, here-is-a-letter-asking-you-to-write-a-letter-of-recommendation-for-me.  Please let me know if you would be able and willing to write a letter for me by (some reasonable date at least 2 weeks away).”  Veterinary student interested in an internship, “Dear Internship Director, I would love the opportunity to speak with a current intern.  Please let me know if there is someone who can talk to me by (some reasonable date).” You can ask for deadlines from people who are higher “rank” than you as long as you are respectful and reasonable with the deadline.

There are many strategies to using deadlines.  Mine would not work in corporate America, where things are more time-sensitive.  Fortunately, in academia, we are usually working with relatively long timelines. Do you like getting deadlines or not? Do they help motivate you? How do you assign deadlines differently?

How to be Successful: Be an RFHB

The other day I popped my head into a faculty member’s office to talk with them about their current struggles with some students.  The faculty member mentioned one student who was being needy and dramatic and problematic, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if they just acted like a Reasonable Fucking Human Being?”  The faculty member laughed and loved that term, because it summarizes so many important but ineffable qualities.

I can’t remember which of my friends coined this term, but it has been one of the most useful terms in my life: Reasonable Fucking Human Being (RFHB).  This is not “an amazing person” or “an incompetent asshat.”  It is not “Spock-like emotionlessness” or “perfect in every way.”  This is the baseline level at which people should be functioning. It is not a high standard.  Yet, it is amazing how often people who should know better do not meet this simple qualification.

To be an RFHB, you need to not be dramatic.  If you can’t avoid being dramatic, you at least need to be able to calm down and speak rationally.  You need to have expectations which are fair and reasonable. You need to not expect people to read your mind.  You need to treat people with a basic level of respect, because they are also soft squishy smart monkeys trying to stimulate dopamine activity on a rocky ball hurtling through the cosmos.

To be an RFHB, you can be emotional, but you need to acknowledge your emotionality.  You need to listen. You need to not interrupt. If you do interrupt someone, you need to be aware of that and apologize.  You need to present solutions and not just gripe, unless all you want is sympathy, in which case you should make that clear.  You need to think about the future and be aware of the consequences of your decisions.

To be an RFHB, you need to be compassionate.  You need to care at least a little about your fellow human beings.  You need to try to minimize suffering- not just starving children in third world countries, but with the words you use and how you deal with the people around you.  You need to trust and accept the trust that progressively builds as you interact with others. You need to understand the rules and, if you don’t accept them, be willing to accept the consequences of breaking them.

To be an RFHB, you need to look out for the ‘little guy’.  You need to support individuals against the oppression of the majority.  You need to understand privilege and not expect others to do things the way you do them.  You need to understand the relationship between work, effort, and outcome. You need to be humble and accept responsibility for your actions and work to improve as a person.

In a word: just be cool.  OK, that’s three words. It seems really really simple to me.  Just be… reasonable. That’s it. That’s the baseline. From there, you can work on being a zero.

Examples of Good Stories from Letters of Intent

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Once, I read a letter of intent from an applicant which was filled with personal, but relevant, stories.  It created a compelling narrative which I believe made them a great applicant.

That, right there, is a narrative story.  It relates an event on a personal level, rather than just relating the facts.  Another way to start this post may have been: Stories are important because mankind has used storytelling for as long as we have had language, and they create powerful engagement with a listener/reader.  Each opener works fine, but I believe the storytelling one is slightly better. You can use this same strategy in your letter of intent.

One of the most common recommendations I give to applicants as well as interviewees is: tell a story.  Relate it to your own personal experience. Behavioral interviewing regularly uses this strategy, such as: “Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult ethical decision.”  Given this recommendation, I thought it may be helpful to provide some examples of particularly good stories. These have been made anonymous and unidentifiable.

“During my time at <shop>, I worked to expand our product lines, reach out to our alumni, partner with Unseen University’s SCAVMA for mutual benefit, and move to a new location. Between the growth in available merchandise, development of a user-friendly website, increase in foot traffic, and more optimal hours – <the shop> has been able to generate revenue and continue giving back to the college.”

“When I moved to the States from Another Country, I knew very little English.  Many have told me ‘it’s impossible, you can’t do it’; but this only motivated me to push myself, and work incredibly hard to overcome these barriers and strive to pursue my goals with excellence.  Today, many are not even able to pick up on my accent and I hope to bring this ‘can-do’ attitude to your institution.”

“Working in a surgery referral practice* I had the opportunity to see firsthand the immense value added to an owner’s life when their pet’s life is saved or its quality of life is improved, and that is when I finally realized that I wanted to become a veterinarian.”

* – There should be a comma here.

“Through my unique experience pursuing an MPH, my eyes have been opened to the human influence present in veterinary medicine. This, in turn, has made me more aware of the importance in recognizing the human-animal bond and cultural influences when it comes to animal health and welfare. Teaching classes to children and adults has shaped my development as an effective communicator during my clinical year at Unseen University. It is my hope to continuing exploring this perspective at your institution.”

“I can remember the feeling of profound amazement the first time I was able to watch the motion of a beating heart during a partial lung lobectomy procedure, the frustration of a meticulously placed cortical screw giving way, the disappointment of being unable to help a critical patient, and the confusion of an atypical presentation. It seems that Murphy’s Law has a special place for veterinary medicine in its heart. These experiences provided me the opportunity to witness creative thinking when things did not go as planned, taught me that dedication to our patients, clients, and colleagues helps to ensure a smooth running machine, and demonstrated the importance of perseverance when progress seems impossible.”

“As the daughter of two veterinarians, I was exposed to both the professional and personal aspects of veterinary medicine from a young age. Working at my parents’ small animal general practice for many years showed me the emotional and mental fulfillment that comes from caring for people and their animals as well as solving medical challenges on a daily basis.”

“Recently, I externed at a large multi-specialty center and met diplomates in various disciplines as well as the current interns. This gave me a chance to get familiar with the expectations of an intern. I saw the long working hours, financial restraints and sleepless nights during internship. I see these hardships as seeds of dedication and passion that will help me bloom into a well-informed, more confident and skillful clinician. I was inspired seeing the diplomates, residents and interns working on very challenging cases. I aspire to be like them one day and hope one day to inspire others.”

What I hope you will see with all of these examples is not just a recitation of facts, but an interpretation of the experience.  “I had this happen, this is what I learned.” This is the core of storytelling- the Hero’s Journey.  You have a challenge, and you learn from it.  It’s a simple narrative but, if you can apply it to your letters, I believe they will be more compelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast Episode 8 – Dr. Jason Eberhardt

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

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.

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!

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 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.

Vetducator Dr. Waitt Podcast on a Horse

Podcast Episode 6 – Dr. Laura Waitt

Dr. Waitt and I worked together at the same institution and we met when, on her first day on the job, she jumped in to help with the anesthesia OSCE. She is also a WSU grad and a terrific person with whom to work. She has insight into the equine veterinary world which I don’t have which she shares during this episode.