Category Archives: Vet School Applicant

What to Get Out of Doing Research Work as an Undergrad

You want to go to vet school, you want to maximize your chances, and doing research may help your application.  It isn’t the research, per se, which will help. It is the relationships- mostly with your mentor- and the demonstration of grit that doing research highlights.

Participating in research while an undergrad is a wonderful activity.  You get exposed to the process of scientific inquiry, and maybe that becomes exciting for you.  You get to work one-on-one with a faculty member who can write an excellent letter of recommendation. And you get to demonstrate your willingness to stick to a project to the end- an essential characteristic of any vet student.  Let’s break them down.

1) You get exposed to research.  Hey, you know what? Vet school isn’t for everyone.  Maybe you would be equally fulfilled doing a PhD in biochemistry, and avoiding the mountain of student debt that awaits veterinarians.  Maybe you enjoy doing research but still want to be a vet- so maybe academia would be a good fit for you. Maybe you have a bad experience and decide research sucks.  In any event, getting exposure to this essential domain of veterinary medicine will benefit you.

2) Develop relationships.  I have written countless letters of recommendation for my research students.  Some of them said, “Yeah, this person is fine” and some of them said, “OMG you must take this person they are the best thing since sliced bread!”  Obviously you want to be in the latter group, and working closely with a faculty member can set you up for an excellent letter of recommendation. When you decide to pursue research, make sure you aren’t working for a postdoc; you want the faculty to write you an excellent letter of recommendation.

3) Grit.  Completing a research project- even if you are a cog in the wheel of some post-doc’s 5-year project- demonstrates some level of grit.  I have had students who flamed out after a semester, having never started data collection. I have had others who have two peer-reviewed journal publications to their name.  Which do you think is a better vet school candidate? Finishing a project demonstrates that you can see a project through, which is incredibly important in vet school.

Not everyone should do research during their undergrad years.  If you are struggling academically, you need to double down on your core courses and not get sucked into a 15-hour-a-week research project.  If you’re not intellectually curious, or just want to do the bare minimum, avoid research, because your mentors will expect you to be curious and perform.  If you just want a line on your CV but don’t care about the work, please don’t burden some beleaguered faculty with your poor attitude.

If you can do research during your undergrad time, do so.  You will find out important things about yourself and maybe buff up your application.  You may develop relationships with mentors who will propel your career. Most of all, you will find out if something academic or research-oriented is a path in which you are interested.  And from there the sky’s the limit.

How to Create the Best Vet School Application CV

The Vetducator - CV image for vet school.

The vet school application CV is not a tremendous make-or-break piece of the application.  The bar is set pretty low- you’ve probably never made a CV before, and evaluators understand that.  However, if you do make a great-looking CV, it may get slightly more notice. That slight notice may be enough to bump your application into the ‘accept’ pile.  So it is worth spending some time on. Here are some guidelines which will help your CV pop.

There is no page limit. CVs do not have a page limit.  Many vet school applicants don’t understand the difference between a resume (which should be 1-2 pages) and a CV (which can be infinite) and try to cram everything on to one page.  Use some white space, include more details. The CV is an exhaustive description of every work-related thing you have done.

Judicious job descriptions.  In veterinary medicine, we generally do not include job descriptions.  I know what a technician or an animal assistant or a kennel worker does.  However, in undergrad you may have pursued some out-of-discipline activities which are valuable experiences.  For example, I don’t really know what a home healthcare provider does. In these cases, you can include a SHORT description of responsibilities.

Reverse chronological order.  Start with the most recent activities in each heading first, then work your way towards older things.  Make sure the formatting is consistent. If you have dates on the left hand for your education, use dates on the left hand throughout.

Emphasize important points.   If you have an important role in a club, like President, highlight that with italics or bold or underline or set it apart somehow.  You want to bring attention to important information. Don’t overuse this, though, or the CV will be too cluttered and difficult to track.

Order according to importance.  For vet school applicants, this will be education, experience, awards, clubs, and references.  You may also have sections for research/publications and teaching. If you have research or teaching experience- even if it is outside the domain of veterinary medicine or even academia- include it.  If you taught ballet in your high school years for 5 years, that reflects a level of maturity and responsibility, which are key qualities for a good veterinarian.

Include extracurricular activities.  For vet school applicants, I think this section is particularly important.  All of the applicants are smart, but a good veterinarian needs good communication skills.  Did you hole up in your apartment and study constantly? You may not be the best vet school material.  Demonstrate that you can relate to other human beings.

Keep it clean.  Use lots of white space.  Use clear section headings.  I use a template from Word and recommend you browse through some templates to find one you like.  Keep the dates clearly separate from the text. Examples below.

Less Clean:

2018        President, Campus Campaign to Reduce Waste in Dining Halls

References
Dr. Jo Smith, Veterinarian, 1033 This Place Rd, Columbus OH 43035
Dr. Harry Applegate, Owner, Best Friends Vet Clinic, Tempe AZ 85284

Cleaner:

2018        President, Campus Campaign to Reduce Waste in Dining Halls

References

Dr. Jo Smith
Veterinarian
1033 This Place Rd
Columbus, OH 43035

Dr. Harry Applegate
Owner
Best Friends Vet Clinic
Tempe, AZ 85284

Just having a nicely formatted, thorough, and easy to ready CV will not guarantee you a spot in vet school.  However, if you have qualifications identical to another applicant, and your CV looks like you have spent time on it and made it look as professional as possible, and the other applicant just slapped together a CV without doing any research, which do you think the evaluators will choose?  Me, too.

Please Use Commas

I was reading some residency application letters and my head was almost exploding.  Everyone has their “thing”, and maybe I have more than most, but I am passionate about appropriate comma placement.  I wouldn’t sink an application for poor comma use, but it just grates on me, and why would you want to irritate the people who may make your professional dreams come true?  I am not a grammar nut and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of rules- those you can find elsewhere.  

The most common error I see in letters of application is not using the comma as a pause.  The most bothersome absent comma is the one needed to create an appropriate rhythm to the sentence.  Here are some examples. Say the one without the comma out loud. When you say that sentence, isn’t there a natural pause?  That pause is where a comma goes.

No commaAppropriate comma
As a student I worked with a faculty on a special project.As a student, I worked with a faculty on a special project
No I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.No, I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.
I did some research and did a RAVS trip.I did some research, and did a RAVS trip.
When I did an externship in Costa Rica I experienced the connection between people animals and the environment.When I did an externship in Costa Rica, I experienced the connection between people, animals, and the environment.
When I saw my first case a 5-year-old GSD I realized this was real.When I saw my first case, a 5-year-old GSD, I realized this was real.
Fortunately I was able to work with great mentors.Fortunately, I was able to work with great mentors.

I could go on.  My point is you should pay attention to this.  It doesn’t mean you’re a monster, but it does make me question your attention to detail.  If your letter of intent has these kinds of simple flaws, will you have the attention to detail needed for good records or research?  Be detail-oriented in your written materials. And please, PLEASE have other people read and edit your letters!

Why You Need an Elevator Speech and How to Make a Great One

How do you sum up everything that you are and do professionally in a short span of time?  This is the premise of the elevator speech- a few lines of dialogue which encapsulate your professional experience, approach, and future.  We don’t use them often in veterinary medicine, but I think it’s useful to have one ready. Let’s look at who the elevator speech is for, some uses for the elevator speech, and how to make a great one.

Use #1 – Talking with non-veterinary types.  Although most of the people you engage with during an interview are in the veterinary field, you may encounter some who are not.  Maybe you have a meeting with a Senior VP (for higher-level positions), maybe you have time with a basic sciences researcher or someone from a different college.  These people need a purchase to stand on and enter a conversation. Your elevator speech gives them a starting point.

Use #2 – You may get asked regardless.  Particularly in larger group interviews, you may get asked to give a quick summary of what you do.  Hopefully, everyone has read your CV and letter, but those don’t necessarily answer this question. If you don’t have an answer prepared, you can flail around looking for an answer.  This question may come up as, “Do tell us about yourself” or “I’ve read your CV- give me some insight into your overall approach.”

Use #3 – Priming your brain.  Similar to a mission statement, having an elevator speech helps to crystalize what you do and why you do it.  This can inform any professional interaction you have, even if you don’t actually say your elevator speech.  You can refer back to it and ask, “Is this still true? Do I want it to be?” You can even ask, “How would this project fit into my image of myself, given my elevator speech?”

Now that we’ve decided it’s useful, let’s work on crafting one.  Here are the few short, sweet suggestions:

1) The most important rule is to keep it short.  One to three sentences- what you could say to someone as you ride an elevator to the next floor.

2) Give some context for who you are now and what you do.

3) Provide an example.

4) Make a conclusion.  Or not. I like to leave the ending opening for a question.  You can see that in my elevator speech:

“I’m The Vetducator, I’m a Professor of Veterinary Anesthesia at the University of Wherever.  I look for improvements in systems- teaching, research, service, policies- using an evidence-based approach.  For example, I measured how students performed on quizzes of varying length over the years to arrive at the best amount of time to balance efficiency with student performance.”

Let’s look at how it hits the four points above:

1. It’s short- 3 sentences.  It takes about 18 seconds to verbalize.  2. The context is I work at this place in this role.  Since people may not know what a professor of anesthesia does, I expanded on what I do on a fundamental level.  Saying “I anesthetize pets and research animals” doesn’t add much to “I’m a veterinary anesthesiologist.” Also, it doesn’t really encapsulate my whole professional approach and philosophy.  3. There’s an example of my research. 4. I don’t give a conclusion because I want to leave them with something to ask. Hopefully, this gives the other person an easy next step in the conversation: “What did you find in your study?”

My wife’s is: “I’m The Pharmducator; I’m a PharmD and PhD at the University of Wherever. I teach pharmacy and other healthcare topics and I research natural products. The project most people are most interested in is my research on the phenolic and antioxidant content of craft beer and its ability to inhibit some of the processes by which diabetic complications arise.”

Let’s look at how it hits the four points above:

1. It’s short- 3 sentences.  It takes about 16 seconds to verbalize.  2. The context includes her degrees, which is important- she can do both clinical and basic sciences work.  She specifies what exactly in pharmacy she does. 3. She gives an interesting publication. 4. She doesn’t include a conclusion, but beer and science are always intriguing to people, so giving them an example, which will make them curious, leads them to asking about it.

The elevator speech is not often found in veterinary medicine, but I think it’s a good tool to have ready, just in case.  I believe it also helps to cement what you are interested in professionally, which can affect your global thinking.

How to Choose a Veterinary School

The Vetducator image of vet school debt and satisfaction with value.

It’s the culmination of your lifelong dream- you are finally applying to vet school!  Congratulations! It is an exciting and scary time. You are starting to make substantial decisions which will affect your life and career.  Some people may fret over where to apply to vet school. Fortunately, it’s a surprisingly simple decision-making matrix.

Is there a state school where you live?  If yes, apply there. You do not want to pay more for your educational than absolutely necessary.  Your in-state school is probably the least expensive option.

If there is not a state school, does your state participate in a cooperative program with another vet school, such as Delaware with Georgia or WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher education) with several western schools?  If yes, apply to the associated school.

Is there something odd about your application that may make it difficult to get into your state school?  If yes, you may apply to out-of-state schools, private schools, and overseas schools. Realize that the tremendous financial cost of these options may be a monkey on your back for most of your life.

That’s it.  There’s no consideration of ranking.  You know what they call the person who graduated from the bottom-ranked school in the country?  “Doctor”. You can get a good education anywhere and you can get a bad education anywhere- it is up to the individual student.  This isn’t law or politics. Your employer will not care from where you graduated. Keep your costs down. Graduate debt-free if possible.  Then enjoy your full, free life.

Should I Send a Thank You Note?

The Vetducator thank you note for interviews.

Interviews are tiring events for everyone.  The interviewee has to be ‘on’ all the time.  But the interviewers are taking time out of their busy schedule to meet with you.  Academics always feel overwhelmed and time-stressed. Staff are often underappreciated.  Thank you notes acknowledge the time and energy dedicated to your interview.

Should I Send Thank You Notes?  Yes.  You won’t be cut from the shortlist for not sending a thank you.  But you DO appreciate people’s time, don’t you? Why not show it? This reflects a level of class and professionalism.  Who wouldn’t want to hire the classiest, most professional applicant?

Should I Send a Thank You Note to Staff?  Yes. I always send a thank you note to the staff who helped arrange the interview.  I have gotten reports from my admin during faculty interviews ranging from, “She seemed really nice.  She asked me questions and was interested in the area” to “We drove in silence the whole way.” Staff can subtly alter the perception of your visit- let them know their hard work is appreciated.

Should I Send a Thank You Note to Faculty?  Maybe. I recommend sending one to anyone you spent a significant amount of time with.  These will be the individuals who directly interviewed you. If you had a large session with 20 faculty for an hour, I wouldn’t send a note to all of them.  But if you had lunch with 2 faculty, a note to each is suggested.

Should I Send a Thank You Note to the Hiring Managers/Committee?  Yes. If applying for an internship/residency/faculty position, you should send thank you notes to the decision-makers.  For faculty positions, this is the search committee and the department chair, possibly to include the Dean. For internship/residency positions, this is whomever is in charge of those programs, assuming you met with them (Intern Training Committee, group of specialists for residencies, etc.).

What Should I Say?  I recommend personalizing each note as much as possible.  If you can remember a specific topic discussed with that person, mention it in the note.  If not, you can make it generic. It does not need to be long- 3 sentences are plenty. Begin with “Dear Title Lastname,” and end with “Salutation, Yourfirstname Yourlastname”.  Do not use your title in your salutation. Respectfully, sincerely, with thanks, and regards are all good salutations.

What Form Should the Note Take?  This is up to personal opinion so I will not be prohibitive here.  Your options are email and a physical thank you card. I personally prefer to send a physical thank you card, but an email in this day and age is acceptable.  I feel a physical thank you card is a little classier and more consistent with my professional image- I am a little bit old school and a little bit formal. It can also be hard to find email addresses for some individuals.  If you are concerned about a physical card arriving after the decision-making group meets, an email may be preferable. Decisions are rarely made less than a week after an interview, though, giving plenty of time for a physical note to arrive.

What Happens if I Don’t Send a Thank You Note?  Probably nothing. For vet school, those who interview you may not be on the selection committee.  In this case, after the interview is over, they have no say in your selection. For internships, residencies, and faculty positions, those who participate in interviews will probably have varying levels of influence on any hiring decisions.  I’ve never heard anyone say, “Well, that person didn’t send a thank you note, so I think we should put them lower.”

Does a thank you letter change them from a “no” vote to a “yes” vote?  Unlikely. In the event of two equally qualified candidates, does getting a thank you letter cause them to vote slightly higher for that candidate?  Possibly. It is a very low-cost action to take which may ever so slightly improve your chances of success. Why not send a thank you note?

Words of Caution for the Aspiring Vet Student

The Vetducator - caution for vet school applicants and aspirants.

Being a veterinarian is a lifelong dream for many.  Animals are such an emotional part of so many lives when growing up, it’s natural that children want to get a job where they can help animals.  For many, that seed is planted deep and grows, consuming their life’s direction and passion. For others, being a vet seems like a neat idea, just one of many possible professional paths.  Your motivations for going to vet school don’t matter nearly so much as how content you will be with the decision. This is The Vetducator’s What You Should Know About Vet School Before you Apply.

  1. You will work extremely hard.  If hard work and learning isn’t your thing, find a different path.  Some students fail veterinary school. How is it possible, since we’re picking the top students?  Simple: undergrad and even grad school do not prepare you for vet school. Some people can’t handle the time and intellectual pressure.
  2. When it comes to the social dynamics of vet school, vet school is high school.  You will be with the same people all day, every day, for four years. Cliques form, relationships get made and destroyed, egos are built and crushed.  If you think it’s some enlightened bastion of higher learning, think again. It’s not a reason not to go, but you should be prepared.
  3. It is incredibly expensive.  Vet school, if you plan to be a general practice veterinarian, is not a good financial investment.  Ask yourself if you could be happy doing something else. Your instinctive answer is “No! I have to be a vet to be happy!”  I believe this is extremely naive. You don’t know what will make you happy until you get there. In fact, we have very good evidence that humans adapt amazingly well to their experience.  Imagine losing your arm, or your sight- can you imagine yourself being as happy as if you had the arm or your sight? Probably not, but in studies people who experience some ‘adverse’ life changing event are just as happy as those who do not.  Think long and hard about the return on investment. And absolutely do not go to a private school for vet school. Although some of them are fantastic, you will be so incredibly in debt your happiness will be reduced because of it. If you can’t get in to your state school, find a different career.
  4. You may not have a job.  Before 2008, it was believed veterinary medicine is recession proof.  Well, the global financial collapse proved that to be wrong. I remember many years when new graduates did not have jobs by graduation.  Veterinary schools are admitting more students, and more veterinary schools are popping up all the time. The market will be flooded again and, if that aligns with an economic downturn when you graduate, what will you do?  Particularly if you are deeply in debt from going to a private school?

I am tempted to end on some warm-hearted, encouraging note, but I have to be honest with you.  Veterinarians have a high rate of suicide. We work long hours and clients scream at us for being money-grubbers who don’t care about their pets.  Serious injury from being bitten or kicked is not uncommon. You can certainly make a good life being a veterinarian, but you can also make a good life doing a lot of other things.  Academic veterinary medicine has been good to me, but I think I could have been just as happy doing, say, biochemistry. Maybe you could be, too.

How to Address People in an Interview

Earlier this week I posted a general guide for how to address future colleagues during an interview.  Here is a helpful flowchart for you to determine what forms of address to use during an interview. I tend to err on the side of formality, because no one will be even a little irritated to be called “Mr.”, “Ms.”, or “Dr.”, but there are some people who may be irked at being called “Chuck”.

The Vetducator - forms of address flowchart for interviews.

How to Not Mess Up When Addressing Future Colleagues

The Vetducator - What do I call you people image text.

You would think that rules of formality as laid down by Society would be well-known.  Indeed, this is an assumption of social rules- they are generated in the aggregate. Nonetheless, we do have experts who weigh in on these topics, like Miss Manners and Emily Post.  Our rules in medicine for interviews and applicants are slightly different than the social sciences, so I wanted to take a brief minute to go over them.

These rules are fairly consistent regardless of the form of communication.  You can apply them to any professional academic veterinary interaction- email, phone interview, video interview, or in-person interview.  You are unlikely to be corrected by anyone, and opinions on these may differ.

My general approach and advice is to be more conservative.  No one is going to look at you strangely if you address the Dean as Dean Smith.  But if you call him Chuck, it will be noticed. Maybe not enough to keep you from the short list, but when competition for a position is fierce, why not make yourself the most outstanding candidate you can?

These are in generally increasing order of conservatism:

Do you know this person personally?  Have you worked with them extensively, preferably as a peer?  If you were an intern and this person was a faculty member, unless you had a close relationship with them, go to the next level.  If you know this person and have worked with them as a peer, you may use their first name.

Is this person the Dean?  If so, they are addressed as Dean Lastname.  An exception may be made if you are interviewing for a Dean position or higher.

Otherwise, use Title Lastname.  This even goes for administrative staff.  Addressing an email to Ms. Lawrence is a nice, respectful touch.  Staff are people, too, and they appreciate being addressed by a stranger in a socially-acknowledged way.  Those with doctorates should be addressed as Dr. Lastname.

Can you be more informal than these rules dictate?  Sure. But you will never go wrong adhering to these rules in the application/interview phase of an academic position.  Once you get the position, the rules may vary depending on your position and institution. But while you are a candidate, err on the side of formality.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

The Vetducator - mentor growing pupil.

You would think this would be simple.  You need a letter of recommendation. You contact someone you think could write one for you.  You ask them to do so. Job done, right? For some reason, I continue to encounter students who do not do a good job with this step. Those students need help, and I am here to give it to you.

The academic career system is predicated on other academics vouching for you.  This process ensures that someone familiar with the position’s demands and your abilities can evaluate your preparedness for the position.  They then write an analysis of your preparedness in a letter of recommendation. Letters are ubiquitous and are variably important, depending on the position to which you are applying.  We will cover elsewhere who you approach to write for you. Here we will discuss how to approach a potential letter writer.

Once you have identified who you want to contact, you have three options: email, phone call, in person.  In all cases, the specific phrase you need to use is, “Would you be willing to write me a GOOD letter of recommendation?”  The good is important. It is often implied, but you need to make it explicit. Otherwise, you may end up with someone writing you a letter of recommendation which is not good.  It is possible even if you ask them to write a good letter that they will not. But most academics are professionals, and if they feel they cannot write you a good letter when asked explicitly, they will tell you. You have three options for initiating this request:

Email.  This is the easiest, lowest-stakes, and generally preferred method.  You have time to compose your message and consider how you want to phrase your request.  In general, you should open with the position to which you want to apply. If you have not been in contact with the person for a year or two, you may mention your current position or your interest in the new position.  The only reason not to use email is when you have an individual whom you know who does not rapidly (or ever) respond to email. Then you may need to resort to other means.

Phone Call.  This requires some preparation and timing can be problematic.  You need to reach them when they are available to listen to your spiel and are not distracted.  After the usual opening pleasantries, you can ask, “Is now a good time to chat?” If not, you may ask about a time to schedule a call.  You should have a plan for what you want to say. If it has been a while since you have been in contact, you should chit-chat about your current status and ask how things have been for them.  You can then make your request.

In Person.  This is usually done with individuals you see regularly and it is just as easy to ask in person as it is in email.  Usually you won’t need much of a lead-up, but asking, “Can I ask you something?” is a decent opener. As with other steps, explain what you are applying for and then make your ask.

For phone calls and in person asks, ALWAYS FOLLOW UP WITH EMAIL.  Send them an email reminder of your request. After you receive a “yes”, regardless of contact, make sure to send a follow up reminder a couple of weeks before the due date.  Reasonable people will find this helpful and not irritating.

What if you get a “no” response?  That’s fine, it’s better to know before they send off an unflattering letter!  Thank them and, if appropriate, you may ask their advice for whom else you could ask.  Hopefully they will give you some constructive advice and, if not, you haven’t lost anything.

Most professionals who are willing to write letters of recommendation are not scary.  It should not be an anxiety-inducing experience to ask for a letter from someone with whom you have worked.  Most professionals will be flattered. Try to be realistic about it. What’s the worst they can say? “No”, and then you know they would not be a good writer!  It’s a win-win. Be bold and respectful and everything will be fine.