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 in conflict with 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.
In this process, you may come up with motivations which you think aren’t perfectly noble, or are selfish, or you feel ashamed about. This self-reflection process is oriented to HONESTY, not identifying your “higher calling”. Ideally they will align, and the data suggests that people who pursue a purposeful and meaningful life are more happy than those who lead a hedonic life.
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 reasons. I don’t care what motivates you, but you need to know the core values which motivate you.