Now that you’re a vet student, you have it made. You’ve achieved your life-long goal and just have to graduate. But what if there’s something more? What if you want to do post-grad education, or work in public health, or contribute to society other than taking care of dogs, cats, and horses? Maybe there is the opportunity to do research.
Conducting research during vet school opens a lot of doors. You get to engage in scientific inquiry which hopefully has some ultimate effect on a patient’s outcome or quality of life. You get to work directly with a faculty member who is (hopefully) interested in mentoring you. You get to build your CV and demonstrate to future programs that you are dedicated, responsible and focused.
Getting involved in research during vet school can be surprisingly challenging. Undergraduate students often have whole offices dedicated to their success. For vet students, you have two easily accessible options: do a fellowship or volunteer your time.
A summer fellowship is often supported by various industry groups and provide a stipend. A summer fellowship is a good first step, but it is unlikely you will finish a project in that amount of time. You may be a cog in the wheel of benchtop research, or you may start your own research project. If you want to continue to be a part of the project, you will likely have to volunteer once the summer is over.
Volunteering your time is also an option. You may seek out a mentor who is doing something interesting or a mentor may announce that they are looking for students to help with research.
No matter how you get involved, before you start, you should talk openly with your potential mentor to make sure you are a good fit. The experience needs to be positive for you and for your mentor, otherwise ill feelings can creep in. First, you need to determine what you want out of doing research:
Experience. You just want to try research to see if it is something that may engage you. This is great- tell your prospective mentor(s) this. You don’t need to commit to what you want to do for the rest of your life at this point.
Relationships. Doing research often puts you in closer contact with a faculty member than in the normal course of vet school. You often work closely with them and meet with them regularly. You now have a mentor- you can ask them for advice, for help with letters of application and CVs, and for letters of reference. Mentors are incredibly important in your career, and identifying and working with one through research can be a strong bond.
CV Building. If you intend to go on to further education after graduation, research may bump your application slightly. Be aware that almost every serious applicant I have reviewed for internships has some research experience. Just engaging in research doesn’t do much to set your CV apart. Having a paper which is submitted for publication or, even better, accepted for publication is more remarkable. If you are buried in an author list, that is not particularly memorable. If you are the first author on a peer-reviewed publication, evaluators may take notice. In general, having research experience and publications in your internship application won’t make or break it, but it may give you a slight edge. If you intend to pursue a graduate degree, demonstrating some interest and experience with research during vet school is key.
Second, you need to kick ass doing research. If you want to secure a positive recommendation, just doing what you are asked/told is not enough. You need to identify opportunities to do more. Answer emails promptly. Complete tasks eagerly and rapidly. Many vet students do research. If you want to excel, you have to stand out. Follow a project through to the end or, if you absolutely hate what you’re doing, be clear and upfront with your faculty mentor.
Finally, make use of the resources you developed with this experience. Don’t hesitate to ask your faculty research supervisor for help with applications. If possible, make progress on a publication which has your name on it. The world helps those who help themselves. Don’t just expect everything on a silver platter because you helped with a research project. Make use of the skills and connections you made.
Research during vet school can be rewarding and illuminating. If you have the slightest inkling that you may want to do something other than primary care medical practice, dip your toe into research. You may find out something about yourself.