How to Be Successful: Answer Emails

The Vetducator - Reply to emails image.

A while ago, I posted this question on my Facebook wall: “Is answering emails promptly a requirement for white collar work?”  My professional friends responded with a resounding YES. “It is, and those who don’t make everything harder for everyone else.” In your endless quest to aim for zero, this is an easy one.  Not answering email makes you a clear -1 in professional realms, including veterinary medicine.

Getting an email and not answering it is almost exactly like being late to a meeting where your presence is required.  What you are saying, loudly and clearly, is this: “My time is more valuable than your time.” You may not INTEND to say that.  But that’s what you are actually saying with your actions. I don’t know why and, you know what, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter why. The end result is me feeling about this small.

The Vetducator - Feeling small when no one replies to your emails.
I feel like the small figure when I don’t get a reply.

I understand there can be an overwhelming flood of emails coming in, all needing attention.  There are a variety of systems for handling them. Ignoring them is not an option if you want to be seen as a professional.  Here’s how I handle them, but YMMV.

First, when I get an email, I decide whether it needs to be deleted.  I get a lot of these that aren’t spam per se, just not relevant to me right then.  If I don’t care about it and don’t imagine needing it, it gets deleted. (This baffles my best friend, who insists I should just archive it, but if I can’t imagine ever needing it, wouldn’t it be better to remove that data from my storage?  I think so.)

Next, is it an email which can be answered quickly and in a sentence or two?  Scheduling events are like that for me. These can be quickly bounced back to the sender with my availability.  Others are quick replies like “Thanks” and the like. These are my favorite types of emails. Requests for working with me from this blog also fall under this heading.  They get dealt with within the hour or, if I am busy on clinics, that day.

Third, if it’s not an email which can be answered quickly, how much cognitive energy is it going to take to handle?  Is it a request to run statistics on a paper with which I have passing familiarity? That will be an entire afternoon project.  I generally divide these into two categories: do in under a week or put off until close to deadline. If under a week, I tend to do the more cognitively simple tasks sooner.  In either event, I always reply to the email promptly (unless it was automated, as with a journal decision on a submitted manuscript).

Replying to email is just one aspect of being reliable.  And hoo boy, if you can get a reputation for being reliable vs. being unreliable, go for reliable.  You will get better recommendations, people will want to work with you more, and your career will progress more positively.  You must respond to emails in a timely fashion to be considered a professional.

So now I am genuinely curious: why don’t you respond to emails promptly?

Special Announcement: Podcast a Vet Interview!

Dr. John Arnold, the host of Podcast a Vet, did an interview with me last week and already has it up! You can find it at the link below. We talk about all sorts of topics I think would be helpful for you on your path through veterinary medicine. Check it out!

Using Statistics to Decide Your Future

I wanted to be a surgeon.  Specifically, I loved orthopedic surgery.  I wanted to just fix something and not manage a chronic illness for years like internal medicine does.  It was not to be for me, though, and my life turned out grand. I have reviewed applications from people who have done THREE specialty surgery internships, and it makes me sad because they seem to be throwing themselves at an impenetrable wall.  Obviously, you can’t choose what you want to do for the rest of your life based purely on numbers, but let’s start by looking at the numbers.

For the 2018 Match, the specialties with the worst match rate (i.e. most competitive) that routinely participate in the match were exotic/wildlife (2.9%), zoo med (6.6%), and avian medicine (10%).  You would not believe the number of vet student applicants who have told me their life long dream is to be a zoo vet. I feel so bad for them. Their dreams will almost surely be crushed. If you plan to do zoo med, you need a backup plan.

The specialties with the best match rate were lab animal, emergency/critical care, and anesthesia.  Lab animal often pays quite well and allows you to do diverse interesting things. E/CC can be challenging and complex, but be sure to review the specialty board pass rate for the institution- some of them do not train their residents very well.  Anesthesia, of course, is great- you don’t have to talk to crazy clients or haggle over money with clients and you can do small animal, large animal, or both.

Small animal surgery is actually higher than I thought- 20%!  I have heard some programs receive 190 applications for one small animal surgery position.  But the overall statistics don’t seem terrible for small animal surgery.

Obviously, the match rate includes _every_ applicant, even those who are clearly not viable candidates.  So your odds are probably much better, assuming you are reasonably competent and pleasant to work with. You may be able to improve your odds by having a great application packet and doing an interview well, with which this blog will help you.

So what to do with this information?  Well, I would suggest analyzing your future career considering the statistics.  Are you SURE the only thing you could be happy doing would be surgery or zoo med?  A lot of other clinical specialties offer a similar quality of life, intellectual challenge, and freedom.  

The evidence indicates that people can be happy leading life one of three ways – seeking pleasure, doing your best work, or helping others.  You can do your best work doing a lot of different things in veterinary medicine.  If you don’t match the first time for a residency, maybe re-examine your future and consider other alternatives before you waste years of your life pursuing an impossible dream.

Would you Rather Be Smart or Have a Good Personality?

The Vetducator - Jimmy Stewart in Harvey giving advice about being pleasant over smart.

“In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

I belong to a private Facebook group for those who graduated in my class in vet school.  When a discussion about grades came up, one of my classmates pointed out many internship programs select people that are easy to get along with over the ones with amazing grades.  My reply was, “Oh man, personality trumps smart every time for me.” Several of my classmates chimed in in agreement. I thought it was worthwhile to talk about.

When I go about selecting residents, I have often said, “I can TEACH them what they need to know.  But if they are difficult to work with, I can’t change that.” I want to be clear: I’m not talking personality like outgoing, bubbly, constantly cheery.  I get along great with quiet, brooding types. I mean personality in the sense that the person is humble, can deal with other human beings, and is willing to work hard.

Grades don’t necessarily indicate your intelligence- they indicate your ability to get good grades in the system we have.  Almost everyone in vet school is smart. Or at least smart ‘enough’. Those who excel have a curious mind, are willing to take feedback, and seek improvement in their lives.

I have known plenty of people who got amazing grades, but were not necessarily successful clinicians, and people who got poor grades who became amazing clinicians.  Success depends on so much more than being smart, or being highly ranked in your class. For some internship and residency programs, yes, they do look at your grades and class rank.  If you’re not near the top, that is fine- those programs wouldn’t be a good fit for you anyways.

Any program that cares that much about class rank is likely to find others who think that is important.  Some of those programs are successful, which is great. I think there are many more programs which understand that there are so many things people bring to the table and need to be good at other than their grades.

We have been talking a lot about ‘soft skills’ in veterinary medicine for the last decade, and it’s because we had been focused so much on grades and test scores up to that point.  What employers want isn’t the person who gets As, they want the person who will manage their cases effectively and keep clients happy. Doing that requires way more than medical knowledge.  It requires communication skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

Some of these you can learn and train, like communication skills.  Others may develop over the course of years. But if someone is a Negative Person, or is Arrogant, or some other major personality defect- I can’t fix that with training.  That person needs years of therapy and a strong motivation to change.

I have two major takeaways for you.  1) If you are not at the top of your class, you can excel and be successful nonetheless.  Read all the How to be Successful posts. 2) Improvements to your personality will pay much greater dividends than improvements to your knowledge.  Hiring decisions are based on how you are to work with- NOT how much you know.

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

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


2018        President, Campus Campaign to Reduce Waste in Dining Halls


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

Dr. Harry Applegate
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!

Successfully Navigating the Spousal Hire

The Vetducator - married wedding rings on each hand picture.

So you want to go into academia, and your spouse also wants to work at the same institution.  There is a position open for you, you interview, you get an offer. How do you handle negotiating a hire for your spouse?  I have been successful and unsuccessful in this pursuit, so I will share my perspective with you. Realize that the spousal hire is probably the most complex, nuanced, and difficult negotiation in academic veterinary medicine.  There are no guarantees, but hopefully these notes will help.

1) Do not bring it up during your interview.  I spoke to a department chair recently who mentioned that an applicant brought up the potential for a spousal hire during their discussions and I physically cringed.  DO NOT DO THIS. The job interview is about the JOB. Don’t bring up your kids, your significant other, NOTHING that doesn’t directly relate to your ability to be awesome at the job.  You wait until you have an offer in hand to bring up a spousal hire. Imagine two identical candidates: one is single without any hassles about hiring them, the other with a spousal hire which requires significant hassle dealing with the Dean and Provost.  Which do you think will get a job offer? Even if they don’t consciously discuss it, unconscious biases can creep in. Do not discuss your spouse before getting an offer.

2) Make it your highest negotiation priority.  You may not get a higher salary, or equipment, or any of the other things you can negotiate for as a faculty candidate.  Make it clear that a spousal hire is your highest priority- don’t just tack it on like an afterthought. Open with it in written negotiations once you have an offer.

3) Some institutions Do Not Do spousal hires.  This is most evident overseas. I had a couple of offers from universities in Oceania; when I asked for a spousal hire they looked at me like I had grown a second head.  Possibly some overseas schools do offer them, but I have heard that this is Not A Thing outside the United States. Possibly Canada- can anyone comment on Canadian schools doing spousal hires?  Also, within the U. S., some schools have a moratorium on them. One school I worked at had a strict no-spouse-works-for-that-same-university-at-all policy. So even if we had two open positions which would be perfect for two people who happened to be married, we could only hire one of them.

4) Be specific.  I recommend being as specific as you need to be for the position for your spouse.  If they would be happy doing any job at the university, fine. If they want a tenure-track position, specify that.  If there is a salary range they want, specify that. The worst thing is to say, “Yes, please give my spouse a job”, they do so, then you come back with, “Oh, yeah, no, can I also have This and That and The Other Thing?”  As with all negotiations, ask for what you want up front. This also makes it clearer when the department head brings it to the Dean.

5) Be flexible.  Maybe your spouse WANTS a tenure-track position, but would they be happy with a lecturer position?  Decide exactly how important each element of a potential position is. My spouse ideally wants a teaching-heavy lecturer position, but, when offered a clinic-heavy position with some teaching, she was happy with that.  Decide AHEAD OF TIME exactly what your spouse would be content with so that if you don’t get your first ask, but the institution is willing to work with you to some degree, you will know how to navigate it.

6) You must be outstanding.  If you are just finishing a residency, or only have one publication to your name, or otherwise are just ‘meeting expectations’, you are in a relatively weaker negotiation position.  If the institution is desperate, you may still get what you want. But the more amazing your CV, the more likely you are to successfully negotiate for a spousal hire.

7) Be prepared for no.  I asked for a spousal hire after getting an offer and was told “no” and “we need your answer in under 2 weeks.”  I was caught a little off guard, because I didn’t consider it an exceptional request for this institution. I should have spent more time thinking about and talking with my SO about what we would do if there weren’t a position for her.  Most other things you ask for in a negotiation you can get at least some traction on, but the spousal hire is a rare bird. Don’t count on it.

As always with negotiations, be dispassionate and professional.  You can always ask, but realize that you may get a ‘no’. Decide ahead of time if that is a deal-breaker for you or not.  On my last round of job applications, I decided the spousal hire WAS a deal-breaker, and I was willing to wait until I found an institution willing to offer one.  I believe that fortitude was essential to my success. I wish you luck, and let me know what questions you have about this process!

Six Steps to Win the Scramble

You applied through the match for an internship or residency- great job!  Now, 8am on match day has come… and gone, and you are without a matched position.  You still want to do an internship or residency, and there are programs which did not fill all their positions.  What do you do now? Now you Scramble.

The Scramble is the informal term for the process following 8am on match day.  All unmatched applicants scramble to find good positions while programs with unmatched positions scramble to find good applicants.  It is an absolute mess and a travesty of a system. Pharmacy has a two-step matching process to avoid the chaos of a scramble, but veterinary medicine, as always, lags behind.  

It can be an emotional blow to not get matched, but realize that not matching does not mean you are a bad applicant.  The vagaries of the match mean that good programs and good candidates go unmatched every year. Scrambling to pick up an open position is a normal part of the process.  Heck, I scrambled after I didn’t match for a surgery residency and ended up having a terrific career. If you decide to scramble, you can maximize your success with six steps.

Step One: Be Prepared.  I’m sure your application packet is superb because you have followed the advice on this blog.  Nonetheless, the match is capricious, and even the best candidates may find themselves unmatched if they didn’t find a good fit or were too restrictive in their selections.  Be ready for not successfully matching by answering these questions:

  1. Do you still want to do an internship/residency?  If you are disheartened by not matching where you wanted to go, are you still excited at the prospect of going SOMEWHERE?  Decide this beforehand- don’t be wishy-washy in the middle of the Scramble.
  2. Are your materials ready and updated?  Is your CV and letter fully up-to-date?  Can you send them off today with a high degree of confidence they reflect your current state of mind, ideas, and experiences?  If not, get them ready.
  3. Have you looked at all the programs to which you didn’t apply but would consider?  If there’s a position unfilled somewhere, do you have to do research to find out about that position or are you poised and ready to go?
  4. How do you feel about going into a program that is not quite what you wanted?  If you wanted to do a surgery residency, would you ever consider something else for a year which may position you better to apply next year?

If you are prepared mentally and practically, then you may be successful with the Scramble.

Step Two: Don’t wait.  Email programs with open positions at 8:10am on match day.  You can get this list from your institution’s VIRMP administrator.  If you wait a day or, god forbid, a week, most open positions will be filled.

Step Three: Be decisive.  Contact programs with open positions and attach your letter and CV in that initial email.  Tell them why you are reaching out to them. Not just because they have an open position, what you would be excited about if you got to work there?  If you get an offer, you need to be prepared to accept or decline it on the spot. Programs won’t wait for you to decide, because their second choice may be gone by the time you decide to decline.

Step Four: Cast a broad net.  Don’t just send your materials to the top 2-3 places you want to go.  They may fill up with someone else, and by the time you look around, your top 4-6 places may be already filled, too.  Send a message to every open position where you would be happy immediately after the match results come out. Realize that, at this point in the process, there is no more official ‘ranking’.  Just as with the match, though, you need to be prepared to accept any program which gives you an offer. If you get an offer from a place you’re willing to go, but not excited to go, go back to planning in #1.

Step Five: Be attentive.  Don’t send an email and fail to follow up.  If you don’t hear back, a polite follow-up the next day is appropriate.  Most positions get filled in the first few days after the match results come out.  If they reply with, “Thank you, we will be in touch in the next 2 days”, send a follow-up on the second day.  You need to be present without being pushy.

Step Six: Be at peace.  The Scramble is frustrating, intense, and emotional.  Be prepared for the possibility of not finding anything.  Be prepared to commit to a program and have them back out at the last second.  Have contingency plans laid out so you are ready whatever the outcome.

It’s always frustrating to fail to match.  I failed to match for a surgery residency and scrambled.  I even applied for transfusion medicine fellowships and similar programs.  Ultimately I thought, “I can go do anesthesia for a couple of years (residencies were 2 years then) and then go into surgery!”  Here I am 20 years later, perfectly content in anesthesia. As always, the key is to be honest with yourself.

Dr. Clara Moran

Podcast Episode 3 – Dr. Clara Moran

Dr. Moran and I worked together on a terrific research project which led to a publication in JVECC while she was a veterinary student. I wrote letters of recommendation for her and have been so excited to see her be successful in surgery. Dr. Moran talks about why academia is awesome, particularly when studying for boards, why surgery is fun, and developing relationships.

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.