Create a Good Research Poster

I mentor a lot of students in research, and have for years.  I’ve gotten to go to a lot of undergraduate research conferences in addition to professional veterinary conferences.  I’ve seen posters which were good, bad, and in between.  I don’t have a perfect formula for success, but I think the posters my students put together are better than most.  Here are my tips.

1) Use Powerpoint.  Build your poster in PowerPoint.  Use a single slide.  Adjust the size by going to the Design tab, then the “Slide Size” icon.  Make the size whatever the standard poster size is for the conference.  If it is unspecified, a size I have used is 54” wide 36” high. Most institutions have templates you can use if you’re unsure of how to start. 

2) Create text boxes by going to the Insert tab, then the “Text Box” icon.  Draw the text box where you want it and then move as necessary.  Use a large enough font that it could be read from a couple feet away- I recommend at least 36 and preferably 54.  Create a separate box for the Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion.

3) Use at least one image and preferably 2.  If you need more to represent your Results, that is fine- check with your mentor.  Represent your data using images or, possibly, tables rather than put it into the text.  If all of your relevant data can be expressed with the images, you don’t need a written Results section.

4) Use bullet points or short sentences.  You don’t want people spending a lot of time reading.  You want them to glance to get an idea of your project so they can decide to read more or, better yet, to engage with you during the poster session.  Don’t detail all of your methods on the poster.  If it’s all written out, what is someone going to ask you about?  Ditto with the Results.  Which is better: 

A) Someone approaches your poster while you stand there, leans in close to read all your details, grunts and walks off  

or  

B) Someone approaches your poster while you stand there, glances at a couple of points, asks you a detail about the methods, you give a knowledgeable response, and now you have a conversation about your work?

5) Less text.  I am giving this a second list number because it’s so important.  I continue to see a MAJORITY of posters with way too much text.  Just give a bare bones outline.  This is basic storytelling: leave them wanting more.

6) Have it printed by your own-campus resources.  You could have it commercially printed, but most universities have a printing office which will do it for free or you can use research funds from your mentor to pay for it.

7) Ask around for a poster carrying case.  You don’t need to buy your own if you are traveling for a conference- someone in your department has one.  Ask nicely if you can borrow it.  Send an email out to the department if necessary.

That’s it!  An above-average poster for your first professional conference.

Top 5 Reasons to Become a Specialist

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I originally thought of this as the top 5 reasons to do a residency, but there’s really only one reason to do a residency: to become a specialist.  So I thought I would focus on the end goal instead.

1) You want different intellectual challenges.  I think it is easy for people to assume that specialists are somehow “smarter” or like intellectual challenges more than, say, a general practitioner.  I don’t think that’s true- good GPs absolutely have intellectual stimulation and challenges.  But the nature of those challenges are different.  Specialists tend to grapple more with “I have no idea what’s wrong with this patient” than GPs.  They have to hit the literature, see if something similar happens in other species, consult with colleagues, and try things out.  GPs can do that, too, but generally if they have a really complex case they can refer it.  Specialists are the end of the line- if they can’t figure the case out, there’s no one else to go to.

2) You like academia.  Although there are some GPs in academia, the vast majority of clinical faculty are specialists.  It’s no secret that I think academia is awesome.  If you agree, becoming a specialist is like writing your own ticket.  Almost every specialty is in demand in academia all the time.

3) You want to earn more money.  Not every specialist makes more money than a GP, but in general being a specialist will get you a higher paycheck.  If you have massive student loans or an expensive lifestyle (even though the latter won’t make you happy), becoming a specialist will probably help with your financial goals.

4) You want to know things.  When we interviewed vet students about their post-graduation plans, those interested in specializing were very excited to KNOW things.  When you specialize, you get an amazingly deep knowledge of a subject.  There are still many things I don’t know about anesthesia, but I know a lot more than almost any GP.  If you’re excited by the “why” of medicine, becoming a specialist is pretty great.

5) You don’t want to be a GP.  I have to be honest, this is my reason.  I didn’t want to see skin problems and ain’t doin’ right (ADR) cases all day.  I wanted to continue formal education (I LOVE school!), be challenged, and have interesting novel experiences at work every day.  I think GPs probably get a lot of satisfaction from their relationships with clients and seeing an animal year after year.  That just isn’t interesting to me.  It’s not better or worse- it’s just me being honest with myself.  If the idea of general practice gets you down, maybe becoming a specialist is a good choice for you.

I want to reiterate that being a specialist isn’t “better” than being a GP.  I worry that there is a judgement often passed that specialists are better.  It’s just a different job.  In the same way that a specialist isn’t better than the janitor- they just have different jobs.  Society happens to compensate one better than the other, but that doesn’t mean that PERSON has greater value.

There is Crap Everywhere

You just have to decide what kind of crap you can put up with.  By that I mean: there is no perfect job.  There may not even be a perfect job FOR YOU.  Every job, every position, has its issues.  Your goal is to find a position where the positive aspects greatly outnumber the negative aspects.  When the negative aspects start to increase, this is when people burnout or have anxiety and other mental health challenges.  Here are some variables to consider when evaluating any position’s crap.

  1. Leadership.  Who is in charge?  What is their leadership style?  Do they micromanage or are they impossible to find?  How are decisions made and how are those decisions communicated?  Ideally, good leaders should seek outside input and try to develop consensus, and decisions should be clearly communicated from the leader.  Going through intermediaries, making decisions by fiat, and sheltering themselves from others in the institution are all pieces of crap you may need to put up with.
  2. Co-workers.  Are people happy to come to work?  Are they overworked?  Are they underpaid?  Is there a morale problem?  Is there frequent turnover?  One institution where I worked had the philosophy that they took poorly trained techs and trained them up to the point where they could get a better job.  This was because the pay was so poor, we could only get entry-level technicians.  That frequent turnover was supremely taxing on everyone.  Are the people GOOD to work with?  Do they communicate about problems, are they approachable, are they respectful, are they RFHBs?  Just because people are unhappy doesn’t mean it’s not a decent job- just decide if this is crap YOU can put up with.
  3. Job duties.  If you LOVE teaching but HATE research, maybe academia isn’t a good fit for you.  But if you LOVE teaching and just DISLIKE research, maybe this is crap you can put up with to get the thing you love.  What are the working hours?  What are the on-call expectations?  What are the expectations for work after hours (how often do you have to take work home with you)?  Do you have to deal with angry people and conflict?  Are there any job tasks you will dislike doing?  Are they few enough that the positives outweigh the negatives?  My wife worked a retail pharmacy position in which many of her patients were confrontational and aggressive. Many pharmacists believe this type of environment is worth tolerating due to the salary that retail pharmacists make. My wife didn’t feel the high salary was worth dealing with conflict so often, so she went into academia and is now much happier even though her salary is lower.
  4. Bureaucracy/Organization.  How are decisions made?  What is the process for making improvements or changes?  What are the traditions of the place, and do they interfere with your ability to get work done?  How long does it take to get things done?  If you don’t care about making improvements, you could probably do fine in circumstances where it’s very hard.  If you care, you need to decide if you can tolerate the obstacles you will face.
  5. Treatment.  How will you be treated?  Will people respect you and your opinion?  Will they acknowledge the value you bring to the position?  Are they excited to have you fill the position?  Will you get the validation and regard you need to be a fulfilled human being?  Will you earn an amount of money which shows respect for the value that you provide?  Some people are fine just going to work, doing their job, and getting a paycheck.  I don’t think that’s most veterinarians.  I think most of us like feeling as though we are making people’s lives a better place by helping animals.  If you don’t get that validation, is that OK?

It helps to reflect on what you want out of a job and what makes you happy.  The crap I can put up with is a large bureaucracy, overworked people, lots of staff turnover, difficult to approach people, doing classroom teaching, working long hours, and being on call a fair amount of time.  These aren’t characteristics of my current position, but ones I have put up with in the past.  The crap I can not put up with is narcissistic leadership, not being appreciated, and lots of conflict.  When you identify a position, try to figure out what the crap is at that place and if you can put up with it.  Just like there’s no ideal position and no ideal applicant, there is crap everywhere.  You have to decide what crap you can put up with to be happy.

Giving Effective Feedback to Interns & Residents

Photo by Won Young Park on Unsplash

This post was by request from an experienced clinician who is seeking more tips to improve giving feedback to advanced clinicians-in-training.  I don’t really have all the answers, but here are some ideas I hope will help.

First, effective feedback has three fundamental requirements: it has to be timely, it has to be specific, and it has to focus on behaviors.

1) Timely.  Instead of waiting for the end of a rotation, or the bi-annual resident evaluation, give feedback the same day you observe something.  Feedback can be positive, like “I think you did a good job handling that case” or it can be developmental, “I’d like you to be able to calculate the bicarbonate dose on your own next time.”  The sooner it can happen after an experience, the better.

2) Specific.  You want feedback that is directed at specific things the student did.  What they did, how they did it, or why they did it.  General statements tend to be internalized as feedback about the PERSON, rather than their behavior.  That is, general feedback like, “I think you did well” tends to be internalized as “I am a good person”.  Conversely, feedback such as, “I don’t think you handled that well” tends to be internalized as “I am a bad person”.  Specific feedback such as, “You were well prepared for that catheter placement” and “Make sure you have your T-port ready for your catheter next time” allows the recipient to understand exactly what they did well or what they need to improve on.

3) Behavior-focused.  Feedback should focus on behaviors, not global assessments of a person. You want to focus feedback on the WHAT, not the WHO.  You want feedback to focus on WHAT they did.  “I think you did a good job assigning roles to everyone during that emergency case” is an example of positive, specific feedback.  It focuses on WHAT they did.  “For future cases, I’d like you to think about how you can get the case into the OR more quickly” is an example of developmental, specific feedback.  It focuses on WHAT you want them to do.

I have heard rules-of-thumb that you should give X positive pieces of feedback for every Y piece of developmental feedback.  I think that’s generally a good approach: if you give out positive feedback, people will tend to be more receptive to developmental feedback.  I am a big fan of the feedback sandwich, where you give the person one thing they did well, one thing they can improve on, and finish with one thing they improved from the last time.  For example, “I think you did a good job remaining calm during that case.  The next time you have a case like this, try to think ahead of what you may need so it’s already there for you.  Your catheter placement speed has become a lot better in the past few weeks, which helped get the case to the OR in time.”

I am also a huge believer in guided reflection for providing feedback.  I will almost always start a discussion when I want to give feedback with, “How do you think that went?”  This allows the student to reflect on the event, and many times they will identify the very things you were going to give them feedback on.  This also supports their autonomy– they get to participate in the learning experience.  I find that, when students are allowed to reflect on an event and give their perspective, they are eager for my feedback.  This makes it much easier to provide feedback- the student isn’t in a defensive state of mind, but a receptive one.

I can think of three contexts for giving feedback to interns and residents: during a procedure, immediately after a case, and at the end of a week or block.

During a Procedure

  • I like to ask the student, “Can I give you some suggestions?” or “Do you mind if I give you some ideas on doing this?”  Asking permission involves the student in the decision to receive feedback, makes them more receptive, and frames what you’re about to tell them.  This is particularly valuable when they are in the middle of learning a challenging skill (arterial catheter placement, endoscopy, arthroscopy, etc.).
  • Summarize what they are doing and then tell them how you do it and point out how this differs, if necessary.  Don’t say “this is the right way to do it” but rather “this is how I like to do this.”  That gives them permission to accept your feedback or try it another way.  This is particularly important for residents who hear different things from their different mentors.

Immediately After a Case

  • Initiate a dialogue about the event by asking the student to reflect on it.  “How do you feel that case went?”  “What went well for you with that case?”  “What questions do you have about that case?”  “What do you want to do differently in the future” are my favorite questions.
  • Allow the student to reflect.  If they identify one of the areas for improvement that you wanted to bring up, great.  Hang on to that for when you give your feedback.  I find students often don’t give themselves enough praise- they only see the negative things they did.  So part of your role is to make sure to support their competence while also developing it.
  • Provide your positive, supportive feedback.  “I think you did this specific thing well.”  “I think you handled yourself well (managed stress, etc.).”  “I think that case went as well as it could have given its illness.”  Again, don’t make general statements here, “I think you did well!”  “I think you did a good job!”
  • Provide your specific, developmental feedback.  If they mentioned something during reflection, bring that up.  “Like you said, I agree you could have been more prepared.  Now you know what to do going forward!”  “Maybe next time you can work on being more prepared.”
  • If appropriate, provide a positive note to close on.  “It’s sad that the case didn’t survive, but I think we did all the right things for it.”  “I think your speed in managing cases has improved, and that definitely helped this case.”  “That was a difficult talk with that client, and I’m glad you were able to conclude it without getting angry at them.”
  • Thank them for their time and end with a positive departure.  Although you are the teacher and they are the student, they are opening themselves up to you to help them improve, which creates vulnerability.  Thank them for their time and that vulnerability (not necessarily explicitly).  “Great, thanks for thinking about the case and discussing it with me.  I will see you bright and early tomorrow morning!”

At the End of a Week or Block

  • Ask the student how the week went.  “How did the week go for you?”  “What went particularly well?”  “What were your challenges?”  If you have noticed specific areas for improvement- such as teaching students- you can ask about that directly.  “How did you feel your student teaching went this week?”
  • Provide your positive, supportive feedback.  “I think you did this specific thing well.”  “I think you handled yourself well (managed stress, etc.).”  “I think that case went as well as it could have given its illness.”  Again, don’t make general statements here, “I think you did well!”  “I think you did a good job!”
  • Provide your specific, developmental feedback.  If they mentioned something during reflection, bring that up.  “Like you said, I agree you could ask the students more questions about the cases”  “In the future I’d like you to think about asking the students more questions.”
  • If appropriate, provide a positive note to close on.  “We had a difficult week, but I appreciate your focus and dedication to the service.”  “I think you have improved a lot this week and I look forward to seeing what you do with it next week.”  “I know you had some difficult clients this week, so I am glad you were able to stay positive and learn from those encounters.”
  • Thank them for their time and end with a positive departure.  Although you are the teacher and they are the student, they are opening themselves up to you to help them improve, which creates vulnerability.  Thank them for their time and that vulnerability (not necessarily explicitly).  “Great, thanks for the time to talk about the week and your work this week.  I will see you bright and early Monday morning!”

What do you think?  Are there any feedback challenges you have had which are not encompassed in this framework?

Post-Internship Education Options

The intern year is typically one year immediately following graduation from vet school.  Some people may go out into practice and then go back to an internship, but that is rare.  Some people do an internship to improve their clinical skills or to avoid going into the Real World for another year.  The reason many people pursue an internship is to make them a good candidate for a residency position.  Most clinical disciplines require a one-year internship “or private practice equivalence”.  Practically-speaking, it’s hard to be competitive for a residency without doing an internship.  But what happens if you don’t get a residency right out of your internship?  Some options for what to do follow.

1) Residency with Conditions.  This may be a 4-year residency (most residencies are 3 years) or an agreement to work for an entity after your residency is done.  Usually, people only pursue these residencies if they don’t get a ‘traditional’ residency.  It’s clearly better to do a 3 year residency and get out and make real money than to do a 4 year residency which prepares you to the exact same degree.  And agreeing to work for an entity for a period of time (usually 3 years) after you finish the residency limits your future.

2) Specialty Internship.  According to those I interview for the podcasts, these are becoming more and more common.  This is another year of internship, but in the desired discipline, such as surgery or ophthalmology.  It isn’t ideal, as it adds another year to your timeline, but it is good to stay “in the system” of academia and you get to spend time in the discipline you love. However, if you end up doing two or three specialty internships without getting your desired residency, it’s probably better to find another life path.

3) Fellowship.  There are occasional opportunities to continue in academia in a variety of positions which I will classify under this umbrella.  I was looking at applying for a Transfusion Medicine Fellowship when I failed to match for a residency.  Some people arrange to work with a clinical researcher- spending some time doing research and some time on clinics.  These positions can be difficult to identify- you may need to reach out to mentors to find out what opportunities are out there if you don’t match for a residency.

4) Corporate work.  For those who REALLY don’t want to go into general practice, working for a drug company or similar entity may be interesting and rewarding.  It’s difficult to say how it may affect your future residency prospects- not many people go from corporate work into a residency.  Clinical corporations- those which own many specialty hospitals like BluePearl- may be willing to pay for your residency if you agree to work for them afterwards (see Residency with Conditions above).

5) Military.  The military is always looking for qualified veterinarians, and they will often send them to do residencies or graduate work.  If you decide to parlay military service for a residency, make sure to get the agreement in writing and negotiate strong up front. Once you sign, you lose all bargaining power.

6) Clinical practice.  This is the final ‘bucket’ to fall into (assuming you want to get a residency), because it’s harder to go from private practice to a residency than from being in the academic system.  Nonetheless, if you want to be a clinician, getting practice being a clinician can be valuable.  If possible, working at an emergency clinic with a large specialist group would be best.  That way, at least specialists could be writing a letter of recommendation for you for future residency application cycles.

Assuming your goal is a residency and specialization, I have listed these in order of what I believe would prepare you best for that direction.  There are always exceptions, so, if you don’t get a residency, don’t despair.  Some residency positions are unimaginably competitive and you NEED to come up with alternate life plans if you don’t end up getting a residency, because your odds of getting a residency can be quite low.

Thanksgiving Special: Give Thanks

I don’t usually do posts which focus on holidays or current events, but my usual posting day fell on Thanksgiving, I am a big fan of appreciation, and I had an experience this week I thought would be good to share from a mental health/happiness/success standpoint.

For SAVMA Wellness Week last week at our institution, students answered a “What are you thankful for?” question. Some of the anonymous responses were sent out to the college, which I thought was wonderful. If you have read the blog much, you know I think appreciation is incredibly valuable for your professional success. Since veterinarians are leaders, we need to show appreciation to those we lead.

Some of the responses from the students indicate that they have a healthy, balanced approach to problems. This semester has been incredibly challenging for everyone. We are all stressed. I have communications with faculty at other institutions and they express the same feelings. Focusing on negative feelings, how terrible everything is, and all the bad things is a great way to lead to perpetual unhappiness.

Instead, my advice is like that I give when a medical error is made: acknowledge what happened, have your feelings about it, and then focus on what you can control going forward. I will add another step when everything seems terrible: try to find something positive from the experience.

Even though this semester has been very hard, some of the positive comments from our students included receiving support from friends and family, appreciation to faculty and administrators for trying their hardest, learning how adaptable they can be, and learning new technology and ways to learn. Seeing these notes of appreciation was wonderful to me. I worry sometimes that students focus too much on the negative. Seeing some realize that there was some good this semester was heartening.

My own exercise in appreciation for the semester:

  • I appreciate that the students were patient and understanding
  • I appreciate that the students gave very professional, helpful feedback to me to improve my course
  • I appreciate my friends and spouse who have provided wonderful social support so I never felt alone or lonely even though we couldn’t see people
  • I appreciate my colleagues for being patient with me in several delayed research projects and providing space for me to prioritize different professional responsibilities
  • I am grateful that I continue to be healthy and able to pursue the activities I like

What do you appreciate? What is going well in your life?

How to Be Successful: Circle of Control

Last year, I taught a course and some students struggled with my style.  I am a clinician, so I approach problems and teaching as a clinician.  I’m not very interested in students memorizing details and regurgitating them on a test; I want them to USE information to make decisions.  This is a different way of thinking and studying for a lot of students, so they struggle.  Inevitably, some students do poorly on an exam.  Then they worry about it.  I never understood why students worry about an exam that already took place, even when I was in vet school.  It’s in the past, what can you possibly do about it?

There are a lot of problems in the world today, and I know people who get stressed about them.  I used to be one of them.  But then I stopped and considered: What can *I* control?  I can control how I vote, how I donate money, and how I engage with other people.  But I can’t change other people’s minds, I can’t make something happen outside of my control.  I have a circle of control.

The circle of control principle I like the most comes from the philosophical approach of Stoicism.  The word stoic has come to mean “someone who doesn’t react” in our language, but that isn’t what Stoicism is about.  Stoicism is about living a good life, a meaningful life, having emotions and feelings, and focusing on what you can control in life.  If you can’t affect it, why worry about it?  

This parallels my advice on medical error.  When something bad happens, reflect on it, learn from it, be sad for a while, and then move on.  You can’t change the past.  You can’t resurrect that patient that died.  You can’t change the grade on your last exam.  You probably can’t change how I write and grade exams.  You can’t change what a letter of recommendation says.  So focus on what you can do.  You can make a different decision for the next patient you see like the one that died.  You can study differently to improve your future grades.  You can realize I am asking you to think differently and not just regurgitate information and try to adjust your thinking.  You can work hard and take advice from the How to Be Successful series so that someone WILL write you a good letter of recommendation.

I see this _all the time_ on the APVMA Facebook group and it makes me sad every time.  I’ve seen probably a hundred or more posts that are something like, “I got a C in Someclass, I’m worried I won’t get into vet school!” or “I only have 300 hours with horses, I’m worried it’s not enough!”  I understand these people are seeking assurance, and that’s fine.  But I wish they would focus on what they can control.  OK, you got a C.  It is what it is.  Can you retake the class?  Can you take a different class and do well to bump your GPA?  Can you study hard for the GRE to bump that part of your application?  Can you work incredibly hard to get good letters of recommendation?  Can you read this blog to improve your application and interview skills?  Yes, you can do all those things and more.  But you can’t change the past.

Focus on your circle of control.  I guarantee you that doing so will make you a more peaceful, contented human being.

My Benefits are Better Than Your Benefits

Except for a one-year stint in private practice for my internship, all of my full-time work has been in academia.  I did work part-time for an emergency practice in Atlanta for years, but that was as an independent contractor, not a W2 employee.  I’ve always heard “Oh the benefits in academia are great!”  I never really thought about it until I started learning more about retirement accounts, and what veterinarians in private practice get in terms of benefits.  Let’s look at the types of benefits you might get working in academia, and I’ll share my experience for each one.

Retirement Accounts

Most employers should offer a 401k, where you can put money to reduce your tax burden and save for retirement.  Some companies will provide a match, which is an amount they put in if you put in a similar amount.  No veterinary corporation I know of offers a pension, which is a set amount of money you get paid forever when you retire.  I have a pension already from one school where I worked, and will get a second if I work at my current institution for another 8 years.  The second institution where I worked, they put 10% of your salary into a 403b without you having to contribute anything.  No match, just free money.  This was basically a 10% pay bump on your salary. Some will offer 457 plans for those of us who want to save even more aggressively for retirement- almost no small practices will and few corporations will offer a 457 plan.  You will never get a pension or that kind of great deal unless you work for a university or the government.

Health Insurance

Everyone acknowledges America’s healthcare system is messed up, so the reality is you need health insurance if you live here.  You can usually pay your premiums before tax, and most companies will pay part of your premiums.  Universities often have amazing health insurance, with the employer paying a substantial chunk of the premiums.  One university where I worked had a high deductible health plan and gave you $1500 every year into your health savings account.  Again, just free money.

Vacation Time

Corporations are starting to improve on this, but universities still beat the majority of them.  All the institutions where I have worked give 3 weeks of vacation time, on top of major holidays and, sometimes, a whole week over the Christmas/New Years time.  Not many companies or private practices can match that.

Disability Insurance

If you’re a veterinarian, you NEED disability insurance.  If you don’t have it, stop reading this article and research how to get some.  We run the risk of suffering real physical injury in our jobs- bites, scratches, being kicked by a horse- which could make working impossible.  Most private practices don’t even offer this, and you have to get it on your own.  Every university for whom I have worked includes it as part of the deal, and facilitates you buying more coverage if you need it.

Life Insurance

My current institution pays out $35k if I die and I don’t have to pay for that.  Not a lot of money, but better than a kick in the teeth. I can elect to buy up to 5x my salary as a death benefit for a fairly low premium.

Education

I earned two Master’s degrees without paying a cent.  One of my friends at the last place I worked is doing the same thing with an online Master’s.  I have looked into getting a PhD at my current employer- again, without paying a cent.  Many of them provide a decreased tuition for children or even spouses.  Maybe some big corporations will offer something like this, but it won’t be nearly as good of a deal.  This is unique to working for universities.

Medical Care

Every university for whom I have worked has an on-site medical clinic you can go to for basic care.  Just walk on over or take the bus.  Services are often quite inexpensive, as they also serve the student body.  I don’t think any non-university veterinary hospital has a medical clinic you can go to for yourself. Two of the universities for whom I have worked offer some benefit if you do healthy things.  Currently I get $120 off my health insurance every year for doing a screening on campus.  I think some companies offer something for healthy living nowadays, but probably not many small practices.

Sabbatical

The institution where I worked the majority of my career didn’t have sabbatical leave, so I don’t know much about it.  In reading up at my current institution, it looks like I can take 1-2 semesters “off” work after 5 years of service.  Obviously, I need to be doing something professional-related while taking this time off.  I’m thinking about going to a little island in Ireland to write a book.  Does your non-academic job give you sabbatical leave?  I didn’t think so.

I’ve talked before about how amazing I think it is to work in academia.  It’s intellectually challenging and offers a great lifestyle.  People always say how the benefits in academia (and working for the government, to a lesser extent) are pretty nice, so here are the big ones spelled out.  It’s a pretty sweet gig.  Why NOT work for a university?

How to Address Peers

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Sometimes, I feel a little bit like Miss Manners.  There are all sorts of unwritten rules of etiquette in veterinary medicine.  For example, did you know that faculty don’t refer to each other as “Dr.” outside of medicine?  I’ve written about how to address people during an interview, but I’ve been thinking, “How do we decide how to address each other once we’re in a position?”  Here is my opinion, and it’s 100% just that, borne from experience observing other human beings in veterinary medicine and what *I* think is best.

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

Is this person in a higher level administrative position than you?  If so, they are addressed as Dr. Lastname.  For example, when you talk to your department head, to the hospital director, to the Associate Dean for Research, use Dr. Lastname.  An exception may be made if there is no one else around and you knew the person as a faculty peer before they became an administrator.

Are residents/interns/students around?  If so, use Title Lastname.  For example, if you’re in rounds and referring to what a different faculty said, say “I know Dr. Smith does things this way, and that’s OK.”  If you are in the OR and there are residents, when you check in with the surgeon about the case, “Dr. Smith, how are things going in there?”  Some people will just use Lastname alone, “Smith, how are things going in there?”  I think this is probably OK.  Don’t use first names when trainees are around.

Otherwise, use first names.  Faculty are peers and should treat each other accordingly.  It isn’t BAD if you address people as Dr. Lastname, it’s just unnecessary.  I tend to see more older faculty use Dr. Lastname when they refer to another faculty member in, for example, a department meeting.  So either is acceptable.  I prefer to use first names when it’s only faculty around to create a greater sense of community and cohesiveness to the professional culture.

I don’t want to be as prescriptive as Miss Manners.  Some of this will vary by your institution.  At one institution where I worked, EVERYONE used first names when I first got there.  It gave a significant air of unprofessionalism which I worked to improve upon.  Interpret these as my suggestions rather than rules.  What do you think?  Is this how your institution runs?

Long Term Goals and Money

If your family is paying for vet school, you can stop reading this and head over to the How to Be Successful series.  For the rest of you, read on!

I was working on a lecture I was planning to present at SAVMA Symposium 2020 about personal finance.  The title is “From $250,000 in Debt to Millionaire.”  In part of it, I work out an illustration of how the math works to get from $250k in debt to having $1M in assets for an average new graduate.  I imagined myself giving this presentation and railing to the attendees that if any of them went to Ross or Midwestern or other non-state schools without their family paying for vet school, that decision is going to affect the entire rest of their life.

So many pre-vet students have the goal of “get to vet school”.  But not enough think about after vet school.  Do you want to practice in a rural mixed animal practice?  Do you want to own a nice house?  Do you want to buy new cars?  Do you want to have kids and send them to private school or college?  Do you want to not have roommates?  Guess what?  It’s much harder to do ANY of these things if you have more than twice your yearly gross income in debt.

I urge you, sincerely and passionately, to think about what you want from your life.  You may not be materialistic- that’s great, neither am I.  I’m not talking about you being able to buy a BMW or live in Los Angeles.  I’m talking about you being able to buy a new Honda Civic and live anywhere other than rural Iowa.  I’m talking about you being able to buy a house less than 10 years after graduation.  I’m talking about you being able to go on a trip once a year.  I am talking about relatively basic assumptions most people make about their life after getting a professional degree.  You won’t be able to have any of these if you go into so much debt because of vet school.

The numbers work out something like this.  A debt of $250k paid off over 20 years at a rate of 6% will be a payment of $1,800 (assuming no income-based repayment, because who knows how long that program will be around).  Aiming for a $10k contribution to retirement, as well as taxes and saving for a house down payment, provides a budget of around $30k a year for an average new graduate.  That’s not a lot of money for life. This amount has to cover insurance, groceries, travel, clothes, utilities, entertainment, and everything else. That’s difficult to do, particularly if you’ve been putting off making any purchases throughout your many years of schooling.

Now, if you’re willing (or eager) to work small animal ER in Phoenix and take extra shifts, or do 4 more years of training to get a specialty, you can earn enough of a salary that the large debt is less of a problem.  If you can make $130k, your debt to income ratio is less than 2, which isn’t catastrophic.  But not everyone wants that kind of life.

So, before you go to a school which is going to put you massively in debt, please consider the lifetime repercussions.  Maybe it would be better to work for another year, get more experience, and re-apply to your state school next year.  Maybe it would be better to do a PhD, where you actually get a small stipend during school, rather than a DVM.  There are so many paths to a happy, successful life.  Don’t paint yourself into a corner obsessing over the DVM at all costs.