How to be Successful: Aim For Zero

The Vetducator - Chris Hadfield Book Cover

I was doing a locum job in Saskatoon when some of the people at the hospital directed me to a book written by the first Canadian to walk in space, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield.  While generally entertaining, I found the most compelling chapter in the book was about performance. How do you excel in a new position, and how might you extend this to a job search or interview?  If you have a scale from -1, which is being a drain on the system or a bad interviewee, to a 0, where you contribute your fair share to the system or do a competent job, to a +1, which is being a superstar and beloved by all, Hadfield’s advice is to Aim For Zero.  I couldn’t agree more.

I will never forget becoming a new third-year resident and having the new first-year residents start at the hospital.  One of the new medicine residents had a case going in radiology under anesthesia. One of my mentors, a full Professor of anesthesia, British not-to-be-messed-with attitude, and all around terrific academic, went to radiology to check on the case.  The new medicine resident told my mentor in a very sharp, dismissing tone, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” Everyone got very quiet. My mentor barely acknowledged the resident, checked out everything, and then went about her business. She wasn’t angry, just shocked, as was I.  What the hell was the resident thinking? Looking back, the resident was aiming to be a +1, able to handle any situation, trusted and respected by all. Instead, her actions marked her as a clear -1.

In writing a letter of intent, you want to follow the general guidelines we have mapped out before, but you don’t want to try TOO hard.  You may come across in a way you don’t intend. In an interview, you want to be prepared, competent, knowledgeable, and personable. But you don’t want to strive to be amazing.  I had one candidate interview for a faculty position who had done an amazing amount of research. He had committed my recent publications to memory and asked me about all of them.  He knew people in the organization and what their roles and duties were, and he brought them up. It was impressive, but also just a little bit off-putting. Other candidates have been prepared- knowing one or two interesting publications of mine which have come up organically during conversations- and that was fine.  The obsessive focus this candidate had was not fine.

Could you lose out to the actual +1 candidate?  It’s possible. Charismatic, competent people who are amazing at writing and interviews do exist.  But in my experience, they are few and far between. And, are you really going to beat out the top 5% for a position if you are genuinely in the top 15%?  I think it is more likely you will end up hitting -1 if you try to aim to be a +1. Maintain your dignity and trust that the right thing will work out for you. We will cover all the elements needed to become a +1 in a series of posts on How to be Successful.

You need to prepare.  You need to practice. You need to research and talk to others about your application and process.  But don’t aim to be that amazing blow-them-out-of-the-water candidate, because you’re more likely to miss.  Aim for zero- quietly competent.

Mistakes to Avoid in Your Application Letter

The Vetducator Avoiding Mistakes in your Vet Application Letter - Slipping banana peel

There’s no “right” way to write a letter of intent.  Applicant evaluators are so widely varied, you can’t possibly write the ideal letter unless you happen to A) know the evaluators and B) apply to only one institution.  Fortunately, there are some “wrong” ways to write a letter of intent. Let’s try to avoid them.

First think from the evaluator’s perspective.  They have a monumental challenge- reviewing possibly several hundred applicants for a handful of positions.  It is a grueling, churning, time-sucking task that they get very little thanks for. If you give them the opportunity to rapidly assess your letter as representing someone who is not a good fit, it saves them the trouble of reading your CV and letters of recommendation and thus saves them time.

Here are the rules to keep your letter from getting tossed into the discard pile.

One page or less.  I know some evaluators read two page letters.  I know more who use this as an instant rejection.  You should be able to express yourself succinctly.

Good grammar and spelling.  This may seem obvious, but I would say a full 20% of letters I read fail this test.  Have other people go through your letter _carefully_ with a fine-toothed comb and make sure they are brutally honest.

Good use of English.  This one is hard for non-native speakers, but it is very obvious when it is present.  If your English is good but not native, find several native speakers to review and correct it.  We use language in odd ways in English.  The Japanese small old car is technically correct, but does not sound the same as the small old Japanese car.

Avoid a TOO-unique letter.  You can and should write your own letter and not a form letter, but if your letter is quirky or eccentric, this may work for some evaluators but not for others.  This is highly polarizing with people who feel very strongly on both sides. Don’t risk it.

Don’t use odd word choices, or excessive Thesaurus use.  This may not get you an instant rejection, but it can be off-putting.  Keep it simple.

Don’t be boastful or arrogant.  I think there is some advice out there on the internet that you need to be assertive and confident in your application letters.  Maybe this is true for business, but it is not true in academia. Some people may not notice or care about this, but I know many evaluators who react poorly to arrogant letter-writers and veto their application.

As noted in the introduction, evaluators are an extremely heterogeneous group, and you can’t possibly avoid all pitfalls of all evaluators.  Maybe some don’t like anything other than a five-paragraph-essay format. Maybe others will reject any letter with the word “yellow” in it. It’s impossible to predict all the things on which evaluators may reject you.  However, the tar pits listed here are the most prominent, consistent, and important. Write your letters accordingly and, if you need help, please reach out to me. What elements of letters of application have you seen or heard of which you think should be considered mistakes?

What Everyone Ought to Know About Interviews

The Vetducator Vet Interview Basics
Interviewing seems simple, but it isn’t.

I have participated in some disappointing interviews.  Cases where participants clearly did not prepare, or did not care, or said the wrong things, or otherwise shot themselves in the foot.  For vet school, internships, and residencies, the interview is a small piece of the puzzle, but still an important one. For faculty positions, the interview is probably the most important consideration in hiring.  Regardless of the position to which you are applying, here are some basic rules for a successful interview.

Be interested. I considered writing ‘appear interested’, but if you’re applying for a position you’re not interested in, stop and withdraw your application. You should at least be interested at the start of the interview. That may change by the end, but you need to begin with enthusiasm. This is manifested by responding to what you’re told and asking questions. It kills me when I am in an interview setting and we ask, “What questions do you have for us?” and get “Uhm, none really, thanks.”

Be prepared. You should spend time on the organization’s website. For vet school, do you know what tracks there are and when you get to touch live animals? For internships, what specialties are at the practice? For residencies, who are the people in the program and their backgrounds? For faculty positions, you need to do so much research that I have a separate post about it. This research should inform the questions you ask.

Be engaged. Ask the interviewers questions as you go. A back-and-forth conversation is more natural and will get you better answers than a barrage of questions at the end.

Dress appropriately. In veterinary medicine, this is a suit. For men, a suit and tie. For women, pant- or skirt- suit with a nice blouse. No exceptions. More conservative colors are better- black and navy blue. You should know what color shirt looks good on you. You do not need a vest or pinstripes, but these are acceptable if they are within your style and suit your frame.

Be timely. Get to the location no later than 5 minutes before your scheduled time. If you don’t know the area, leave plenty early. You can sit in your car if you get there very early. Don’t enter the location more than 15 minutes before your scheduled time. Watch the clock when you are talking with interviewers to make sure you have time to ask the questions you want to ask.

It’s not a long list, but it is amazing the number of applicants who do one or more of these wrong.  There are just the basics, we will cover how to do a great interview elsewhere. But you have to nail these without exception.  Walk before you run. What other baseline, core rules do you think belong on this list?

The need for this blog

Vetducator demonstrates veterinary academic professionals need help.
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

This year, I’ve had quite a few students and interns approach me about reviewing their materials for the VIRMP, which I am more than happy to do.  I thought, instead of sending individual emails to each, I could write a single blog post and direct them to it. I could also offer my services online.  That way, others outside of my institution could also benefit.

I have seen some atrocious applications for vet school, internships, residencies, and faculty positions.  Video interviews where the interviewee was backlit. Poorly composed CVs that evaluators had to dig through until they figured ‘why bother’ and stopped considering the applicant.  Negotiations where one side or the other acts unwisely or unprofessionally, sinking the whole deal. I have been shocked that no one has mentored students on how to structure their senior year to maximize the impact on their internship application.  There is a need for people to get help in their professional progress in veterinary academia. I want to help those people.

This blog will be about employment and professional progression in academic veterinary medicine.  From undergrads applying to vet school, veterinary students applying to internship, residency applicants, and faculty applicants.  We will talk about cover letters, CVs, interviews, how to strategize to position yourself for the next step, who to talk to and when, and all other things related to the business of veterinary academia.

I have personally experienced this progression and the job market, have served on and chaired countless search committees, have been a hiring manager in my role as a Department Chair, have helped innumerable undergrads, vet students, interns, residents, and junior faculty get to their next step, and have published in peer-reviewed journals about post-graduate education.  I have always had an interest in the business of veterinary medicine, I stay up to date on current trends, I touch base with colleagues at other institutions to sound out the academic world. I want to share this expertise with those of you who want to make your professional progression as excellent as possible. Please follow along, comment, email me, and work together to make things better.