Tag Archives: application

Making Research in Vet School Work For You

The Vetducator: Stand back I'm going to try science.
Credit xkcd.

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 can do a fellowship or volunteer your time.

A summer fellowship is often supported by various industry groups and providing 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.

An example of an improved CV from vet school research.

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.

What I Wish I Had Known as a Student Applying for Internships

The Vetducator - Rock lines path symbolizing internship path.

I only applied to 11 internships, 9 of which were academic.  My letter and CV were not particularly good, but I was very assertive on clinics, did a good job, and got good letters of recommendation.  I didn’t participate in clubs or do any substantive research during vet school. If I applied nowadays, it is unlikely I would have gotten any internship, much less a good one.  I want to help you avoid my mistakes by giving you this advice:

Apply everywhere.  I have no idea why I limited the scope of where I applied.  I suppose I had some high-minded ideal of only wanting to go to places on the west coast.  Don’t do this. Apply wherever you think you could be happy for a year. Which is anywhere.  Even the frozen north or broiling south.

Polish your materials.  You need to reach out to your mentors and have them provide advice and perspective on your application.  Almost no one writes a good letter or CV the first time around without input. Seek advice constantly from those who know better.  If for some reason you don’t have mentors, reach out to me.

Don’t try to game the match.  I thought I knew how the match worked and ranked institutions according to where I thought I would get matched, rather than where I wanted to go.  This reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the match. Rank where you WANT to go first.

Demonstrate leadership.  Although I didn’t participate in vet school clubs, I opened and ran a karate school for 4 years while in vet school.  I wish I had known that participating in student clubs may have helped my application more than running a non-vet-school-related organization.  I don’t think it hurt but, for the amount of time it took, it didn’t help as much as it could have.

Go to private practice.  I knew I wanted to do a residency and felt that an academic internship would position me best for this.  It’s probably true, but, in fact, I did a private practice internship which has been incredibly valuable for teaching students for the Real World.  You may need to take a more meandering route if you do a private practice internship- doing specialty internships or other roles after your internship- but it is better to stay in the system in some capacity.

Fortunately, you have the benefit of my experience as well as the entirety of human knowledge in your pocket.  Hopefully, you will make more informed decisions than I did. I have a pretty great life, so do not regret any decisions, but it would have been nice to know the consequences of my decisions when I was younger.

How to Successfully Seek Assistance

The Vetducator - Be smart enough to know when you need help and brave enough to ask for it.

Do you have a hard time asking for help?  Talking to people? There are a lot of veterinary professionals out there who have a hard time with both of these.  Veterinarians are notoriously self-reliant and independent. Imagine the early days with the lone vet out there on house calls- you didn’t have a cell phone to call for a consult, you had to Figure It Out.  It’s built into the very bones of our profession. I think this must be why I see so many applications and interviews where the individual clearly didn’t ask for help, and it reflects in their work. Faculty are easy resources- they are being paid to teach you, after all.  You must ask for help. We’ll see why and how in this post.

Why you need help

1) This is a high-stakes event.  If you are applying to vet school, internships, or residencies, there are MANY others also applying for these positions.  At UGA we would routinely have 200 applicants for six intern positions, and I heard from a friend this year they had 190 applicants for a one surgery residency position.  You need the best possible application and interview in order to stand out from the crowd and secure a position.

2) You are not an expert at career progression through veterinary academia.  Heck, you’re barely a novice. It would be like someone with no training getting into a boxing ring- you’re going to get hurt.  You haven’t been through this process, so you don’t have the experience. You haven’t mentored others, so you don’t have the perspective.  Mentors and even peers can provide this experience and perspective.

3) I have evidence you need help.  I read materials all the time and think, “Did they even show this to their mother?!?”  Simple typos, bizarre sentences, odd flows of logic- all of these would be identified and helped by an outside observer.  Many applicants could dramatically improve their application and interview skills by working with mentors.

How to ask for help

First of all, don’t just limit your editors to faculty with whom you have had a long-standing relationship.  If they have supervised you on a clinical rotation, or even in a didactic course, you can ask for their help.  It’s possible you won’t get a response or will get a ‘no’, but remember: most faculty are there because of the students.  They WANT to help you, you just have to ask!

1) Ask in person.  This is usually whenever you see or interact with the faculty member.  You can also swing by their office. It’s not hard, just say, “Hey Dr. X, I’m applying for ThisKindOfPosition, would you be able and willing to give me some help with my application?”  That’s it! So simple! As always, if you get a ‘yes’, follow up with email.

2) Ask by email.  This requires less timing to figure out- you can send it at any time.  It is slightly less personal, though. Particularly if you don’t have a strong relationship with your mentor, email may be a little too impersonal.  They may not remember working with you and you may get somewhat tepid assistance if they don’t know you well. If you choose to email, take a similar tack to in-person: a short email along the lines of, “Hello Dr. X, I am applying for ThisKindOfPosition this <timeframe> and was wondering if you would be able and willing to provide advice on the process and look over my materials?  Any help you can give would be appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you so much!”

Now you know why and how.  Go out there and get help! What obstacles do you experience in seeking out help with your career?

The Vetducator Podcast- Dr. Diehl

Podcast Episode 5 – Dr. Katie Diehl

Dr. Diehl and I worked together at the same institution and enjoyed discussing and engaging in research. Since I left, we have continued to work together and have some great collaborations. Dr. Diehl talks about the unique circumstances of finding and obtaining an ophthalmology residency as well as what she looks for in candidates and how she likes to help students be successful.

Internship Letters of Recommendation Flowchart

Last week we did a whole series on letters of recommendation. One of the most complex is for those applying for internships. Therefore, I created a (relatively simple) flowchart to help you decide what letters of recommendation you should get for internship applications.  

Core disciplines are internal medicine, surgery, and emergency/critical care.

Ancillary disciplines are cardiology, neurology, oncology, anesthesiology, and radiology.  

Peripheral disciplines are anyone outside your species focus (e.g. you are applying for a large animal rotating internship and the letter-writer is a small animal internist), ophthalmology, dermatology, pathology, behavior, theriogenology, and ABVP specialties.

The Vetducator - internship letters of recommendation flowchart.
Click for larger image.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation for a Faculty Position

The Vetducator - letters of recommendation series image.

Aim for zero.  Seriously. The faculty selection process is largely based on the interview.  All of your written materials are designed with only one goal: to get you an interview.  Once you interview, all of your written materials will be of minimal value, unless those materials ‘ding’ you.  Therefore, your strategy is simple: aim for zero.

Consider what those recruiting a faculty member want out of a candidate.  They want someone personable and low maintenance. No department chair wants to recruit someone who is going to be a pain in their side.  Your letters, therefore, should primarily speak to your collegiality. Therefore, you can get letters from three sources: supervisors, colleagues, and mentees.

Supervisors.  See the above description of what a department head is looking for.  If your current head can write that you are low maintenance and highly productive, that makes it easy to offer you an interview.  If you are finishing your residency, obtain at least one letter from a faculty mentor, and preferably two.

Colleagues.  This could be someone in your discipline and someone outside your discipline.  If possible, a letter from each of these is ideal. It’s important to demonstrate that you can get on with others in your discipline as well as those outside of your discipline.  You should definitely have at least one and preferably two letters from colleagues.

Mentees. These are preferably residents who have now gone on to bigger and better things.  If you are an administrator, they may be faculty you have supervised. In general it is better to solicit letters from people with whom you no longer work- that way there is no concern of inappropriate pressure applied to them.  If you trained a resident, they loved you, and they are out in the world as a specialist, they have no pressure to write you a good letter except that they loved working with you. If you are a resident, a more junior resident or a former intern who liked working with you may be good.  This category is not a requirement and these letters of recommendation should be considered additional to the core letters.

I strongly advise you get at least one letter from a supervisor and one letter from a colleague.  You need people who will speak to your collegiality and productivity/work ethic. Ask potential writers if they are willing to write a good letter, send them the position description, and give them plenty of notice/time to put a letter together.  Remember your goal: get an interview.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation for a Residency

The Vetducator - letters of recommendation series image.

The letters of recommendation for a residency are key.  These people will hopefully not only write you a letter but advocate for you in the residency selection process.  Fortunately, the strategy for this letter is simpler than the strategy for letters of recommendation for an internship.  I really have only two guidelines:

1) All of your letters should be from someone in the specialty to which you are applying unless it violates (2).

2) At least one of your letters MUST be from where you are currently working.  If you are doing an internship, all of your letters can’t be from your student days.  If you are doing a specialty internship, all of your letters can’t be from your student or rotating intern days.

My recommendation is therefore as follows:

At least 1 letter from a specialist in the field at your current institution.  The more the better.

If you do not have a specialist in your field at your current institution, get a recommendation from someone in a core discipline (internal medicine, surgery, emergency/critical care).

The balance of letters can be from specialists not at your current institution.

The reason you need a letter of recommendation from someone at your current institution, even if they are not in your specialty, is to demonstrate that you are not a monster.  If I were to read an application from someone from a private practice internship- which did not have an anesthesiologist- and they had 4 letters of recommendation from anesthesiologists from where they went to school, I would wonder, “Did they peak in vet school?  Is there NO ONE working with them now who can vouch for their medical competence? Anesthesia includes knowledge of information from all kinds of disciplines- if they can’t do basic medicine, will they be a competent anesthesiologist?”

In general, more letters from people in your specialty is good.  If you have your choice of specialists, those more well-known or connected may be slightly preferable.  But a great letter from just any surgeon is probably better than an OK letter from a renowned surgeon. If at all possible, those writing for you should already be boarded and have a lot of experience writing letters of recommendation. If this is not possible, unboarded people in your specialty will have to do.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation for an Internship

The Vetducator - letters of recommendation series image.

You want to get a great internship and you need letters of recommendation.  Hopefully, you have followed the advice already given to let potential letter writers know of your interest and asked them ahead of time.  In addition to strategizing your clinic rotation selection, you need to strategize who should write you letters of recommendation. First, let’s look at some caution areas.

1) The vet you have worked for since high school.  Most non-academic veterinarians do not know how to write a good letter of recommendation.  I have read dozens of letters from these professionals and, though they are very positive, they are not very helpful to me as an evaluator.

2) The non-veterinary boss.  Unless you worked in a veterinary research lab in vet school or undergrad, any paid employer is unlikely to know enough about clinical veterinary medicine to write you a compelling letter of recommendation.

3) Only letters from outside your institution.  If I get an application from a student from the South Harmon Institute of Technology and NONE of their letters are from faculty at South Harmon, I get instantly suspicious.  Is this applicant difficult to work with, so those at their home institution would not write a good letter for them? You should have at least half of your letters from faculty at your home institution.

4) Letters from the non-clinical field.  If you are applying for a clinical internship, you need people who can speak to your clinical acumen.  If you did a rotation in microbiology, that may be interesting, but may not bear on your abilities as a clinician.  If you did research with someone whom you did not work with on clinics, that also falls into this group. If you can get your letters without resorting to one from this domain, that would be better.

Now that we have gotten the problem areas out of the way, whom SHOULD you ask?

1) Core clinical discipline faculty.  This is surgery, internal medicine, and emergency/critical care.  If you don’t have a stellar performance in at least one of those disciplines, you probably won’t make a very good intern.  If you can get letters only from core clinical discipline faculty, great.

2) Ancillary clinical discipline faculty.  This is cardiology, neurology, anesthesiology, oncology, and radiology.  These disciplines are clinically oriented and interface with many other disciplines.  You may have 1-2 letters from this group in total.

3) Peripheral clinical discipline faculty.  This is anyone outside your species focus (e.g. you are applying for a large animal rotating internship and the letter-writer is a small animal internist), ophthalmology, dermatology, pathology, behavior, theriogenology, and ABVP specialties (unless you are applying to an internship in one, such as shelter or exotic animal).  You may have 1 letter from this group in total.

You have 3 letters of recommendation at a minimum and up to 4.  Therefore, my recommendations are thus:

2+ letters from core disciplines

+/- 1 letter from an ancillary discipline

+/- 1 letter from a peripheral clinical discipline OR outside your home institution

If you cannot find people to write you good letters based on this recommendation, you may ‘downgrade’ each category.  Realize that, if you only have letters of reference from peripheral clinical discipline faculty, your application is likely to be looked at with substantial skepticism.  The intern year is a time to hone your core clinical skills. The program evaluators want to make sure you have at least some basis in those core domains before accepting you into their program.  Make sure your recommendation writers demonstrate your core medical knowledge.

Choosing Letters of Recommendation as an Undergrad

The Vetducator - Letters of recommendation series image.

So you’re planning to apply to vet school and need letters of recommendation.  These should be easy to ask for, but who to ask? There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for this, so let’s look at the options.

1) A vet with whom you have worked.  This is probably at a private practice clinic in your hometown where you had spent time volunteering or working.  This is a solid choice. This person knows veterinary medicine and hopefully knows you. The only drawback is they are probably not experienced at writing letters of recommendation, so they may not know the ‘right’ things to write.

2) A non-vet college professor.  This is probably in a higher-level course with a smaller class size so you got to know the professor.  These experiences can range widely- I have had students I barely knew from a 1-credit self-defense class to students with whom I have worked closely on a research project for two years ask me for letters.  The more connection you have with the professor, the better. The less connection you have, the more generic the letter will be, along the lines of, “I didn’t notice this student being bad. They got a fine grade.  They are probably not a monster.” You want a personal letter which can speak to your strengths. Plan accordingly.

3) A vet college professor.  This is like winning the jackpot and, unless you are very strategic, is more likely to happen by chance than intention.  If a class you take is taught by a veterinarian AND the class is a small one where the professor knows your name, this is the best case scenario. This person knows the industry and knows you and knows what selection committees look for, therefore can write a highly effective letter.

4) Non-veterinary bosses.  If you have worked as a veterinary technician or in some skilled, paid employment for anything more than a year, these can be helpful.  If you served ice cream at Baskin Robbins for a summer, probably not very helpful to get a letter from your boss.

5) Anyone else.  This includes friends who are professionals, non-academic non-veterinary mentors, and presidents of organizations of which you are a part.  In general these are not particularly valuable, and should only serve as a last resort.

You can usually submit at least 3 letters of recommendation for vet school.  Opinions may differ, but I generally recommend you have at least one veterinarian and at least one college professor who knows you reasonably well.  You want people who can speak to your professional preparedness and fit for the job and can speak to your academic competence and dedication. If possible, you want people who have experience writing good letters of recommendation. This can be hard to determine, but you may be able to ask them, especially the vets with whom you have worked, since their writing skill can vary widely.  What letters of recommendation are you unsure about soliciting?

Recommendation Letters Series

The Vetducator - interconnectedness image for recommendations.

Asking for letters of recommendation is hard, which we have discussed before. In addition, from whom should you get letters of recommendation? This differs depending on what position you are applying for, I have create four separate posts for each of my audiences:

Those applying for vet school.

Those applying for internships.

Those applying for residencies.

Those applying for faculty positions.

I will be posting one a day this week to have them consolidated all in one spot. I hope they are helpful to you!