Tag Archives: career satisfaction

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.

How to be Successful: Kaizen

The Vetducator - Kaizen kanji.

I spent a tremendous amount of time preparing for my interview for a department chair position.  My talk was about the psychology of motivation, as I believe that is a core principle to understand when leading people. I focused on Self-Determination Theory, which states that people are internally motivated by autonomy, competence, and relatedness with others.  When discussing the competence domain, I wanted to try and express a concept I had been living my whole life, manifested most obviously in my martial arts training.

When you begin training in martial arts, regardless of your age or athleticism, you begin as a white belt.  No matter what talents you bring to martial arts, you start at the beginning because you don’t know about about this specific skill.  As you learn, you progress through clearly delineated ranks. Do this skill correctly, then earn this rank. It makes skill progression visible and tangible.

I have been training in martial arts since I was 12, so this process was largely invisible to me- it was just a way of life.  OBVIOUSLY, if you practice more, you get better at the skill. That is what a growth mindset gets you. But, to get really good, you need to not only train.  You need to identify what you need to improve, work on improving it, then evaluate your performance and improvement. This can be conceptualized in the plan-do-act-check cycle, which is a component of Kaizen.

Kaizen means “good improvement” and describes a cycle of continuous improvement.  The Toyota Corporation was an early adopter of Kaizen, and the principle became more widespread and accepted in the past few decades.  Although originally used in industrial processes, the principle can be applied to any human pursuit. Applying Kaizen speaks to the competence domain of Self-Determination: you get better at something, which increases your competence, which makes you want to do it more.

What can you do to continue to improve in life?  Here are some suggestions:

1) Learn a skill.  “I’m already learning a skill, Vetducator- how to be a vet! (or a better vet)”  Yes, but you can learn other skills, too. I prefer movement-related ones like dancing and martial arts, but maybe you like learning coding, or home repair/maintenance, or cat training.  This is valuable because you never know when learning something new will help you in another area, it keeps your mind sharp, and it keeps you in the HABIT of learning new things.  Find something FUN to learn.

2) Read a book.  “I am reading so many books already for school, Vetducator!”  Yes, but you need to develop non-veterinary skills and knowledge, too.  I prefer non-fiction books for this development, but fiction books can expand your vocabulary and provide other improvements.  I have been on a recent kick reading books about teaching, so I get to expand my knowledge of teaching.

3) Practice social skills.  If you’re already an adroit, socially-competent person, you can skip this.  For the other 99% of us, you can ALWAYS practice interacting better with other humans.  And I don’t mean acting more extroverted, bouncy, and outgoing. Maybe your focus is you need to listen more, maybe you need to think about treating people with more respect, maybe you want to smile more.  I think everyone can improve on this.

4) Diet and exercise.  This is a common trope today, but it is nonetheless useful.  Don’t know how to cook a vegetarian meal? Practice. Not good at making bread?  Practice. Can only do one pull up? Practice. Keep getting better, even if it is incremental.

This principle applies to being a better student/intern/resident/faculty member because you want to be the best one of those you can be.  The ‘best’ will look different depending on the individual, but the principle is to be constantly improving. You don’t need to push yourself every single day (unless you enjoy that!).  But you should always be looking at how you can improve. Don’t just tread water. If you want to be successful, if you want to be a +1, you need continuous improvement.

If you want to get better, it’s not enough to just want it and hope it comes to you.  You need to make efforts and you will achieve. Don’t stop.

How to be Successful: Be Appreciative

The Vetducator - Be a superstar in appreciation of people image.

We were flying home this weekend and saw a guy in first class who wasn’t exactly bad; he just acted entitled.  The steward had to ask him twice to put his computer away. On landing, the steward had to tell him to buckle his seatbelt.  Before takeoff, the steward was asking everyone loudly about a backpack and no one answered; it turned out it was this guy’s pack and he was just ignoring the steward.  He drummed his fingers loudly and hummed, disrupting other passengers. It’s possible he has never flown before and doesn’t know normal air travel etiquette, but I think it’s more likely that he just feels entitled.

I believe a feeling of entitlement is the antithesis of being appreciative.  When we fly, we realize what a goddamn miracle it is. We are hurtling through space at incredible speeds with remarkable comfort and luxury.  We obey all the rules and try not to disturb the attendants at all. We appreciate how amazing the experience is and want to be Low Maintenance.  This sense of appreciation is key to a happy life and personal relationships, but it is also key to being an excellent student/intern/resident/faculty member.

Do you appreciate the technical staff?  I read a letter of recommendation recently where the writer pointed out that the candidate regularly thanked the technicians and the techs loved working with this applicant.  Holy crap, this student appreciated the technical staff to the point where a faculty member noticed? That stands out to me as an evaluator. That tells me this person cares about other people and appreciates them. This will translate into greater success for them in all professional paths, so of course I want to recruit this person!  They will be an awesome resident and great specialist, spreading positivity where they go and enhancing the reputation of our program.

Do you appreciate your mentors?  They spend lots of time helping you, training you, and giving you advice.  Hopefully, you express some thanks for what they give to you.

Do you appreciate your peers?  Your students? Everyone around you in the veterinary world is working together as a team.  All it takes is a quick “thanks”. If someone went out of their way or they did a great job that day, finding them and saying, “Thank you, Sean, for rocking out the cases today!”  It’s genuine, it makes people feel good, it makes you feel good, it builds positive relationships, and it makes people enjoy their work.

If you can be someone who brings positivity, and not negativity, to work, you are bringing excellent value to that program.  If you want to be recognized as a great student, intern, resident, or faculty member, be appreciative. You don’t have to be happy all the time, or bow and scrape to anyone.  But if you give a genuine word of thanks now and again, it will work wonders for your career. Do you remember a time when someone sincerely thanked you? How did that make you feel?  Share in the comments!

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.

Words of Caution for the Aspiring Vet Student

The Vetducator - caution for vet school applicants and aspirants.

Being a veterinarian is a lifelong dream for many.  Animals are such an emotional part of so many lives when growing up, it’s natural that children want to get a job where they can help animals.  For many, that seed is planted deep and grows, consuming their life’s direction and passion. For others, being a vet seems like a neat idea, just one of many possible professional paths.  Your motivations for going to vet school don’t matter nearly so much as how content you will be with the decision. This is The Vetducator’s What You Should Know About Vet School Before you Apply.

  1. You will work extremely hard.  If hard work and learning isn’t your thing, find a different path.  Some students fail veterinary school. How is it possible, since we’re picking the top students?  Simple: undergrad and even grad school do not prepare you for vet school. Some people can’t handle the time and intellectual pressure.
  2. When it comes to the social dynamics of vet school, vet school is high school.  You will be with the same people all day, every day, for four years. Cliques form, relationships get made and destroyed, egos are built and crushed.  If you think it’s some enlightened bastion of higher learning, think again. It’s not a reason not to go, but you should be prepared.
  3. It is incredibly expensive.  Vet school, if you plan to be a general practice veterinarian, is not a good financial investment.  Ask yourself if you could be happy doing something else. Your instinctive answer is “No! I have to be a vet to be happy!”  I believe this is extremely naive. You don’t know what will make you happy until you get there. In fact, we have very good evidence that humans adapt amazingly well to their experience.  Imagine losing your arm, or your sight- can you imagine yourself being as happy as if you had the arm or your sight? Probably not, but in studies people who experience some ‘adverse’ life changing event are just as happy as those who do not.  Think long and hard about the return on investment. And absolutely do not go to a private school for vet school. Although some of them are fantastic, you will be so incredibly in debt your happiness will be reduced because of it. If you can’t get in to your state school, find a different career.
  4. You may not have a job.  Before 2008, it was believed veterinary medicine is recession proof.  Well, the global financial collapse proved that to be wrong. I remember many years when new graduates did not have jobs by graduation.  Veterinary schools are admitting more students, and more veterinary schools are popping up all the time. The market will be flooded again and, if that aligns with an economic downturn when you graduate, what will you do?  Particularly if you are deeply in debt from going to a private school?

I am tempted to end on some warm-hearted, encouraging note, but I have to be honest with you.  Veterinarians have a high rate of suicide. We work long hours and clients scream at us for being money-grubbers who don’t care about their pets.  Serious injury from being bitten or kicked is not uncommon. You can certainly make a good life being a veterinarian, but you can also make a good life doing a lot of other things.  Academic veterinary medicine has been good to me, but I think I could have been just as happy doing, say, biochemistry. Maybe you could be, too.

What Can you Negotiate For in a Faculty Position?

Well, you’ve made it!  You got an offer for an academic position.  You have said yes, they are excited you are coming, and all that is left is hammering out the details.  It is always possible things will fall apart during this process, but remember: everyone wants this to work out.  No department chair wants a failed search and no prospective faculty member wants to sacrifice what they need to be successful.  We’ll talk elsewhere about how to do negotiations, but now let’s look at WHAT you can negotiate.

1) Salary. This is pretty obvious and is sometimes the only thing prospective faculty think to negotiate.

2) Signing bonus.  Although rare in veterinary medicine, and some institutions don’t allow them at all, if you have extenuating circumstances (such as a very early start date) you can always ask.  Some institutions will wrap this into the moving expenses.

3) Moving expenses.  Some institutions have a maximum they allow- such as up to 10% of the offered salary- whereas others are less restricted.  Your best bet is to get an actual quote or two to use as data for the negotiation. “I have a quote for moving which will cost $8,000.” Is different than, “Can I please have $8,000 for moving expenses?”  The latter is perfectly fine, of course, but the former is more likely to get you the amount for which you ask.

4) Student research support.  If you want to ensure funding for your first Ph.D. student, or even for a vet student to do research with you during the summer, you can ask for that.  It is rare that this funding will be in perpetuity- it will usually be for a finite amount of time until you can secure extramural funds.

5) Full Time Equivalent (FTE).  You should know what the FTE for the position is to which you applied, and you shouldn’t stray largely from that amount.  For example, if you applied for a 66% clinic time FTE, were happy with that throughout the process, and now pivot and ask for a 50% clinic time FTE, they will not be happy.  The job is for 66% time. However, if it is for a tenure-track position and you think you can finagle things a certain way, you may be able to ask for 40% or 45% instead of 50% clinic time.  Be aware that this will affect the other faculty members in the discipline and may be impossible. Research and teaching FTE are more easily adjusted/negotiated. Regardless, I strongly suggest that you have your FTE in your offer letter.

6) Clinic equipment.  This can be anything as simple as a patient scale that’s needed in a key area to a renal dialysis unit.  If there is something you feel you need for ideal patient care or teaching, ask for it. I recommend reaching out to the existing faculty members to find out if they have any identified needs.  You can always ask for the stars, and if they give you less, then decide how important that is. Particularly if the clinic is dramatically behind the times or you are in a specialty with an expensive equipment need (e.g. radiology), this could be $500k or more.  Be as detailed as possible here, but you probably won’t have time to get official quotes.

7) Research equipment.  If you expect to have a lab or extramural funding, make sure they have the core equipment you need or make sure it is in your offer letter.

8) Startup funds.  This is money which is generally open to being spent however you need- office furniture, expendable research supplies, etc.

9) Time off.  Particularly if you have made a commitment to an event (like a conference) and the timeline is short, you can specify that you need certain time off.  If it has been years since you had a vacation, you may be able to specify several weeks of vacation even in the first year, before you have earned enough vacation time.  Realize that this is likely to be unpaid leave.

10) Staff, residents, or faculty salary lines.  This is a permanent or temporarily funded full-time position.  These are often extremely difficult to negotiate for, but they are possible.  I know of one person who had an offer for a faculty position who got a commitment for 3 residents and another faculty member in their offer letter.  It is likely the institution was looking to grow the program anyway, but you never know when your interests and the institutional direction will align.  If you see a strong need, you can make a case for it.

11) Spousal hire.  I will have a whole section on negotiating the spousal hire, but this is a possibility in the United States.  Most countries outside the U. S. don’t understand the concept, so you can ask but may not get anywhere.

12) A paid visit before the start date.  This is usually to look for housing, or for your spouse to see the area.  Some institutions don’t allow this as a matter of course and instead will wrap it into moving expenses.  Make sure it includes your significant other (if applicable).

13) Time off for studying for boards.  If you need to take boards, this should absolutely be in your offer letter.  I would recommend including a stipulation about time off to study in subsequent years in the event you don’t pass the first year.

It is possible there are things which basic scientists may ask for and of which I am unaware, but these are the major categories I can think of.  Do you know of any others? Do you have any concerns about how to negotiate your offer or what to ask for? Post in the comments!

Should You Do an Internship?

The Vetducator two paths diverge.

Vet school is difficult.  By the end of four years, many people just Want Out.  They want to start making money, they want to have their freedom, they don’t want to be away from their family at all hours of the day.  Others want to learn more. They want to become excellent clinicians, they want to push their knowledge, and they want to focus their knowledge.  Both paths are fine. You have to know yourself to decide if you should do an internship or not.

First, ask yourself how prepared you feel as a general practice clinician.  Most veterinary schools are excellent at training specialists. They have tertiary care hospitals where specialists see strange cases which are good practice material for residents.  This is not a good setting for training general practitioners. As a GP, you need to know how to handle common situations, not zebras. If you arranged your senior year so that you had plenty of opportunities for primary care experience, you may be ready to practice.  I believe most students graduating from most programs would benefit from further training.

Second, can you afford an internship?  There are opportunity costs because you will be making less than you would in practice.  The actual salary is usually quite low, and supporting a family on one may be difficult. You are also delaying saving for retirement.

Finally, and, most importantly, what do you want out of your professional career?  In a recent study we did, we interviewed senior students who were planning to enter an internship or enter private practice.  Those pursuing an internship were more interested in competence- getting better at being a clinician. Those pursuing private practice were more interested in autonomy- getting to decide how they spend their time and money.  Sit with yourself and contemplate which you want from your life.

Before I left one institution, I told students they should all do internships, because there was so much more they needed to learn to be competent practitioners.  After working at another institution, I have seen a model which prepares students well for general practice, and I believe students graduating from some programs may be competent at the time of graduation.  Don’t assume your first position will train you properly. Every new graduate goes to a practice which promises “great mentoring”. Maybe most of them get it, but we have all heard horror stories of starting a new job and the boss hands you the keys and takes off for Hawaii.  There are bad internship programs, too, so doing an internship is no guarantee of great mentoring. But, in general, you are more likely to get great mentoring from an internship than most private practices.

Although it is not strictly true, it is generally true that, once you are ‘out’ of academia, it is harder to get back in.  As with all major career decisions, talk to friends and family and mentors. Share in the comments what has factored in to your decision-making with regards to internship vs. private practice.

Leave a Faculty Job with Class

People routinely change jobs, even in a small field like academic veterinary medicine.  Sometimes people go into private practice, or enter from private practice. Sometimes moves are necessary due to family circumstances.  In the worst case, sometimes the institution where you are working is not a good situation for you. Whatever the reason, you need to make sure to leave the job as a professional and, no matter how tempting, not burn bridges.  Here are some helpful guidelines for navigating this process.

1) Give plenty of notice.  This may differ depending on your situation and the institution.  Are you the only pathologist or one of five? If the service to which you belong is very small or you know the position will be very difficult to replace, more notice is better.  Two weeks’ notice is what is given out in the real world and is generally not looked on favorably in academia. At least one month, preferably two, and ideally up to four months is the minimum amount of time to give notice.  There may be rare exceptions to this, such as in ethically questionable or abusive situations, but if these happen it should be pretty obvious to everyone.

2) Transfer your projects and classes.  All the work you did while employed by that institution is technically owned by the institution (unless you have some separate intellectual property clause for drug development or device development or similar).  Therefore, all those PowerPoints you wrote should be transferred to your colleagues before you depart. If there are ongoing projects which you cannot supervise from afar, find another responsible faculty member who can take them over.  If there are student mentees you have, make sure someone else will help them out. Don’t leave anyone high and dry. Set your soon-to-be-former colleagues up for success. You’re a professional; act like one.

3) Be genuine.  At the same time as you don’t want to burn any bridges, I believe strongly in transparency.  If people ask why you are leaving, tell them. You can convey factual information in a considerate and professional manner.  For example, if you feel like administration didn’t give you the research support you needed, you can say that as factually and unemotionally as possible.  Try not to take things personally, as tempting as it can be when it comes to jobs and leaving them. Just state the facts and leave it at that. Don’t take out your frustration or resentment (if it exists) when someone asks why you are leaving.

4) If at all possible, time your departure for the summer.  Since most residencies and graduate programs finish in the summer, it is easier to replace you in the summer than in the middle of winter.  Many times this is not possible, but if you have that much freedom, aim for summer.

That’s all there is to it.  I encounter the most objections to #2, because people feel weird (to me) about intellectual property.  Look, those slides you did for the class are not valuable gems of amazing pedagogical perfection. Most instructors will change them or make their own up eventually.  However, that does take time. The first year they may just use your materials, and that’s OK.

You also don’t have to follow these, of course.  They aren’t written down in some secret Faculty Rules Everyone Follows book.  These are just my suggestions for making everything go well. If you don’t want to follow them, fine.  Just be aware of the potential consequences of your decision. And think about how you would want to be treated if you were one of the faculty members left behind at the institution.

Choosing an Academic Job over Private Practice after your Residency

Vetducator - Faculty on clinic rotation image.

I have an obvious pro-academia bias.  Because of that, I am frankly sometimes confused as to why people would choose private practice.  Most clinical faculty members spend 40-70% of their time on clinics. I see this as getting paid to work only 5-8 months a year.  How can working a full 12-month job in private practice compare? I’m not sure, so let’s compare the two first.

Academia Private Practice
Work Week 5 days a week Variable- possibility for 3 or 4 day work week
Hours/Day On clinics: up to 12
Off clinics: as little as 4
8-12 every day you work
Total clinic hours/year 800-1,250 (40% clinics)
1,450-2,200 (70% clinics)
1,900-2,1003,100 (5 days @ 12 hours/day)
Teaching Students, interns,
residents
Possibly interns, rarely students and residents
Research Required, easy to
do/encouraged
Not required, possible to do
Income $110-140k starting Mostly $150-250k; up to $500k for some disciplines with a crushing work schedule
Contribution to Society Helping animals & owners, training next generation Helping animals & owners

From this breakdown, the salient differences from my point of view are: number of clinic work hours, type of work done, and income.  I don’t consider my non-clinic time “work”. I will probably mentor undergrads and vet students in research even when I retire. Now, if doing teaching and research is not fun for you, so you consider it “work” on par with being on clinic duty, then academia is not for you.  Conversely, if being on clinics is not “work” for you, then private practice is a solid choice.

Most people focus on the income difference, but to me this is meaningless.  Even if you have student debt, a six-figure salary is a LOT of money. You can do just fine on an academic salary.  Many institutions also allow you to do locums, so you can boost your income by $10-20k easily if needed. In any event, I don’t think you need to make as much as you think you do.  Obviously, you have to be selective- $100k goes a lot further in Stillwater, OK than it does in Philadelphia, PA.

Everyone needs to make a decision which is right for them and their situation.  I just get so frustrated when people focus on the salary difference. I understand some people want a BMW, but I think they just need to sit and really think about what they want out of life.  I think the quality of life is so much better in academia, and no amount of money will make up for that. I’m always available to talk about it, so please reach out if you are considering a life in academia.