Tag Archives: career

Should you Do a 4-Year Residency?

Ridiculous switchbacks at Angel’s Landing in Zion remind me of the path to residency.

Most residencies in veterinary medicine are three years, with a handful of two-year programs out there for some specialties.  In recent years, the four-year residency has become more common. This is typically a residency in a highly competitive specialty, such as surgery.  In effect, the institution is getting you for an extra year for very little pay- they get a reasonably competent specialist for resident pay as opposed to faculty pay.  The advantage for the applicant is that a 4-year residency may be less competitive, because some applicants are not willing to sacrifice another year of their life for low pay and delaying their career.  So the rub is, should you apply for a four year program?

The principle advantage of pursuing a four-year program is that there are fewer applicants for such programs than for three-year programs.  So, you may be more likely to be accepted into one than into a three year program. The consequences are that you have another year as a resident, instead of getting to start your career as a specialist.  You delay moving to your next destination. Maybe you delay finding relationships (romantic and fraternal). You delay earning Real Money. If you are fanatically dedicated to the discipline and don’t care about the consequences to your life and career, a four-year program may be acceptable.

The disadvantage of a four-year program is primarily time.  In a three-year program, you would be done and then earning a decent salary by your ‘fourth’ year.  You would also be considered a specialist, and able to apply for private practice or university positions.  A four year position is adding 33% of your residency time to your life timeline. Another year may not seem like much now, but you will never get that year back.

Ultimately, four-year residencies are designed to take advantage of the competitiveness of some disciplines and take advantage of those applicants who are desperate.  The institutions get a year of low-cost high-skilled labor from your fourth year. You get a residency you may not have otherwise gotten. It’s a difficult balance and exemplifies the principles of capitalism: a balance between supply and demand.  What you need to ask yourself is: Are you willing to be inexpensive labor for a year in order to get a residency?

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 is FTE and why do you Need to Know It?

This is important for anyone applying for a faculty position.  The FTE is a core part of every faculty position. It dictates how you’ll spend your time, how you will be evaluated, and what the main focus of the position is.  The FTE, or sometimes EFT, means “Full-Time Equivalent” or “Equivalent Full Time”, and is divided among teaching, research, service, and administration. The FTE always should total up to 100% for a full-time position.

Every academic position includes the classic triumvirate: teaching, research, and service.  How much you do is dictated by your FTE. Teaching includes didactic teaching and perhaps clinical teaching, depending on the institution.  Research dictates the amount of publications and extramural funding required in your position. Service is divided among clinical service and other responsibilities, such as committee work.

The service component for clinical faculty is arguably the most important variable, as that dictates how much time you spend on clinic duty.  It’s tremendously difficult to do research or didactic teaching on clinics, so the more service time you have, the less you will be able to do the other domains.  Tenure-track clinical faculty typically have approximately 50% service. Clinical-track faculty typically have approximately 66% service. Non-clinical faculty may have very low service FTE; for example, pharmacology faculty may have 5% FTE which reflects their committee responsibilities.

The research component indicates what is expected in the realm of scholarly activity.  This differs by the institution, but in general a low research FTE, such as 5-10%, usually indicates an expectation for case reports, case series, or contributing authorship on other people’s works.  A high FTE, such as over 50%, usually has the expectation of significant extramural funding. Many tenure-track clinical faculty have a research FTE between 20-30%, which indicates they should have some publications and, depending on the institution, possibly some extramural funding.

Teaching often covers the balance of the FTE, and I suspect for most institutions it is not clear what the teaching FTE translates to, with respect to the number of hours spent in the classroom.  For example, is course coordinator for a 1-credit class worth 5% FTE or 10% FTE? Or some other value? I suspect few institutions have this down to an equation, but if yours does, please share below.  As a general rule, the greater your classroom teaching time, the higher your teaching FTE, but this is relative to others in your institution and may be fairly fuzzy.

Administration FTE is typically reserved for section chiefs, directors, department chairs, and other administrative roles.  Section chiefs may have a small administrative FTE- such as 5%- whereas department chairs often have 50% or more. Most regular faculty do not have any administrative FTE.

The FTE distribution I held as an associate professor and section head was 40% instruction, 35% service, 15% research, and 10% administration.  The FTE distribution I held as a department head was 20% teaching, 35% service, 20% research, and 25% administration.

Realize that a full-time faculty position does not necessarily mean 35 hours a week, or 40 hours a week, or 60 hours a week.  Like any good workplace, academia is results-oriented. Some weeks you may work 20 hours, some 60 hours. The FTE indicates your relative distribution of your time, NOT how many hours you work.

The FTE is usually a component of the job description and should be a component of the offer letter.  You want to know what you are getting in to. The FTE may change slightly from year to year, but it shouldn’t change dramatically unless your job duties change dramatically.  You need to know what FTE you have for any faculty job to which you apply.

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.

There is No Ideal Applicant

The Vetducator Puzzle Piece Image

Most people who apply to a position want to be the ideal candidate.  Employers want the ideal candidate, so they get a quality employee who will stay for the long term and not cause waves.  Applicants want the ideal position, to progress their career and to maximize happiness.  Sadly, there is no such thing as the ideal candidate or the ideal position.  There’s only a good fit.

This became evident to me with one of my first residents.  Our training program was designed to provide a high degree of autonomy to the residents. They chose how to spend their off-clinic time, what rotations to take, what research to pursue, how to study, etc.  This worked great when I came through the program- I did external rotations at UCD in Ireland and at Royal Perth Hospital in Australia, I got five papers submitted for publication, and I passed the written section of boards the first time.  This also worked great for the resident who came after me. But the next resident did not have a high degree of internal motivation. He needed a more structured program.

He had difficulty with deciding how to spend his time, did not seek out advice, and generally did not efficiently use his time.  Ultimately he ended up not completing the program. I don’t see that as a failing of his or a failing of the program.  It was a bad fit.  Our program worked well with highly internally motivated residents and he needed a program which would tell him what to do and when.  Subsequent residents were highly successful once we identified that we needed to tell residents about this feature of our program. We would tell applicants what our program was like during the interview, and if they needed more structure, there were great programs that could provide that out there.  But ours was not one of them.

There are good programs.  There are good candidates.  But there is no perfect program or perfect candidate.  

You have to be extremely honest with yourself:  

What can you tolerate?  

What kind of person are you?  

How do you like to work?  

Do you want to be the top in your field and climb over the bodies of your fallen enemies or are you happy just doddering along doing your thing and being happy?

How many hours and how hard do you ACTUALLY want to work?  

Do you need the social status attendant with being in a top program?  

Do you want high income, or more free time, lots of students/interns/residents to train, lots of time for research, more contact with students, or more time in the classroom?  

Spend time dwelling on what you actually genuinely want.

This is less critical for internships- they are only a year, and you can tolerate almost anything for that span of time.  When evaluating residencies and faculty positions, though, ask a lot of questions to make sure you would actually be happy where you are applying.  Don’t just accept anything- your life is too short to waste it being miserable. Do you have a tale of a good position not being a good fit or visa versa?