Tag Archives: happiness

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 have two easily accessible options: do a fellowship or volunteer your time.

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

You Can Live a Lavish Life on an Academic Salary

No, you can’t buy this ridiculous vehicle. You shouldn’t on ANY salary.

One of the most common complaints I hear about academia is that the salary is lower than private practice, sometimes substantially lower.  While this is factually correct, I have never understood this argument. Most academic specialists make at least $100k a year, sometimes quite a bit more, which is way more than you need.  Then there are the benefits, which are almost always better in academia than in private practice.  The opportunity to earn a PENSION? This is guaranteed money for the rest of your life once you retire.  I have never heard of anyone getting a pension from private practice, no matter how large the company.

If you calculate the value of the benefits, academia pays much more than the cash salary you earn.  I’ve heard some practices don’t chip in for health insurance or retirement- that is HUGE! So it’s hard to compare private practice apples to academia oranges. In addition, many academic institutions give you consulting time, which is time off during which you can go locum elsewhere and make more money.  Unless you have a chronic illness which continually drains your resources, academia pays enough. Even if you have huge student loans. Let’s look at how.

Let’s assume you make $100k a year as an academic- a pretty low salary for any specialist.  This puts you in the 24% marginal tax rate. With social security, health insurance, and other cuts taken out, let’s say this leaves you with $5000 a month in take-home after-tax after-benefit pay.  Now let’s break down expenses for a single person without roommates. This is a pretty free-wheeling estimate since this isn’t a personal finance blog, but it will serve as an illustration.

ExpenseAmount/Month
Mortgage ($200k house @ 4%)$950
Property taxes & insurance$200
Groceries$500
Transportation (gas, taxes, etc.)$400
Eating Out$100
Utilities (power, internet, etc.)$150
Cell Phone$50
Clothes, household items$100
Misc$200
TOTAL$2,650
SAVINGS$2,350

There are several assumptions made in these calculations.  Houses in most college towns are inexpensive (apologies if you decided to take a job at UC Davis).  Transportation is based off a 10-minute commute- college towns are usually small. You could dramatically cut your transportation costs by living in biking or walking distance to work.  You can increase your income by getting a roommate, dramatically offsetting your housing costs. Even if you have high student loans, you can pay them off in a few years and begin saving for retirement with this salary.

Maybe all of this sounds like deprivation to you.  Maybe you want to buy a huge house, drive an expensive car, and eat out every night.  But… do you really? Is that what will make you happy? Because the science for this is NOT on your side.  The science says the paths to real, meaningful happiness are through the purposeful life and the meaningful life, not the hedonic life.  And this is NOT a deprivation lifestyle. If you need more evidence, check out this blog which explains how you can have a great life without wasting tons of money.

So, there, if you want to have a nice quality of life as an educator or researcher or academic clinician, you can do so.  You have a flexible schedule, intellectual engagement, meaningful engagement (helping students AND animals AND clients), purposeful engagement (great flow during clinics or research or teaching), and you will make PLENTY OF MONEY.  OK, bring on the arguments in favor of making tons of money in private practice.

Special Announcement: Realize.VET Interview!

Dr. K, the host of Realize.VET, did an interview with me recently and got it posted quickly! You can find it at the link below. We talk about all sorts of topics I think would be helpful for you on your path through veterinary medicine. Check it out!

Special Announcement: Podcast a Vet Interview!

Dr. John Arnold, the host of Podcast a Vet, did an interview with me last week and already has it up! You can find it at the link below. We talk about all sorts of topics I think would be helpful for you on your path through veterinary medicine. Check it out!

https://podcastavet.com/podcast/erik-hofmeister-reasonable-human-being

How to Choose a Veterinary School

The Vetducator image of vet school debt and satisfaction with value.

It’s the culmination of your lifelong dream- you are finally applying to vet school!  Congratulations! It is an exciting and scary time. You are starting to make substantial decisions which will affect your life and career.  Some people may fret over where to apply to vet school. Fortunately, it’s a surprisingly simple decision-making matrix.

Is there a state school where you live?  If yes, apply there. You do not want to pay more for your educational than absolutely necessary.  Your in-state school is probably the least expensive option.

If there is not a state school, does your state participate in a cooperative program with another vet school, such as Delaware with Georgia or WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher education) with several western schools?  If yes, apply to the associated school.

Is there something odd about your application that may make it difficult to get into your state school?  If yes, you may apply to out-of-state schools, private schools, and overseas schools. Realize that the tremendous financial cost of these options may be a monkey on your back for most of your life.

That’s it.  There’s no consideration of ranking.  You know what they call the person who graduated from the bottom-ranked school in the country?  “Doctor”. You can get a good education anywhere and you can get a bad education anywhere- it is up to the individual student.  This isn’t law or politics. Your employer will not care from where you graduated. Keep your costs down. Graduate debt-free if possible.  Then enjoy your full, free life.

DrShaverVetducatorPodcast

Podcast Episode 2 – Dr. Stephanie Shaver

DrShaverVetducatorPodcast

Dr. Shaver and I go way back to when she was an intern and we wrote a short paper published in JAVMA together. We got to work together for a couple of years recently and started a bajillion research projects as we think a lot alike. She was generous enough to offer to be our first veterinarian interviewed for the blog. Enjoy!

Links to topics brought up in this episode:

Maximize Your Senior Year for Internship Success

There is No Ideal Applicant

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?