Tag Archives: motivation

Deciding if you are a Good Fit for Research

If you’re an undergrad interested in vet school, or a vet student interested in post-graduate education, research may be an important part of your educational experience.  Sadly, I would say about 50% of students with whom I talk indicate they had a terrible experience with research. Not just a not-positive experience, an actively bad experience.  How did this happen? I believe a large chunk of responsibility rests on the mentors, who didn’t create clear expectations, or who were a bad fit for the student. But it is also because these students didn’t figure out if they were a good fit for research, or didn’t know how to find out if they are a good fit.

The first step is to understand what research will do for you as an undergrad or as a vet student.  In the ideal situation, you discover that it is fun and may form a part of your future career. You may also bolster your application by demonstrating your grit, ability to work with others, and willingness to develop a relationship with a faculty member.  Once you understand the WHY to do research, you can focus on how to get a good fit.

The most important determinant is the faculty mentor.  The type of project and other people involved factor in, but are distant seconds in deciding if research will be a good fit for you.  It’s not about research at all; it’s about a human connection. I believe the two most important variables are communication style and level of direction.

Communication style.  Do you understand what this person says and do you like how they communicate?  If they insist on email, does that work for you, or is anything other than text messaging difficult for you?  Do they make you feel comfortable when you meet or do you leave confused, frustrated, or weirded-out? Ideally, you will find a faculty member with whom you communicate well.

Level of direction.  How much supervision do you need or want?  Do you want to be micromanaged or given vague directions and left alone?  Try to establish this before deciding to work with a faculty member. Of course, you have to know yourself and be honest with yourself first.  One of my greatest frustrations is when I tell students how I work (I give them some direction and then answer questions as they come up and expect them to be self-motivated), but then they turn out to not be self-motivated and require me to crack the whip to get things done.  I don’t like being a whip-cracker. Some faculty members do, and that’s fine. There’s not a right way to do things, just good and bad fits.

Once you have decided you will get along with the faculty member, then you can consider the project.  If the project isn’t interesting to you, will you be able to stick with it and demonstrate your enthusiasm and get a good letter of recommendation?  Is the project relevant to your future professional path? This doesn’t mean you can’t do something fun in social sciences (and I would argue this may be a better research skill to acquire than pipetting things in a lab), but you should be honest with yourself and your motivations for doing research.

Finally, with whom will you be working?  You want to be working primarily with the faculty member.  If you will be dumped off onto a post-doc or a grad student, that is less than ideal and may not suit your needs.  Will there be other students in the research group and do you get to work with them? Collaborating with peers can be fun and a way to improve your internal motivation.  If you’d rather work by yourself, know that and identify projects and research groups where that is the case.

Most people think they either “like research” or “don’t like research.”  I would argue that research work can be just like any other work- extremely fun and engaging or horribly tedious and soul-crushing.  I believe this is not due to the nature of the work itself, but rather the three elements of internal motivation: do you have autonomy, are you getting an interesting skill, and how does it affect your relationship with others?

Making sure you enjoy working with the faculty member (autonomy, relationships), the project (skill acquisition), and co-researchers (relationships) is the best way to decide if doing research will be a good fit for you.  What concerns do you have about doing research as a student?

Should You Commit to Working for a Company in Exchange for Getting a Residency?

The Devil’s Advocate summarizes my feelings on this issue.

In my opinion: no.  If you want a more detailed, analysis, read on.

The first time I encountered this concept, UGA had taken a radiology resident from VCA.  We later took a surgery resident from the military. We also took a surgery resident from another university.  The essential premise is the same: the sponsoring organization (university, company, military, etc.) pays for the resident’s salary (including benefits) and then the resident contractually owes that organization a certain number of years of service after they finish the residency.  Why would anyone do this?

The training institution benefits because they get an ‘extra’ resident.  Resources to find residency positions are limited, but services need to meet their caseload demands.  Residents are an effective way to enhance service delivery. Universities see residents like this as “free” residents- they get the labor of a resident without having to pay for it themselves.  So it’s a good deal for the training institution.

The sponsoring institution benefits because they get a committed specialist for a certain period of time.  Institutions that have a hard time attracting specialists may choose this route so they have a guaranteed specialist at the end of the program.  One problem is that it takes 3 years to train a resident, so if they need someone NOW, this won’t help much. Another problem is that the specialist may not stay once their contract is up, which puts the institution right back in the same position they were before.  So it may be a good deal for certain sponsoring institutions, but may not be a long-term benefit for others.

The individual doing the residency benefits because they get a residency position which they may not have otherwise gotten.  For example, if someone does not get a position through the Matching Program, and they desperately want to do a residency, they could find a sponsoring organization and then get to do a residency.  These positions exist OUTSIDE The Match and are spots in addition to the existing spots offered by training institutions. They then HAVE to work for the sponsoring organization, usually for about 3 years, after finishing the residency.  So it may be a good deal if the individual would have wanted to work for that organization anyway, or if they are basically fine working for them until the contract is up.

Naturally, my idealism clashes dramatically with this free market approach.  I don’t believe anyone should have to sell their time as a specialist in order to get a residency.  It just strikes me as unfair. In an ideal world, these organizations would have to change so that people would WANT to work for them, rather than forcing desperate residency-seekers into a deal with the devil.  In an ideal world, those most deserving of residencies would get them, and those who don’t would be happy with a different life path.

I understand it isn’t an ideal world, and the free market allows for these kinds of contracts.  As long as there are applicants desperate to get a residency, who will do almost anything to get one, these kinds of contracts will persist.  I wish people wouldn’t make these deals, because then organizations would have to improve and actually ATTRACT specialists. But I’m not in charge of the world, and you’re an adult, so you can make your own choices. Just make sure you’ve taken all the benefits and drawbacks into serious consideration before making that choice.

Exorcising Demons

I wrote more than 70 posts for this blog in 6 weeks.  That works out to 1.7 posts per day or almost 12 posts a week. I didn’t set a particularly blazing pace- I wrote an article or three whenever I had some downtime.  I also didn’t set out to write that many that quickly. My goal was to be able to publish twice a week once the blog launched. I also wanted a sufficient backlog so that if a week or two passed without inspiration, there would still be posts for you to read.  I never expected to write so much so quickly

What the devil is going on here?  Well, the posts are generally fairly short- much shorter than experts advise for blogs seeking lots of search engine optimized traffic.  I could write longer posts, but I want to make these manageable for you. I am trying to change the way a large number of applicants function- the message needs to be palatable so you will adopt the changes I am recommending

I also get fired up as I start writing.  More ideas come to me in the middle of a post and I add them to an ongoing list.  I started with about 40 ideas, and as of this writing have 70 ideas in addition to the posts already written.  And more keep coming in every day- from my experiences at work, from my editors, from reading books and websites.

My editors are also an incredible source of inspiration.  My wife proofreads all the posts and occasionally makes suggestions.  One of my best friends also proofs them and contributes his own outside-of-vetmed perspective.  Both of these help tremendously, so it’s not only my brain working, but others’. I hope to engage several of my professional colleagues in the future so they can contribute their own vast knowledge and experience to the blog

But I think the most significant reason is I feel I am exorcising some horrible pent-up demon.  For god’s sake, how can it be 2018 and this material DOESN’T exist for veterinary applicants yet?  There are some good vet blogs out there- we’ll check in with them eventually- but no, I can’t find a centralized source where you can get all the information you need from someone who’s been there and done that already.

I see applications and interviewees all the time and just WISH they had found some of this advice before applying or interviewing.  I want to help, and I desperately hope this blog reaches applicants, so you can make your future career and life as successful as possible.

How to be Successful: Self-Reflection and Self-Honesty

One of my friends has told me she is interested in pursuing a residency because she wants to be respected by the community and be a Person of Importance.  In our study of senior students interested in internships, many of them expressed an interest in being The Expert. I applaud both of these sentiments because they come from a place of self-reflection and self-honesty.  They may not be motivations on par with “I want to help sick animals” or “I want to train better vets”, but that’s OK, because they are genuine. They are also not contradictory of such noble motivations; you can help sick animals by being a respected and important surgeon.  Having thoughtful self-reflection and being honest with yourself is essential to being a successful professional.

My friend who wants to be a specialist because of the social capital can make better decisions because of that knowledge.  Maybe she can get the same acknowledgement from being important in organized veterinary medicine (like sitting on the state board or being an AVMA delegate).  Maybe she can get it from doing a PhD in physiology and being a basic scientist. Or maybe she realizes that what she actually wants is the regard from pet owners and veterinary academics, which will funnel her more towards the path to a residency.  In any event, knowing exactly what is motivating her will make her career choices and decisions dramatically simpler.

Those students who acknowledge they want to be considered The Expert can use that self-knowledge in powerful ways.  Hopefully, they will realize that most Experts don’t put a big flashing sign saying “EXPERT” above their head; this knowledge will allow the students to Aim for Zero.  If they don’t get a residency, they may decide to find an area of clinical focus and drill down on that- maybe being the ultrasound ‘expert’ in their clinic. This insight will help them find professional fulfillment regardless of their career path.

And that’s the real key: what would you be happy doing and why?  I see countless people saying, “I HAVE to be a vet! It’s all I’ve ever wanted!” or “I HAVE to be a surgeon!  It’s the only thing I can imagine doing!” But… is it really? Why? “I want to help animals.” You can do that VERY effectively as a vet tech, wildlife biologist, or working in animal control for the county.  “I want to make lots of money.” Sure, then you should be an entrepreneur.  “I want to talk to clients all day.”  OK, a receptionist does that and is a key part of the veterinary team.

“I want the regard of my parents, who both have graduate degrees and expect me to excel in academics.”  Ah ha, good, now we’re getting somewhere. “I am scared of trying to make my way in the real world and need more time in school to shelter me and discover who I am.”  Excellent, excellent. “I want people to like me because my mother never hugged me.” Yes, yes! Once we get to this level of self-reflection and self-honesty, we can actually make some helpful, meaningful decisions about our life. Try not to be judgmental of yourself or fear others’ judgment of these motivations. You have a right to decide what to do with your own life; full honesty will help you get there.

I want you to be reflective and honest because I want you to make the best career decisions you can.  And you can only make the best decisions if you are able to decide exactly what you want and, importantly, WHY you want it.  You need to go deeper than superficial motivations. What VALUES of yours does this career path satisfy?

The easiest way to get to this is called a ‘laddering technique’.  We used it in the study cited above and it can work for you. Just keep asking “why?” until you get to a core, bedrock value which cannot be reduced.  I personally adhere to the Self-Determination Theory of core values, but you can adhere to other theories and get the same outcome. The point is that you need to know what MOVES you from a fundamental core belief level.

For myself, I wanted intense intellectual challenge, because that is a source of enjoyment for me, a decent salary, because financial insecurity was a source of anxiety growing up, a flexible schedule, because I am an iconoclast and don’t like being told what to do, and the opportunity to be in some clear leadership role, because I enjoy the regard of those whom I am in charge of as long as I do a good job.  This led me on the path to academia, but there are MANY MANY other people in academia with very very different motivations. I don’t care what motivates you, but you need to know the core values which motivate you.

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.