Tag Archives: recommendations

Behind the Scenes: How I Read an Internship Application

Image by Alicja from Pixabay

I thought it would be helpful to share my personal process for reading an internship application.  This is a highly personalized process- please don’t assume that others go through the same process. Nonetheless, I thought it would be helpful to share what goes through my brain, so here it is:

First, the internship application through the match is organized like this: standard application information (entered when you apply through the VIRMP), letter of intent, CV, transcripts, letters of recommendation.

From the standard application, I scroll down to the veterinary education section.  I notice if they went to school at an AVMA-accredited program or an unaccredited program.  I note the class rank and graduation date. I glance at the references to get an impression of what sorts of letters they have.  Very little hard decisions are made at this step- it’s just collecting data.

The letter of intent is where I begin to apply some discrimination.  Is it more than one page? If so, I probably won’t read it unless it appears to be an _incredibly_ unusual applicant.  If it’s more than one page, I will review the rest of their materials to decide, “Is this person even worth considering?”  The vast majority of the time, the answer is “no”, so my job is done and I move onto the next. If the letter is one page or less, I skim it until I find an interesting, useful, unique piece of information, then read that segment in detail.  I also read for grammar and spelling errors. I consider how they structured concepts and what I learned about the applicant. The letter is extremely important to me and I will start to put the applicant into one of three bins- not rankable, rankable good, rankable OK.

For the CV, I check to see if they have any obvious gaps in professional progression not addressed in their letter of intent.  If so, this is a red flag. Have they done research- if so, what was their role? If they were the first author on a submitted publication, great.  Otherwise, I don’t think much of research experience. Did they have an officer role in a club? What is interesting about their experience? Did they travel?  How will I summarize this person in my Excel file where I track all applicants (see below)? The CV is not a major deciding factor for me but helps fill in the picture of the applicant.

The transcripts are fluff for me.  I skim them briefly to see if there are any “D” or “F” grades and, if so, in what subject they are.  If not, I spend no time on the transcripts unless they are from international applicants. In that case, I review them carefully to get an idea of what academic material this person has studied.

The letters of recommendation, with the letter of intent, form the greatest portion of my evaluation.  In the letters, I look at the qualifications of the letter writer, are they from the applicant’s current institution, how many interns they have worked with, and their connection with the applicant.  I then skim the ratings of clinical & technical skills and professionalism to see if there are any particularly low marks. Most of my time is spent reading the qualitative data provided in the remarks section.

In the qualitative remarks, I primarily look to see if the person is easy to work with, eager to learn and accept feedback and act in a positive, professional manner.  If the letter is not very detailed, that is also flagged as concerning. I will also look for indications of humility, eagerness to work, and emotional intelligence. It is rare to read a letter which is not laudatory, so I need to read between the lines.  Remarks which focus on the intelligence of the applicant, without mention of them being easy to work with, are flagged as problematic.

Once I have read through everything, I will go back and make notes in an Excel document which has the following column headings: name, class rank, education/experience, letter, clubs, miscellaneous, research, references, score.  I make short notes for each of these and then make a determination of placement: do not rank, rank in bottom third, rank in the middle third, rank in the top third.

So, that’s the process.  This forms the basis for some of my advice, and it may differ among evaluators.  Maybe some people care a LOT about research, maybe others ONLY consider the objective data provided in letters of recommendation.  However, in discussion with dozens of colleagues, most of them follow a similar process to that described here. So I think this is a helpful start for you to review.

How to be Successful: Be an RFHB

The other day I popped my head into a faculty member’s office to talk with them about their current struggles with some students.  The faculty member mentioned one student who was being needy and dramatic and problematic, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if they just acted like a Reasonable Fucking Human Being?”  The faculty member laughed and loved that term, because it summarizes so many important but ineffable qualities.

I can’t remember which of my friends coined this term, but it has been one of the most useful terms in my life: Reasonable Fucking Human Being (RFHB).  This is not “an amazing person” or “an incompetent asshat.”  It is not “Spock-like emotionlessness” or “perfect in every way.”  This is the baseline level at which people should be functioning. It is not a high standard.  Yet, it is amazing how often people who should know better do not meet this simple qualification.

To be an RFHB, you need to not be dramatic.  If you can’t avoid being dramatic, you at least need to be able to calm down and speak rationally.  You need to have expectations which are fair and reasonable. You need to not expect people to read your mind.  You need to treat people with a basic level of respect, because they are also soft squishy smart monkeys trying to stimulate dopamine activity on a rocky ball hurtling through the cosmos.

To be an RFHB, you can be emotional, but you need to acknowledge your emotionality.  You need to listen. You need to not interrupt. If you do interrupt someone, you need to be aware of that and apologize.  You need to present solutions and not just gripe, unless all you want is sympathy, in which case you should make that clear.  You need to think about the future and be aware of the consequences of your decisions.

To be an RFHB, you need to be compassionate.  You need to care at least a little about your fellow human beings.  You need to try to minimize suffering- not just starving children in third world countries, but with the words you use and how you deal with the people around you.  You need to trust and accept the trust that progressively builds as you interact with others. You need to understand the rules and, if you don’t accept them, be willing to accept the consequences of breaking them.

To be an RFHB, you need to look out for the ‘little guy’.  You need to support individuals against the oppression of the majority.  You need to understand privilege and not expect others to do things the way you do them.  You need to understand the relationship between work, effort, and outcome. You need to be humble and accept responsibility for your actions and work to improve as a person.

In a word: just be cool.  OK, that’s three words. It seems really really simple to me.  Just be… reasonable. That’s it. That’s the baseline. From there, you can work on being a zero.

5 Ways to Improve your Application for Internships as a Non-American

At one of my old institutions, I routinely evaluated the international batch of candidates for our internship.  This was usually a pretty sizeable group- between 40 and 50 of 200 applications. Unfortunately for the applicants, it was one of the easiest groups to evaluate.  A short skim of most applications would reveal them to be unacceptable candidates, so a thorough analysis was not needed to determine where they might rank as a candidate.  It’s harsh but true. If you are not from the United States, and you are applying for a veterinary position here, it is a steep uphill battle.* Here are five ways to improve your success.

1) Get some time working for an academic clinical specialist.  Ideally one in the United States, but a well-regarded institution in the English-speaking world or Utrecht is better than nothing.  This is the most important point because it is ESSENTIAL. No one who hasn’t been trained in the U.S. system knows the U. S. system, so any letters of recommendation you get have no bearing on how well you would do in a U. S. internship.  If you have an application with only letters of recommendation from your home country, unless it is the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or The Netherlands, you won’t get very far. You need AT LEAST 2 weeks, but 4 weeks is better with a single specialist.  Ideally, all of your letters of recommendation will be from specialists in the U. S.

2) Figure out the visa situation.  This has become more problematic in the current political climate.  Most private practices and many universities simply cannot accept international applicants.  This may be true even if you are from Canada or Mexico. Check with the institution unless they specify it in their program description.  If you can’t get a visa, you can’t get an internship.

3) Have a native speaker proofread your work.  I realize you may be fluent in English, but English is an incredibly ridiculous language.  I have almost never read a letter of intent from a non-native-speaker which was 100% correct.  Even professional editorial services can’t always be trusted unless they are small and personalized and feature native English speakers.

4) Apply shortly after you graduate.  I see a lot of applications from people who graduated 4-5 years ago and since then have a very strange work history.  It may be a normal work history for that country but, from a U. S. perspective, doing a 7-month internship at the school you graduated from and then doing 2 months as a food inspector and then being a small animal clinician and then working for the state is weird.  Most U. S. applicants apply straight out of vet school. You should aim to do the same. If you are reading this too late to make that decision, make your professional progression CLEAR. You did this, THEN this, THEN this. Don’t muddle up your professional responsibilities and jobs.  If you did part-time work, specify this.

5) Get some time working for a veterinary practice in a country with a strong clinical training emphasis in their veterinary education.  We took interns from some European countries which do not have a strong clinical focus and it showed, and we largely stopped taking those applicants.  You need your vet school training to be on par with vet students in the U. S. in order to be competitive. You could also spend time working as a vet in a country where clinical training is emphasized.

Essentially, you need to make your application as close to a senior veterinary student from the United States as possible.  If your application can’t indicate that you are at least as competent as an average new veterinary graduate, it won’t go anywhere.  There are plenty of more qualified applicants.

*This generally does not apply to those in Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, although you still need to look at the visa situation.

Learn to Write an Email Asking for a Recommendation

You may feel this small when you ask for a letter. It’s OK. Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

As we’ve discussed before, people seem to have some anxiety around asking a potential mentor for a letter of recommendation.  I used to teach an undergraduate seminar course in clinical research, and one of the assignments was for the students to write an email asking for a letter of recommendation.  I was surprised at the range in quality of these emails, so I think the topic deserves some attention to make sure you all write excellent emails.

Here is the basic structure:

  • Email title
  • Salutation
  • Introduction (if necessary)
  • A description of the position to which you are applying
  • Your ask for help
  • A closer

Email title

This one is pretty simple.  You can’t go wrong with “Letter of Recommendation”.  It is straightforward and tells the reader exactly what the email is about.  “Inquiry” is more vague but could be used if you don’t want to prime the reader about what your ask is.

Salutation

“Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X,”  That’s it. Keep it simple.

Introduction

If there is a chance the reader does not know you, this is recommended.  If you are a senior veterinary student and you just got off a clinic rotation with the person, this is not necessary.  I would suggest two lines. The first is giving your current professional role and the context of how you know each other.  “My name is John Smith and I am a senior majoring in Biology; I was a student in your research seminar course.”

The second line provides something memorable about you or your interaction.  “I did the research project comparing pricing of men and women’s beauty products.”

A description of the position

Provide enough information that they can write a specific letter.  If this is “vet school”, that’s fine. If it’s an aquarium externship in Florida, give them more details.  If there is a link to the position description, provide that. “I am applying for small animal rotating internships in academic and private practice institutions.”

Your ask for help

Just keep it simple and gracious.  Always attach your letter of intent and curriculum vitae.  “I was wondering if you would be able and willing to write a good letter of recommendation for me?  My letter of intent and CV are attached for your reference. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Closer

These commonly include “Sincerely,” “Best Regards”, and “With Appreciation.”  I personally like “Respectfully,” but you can choose what you like. “Cheers,” “Take Care,” and similar too-personal closers should not be used.

So that’s it!  If you want to put some examples together and share them in the comments, I will comment on them!

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?

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?