Tag Archives: student

Behind the Scenes: How I Interview Vet Student Applicants

At one institution where I was on faculty, we conducted student interviews a few times a year in batches.  If I was available, I always participated. The student interview serves fundamentally two functions:

  1. Illustrate to prospective students why that institution would be the best fit for them.
  2. Make sure that the prospective student is not a monster or clueless.

Along the lines of the first function, that primarily is accomplished in the tour, the presentation the Deans give, and questions that the faculty may answer during the interview.  The interviews usually lasted ~25 minutes, the first 20 of which would be the faculty asking the candidate questions and the last 5 minutes left for any questions the candidate had.  The most common question I got was, “What do you like about working here?” or “Why did you choose to come here?’ I always answered this question honestly and thoroughly, and believe my response put the institution in a positive light so that students may be more inclined to enroll there if given an offer.

The second function is ostensibly the reason why we interview prospective candidates.  We’re trying to find THE BEST and, to a lesser extent, the best fits for our program. Fortunately, almost every vet school can educate almost any candidate, so the ‘fit’ question is less important than, for example, an internship, or certainly a residency or faculty position.  So what do I look for to find THE BEST?

I personally focus on three characteristics: humility, eagerness to work hard, and emotional intelligence.  I am very sensitive to over-confidence and arrogance, and believe I can detect a lack of humility. Eagerness to work hard can be encapsulated by stories about overcoming adversity, dealing with difficult challenges, or evidence of grit- pursuing an Eagle Scout, black belt, being in the marching band, competing in sports at the collegiate level, and similar indicators of willingness to work hard.  Emotional intelligence I find very hard to pin down.

This is probably because there is a complex interaction of shyness, introversion, and actual emotional intelligence.  For example, you may have a shy, extroverted applicant who has very good or very poor emotional intelligence. Or a quiet, introverted person with very high emotional intelligence.  Unfortunately, the interview setting is intimidating to the shy and introverted, so pulling this information from them can be challenging. I always considered the applicant’s general personality in evaluating emotional intelligence and made sure to give them opportunities to demonstrate it.

Not mentioned, but assumed, is making sure the applicant isn’t Clueless.  I did one interview with an applicant who hadn’t ever worked with a vet, clearly had never asked anyone what vet school was like, and otherwise indicated they didn’t know what they were getting into.  I gave this applicant a poor score because if they DID get into vet school, they would most likely sink. We wanted to make sure our students would be successful, so wanted to make sure they had _some_ idea of what they were getting into.  As I’ve mentioned before, you have _no idea_ what vet school is like until you’ve lived it, but you can at least try to have some idea.

Also included in the second function is to make sure the applicant is not a monster.  By this I mean: will they be basically respectful of their fellow man? In short, are they an RFHB?  This can also be difficult to determine in an interview, but some red flags include: interrupting, talking down about other people, being dismissive towards others’ feelings, reveling in others’ unhappiness, and being disrespectful towards the interviewers.  Fortunately, I haven’t had a vet school interview go this way, but I have certainly seen other interviews where some of these happened. You can avoid being removed from consideration by just being a decent person.

Those are the ways I evaluated candidates.  Speaking with my peers, they tended to use a similar process and criteria.  Just as with any interview: be prepared, answer honestly, stay calm, and don’t try to be a show-off and everything should be fine.

How to do Meaningful Research as an Undergrad

So, you’ve decided you want to try out the world of scientific research!  Good for you. You may have fun and love it or you may discover it is not for you.  We’ve talked about the benefits before, so now let’s drill down on the nitty-gritty.  How do you get involved?

If it exists on your campus, I suggest you make your first stop the undergraduate research office.  These people have a wealth of information and can help you identify mentors and explain what the research program is like at the school.  At one institution where I worked, there was a whole undergrad research program, including classes and a distinction you could earn by completing a research thesis. I would routinely get emails from the undergrad office about students looking to do research.

If survey courses about research exist on your campus, these can be excellent resources to check the water and see if you may like it.  At one institution where I worked, faculty could offer 1-credit small seminar courses in research. I routinely taught one in Clinical Research and enjoyed showing the undergrads all the opportunities which exist.  I brought in guest speakers and some of the students ended up working with them. Other students in the class asked me to direct them to potential mentors.

You may be able to search for faculty research interests on your institution’s website and then contact those which interest you.  I’ll write a later post about how to email potential research mentors. Realize if you are ‘cold emailing’ you may not get a response, so come up with a backup plan.  Creating a short list of potential mentors is the safe bet.

Finally, if you have had any contact with a faculty member with whom you think you could get along, you can reach out to them.  This is probably a faculty member teaching a small, upper-level course and who may know your name. It’s usually best to make this request near the end of the semester or at the start of the next one, to avoid any appearance of bias during the course.

Once you have an appointment scheduled with a potential research mentor, treat it like an interview.  Ask them questions about how they like to work with undergrads. Remember, the purpose of this is to find out if you’re a good fit- you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  Be sure to ask what your responsibilities will be, if you will be an author on an eventual publication, with whom you will be working, and what the time commitment is.

If you decide to pursue research, make sure to do it well.  Show up, be enthusiastic, and be helpful. What questions do you have about how to get involved in research?

How to be Successful: Give Timelines

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

I ask my wife to do a surprising number of projects.  Occasionally research projects, but more often household ones like, “Can you figure out if Arcadia Power covers us and how to sign up with them?” and “Can you book lodging for our next trip?”  Early in our relationship, I assumed these would be done immediately, even if I didn’t need the task completed for another two weeks. Once she made it clear that it was easier for her to complete these tasks if she knew when I expected her to finish it, everything was much easier for both of us.

I started applying this principle to co-workers and anyone whom I needed a response from and it translated into a significant improvement in response rate.  Since the way I work, I respond very quickly to asks for work, I assumed everyone else prioritized their work similarly. I came to understand that many people work on the basis of deadlines- they work on projects which have the earliest deadlines first.  I still don’t quite fully understand it, but I use the principle, and I recommend you do, too.

Providing deadlines tells the recipient a few things.  One, it tells them that their input is _required_. It is easy for people to read an email and think, “Ah, well, they are asking me, but maybe it is a courtesy or just to be complete.  I don’t need to reply.” Putting a deadline indicates you need a response from everyone involved. Two, it helps people prioritize their to-do list according to what is most pressing. Three, it gives some sense of the amount of work/effort is required.  If you give a deadline by the end of the week to most academics, it should be an _extremely_ time sensitive matter or something they can answer quickly. If you give a deadline 3-6 weeks away, that suggests you want them to actually contemplate and think about the response, and give a substantive one.

I use a variety of strategies when providing deadlines.  I have the opt-out deadline, which is usually framed as, “This is what I am going to do unless I hear from anyone by X date.”  This is usually when I don’t need input from others and am including them as a courtesy, and because if they DO have strong feelings, I want to know about it.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution short-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is what I would like to send.  Please chime in with your feedback by X date.” This sends a message that I want and need their feedback. The feedback I expect to get, because of the short timeline (less than 1 week), is usually something like, “OK” or “No, I think we should make this minor change.”  This is often done at the end of a process, where I have already solicited more complex responses.

I have the opt-in with a specific solution long-term deadline, which is framed as, “Here is the current draft.  Please review and provide suggestions by X date.” This date is usually the end of the month or some similar 3-6 week window.  I want and need constructive, thoughtful, cognitively complex input for this, and know that it needs to fit into others’ schedules.  Nonetheless, providing a timeline is helpful so people can put it into their own to-do list framework.

Finally, I have the opt-in optional with a very long-term deadline, which is framed as, “I know you’re busy, and I am working on this project.  Please let me know if you want to participate by X date.” That date is usually 2-6 months into the future, as this is a placeholder for a project or an attempt to determine who may be interested in a novel project.  In this case, I am not expecting much thoughtful contribution, but providing the far deadline allows me to determine who is Actually Interested and who is not. Those who are interested will reply relatively early. Those who are not interested will never reply.

Giving deadlines can be useful at all levels of your veterinary career.  Undergraduate progressing to vet school, “Dear Dr. X, here-is-a-letter-asking-you-to-write-a-letter-of-recommendation-for-me.  Please let me know if you would be able and willing to write a letter for me by (some reasonable date at least 2 weeks away).”  Veterinary student interested in an internship, “Dear Internship Director, I would love the opportunity to speak with a current intern.  Please let me know if there is someone who can talk to me by (some reasonable date).” You can ask for deadlines from people who are higher “rank” than you as long as you are respectful and reasonable with the deadline.

There are many strategies to using deadlines.  Mine would not work in corporate America, where things are more time-sensitive.  Fortunately, in academia, we are usually working with relatively long timelines. Do you like getting deadlines or not? Do they help motivate you? How do you assign deadlines differently?

You Must Stand Out

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I can’t emphasize enough how much you should try to aim for zero– show up, be competent, don’t try too hard.  On the flip side, if you are forgettable, marginal, or just merely acceptable, you won’t ‘wow’ anyone and you won’t get letters of recommendation.  Obviously, you should read and adhere to all of the How to be Successful series of posts. In addition to those concepts, here are some which will help make sure you Stand Out.

1) Ask questions.  There can be a difficult balance between annoying, constantly questioning/bugging and curious, thoughtful, and engaged.  Asking thoughtful questions indicates you understand the material and are interested in learning even more. You may ask any questions you like, and this is a great way to learn, but if you haven’t done the basic reading and work to understand the foundations of the topic at hand, you probably won’t stand out when you ask your questions. Conversely, try not to ‘wow’ people with the questions you ask- esoteric data and minutia can be all well and good, but whenever a student asks me a question like this, it is obvious that they are trying to suck up or stand out.

2) Help out.  You may think faculty don’t notice all of your hard work, and maybe some of them don’t, but most of us keep a close eye on how hard working the students are.  Help your classmates out whenever they need it. Teamwork is an essential skill for veterinary medicine- demonstrate that you care more about the team than yourself.

3) Don’t be silent.  You don’t have to be the most outgoing, gregarious person but, if you are silent, you will almost surely fade into the background.  You should be engaged when things are happening and learning opportunities occur. Be prepared to answer when you are asked a question.  If you don’t know the answer for sure, you can hazard a guess. It is far preferable to make an educated guess than to be sitting in silence while the faculty waits for an answer.  Participate participate participate.

4) Be energetic.  Again, you don’t have to be an extrovert, but you DO have to look like you are happy to be working and learning.  You’re in vet school or an internship or a residency- isn’t that AWESOME?!? You can’t be excited 24/7, particularly with some of the long, mentally taxing hours we work, but you CAN do your best to express your enthusiasm as often as possible.  Students who are energetic and seem happy to be there make a far better impression than those who seem like they are just putting in their time.

5) Study.  This may seem self-evident, which is why it’s not in the How to Be Successful series, but I am often amazed when students go home and then don’t study.  Yes, you may be able to pass and do a fine job. But do you expect you will be able to excel, to stand out from the crowd? All vet students are above average and all interns much more so- if you want to stand out, you have to work, and part of this is studying when you go home or have down time.

I don’t want you to STRIVE to be outstanding or above the crowd- doing so will almost surely set you up for failure.  However, I do want you to be AWARE of what you can do to be a remarkable student/intern/resident. Find the opportunities to do these things as they arise, but don’t force it into situations.  If you had a long, tiring shift and try to force yourself to be energetic, it will come off as false and disingenuous.

These are some of the characteristics of the students whom I notice and for whom I am inclined to write positive letters of recommendation.  What are some other characteristics you believe are important?

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?

Mastering the Internship Application Timeline

The process to make your application most competitive for an internship starts long before your senior year.  Each step along the way is important, and poor decisions can make it progressively harder to be an excellent candidate.  Here is a timeline to help you be the best internship applicant you can be.

First Year – Get involved in at least one vet school club.  Work hard so you are a shoo-in for an officer position next year.

First Summer – Participate in a summer research scholars program or equivalent professional experience.  This does not mean going back to the clinic you worked at growing up. That does not add to your CV.

Second Year – Be a leader in your club(s).  Now that you have the hang of vet school, make sure you have at least one extracurricular activity you could put on your CV in addition to the club responsibility.

Second Summer – If you didn’t do a summer research program last year, do one this year.  If you already did one, try to get some professional-adjacent experience, ideally overseas or with under-served and/or marginalized and/or low SES populations.

Choosing Rotations – This may happen in your second or third year.  See the post on maximizing your senior year for internship success when choosing rotations.

Third Year – Study study, pay attention, show up, and do the work.  These classes are often the most clinically applicable. If you can get a handle on the material now, you will be a more competent senior student.  If possible, wrap up any lingering projects from earlier in vet school- you may not have time during senior year.

Fourth Year – At the start of each rotation, let the faculty know you are interested in an internship.  If you did well, at the end of the rotation, ask if they would be willing to write a good letter of recommendation for you.

  • September – Begin working on your letter of intent and CV.  You want lots of input from mentors and friends on this- give them time to give it to you.  Begin to research prospective programs.
  • October – You should have most of your letters of recommendation requested by now.  If you have a rotation in November, you may wait for one of them. If you didn’t ask your potential letter writer at the end of the rotation, ask them now.  Do not wait. Your letter of intent and CV should be in near final form.
  • November – Make the last tweaks on your letter of intent and CV.  All of your letters of recommendation should have been requested by now.  Narrow down your list of programs to which you want to apply and rank.
  • December – Match applications are due.  After submission, some programs may want to do phone or video or even in-person interviews.
  • January – Your rank order is due and the programs submit their rank order later in the month.
  • February – Match results come out!  The Scramble happens in the event you didn’t match.  Hopefully, you have a position now and can cruise until graduation.

If you aren’t sure if you want to do an internship, that is just fine.  I advise any students who are on the fence to proceed as if they will apply for an internship.  If they decide not to, no worries. But if they did not prepare and decide they do want to apply later, it can be an uphill battle.  Start early and be prepared. Have any questions about how to prepare? Post in the comments!

What to Get Out of Doing Research Work as an Undergrad

You want to go to vet school, you want to maximize your chances, and doing research may help your application.  It isn’t the research, per se, which will help. It is the relationships- mostly with your mentor- and the demonstration of grit that doing research highlights.

Participating in research while an undergrad is a wonderful activity.  You get exposed to the process of scientific inquiry, and maybe that becomes exciting for you.  You get to work one-on-one with a faculty member who can write an excellent letter of recommendation. And you get to demonstrate your willingness to stick to a project to the end- an essential characteristic of any vet student.  Let’s break them down.

1) You get exposed to research.  Hey, you know what? Vet school isn’t for everyone.  Maybe you would be equally fulfilled doing a PhD in biochemistry, and avoiding the mountain of student debt that awaits veterinarians.  Maybe you enjoy doing research but still want to be a vet- so maybe academia would be a good fit for you. Maybe you have a bad experience and decide research sucks.  In any event, getting exposure to this essential domain of veterinary medicine will benefit you.

2) Develop relationships.  I have written countless letters of recommendation for my research students.  Some of them said, “Yeah, this person is fine” and some of them said, “OMG you must take this person they are the best thing since sliced bread!”  Obviously you want to be in the latter group, and working closely with a faculty member can set you up for an excellent letter of recommendation. When you decide to pursue research, make sure you aren’t working for a postdoc; you want the faculty to write you an excellent letter of recommendation.

3) Grit.  Completing a research project- even if you are a cog in the wheel of some post-doc’s 5-year project- demonstrates some level of grit.  I have had students who flamed out after a semester, having never started data collection. I have had others who have two peer-reviewed journal publications to their name.  Which do you think is a better vet school candidate? Finishing a project demonstrates that you can see a project through, which is incredibly important in vet school.

Not everyone should do research during their undergrad years.  If you are struggling academically, you need to double down on your core courses and not get sucked into a 15-hour-a-week research project.  If you’re not intellectually curious, or just want to do the bare minimum, avoid research, because your mentors will expect you to be curious and perform.  If you just want a line on your CV but don’t care about the work, please don’t burden some beleaguered faculty with your poor attitude.

If you can do research during your undergrad time, do so.  You will find out important things about yourself and maybe buff up your application.  You may develop relationships with mentors who will propel your career. Most of all, you will find out if something academic or research-oriented is a path in which you are interested.  And from there the sky’s the limit.

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.

Set Your Post-Graduate Success in Vet School

Vetducator - Mean and nice chihuahua dog.

I was chatting with a colleague the other day who mentioned a course we had just converted that semester from a graded course to a pass/fail (at 70%) course.  Apparently students had been harassing the course coordinator for a few points here and there, even though these students were already above a 70%. They couldn’t ‘pass’ any more than they had, yet they were hassling this poor embattled new assistant professor.  

My colleague asked me, “Don’t they realize they will want us to write letters of recommendation for them in a few years?  Do they think we’ll have forgotten how they made our lives unnecessarily difficult?” I’m not saying vengeance will be taken or anything of the sort.  I’m also not saying students shouldn’t ask polite questions of faculty members to improve their own understanding of a topic. But students who want an 89% instead of an 88% in a course which is pass/fail will be noticed.  And remembered.

During vet school, you want to be quietly competent.  Not invisible, but not obnoxious or difficult to work with.  As always, aim for zero. Ideally, faculty members know more or less who you are and if you are a good student.  “Good” in this context does not necessarily mean earning high grades. For a clinician educator like myself, a “good” vet student is one who tries to understand the clinical rationale for decisions and is not just memorizing data.  If you are a club officer, hopefully the faculty mentor for the club knows you and you feel comfortable talking to them.

Focus on the big picture.  I understand it’s easy to get swept along with your classmates who all want top grades, but ask what the important thing is about what you’re learning.  Is the most important thing to get good grades, or is the most important things to become a competent clinician? I distinctly remember the #1 ranked student in a class got to clinics and one of my interns wondered, “How can they be so smart and so dumb at the same time?”  They were academically gifted, but couldn’t handle clinical decision making. Don’t just memorize data. Understand concepts.

I don’t want any student to feel like they can’t talk to a faculty member and ask respectful questions intended to expand their own understanding.  But when the questions are purely to get an extra point or two, ask yourself what you’re really trying to accomplish. And consider the collateral damage you may cause.  Faculty members are, in general, fairly intelligent, with good memories. We will remember the grade grubbers. And they will not get good letters of recommendation.