Tag Archives: vet school

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?

Doing the Best Phone Interview

The Vetducator - Michael Scott from The office talks on the phone.  Don't do it like him.

By The Pharmducator

The last time I did a phone interview I was a senior vet student applying for internships.  Therefore, I do not have the experience with this format that I do with any other. However, my significant other has been interviewing like a fiend for the past 6 months and has done numerous phone interviews.  I have called her in to offer her experience and expertise to give you, our reader, the best information available.

This is the Pharmducator. Which is my way of saying that I’m The Vetducator’s spouse and my field of expertise is pharmacy, not vet med. I was asked me to write this post because he has very little experience with phone interviews, whereas I have been interviewed by phone many times during my one-year (in total) full time job search experience.

In reading this post, it’s important to understand that I HATE speaking on the telephone. I can’t tell you exactly why, but texting/emailing/in-person conversations have always been my vast preference for communication. However, when your entire job is to find a job (or internship/residency/vet school acceptance), you put up with a lot of anxieties.  Here’s what my experiences have taught me about phone interviews:

Environment: In a lot of ways, phone interviews can be easier than video interviews. You can do them in your pajamas, without removing all of your questionable artwork from the walls, in any kind of lighting set-up. You should, however, plan to be in as quiet a space as possible. If I’m at home, I’ll usually do a phone interview in my bedroom with the door closed so the cats won’t decide that they need attention halfway through my conversation. If you schedule a time during work or school, find a similarly private space. I shared an office for my most recent position, so I couldn’t guarantee I would be alone for my interview. I wound up in my lab, since I knew no one would need that space during my scheduled time. Obviously, you should make sure your phone is fully charged or can be connected to your charger if necessary. I wouldn’t recommend using speakerphone, as the sound quality is often quite poor. If you have access to a good-quality landline, that may be your best bet.

Preparation: Phone interviews typically last around half-an-hour; I’ve only done one or two that lasted close to an hour. The institution may have a hard-and-fast time limit; that is, it’s possible your time is absolutely up once that 30 minutes elapses. Some may allow for more time, but be prepared to be concise in your questions as well as your answers. Sometimes the sound quality on the other end may be compromised, so get used to the idea that you may need to ask people to repeat themselves. If you’re provided with the names of the people who will be on the call, research them ahead of time and tailor your questions or answers accordingly.

Format: Phone interviews are usually part of the screening process for candidates. The institution usually has some set questions, either from the individuals on the call or mandated by the institution. This is why it’s important to be concise in your answers; your caller(s) may have to ask you these exact eight questions, and, if you spend five minutes on each answer, the callers may be late for their next interview or class, or you may not be asked the question that’s going to prove you’re the best candidate on their list. Listen carefully to what you’re told regarding the format and be mindful of the time you have.

Aside from that, all the same preparation rules for interviews apply: look up the institution, know as much as possible about the position, and have questions prepared. Post in the comments if you have questions that I haven’t covered here!

How to Manage Student Loans

The Vetducator - CPI vs home prices vs. tuition costs graph.

Higher education has become incredibly expensive.  There are many reasons for this, including expanding administrator numbers and salaries, declining state support, schools expanding offerings to compete for paying clients (students), and a bubble for student loans.  Regardless, you want to go to vet school (or are in vet school) and need to figure out how to pay for it.  Assuming you do not have sufficient funds on your own or from your family, you may need to borrow money. Here are some considerations and strategies to minimize the amount you have to borrow, so you can be as free as possible once you graduate.

School Choice.  You want to attend your local state school if at all possible.  Don’t go in for expensive out-of-state, out-of-country, or private schools.  This is one of the most important decisions you can make with respect to your financial future.  Attend the least expensive school you can.

Frugal Living.  I know one vet who bought a brand new car during vet school and just added it to his student loans, which totaled more than $200k by graduation.  That is unacceptable.  You need to live a frugal life- which does not mean a life devoid of all pleasures.  Believe it or not, you can have a great life without spending more than all the money you have.  And you can get a great education at a fair price.

Avoid Interest.  When it is working for you, compound interest is amazing.  However, if you are taking out a loan you have to pay back, compound interest is the worst.  You need to make sure loans you take minimize your interest as much as possible. Ideally, you should find loans which have the interest taken care of.  If you take loans which immediately begin to accumulate interest, you will be much worse off after four years in vet school. Maybe even family can give you low-interest loans.  Whatever you can do to minimize accruing interest you should do.

Is it still worth it, economically, to go to vet school?  It depends a lot on where you go to school, how you live, and what types of loans you take out.  If you go to a private school or out-of-state school, live high on the hog and take out interest-bearing loans, you could find yourself $300k in debt with poor prospects- especially if the economy turns south.  Maybe you could be just as happy doing a Ph.D. in Biochemistry?  If you insist on going to vet school, be mindful of your decisions and how they affect your future freedom.  And for god’s sake don’t buy a new car in vet school.

How to Successfully Seek Assistance

The Vetducator - Be smart enough to know when you need help and brave enough to ask for it.

Do you have a hard time asking for help?  Talking to people? There are a lot of veterinary professionals out there who have a hard time with both of these.  Veterinarians are notoriously self-reliant and independent. Imagine the early days with the lone vet out there on house calls- you didn’t have a cell phone to call for a consult, you had to Figure It Out.  It’s built into the very bones of our profession. I think this must be why I see so many applications and interviews where the individual clearly didn’t ask for help, and it reflects in their work. Faculty are easy resources- they are being paid to teach you, after all.  You must ask for help. We’ll see why and how in this post.

Why you need help

1) This is a high-stakes event.  If you are applying to vet school, internships, or residencies, there are MANY others also applying for these positions.  At UGA we would routinely have 200 applicants for six intern positions, and I heard from a friend this year they had 190 applicants for a one surgery residency position.  You need the best possible application and interview in order to stand out from the crowd and secure a position.

2) You are not an expert at career progression through veterinary academia.  Heck, you’re barely a novice. It would be like someone with no training getting into a boxing ring- you’re going to get hurt.  You haven’t been through this process, so you don’t have the experience. You haven’t mentored others, so you don’t have the perspective.  Mentors and even peers can provide this experience and perspective.

3) I have evidence you need help.  I read materials all the time and think, “Did they even show this to their mother?!?”  Simple typos, bizarre sentences, odd flows of logic- all of these would be identified and helped by an outside observer.  Many applicants could dramatically improve their application and interview skills by working with mentors.

How to ask for help

First of all, don’t just limit your editors to faculty with whom you have had a long-standing relationship.  If they have supervised you on a clinical rotation, or even in a didactic course, you can ask for their help.  It’s possible you won’t get a response or will get a ‘no’, but remember: most faculty are there because of the students.  They WANT to help you, you just have to ask!

1) Ask in person.  This is usually whenever you see or interact with the faculty member.  You can also swing by their office. It’s not hard, just say, “Hey Dr. X, I’m applying for ThisKindOfPosition, would you be able and willing to give me some help with my application?”  That’s it! So simple! As always, if you get a ‘yes’, follow up with email.

2) Ask by email.  This requires less timing to figure out- you can send it at any time.  It is slightly less personal, though. Particularly if you don’t have a strong relationship with your mentor, email may be a little too impersonal.  They may not remember working with you and you may get somewhat tepid assistance if they don’t know you well. If you choose to email, take a similar tack to in-person: a short email along the lines of, “Hello Dr. X, I am applying for ThisKindOfPosition this <timeframe> and was wondering if you would be able and willing to provide advice on the process and look over my materials?  Any help you can give would be appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you so much!”

Now you know why and how.  Go out there and get help! What obstacles do you experience in seeking out help with your career?

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?

Recommendation Letters Series

The Vetducator - interconnectedness image for recommendations.

Asking for letters of recommendation is hard, which we have discussed before. In addition, from whom should you get letters of recommendation? This differs depending on what position you are applying for, I have create four separate posts for each of my audiences:

Those applying for vet school.

Those applying for internships.

Those applying for residencies.

Those applying for faculty positions.

I will be posting one a day this week to have them consolidated all in one spot. I hope they are helpful to you!

How To Avoid Making a Damn Fool of Yourself on Externship

I don’t want to write this blog post.  I don’t feel like I should have to. It’s common sense, isn’t it?  It’s a waste of data to send this through the interwebs. Unfortunately, I have experienced veterinary externs who made a damn fool of themselves.  They besmirched the reputation of their home institution, irritated colleagues and faculty, and sank any hope of getting a letter of recommendation or being ranked at the institution.  So, since I have seen it, I am here to help. If you are an RFHB, you may go to the next post.  If not, here’s how to avoid making a damn fool of yourself on externship.

1) You are a guest.  Would you go to someone’s house and denigrate the way they load their dishwasher?  “Man, they’ll never get clean if you do it like that!” Don’t insult your host school in any way.  Don’t talk down about their students or their faculty or their processes. You may make a polite remark like, “Oh, how come you do it like that?” or “Oh, why do you do that” or “Oh, what was your rationale for deciding to do it that way?” if it reflects a genuine interest to learn.  But just because they do things differently doesn’t mean they’re bad. Try to see the good in the differences. Heck, I learned how to place coccygeal art lines at CSU during a 3-week externship which I would have never learned otherwise. Be open-minded.

2) Learn the system.  There is always a painful learning curve the first week, but pay attention and try hard to figure it out.  If you work at it, you will be more effective by the second week. You may not know where the Q-tips are, but at least you can fill out a medical record and find ICU.

3) Show up.  Set two alarm clocks if you have to.  A student at their home institution may get a one-off if they miss a day or show up late.  You don’t have a whole year to impress these people, you have 2-4 weeks. A single day of a bad showing represents up to 10% of the experience these people will have with you.  Make sure you know the route to the hospital and budget plenty of time in the event of an accident or road closure.

4) Work hard.  Come in early, stay late, don’t complain.  You are representing your home school as well as yourself.  You don’t want anyone to have the slightest inkling that your home school trains slackers.  Represent your home school with honor.

5) Smile.  Be pleasant.  Be engaged. Ask polite questions.  Be helpful. Be positive. It’s only for 2-4 weeks.  Even if you are not by nature a particularly outgoing person, you can still appear happy to be there.  Because you SHOULD be happy to be there. You’re in god-damned-vet-school, how amazing is THAT?!? And this place had the good grace to accept you in as a guest!  That is pretty amazing.

6) Treat everyone with respect, especially the technicians.  Obviously, this is true at your home school, but is even more important when you are an extern.  Technicians are amazing; be sure to treat them with the utmost esteem.

7) Be appreciative.  Make sure to thank your colleagues and mentors for the experience.  If you had a particularly good connection or may be interested in a letter of recommendation, a follow-up thank you card may not come amiss.  In particular, thank the technicians.

That’s it.  It seems simple, doesn’t it?  It seems like it shouldn’t need to be said.  But believe me when I say this: it DOES need to be said.  And YOU may be the one to whom it needs to be said.

Dr. Coretta Patterson Vetducator Podcast Image

Podcast Episode 4 – Dr. Coretta Patterson

Dr. Patterson was my supervisor at one of my academic positions, and she was a very inspiring, positive, wonderful boss. She has a massive wealth of experience in academic veterinary medicine and mentoring students and faculty. She is compassionate and will also tell you what you Need To Hear in a positive way to make you a better veterinarian. Dr. Patterson talks about raising a family during training, how to progress successfully through an academic career, and what is great about internal medicine.

Links to topics brought up in this episode:

What to Get Out of Doing Research Work as an Undergrad

There is No Ideal Applicant

Words of Caution for the Aspiring Vet Student

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.

Please Use Commas

I was reading some residency application letters and my head was almost exploding.  Everyone has their “thing”, and maybe I have more than most, but I am passionate about appropriate comma placement.  I wouldn’t sink an application for poor comma use, but it just grates on me, and why would you want to irritate the people who may make your professional dreams come true?  I am not a grammar nut and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of rules- those you can find elsewhere.  

The most common error I see in letters of application is not using the comma as a pause.  The most bothersome absent comma is the one needed to create an appropriate rhythm to the sentence.  Here are some examples. Say the one without the comma out loud. When you say that sentence, isn’t there a natural pause?  That pause is where a comma goes.

No commaAppropriate comma
As a student I worked with a faculty on a special project.As a student, I worked with a faculty on a special project
No I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.No, I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.
I did some research and did a RAVS trip.I did some research, and did a RAVS trip.
When I did an externship in Costa Rica I experienced the connection between people animals and the environment.When I did an externship in Costa Rica, I experienced the connection between people, animals, and the environment.
When I saw my first case a 5-year-old GSD I realized this was real.When I saw my first case, a 5-year-old GSD, I realized this was real.
Fortunately I was able to work with great mentors.Fortunately, I was able to work with great mentors.

I could go on.  My point is you should pay attention to this.  It doesn’t mean you’re a monster, but it does make me question your attention to detail.  If your letter of intent has these kinds of simple flaws, will you have the attention to detail needed for good records or research?  Be detail-oriented in your written materials. And please, PLEASE have other people read and edit your letters!