Tag Archives: veterinary

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?

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!

You Can Live a Lavish Life on an Academic Salary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to be Successful: Being an Introvert in an Extrovert World

The Vetducator - Quiet book cover

According to Susan Cain in her book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,’ before the turn of the 20th century, our country had a culture of character.  You were trusted and people did business with you on the basis of your integrity. Around the turn of the century, though, the culture began to change to the culture of personality.  Everyone should read this book, since it’s incredible. Extroverts should read it so they understand the introverts, and introverts should read it so they understand themselves. Until you can, let’s talk about how to successfully be an introvert in this day and age.

Fortunately, you have done well with your chosen career.  Many people enter veterinary medicine believing- incorrectly- that they get to work with animals more than people.  So it seems the profession may select for more introverts than, say, business. This means there are more of Your People around, which will make things easier.  You don’t have to explain as often why you don’t want to go out after a hard week of studying and test taking. You can spend time with your small collection of close friends without much pressure to do more.  Not everyone is an introvert, but it’s not hard to find them in vetmed.

I personally think introverts have an easier time with my first rule: Aim for Zero.  Introverts take time to observe before acting, and deliberate, and therefore tend to make more thoughtful actions.  It seems that extroverts are the ones who may try to put themselves out there attempting to be a +1 and fail miserably.  I personally prefer people who are quietly competent, and this seems easier for an introvert than an extrovert.

On the other hand, it’s also important to show up and smile, which may be harder for introverts.  So you may need to do something outside your comfort zone. Fortunately, this is good, because it forces you to get better at something which is difficult: a key concept embraced in Kaizen.  If it’s hard for you to go socialize with people, then work on this. Develop it like any skill, and it will pay strong dividends for you.

Give yourself permission to be an introvert.  If you are at a social function and you are Just Done, feel free to ghost.  Push yourself a bit, but in measured amounts.  Give yourself time to recharge. If you want to have quiet time to read at lunch, find a little nook on the top floor where nobody goes and curl up with your book.

Although introversion and social awkwardness and anxiety and shyness are not synonymous, they often co-exist.  If you are socially awkward, that is just fine, PARTICULARLY for academic veterinary medicine! You don’t have to be the most flamboyant, expressive, bubbly person.  None of the suggestions I give in the How to be Successful series hinge on being an extrovert. Because you don’t have to be sociable. You DO have to be pleasant to work with and hard working, but quiet people can do this easily.

Academic veterinary medicine is a great place for an introvert.  You can (generally) set your own schedule and decide how much or little you want to interact with people.  Yes, you do need to teach, but with practice you will get better and more comfortable. You can engage in highly detailed and cerebral pursuits.  You can lock your office door or go for a walk to recharge. If you’re an introvert, seriously consider a career in academia. It’s pretty great.

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.

How to Negotiate a Faculty Salary

The Vetducator - coins indicate that money is the least important variable in deciding on a job.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

So you have an offer of employment- congratulations!  This is one of the most exciting experiences I have had in my professional progression (although I also enjoy interviewing).  Salary is only one piece of the negotiation package, but it is the one many people spend the most time thinking about. I would encourage you to focus less on salary, but you do need to earn a FAIR salary.  Fortunately, for most institutions, a fair salary is easy to determine.

Your goal with salary negotiations should be to get a FAIR salary.  You can always ask for the moon, but I believe it is better to be reasonable.  If you make a high salary a sticking point, you may put your future department chair and colleagues in an awkward position.  Because of salary compression, existing faculty may not make as much as incoming faculty. If you come in at a SUBSTANTIALLY higher salary than them, this may create resentment.

You should take advantage of a new offer to make your own life situation as good as possible without alienating your future colleagues.  You do this is by doing research. For most state schools, you can find the salaries for existing faculty. Find your rank (Instructor, Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor) and identify those current faculty at that rank.  Then search the salary database to get an idea of the range.

I would generally recommend choosing the median value within existing salaries, but you may adjust this up or down depending on your experience level and what else you are asking for.  For example, for my last negotiation, I came in as a Full Professor, but I am relatively young compared to many of the existing faculty. If I asked for a salary above what the highest-paid current Professor with 10 years’ more experience earns, I may have created some resentment.  And the median salary for current Professors was more than enough for me to be happy, so that is what I asked for.

Once you receive an offer of employment, you can indicate you are very interested and you need time to consider and get back to them with what you would like in your negotiation.  Many institutions will include a salary in the initial offer. In general, the first entity to give a number will set the bar for the negotiation, and it is preferable for that to be the institution.  However, I have been asked twice what I would expect to make DURING the interview, so you should have a fair number in mind. Whether they do or do not include a salary offer, do your comparative research so you can come back with either “That sounds good” or “I would like to ask for X amount.”

If you are applying to a private school or a school which does not publish salaries, you can still do the research.  Some institutions will have different salaries for different disciplines- supposedly to reflect the differences in the salaries those disciplines would make in private practice.  I personally feel that salary should be based on your rank and number of years of service and be independent of your discipline, but I don’t get to regulate the market economy. Find out approximately what others in your discipline and rank make at other institutions.  If you use those numbers, it is unlikely you will get a “Woah, that is way different than what we were expecting.” I expect most vet schools are within $10k of each other for starting salaries. Some may be dramatically lower- like Colorado State University (everyone wants to live in Fort Collins)- and some may be dramatically higher- like UC Davis (SO expensive to live there).

For most institutions, you can probably ask for a 5% increase over an initial offer without ruffling any feathers.  An administrator once told me, “Don’t lose a potential faculty member over five thousand dollars.” Some places will have a hard budget and not be able to move.  If you are asking for a LOT of other things or a high-cost item like a spousal hire, you may not be able to get any more in salary. If you have competing offers, you can share the salary information with each so they can factor that into their decision-making during negotiations.

Make sure to prioritize your requests so you will know how to respond.  It never hurts to ask, as long as it is a fair and reasonable ask. Consider if you will be happy regardless of the response.  If you ask for $120k, and they come back with $110k, is that acceptable? I think the most important question is: is that a fair salary for this institution, position, and discipline?  If it’s fair, then you need to decide how important cash money is to you.

Some people may be stressed about negotiating salary, but I don’t think you should be.  As long as you are professional, consider the impact on your future colleagues, and don’t get greedy, everything should be fine.

Special Announcement: Realize.VET Interview!

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