Book Review: Vet School Survival Guide

Some time in the recent past, I thought to myself, “I wonder if there is a guide to help those who are applying to vet school?  If not, maybe that’s something I could write!”  I looked on Amazon and the result was this book.  The Vet School Survival Guide: Notes from a Back Row Student by Dean Scott DVM seemed like a promising start.  I asked if he would send me a copy and he did, along with the sequel (which I will review separately).

I didn’t realize what I was getting into until about 50 pages in.  Each page is either a cartoon or a series of sayings, phrases, observations, and notes on Dr. Scott’s experience and perspective on vet school.  Partly humorous, partly tongue-in-cheek, partly cautionary tale, this isn’t a book with plot or tricks of the trade.  So instead of commenting on each chapter (of which there are none), I thought I would comment on some of the points he made.

A cartoon with a kennel attendant who looks at a dog and says “Lymphosarcoma” while the vet student says “I knew that”.  The caption reads: The kennel person comes up with the diagnosis before you.

-This reminded me of an episode during my internship.  I was the overnight doctor and this medium-sized dog came in around 5am, depressed and tachycardic.  I was wracking my brain for what was going on when the tech said, “Wow, look at that stomach!  Probably got GDV, huh?”  I was thankful she said something, but embarrassed that I missed such an obvious diagnosis.

“Discovering James Herriot lied.”

-I absolutely laughed out loud.  I wasn’t one of those kids who read James Herriot- I actually read them after vet school- but, for those who did read him, real veterinary medicine today is nothing like in those books.  Any student who enters thinking otherwise is up for a rude awakening.

“You wonder why, if evaluations are considered and responded to, there are still so many poor instructors.”

-I remember in freshman year taking neuroanatomy and hating it.  I heard that professor got poor reviews every year, so why was it still bad?  I think some instructors don’t have a growth mindset or get upset or defensive about student evaluations.  I treasure student evaluations and always tell next year’s class what I changed on the basis of the feedback I get.

“After seeing the amount of paperwork that is done at the teaching hospital, you know exactly where the rain forests are going.”

-Most teaching hospitals have gone “paperless”, but the point still stands.  I am appalled at the waste we make in medicine (human and veterinary).  I’m not sure there’s a better way, but it’s nonetheless upsetting to observe.

“Someone who says, ‘Aren’t you too young to be a veterinarian?’”

– I don’t know where this trope came from, but there is definitely the idea that new vets look particularly young.  I wonder if it happens more often to female vets than male, and the gender shift in our profession has influenced this trope.

“Labs that are really three-hour lectures.”

-I understand why faculty do this- they want more time to cover content.  But it is always frustrating, both as a student and as a course coordinator.  Labs should be for practical, hands-on time, not thinly disguised lectures.

“Discovering that the rule: When in doubt, pick ‘C’, doesn’t always work.”

-I remember hearing this in vet school, too.  As a professor, I always either randomized the answers for multiple choice questions or organized them by some systematic method, like alphabetized by first letter of the first word in the answers.

A comic with the professor saying, “Oh, c’mon… you can’t all be dead!” with a bunch of students flopped at their chairs and caption, “To avoid answering questions in rounds, you pretend to be dead.”

-I tell students on the first day of the rotation that I’ll ask questions and then wait for an answer.  Indefinitely, if needs be.  I have sat in silence, waiting for some answer, for quite some time.  *I* don’t feel awkward during those times.  🙂

“You recall laughing at veterinarians who tried to warn you away from vet school.  Oh, how you laughed.”

-I really worry about students who are obsessed with going to vet school.  They are willing to sacrifice their mental happiness, financial future, and whole rest of life for this “dream”.  I don’t hear a lot of cautionary voices in the pre-vet community- they tend to get shouted down by those who say, “YOU CAN DO ANYTHING!  FOLLOW YOUR DREAM!”  If your dream makes you in debt for the rest of your life and to the point where you can never retire…. Is that really a good dream? Or can you do something else that will make you just as happy or happier?

“After much debate and research, your study group decides that an interrupted-cruciate pattern is most appropriate for sewing a button back on your shirt.”

-My sewing skills are 100% due to surgery class.  I remember thinking, after taking surgery, “How do normal people learn to sew?”  And this observation is correct: the cruciate pattern is for sewing buttons back on.

“Knowing you’ve never seen a practicing veterinarian scrambling to determine the Ideal Alveolar Gas Equation.”

-I absolutely hate that some people teach minutiae which students will never need in general practice.  Yes, if you specialize in anesthesia, you need to know this equation.  But no one in practice does.  I remember walking past a lecture hall seeing a lecture about tracheal resection.  This is such a vanishingly rare procedure, I can’t imagine why any GP needs to know about it.  I am constantly frustrated by all the minutiae people try to teach vet students.  I wish people would stick to the “Teach less, better” approach.

“You have to take classes with medical students, but they get graded pass/fail.”

-I think we need to move this way in veterinary medicine.  There is good evidence from the human medicine side that grading pass/fail does not result in worse student learning but DOES decrease student stress.

“You become a pawn in a power-struggle involving the senior radiology technician, his least favorite clinician, and an incontinent greyhound.”

-I always worry about students (or staff or residents) being put into positions like this.  I try to make sure that conflicts are always resolved faculty-to-faculty rather than going through intermediaries.  I don’t think it’s fair to stick my resident- or anyone else- in the line of fire.  But this has to be a deliberate choice- I see plenty of others who don’t follow this philosophy, and I feel bad for their students/staff/residents.

“Your courses are very thorough; what isn’t covered in class is covered on the final exam.”

-Writing exams is hard.  Ideally, they should align with learning objectives, so students know where to focus their time and energy.  This is described in the book Understanding by Design, but not many faculty know about this concept.  I feel a lot of sympathy for students who suffer due to poor exam creation.

A cartoon with a student shaking a Magic 8 ball and saying, “Should I do a dexamethasone suppression test?”  The Magic 8 ball displays, “It is unclear” and the caption is, “The Magic 8-ball doesn’t have all the answers.”

-I laughed at this one because we 100% had a Magic 8 ball in the equine anesthesia prep area during my residency.  We didn’t use it often, but it was always a good time when we did.

The book concludes with a “Final Thoughts” ‘chapter’ which is inarguably the best part of the whole thing.  I have to quote this part, “However, unless you’ve been through the vet school process, there is truly no way to prepare someone adequately for the grueling, grinding, unrelenting, unsympathetic nature of it.”  I cannot agree more.  I always try to tell students You Have No Idea.

I was surprised I liked this book as much as I did, since I’m not much for sardonic humor and cartoons.  Nonetheless, it was a great encapsulation of life in vet school.  If someone were to grok all of the statements made, they would approach knowing what vet school is like.  But, of course, doing so without experiencing it is probably impossible.  So, for those who are vet school bound, it would be a good way to create realistic expectations for what it’s like.

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