Do You Want to do a Specialty Internship?

The Vetducator - Image of intern going to private practice, specialty internship, or residency.

The internship is a one-year experience. Typically, after vet school, one does a rotating internship, where you get a wide variety of experience in medical and surgical cases. More and more specialty internships are coming about. These are also one year long, and are focused on a specific discipline, such as anesthesia, cardiology, internal medicine, oncology, or surgery. You’ve already done one internship, worked long hours for not much money. Why would you do another?

The specialty internship has been around for at least 20 years, and probably longer.  Programs have always had a need for semi-experienced clinicians who could do more specialized work.  Why not create a residency if that is needed? Some programs do not have enough specialists or other requirements dictated by specialty colleges to train residents.  Some institutions do not have the funding to make a 3-year residency commitment, but can make a 1-year internship commitment. In recent years, specialty internships have exploded as the applicant pool has increased.

Most people pursue a specialty internship as a stepping stone for a residency.  Through the VIRMP, you can apply to residencies and internships simultaneously. The VIRMP will first try to match you for a residency.  If you are unsuccessful, it will then try to match you in an internship if you applied to any. A specialty internship fulfills a number of useful roles for the prospective specialist:

  1. It keeps you in the system. If you finish your internship and do not get matched for a residency, what do you do until you can apply again the next year? You could go out into practice, but that is fraught with complications.
  2. It gives you more references. Your references from your rotating internship are good and helpful, but getting more references, particularly from people within your discipline, can be valuable. The supervisors for specialty internships have also seen a LOT of specialty interns, and can apply that perspective to your performance.
  3. It makes you a better clinician. You get more experience in your chosen specialty, meaning that a residency which takes you will have a more prepared resident. Plenty of programs still take applicants out of a rotating internship, but a specialty internship might give you a slight leg up if you need it.

There are some times when doing a specialty internship isn’t helpful, or isn’t right for you.  Some of these include:

  1. Family considerations.  Yet another year spent at a different institution with no guarantee for the future.  It can be tough if you want to settle down.
  2. Financial considerations.  Another year spent not making much money, potentially with student loans looming or, worse, gathering interest. Also possibly not contributing to retirement accounts.
  3. Academic consideration.  If your vet school performance was poor, it’s possible no number of internships will make you a viable candidate for a residency.  Talk to your mentors and get their genuine appraisal of your situation. I have seen applicants pursue three specialty internships and still not get a residency.  It breaks my heart. I wish I could tell them, “This isn’t going to be your path. Find another one.”
  4. You’ve had it.  You’ve been in school long enough, and you want to have your own time and develop your own professional image.  It’s time to get out of the academic circle and into practice or a different veterinary pursuit.

The specialty internship can be a valuable, rewarding experience.  It can enhance your application and get you one step closer to a residency.  On the other hand, it can also delay you getting to where you want to be in life by another year (or more if you do more than one).  

You should have a very honest conversation with yourself, your loved ones, and your mentors.  How much is this path really worth to you? Could you be just as happy doing something else? I didn’t match for a surgery residency after my internship and ended up doing an anesthesia residency.  I am ecstatically happy now. Professional happiness doesn’t just happen to you- you need to make yourself happy given your circumstances. If you tell yourself, “I can only be happy if I am a surgeon”, I think you are bound to make unwise decisions.  Tread carefully.

6 comments on “Do You Want to do a Specialty Internship?

  1. -

    Thanks for pointing out that you will get more experience when you choose to specialize in veterinary internships. As you said, your internship will make you a prepared resident. This is something that I will share with my sister who has been fond of pets. She would like to find a career that will allow her to care for more pets, so I will convince her to consider veterinary internships.

    • - Post author

      Great to hear your sister is interested in veterinary medicine! Just realize that “internship” is used differently in veterinary medicine than in other fields. For us, an “intern” is someone who has completed their DVM veterinary training and is seeking additional training. You may see information for “internships” for undergraduate students related to animal care, but those are very different from a rotating internship.

  2. -

    Do you think chances of a residency are better if someone applies to a residency position with JUST a specialty internship (without a prior rotating internship) vs someone who applies with only a rotating internship (no specialty internship)? I’m asking in reference to Internal Medicine

    • - Post author

      Hello Jay, thanks for asking, good question! It is very uncommon to do a specialty internship and NOT do a rotating internship first. Most of the time the progression is: vet school -> rotating internship -> specialty internship. We had one student do an anesthesia internship with us right after graduation, but this was a long time ago and she wanted to stay in the area for personal reasons and she did very well on anesthesia. She later had to do a rotating internship to qualify for the ACVAA credentials- a specialty internship for the ACVAA is insufficient to meet the pre-residency practice requirement. Some emergency internships may not require a rotating internship first. If there happened to be a medicine internship which took students right out of school, I’m not sure how they would be evaluated relative to those who did a rotating internship. I’m guessing it would not look as good, because it’s not the traditional path, but I’ll ask some internists and see what they think.

  3. -

    Thank you! Also forgot to mention that after graduation there was a 1 year experience as an associate veterinarian for a busy practice along with internationally recognized supervised surgery and anesthesia courses completed along the way (all prior to the specialty internship). A 6 month rotating internship was also completed (although abroad and not in North America)

    • - Post author

      Thanks for the further details, Jay! I would reach out to your mentors in internal medicine to get their opinion. This is a pretty nuanced case so I think “general rules” don’t apply very well. So you’re asking if 6 mo rotating internship + 1 year practice + 1 year rotating internship > 6 mo rotating internship + 1 year practice + 1 year specialty internship. I think the second option would be more competitive, but definitely ask some discipline specialists! Glad you came by, hope you find the information here useful!

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