Let’s be clear at the outset: if I knew the answer to this question, I could be a millionaire. Untold numbers of consultants with MBAs try to answer this in the business world all the time and fail. There is no iron-clad way to make sure that the job you are about to take is bad. However, there are some important warning flags you can look out for.
1) Leadership. This may be the only real variable to consider. If the Dean and other administrators are RFHBs, it will probably be a good place to work. If they have a narcissistic personality disorder, it will not. Unfortunately, our culture tends to promote those who are narcissists and control freaks and otherwise have unhealthy management strategies. I believe identifying if the leadership is narcissistic or otherwise unhealthy is the first step. Doing so is beyond the scope of this post- there are resources online you can refer to.
2) Promotion & Tenure (P&T) success. Most P&T documents are deliberately vague to allow a wide variety of professional paths to be successful. That’s fine, as long as they are consistently applied. It may be worthwhile to ask how many faculty in the past 5 years have failed their P&T step. If it’s more than one, that may indicate a problem.
3) Unhappy faculty. My spouse went on an interview once and, when alone with one of the faculty members, that faculty member said, “Don’t come here. They overwork us and don’t respect us.” WOW! Obviously, if you get that, don’t work at that institution. But faculty members will rarely say that outright, so you need to infer it. Do they enjoy their jobs and coming to work each day? If a non-zero number do not enjoy their job, what makes you think you will?
4) The focus. Where is the focus of administration? Is it on making money? Getting as many cases in the door as possible, or as much indirect costs from research as possible? Or is it on student education, making a quality program, and nurturing new faculty? One of these scenarios would be a bad place to work, another a good place. During one interview I had, the topic of external funding and indirect costs and publishing in top tier journals came up more than once. I publish a lot, but I don’t get a lot of extramural funding, nor do most clinician-scientists in vet med. That institution didn’t seem to be a good fit for me.
5) Authenticity. Do you get the sense in discussions that you aren’t getting the whole or actual message? Do you feel people are holding back their true feelings? When we’re recruiting, we try to put a positive spin on things, but people at the institution shouldn’t lie. When one candidate asked me, “So I hear there’s a tornado issue here?” I replied, “You are absolutely right. It is kind of scary.” That’s it. There was no positive spin, and I didn’t dismiss the concern. If I had said, “Oh it’s not really an issue,” that would have been untrue, so I couldn’t be authentic to myself or the candidate. In contrast, at an interview I went on, I asked something and the people in the room all looked at each other and then prevaricated. That was a warning sign they couldn’t be authentic.
The vast majority of veterinary schools are just fine places to work. There are some problem institutions. For better or worse, in such a small community like vet med, people are rarely willing to call out those problem institutions. It is left to the interviewee to try to identify them. I think the above points are the ones most relevant for identifying truly bad programs.
What else do you think we can look for to identify bad programs? Add to the comments below!