Top 14 Reasons Academia is Awesome

I am obviously biased, but I think working in veterinary academia is the best thing since sliced bread.  I gather other areas of academia are a dumpster fire, so if you have a PhD in English or Philosophy, I am sorry.  But I feel clinical veterinary academia is a great place to be.  I’ve been there my whole professional life- except for a private practice internship- so let me tell you why.

1) By my personal definition, I work 6 months a year.  Most tenure-track faculty do 50% clinic time, so they are on clinics 6 months a year.  The rest of the time, we are teaching and doing research.  Now, I can’t lay around at home during my off-clinic time, but I can spend my time more-or-less how I like.  I don’t consider teaching and research “work” since it’s legitimately fun for me to do that.

2) The salary is plenty generous.  Most specialty faculty earn a six-figure salary. They don’t make as much as private practice vets, but I think it’s still a pretty strong salary, given the median salary in the United States is ~$60,000. Also, the “as much” is relative. If you can make $140k in academia and $160k in private practice, is it really THAT different? I expect the benefits MORE than make up for the difference.

3) The environment is intellectually stimulating.  You’re always teaching students and residents (who are challenging your knowledge), you’re working with other clever specialists in a cooperative fashion, and you have access to the latest toys and innovation.

4) The benefits are incredible.  Usually very good health insurance, good retirement options (including pensions at many institutions), and minor-but-nice benefits like free tuition for you and family and having a human medical clinic on campus to which you can go for inexpensive routine care. Not a lot of jobs offer pensions these days- it’s money FOR LIFE once you retire. A very good pillar of retirement planning.

5) Different tasks.  There’s always something new and different and interesting in my days.  If I get burned out on clinics, I have some off-clinic time to do some reading.  If I get sick of reading, I can do some research.  If I get sick of research, I can get into my teaching.  There’s always something new and different to try.  It’s not the same grind day after day.

6) Down time.  Academia encourages you to spend time just… thinking.  I sometimes stare off into space or go for walks and just Think About Things.  This time has led to dozens of research projects and different teaching approaches.  If it was go-go-go all the time, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try out different new ideas.

7) Encourages experimentation.  I’ve always felt like I’ve had a high degree of academic freedom.  I could teach how I want to teach and pursue the research I want to pursue.  If I worked for industry, I would have to research what THEY want me to research.  In academia, I get to try out a lot of different things.  Some work and I keep them, some don’t and get discarded.

8) Rank-ordered system.  I have always been attracted to rank-ordered systems.  Martial arts and boy scouts both fit this model, with clear advancement paths, and were highly formative for me growing up.  It’s nice to have something to work towards.  First internship, then residency, then Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, then full Professor.  It makes for a very tidy, clear professional path.

9) Young people.  Maybe having a revolving door of veterinary assistants or vet-school aspirants could achieve this in private practice, but being in a college town around young people is invigorating.  You get to stay at least a little more in touch with the zeitgeist and there’s always new enthusiastic people who lend a certain energy to a place.

10) Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  If you have a debt:income ratio greater than 2:1, paying that off will be nearly impossible.  But if you work for an academic institution, you can enter PSLF, which forgives ALL your federal student loan debt after 10 years AND you don’t have to pay taxes on that benefit.  If you went to a private school, this should be near the top of your list for strategies to effectively manage your debt.

11) Low cost-of-living area.  Not only are the salaries reasonable, but most vet schools are in rural areas with a relatively low cost of living.  There are some exceptions (Davis, Madison, Philadelphia, and Fort Collins come to mind) but, for the most part, you can live somewhere without paying an arm and a leg for a house or having to sell your car to pay for a pint of good beer.  Good luck finding that in San Diego, Chicago, or most cities with large referral hospitals which employ veterinary specialists.

12) Cultural opportunities.  Even though most vet schools are in rural areas, they are large state institutions with an energetic student body.  There are often great (and inexpensive) cultural opportunities, ranging from the student theatre company to traveling Broadway shows.  College towns are often a great combination of low cost-of-living but good exposure to culture.

13) More sources of fulfillment.  In private practice, you are probably appreciated by your clients and, possibly, your staff.  In academia, your students (which become alumni) and research colleagues also often express appreciation.  It’s great to meet a student several years after graduation who tells you how much you helped them become the vet they are today.

14) Less flash.  It’s understood that academics earn less than those in private practice, so I think there’s more acceptance of a more simple (some might say grungy) lifestyle.  I remember being over at a fellow academic’s house and noticing he had holes in his socks, too!  I think those in private practice feel more compelled to Keep up with the Joneses.  I feel most academics are more basic in their material needs, so get to focus on what matters in life.

Not everyone in academia has my experience or shares my perspective.  Some of us work very hard, with long days and thankless administration.  Private practice has its good parts, too.  But I often feel that people neglect all the great things that working in academia can bring.

White Coat Investor Podcast Spot

All my professional life, I have ended up with more money at the end of the year than I started with. I didn’t really know why or what to do with this until I found Mr. Money Mustache. I have since become passionate about personal finance, and teach the vet students and house officers at my university whenever I can. The White Coat Investor was started by human emergency physician Dr. Jim Dahle, and the resources there grew my knowledge and competency in finance tremendously. I have read all of his blog posts twice (including the comments!) and was fortunate enough to be accepted as a guest on his podcast. I encourage you all to have a listen- I think there are some valuable tips here for anyone interested in veterinary medicine. This link takes you to the podcast!

In one place I did misspeak: I said the applicant:seat ratio for veterinary medicine was 1.2:1. In actuality, it is closer to 1.6:1. Sorry about that! I didn’t research it ahead of time like I should have.

My Biggest Professional Mistake

It was the summer of 2016.  My wife had gotten a faculty job 3 hours away from our home.  After a couple of months of just seeing each other on the weekends, we decided we didn’t want to live apart, so we started looking for other jobs.  At this time, I told my department chair what was happening and asked that they talk to the Dean about the potential for doing a spousal hire for my wife.  The college had recently done a spousal hire for another faculty, so I knew it was a possibility.  I also knew it would be better if I had an alternate offer in hand.  So off I went onto the job market.

I applied primarily for anesthesiologist jobs overseas.  I didn’t realize at the time that overseas universities don’t do spousal hiring.  But I got a lot of experience with video interviews!  I applied for a variety of non-veterinary faculty positions around Columbia, SC and got nowhere.  I applied for department chair jobs in the U.S., of which there were only a few.  I got an interview and eventually an offer at another university.

This all happened when I was away on locum.  I emailed my department chair the offer I had from the other institution and my wife’s CV.  The other institution only gave me 2 weeks to make a decision, which was a small red flag I wish I had paid closer attention to.  They also did not offer a spousal hire for my wife.  Where I had been working for 15 years apparently made no progress on a spousal hire for my wife, so I took the job at the other institution.

Why did my home university not put together a retention offer for me?  I’m still not sure.  It may be because I wasn’t talking directly with the Dean and my chair wasn’t able to make them understand my situation.  Maybe they thought I was bluffing, which I never do.  Maybe I wasn’t as valuable to the institution as I thought.  Maybe the Dean was already on the way out and didn’t want to saddle the next Dean with a spousal hire.  I’m still not sure, but here’s what I would do differently now:

1) Talk directly to the Dean.  I should have met with the Dean as soon as I started looking elsewhere so they knew my situation.

2) Push back against the hiring institution for a 2-week timeline for a decision.  It’s possible they had another choice after me, but I suspect this was just a high-pressure tactic to minimize the chance of my home institution giving me a retention offer.

3) Hold out for a spousal hire offer.  I should have never taken the job at the new university ‘hoping’ they would find something for my wife.  This was another red flag I should have picked up on.  Their spousal hiring policy (that is, no spouses ever hired at that institution) is disastrous and actively makes it hard to recruit faculty there.  I should have continued to apply for positions and waited until I got an offer from somewhere that would also give my wife a job.  This is the strategy I employed when searching for a new job in 2018 and it worked out very successfully.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes and avoid making the same ones yourself.  The biggest thing in life is to keep learning and getting better- no one is perfect!

You Can Do Anything You Want

…But you can’t do EVERYTHING you want.  I first heard this principle applied to high-income professionals with respect to their personal finances and I love it.  I use it when I teach the senior vet students about personal finances.  If you want, you can: 1) Live in LA, 2) Buy a new BMW, 3) Send your kids to private school, OR 4) Retire early.  But you CANNOT: live in LA AND buy a new BMW AND send your kids to private school AND retire early.  You won’t make enough.  This isn’t a money problem- there are physicians earning $400k who can’t do this.  There just isn’t enough money there.  This is a spending problem.  How does this apply to your professional progression?

You can: 1) Fail organic chem, 2) Only get 1 letter of recommendation from a veterinarian, 3) Spend your free time with friends instead of getting leadership positions in clubs, 4) Have little experience in a vet clinic, OR 5) get into your state school.  But you CANNOT: fail organic chem, only get 1 letter of recommendation from a veterinarian, have no leadership roles, have little clinic experience, and get into your state school.  This isn’t an “organic chem is hard” problem.  This is an “I’m not able or willing to put the effort in” problem.

Am I saying there’s NO ONE in the world that’s ever achieved this?  Of course not.  Am I saying that it’s just this side of impossible, and you shouldn’t plan your life as if you’re going to win the lottery?  Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

So what’s the point of this?  The point is that you CAN make mistakes.  You CAN mess up your application.  You CAN vomit during your interview.  Try not to worry about it if you have a single flaw on your application.  But you can’t slack off.  You can’t be bad at science and not make that deficit up elsewhere on your application.  If you want to get a highly competitive position, you have to BE highly competitive.  There are dozens or hundreds of other applicants for the position you want.  You can’t slack off on all aspects of your application.

If you find you don’t like science, don’t like leadership, don’t like working with people, and don’t want to put in the hours…. Maybe being a veterinarian isn’t for you.  There are plenty of other careers where you get to work with animals.  Choose something that is more in line with what you are good at.

Some people are unable to put the work in.  Maybe they get migraines after being in bright light for more than 4 hours.  Maybe their parents didn’t give them books to read when they were young so it’s hard for them to process new information.  Maybe they have an addiction problem.  There are plenty of reasons why people can’t be veterinarians.  It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t WANT it badly enough.  We always tell people you can have it if you want it badly enough.  But you know what?  For some people, just wanting it isn’t going to cut it.  Some people can’t be veterinarians.

You can make a misstep or two in your life and still get to vet school, or an internship, or a competitive residency.  But you cannot make a series of missteps.  There are plenty of other people out there who don’t have ANY missteps.  Which applicant do you think evaluators would prefer? You can do ANYthing you want, but not EVERYthing you want.

Tips on Efficiently Downsizing With Your Pet

Image via Unsplash

This is a guest post from a reader at ourbestfriends.pet who reached out to me recently. Since those who progress through veterinary medicine- especially going into advanced training- move so frequently, I thought it was a good topic. Going from undergrad, to vet school, to internship, to residency, to a faculty position usually involves at least 3 moves, and often many more. I hope this is helpful to you, enjoy!

Changing your lifestyle and downsizing your home takes forethought and organization. With the right mindset and a good plan, you and your beloved pet can find the process and end result rewarding and manageable. The Vetducator presents some tips that can help make the downsizing process a little less stressful.

Clear Out Your Old Space

The first key is to give yourself time. Start months in advance to calmly clear out and maintain a peaceful atmosphere for you and your family pet. Doing it in stages rather than cramming it all into a short chaotic timeframe keeps you and pup or kitty more at peace with the changes.

Tackle the garage, attic, and storage barn first while considering your new lifestyle. Depending on where you are downsizing to — such as, say, a condo — you won’t need rakes or the lawnmower, so sell these items and earn extra cash for the move.

Even if you are ready for a change, Rover or Rosie may not be. Keep your fuzzy friend’s bedding, food bowls, and toys the same, and prepare to have them with you throughout the entire moving process. It is reassuring for animals to see and smell their own belongings.

Prepare Your House for Sale

Continue decluttering by clearing out and organizing closets and kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Pack up personal photographs and treasured pieces to depersonalize your space for potential home buyers. Consider storing boxed items in a storage unit until moving day to keep the house show-ready.

On the inside and outside, make minor repairs and freshen paint. Fix any leaks or loose hinges. Liven up your landscaping. Experts find that your property value can be increased by 7% with good curb appeal. Remember that how your house looks on the outside is an indication of what it will look like on the inside, so have your lawn, front door, and porch in good shape and welcoming.

Move Into Your New Lifestyle

If you do not have a pet sitter for Spot or Fluffy on moving day, keep them reassured with their belongings and play soft music during the car ride. Unloading can make for an unsafe environment, so it is best to confine pets in a bathroom or extra bedroom with bedding and food and water until the doors are closed and they can explore safely.

You may have to make modifications to your new home to ensure your fuzzy friend is comfortable and safe, including fencing. Connect with local contractors in your new area using websites like Angi. Evaluate companies by reading online reviews then set up meetings to get quotes and discuss your particular needs. You can plan on paying approximately $4,500, but costs depend on the materials, size of the fence, and location of installation. Make sure your fence installer is licensed and insured and that you have flagged underground utility lines before it goes in.

Making room for pet beds or a kitty litter box in your downsized space could mean creating a niche under a cabinet in the bathroom or a cozy hideaway under a family room table. You may also need to purchase cat posts for kitty to relax in front of windows.

Downsizing and relocating is a lot of work. Set yourself up for success by allowing sufficient time to dispose of clutter, prepare your home for sale, and find your new space. You will be rewarded with a carefree environment for you and your beloved pet to relax and enjoy an easier lifestyle.

Solved: How to be a +1

One of the first posts I ever put onto this site was to Aim for Zero, a principle I encountered reading a book by astronaut Chris Hadfield.  That was more than two years ago, and ever since I have continued to find this advice sound and universal.  So many times I see people trying to aim to be a +1 only to actually be a -1.

Nonetheless, there ARE some people who are a +1.  And, in vet school, internship, residency, and faculty applications, if you can be a +1, you will obviously stand out compared to the rest of the field.  I have maintained that, while you can do A LOT to improve your application, I’m not sure if you can actually BECOME a +1.

I did vet school interviews this year and thought about this concept as we did the interviews.  Some students were clearly +1s- maybe 5 out of the 80 we interviewed.  They smiled, they had hundreds of hours of experience, they had amazing grades, they were prepared, they were personable and humble.  In all ways I could detect during the interview process, I thought they would make amazing vet students and, probably, amazing veterinarians.  So how did they GET to that point in their life?

My frankly honest evaluation is that getting to be a +1 is probably a combination of: 1) a lifetime of decisions, 2) privilege, and 3) luck.

All of the +1s I observed had a fairly privileged upbringing: their parents were medical professionals who seemed to support them throughout life.  Having parents who have gone to graduate or professional school is a significant advantage- they can share their stories with their children, give them advice, and they know HOW to get there and can help their children make decisions from youth to facilitate their academic progress.  Having parents who provide significant financial support is also amazing- it means you don’t have to work summers but can volunteer instead. It means you don’t have to work during college but can go to club meetings and volunteer at the local clinic.  That’s not to say you HAVE to be born to privilege to be successful, but it is an incredible benefit for those who are.

A combination of life decisions also led to those people being where they are.  I don’t think half-way through undergrad you can turn around and suddenly make all the decisions needed to get you to be a +1.  But when they were 8, they were going on farm calls with their veterinarian parent or making a juice stand instead of watching cartoons.  When they were 10, they took up gymnastics and then pursued it through high school, learning grit and the value of a growth mindset.  When they were 13, they studied over the weekend instead of going out with their friends.  When they started high school, they figured out how to get into honors and AP classes.  When they went to college, they worked or volunteered at the local clinic, got leadership roles in clubs, and studied hard and got As.

Finally, luck plays a huge role in their success.  In addition to being born to privilege, they didn’t get sick or get into a debilitating accident with a traumatic brain injury.  They were fortunate enough to get the genetics which made it easier for them to be pleasant, personable, and happy (yes, a lot of happiness is due to genetics).

This isn’t really an advice post.  The point of this post is to try to emphasize to you why I don’t think it’s worthwhile to spend much time focusing on being a +1.  Too much of it is just out of your control.  Instead, Aim for Zero and you’ll do better than SO MANY applicants.

What I Learned Interviewing Vet Student Applicants This Year

Every year when I conduct interviews and evaluate applicants, I try to reflect on what I have learned and find tidbits to share with you all to improve your applications and interviews.  Here are some thoughts from reading dozens of VMCAS applications and then conducting interviews for vet school.  I have made these anonymous when needed.

Essay Notes

  • I liked that a handful of candidates mentioned the value of mentoring once they graduate.  This suggests they realize they won’t Know It All as new vets and indicates some degree of humility, which I like to see in a student.
  • Don’t write TOO short of a letter.  You don’t need to use all your space or word/character limits.  But a handful of applicants wrote maybe 3-4 sentences.  I thought, “Really?  That’s all you can say about veterinary medicine?”  Even though I tend to be concise, if I’m trying to demonstrate that I know about something, I will do my best to do that by expanding on a topic.  Don’t be needlessly wordy or lengthy, but also don’t be too short.
  • Bad grammar REALLY distracts me when reading and it detracts from your message.  Spell and grammar check it before putting it into VMCAS.  Have others review your work.  Check out my grammar posts.
  • Don’t be too specific about your career objectives (e.g. I want to be a board-certified neurologist) unless you have a lot of experience with that (e.g. worked with at least 2 different neurology practices AND seen other specialties to compare).  If you’ve worked in a single neurology clinic and you’ve decided to base your whole career on that experience, that seems a little naive to me.
  • Terrible essays will sink your chances.  I think I only encountered a couple of these, but essays can’t be TERRIBLE.  They don’t have to be stellar- there’s a lot of other aspects to your application.  But they have to at least be passable.

Punchy Openings

Something that grabs the reader’s attention and compels them to read further is good in my opinion.  People differ on what they like in essays, so don’t take this as the gospel truth.  These are just some lines I found which I appreciated.  I have changed the actual text but tried to retain the impact.

  • “Veterinarians are versatile medical professionals. They advocate for the well-being of animals, but they do that for the people as well.”
  • “My sister should have known better.”
  • “My life has been a blessing.”
  • “I would bet that most people’s first thought of a veterinarian would not be an elderly black man in a lab coat.”
  • “At my preschool graduation, I announced that I was going to be a veterinarian when I grew up.”
  • “I was studying abroad in Italy when I learned of the pandemic, and this experience inspired me to consider a career that combined veterinary medicine, public health, and international outreach.”

Interview Notes

  • As much as possible, answer the question as asked.  I realize this can be hard, given the high-stress nature of an interview.  But try not to do what politicians do when they get a question they don’t want to answer, where they answer a question related to their speaking points.   It doesn’t help me get to know you, which is the point of an interview. I also might wonder what you’re trying to hide by avoiding my question.
  • Have questions to ask.  Ideally, these questions should help YOU make a decision whether to go to that school or not.  I don’t think questions about the interviewers are very helpful for most students.  But have something to ask about the school or the program.  A couple of students didn’t and I thought, “Did you prepare for this?  There’s really NOTHING you want to know about this place you may be at for four years?”
  • Smiling is just SO important.  A handful of candidates just could not smile and it made it really hard to figure out what was going on for them.  Maybe they were stressed?  Maybe they were depressed?  Maybe they were unenthusiastic about vet school?  Difficult to say.  But it does not give a good impression.  Work on smiling naturally.  You’re interviewing for vet school!  Isn’t that amazing and exciting?  Show your excitement and eagerness!
  • Subtle use of humor makes the interview more engaging and memorable.  This can be difficult to pull off.  If it doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry about it.  But if you can maintain a lighthearted tone (without being flippant), feel free to do so.
  • If you are doing a video interview, make sure your camera is on a stable surface.  If you’re using your laptop, for example, don’t put it on your lap.  It was fairly distracting to see the screen moving constantly for some interviewees.
  • If you are doing a video interview, put your camera at eye level or slightly above.  Don’t have the camera looking up at you.  This is not a flattering angle.  There’s a reason people take selfies by extending their arm up and to the side.  A slight downward angle is the best angle.
  • If you’re comfortable with it, show appreciation to the interviewers.  You can give a short opening or closer: “Thank you for taking the time to interview me today!”  It’s not required, but it was nice to hear from some of the interviewees.
  • It can seem like a gimmick, so don’t overuse it, but responding with “That’s a great question” or “Thanks for that question” can be an effective technique for showing engagement.
  • Don’t ask questions of interviewers which are meaningless (e.g. “which courses do you teach?”)  Use your question time wisely- to help YOU make a decision.
  • If it’s available to you, don’t just use buzzwords like “communication”.  HOW are you communicating?  Active listening?  Validating?  Tons of applicants said “communication” is important to being a veterinarian.  Many gave an example of being in a leadership role and they said “communication” was important in that role.  It started to sound more like a buzzword than anything meaningful.  What type of communication?  What specific skills did you use?  The more detailed you can be, the more that demonstrates that you are ACTUALLY communicating and not just using buzzwords.  Ditto “leadership”.

Letters of Recommendation Notes

  • Letters from people who have known you and your family your whole life really don’t help much.  I expect most applicants can get a professional family friend to write them a letter- it doesn’t separate them out from the other applicants.  If you have three letters from professors/veterinarians, don’t add a fourth from a family friend.  It’s not necessary.
  • A fourth letter of recommendation, if coming from a veterinarian, may help.
  • If you have an option for a letter from one of two employers, and one of those employers is a family friend, choose the employer who is NOT a family friend.  Again, a letter from a family friend just isn’t going to tell me much.  I don’t trust that they are going to provide a true and accurate portrayal of the applicant.
  • If you have a LOR from an English or Math professor, that is impressive.  I expect applicants to be good at biological sciences.  If they could impress a professor from outside the biological sciences, that suggests they are a well-rounded student.

General VMCAS Notes

  • Review and edit.  Don’t enter “fgdgdasg” for Experience Details (true story).
  • Put it in the VMCAS – if you have an experience, include it.  For several interviewees, we only found out about a bunch of their experience during the interview.  If it hadn’t come up in the interview, their ‘paper’ scores would have been low because they didn’t include that experience.  This means animal experience, veterinary experience, experience on a team sport, etc. etc.  If you’ve done it as a human and it has helped you learn and grow, put it in.
  • A Master’s degree is actually helpful if you had a not-great undergrad grade performance.  Those who did a Master’s degree and got all As in those courses (which were usually intense science courses) suggests that they can keep up with the heavy coursework in veterinary medicine even if things were a little rough in undergrad.
  • Actually complete your VMCAS application details (e.g. dates, supervisors).  Lack of attention to detail is not a good quality for a medical practitioner.
  • If you don’t care about your VMCAS, why should we care about you?  Again, check it and recheck it and make sure it is filled out and complete.

It’s a lot to digest, and that’s on top of everything you’re already doing when applying and interviewing for vet school.  So don’t worry too much about most of these.  DO pay attention to the notes I gave about things that will seriously damage your application or interview.  They’re not hard to avoid.  You need to aim for zero.  After that, it’s mostly up to your grades, experience, and demonstration of qualities we are looking for in a veterinary student.

M&M Rounds: Didn’t Match for a Residency

During M&M rounds, we will examine some fictitious cases and evaluate the facts and consider some solutions to these problems.

Mark Ashes is a 32-year-old Hispanic male presenting for not matching to an exotics/wildlife medicine specialty for the third time through the VIRMP.  He has wanted to be a veterinarian being paid to work with charismatic megafauna since he entered vet school.

Mark went on a trip to Africa during his undergrad years and was immediately smitten.  He decided he wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian.  He applied to veterinary school and was accepted on his second application cycle.  During vet school, he participated in all the exotic/wildlife club activities and elective courses offered.  One summer during vet school he went abroad to help in a wildlife capture program.  His grades were fair because his focus was on non-traditional species, so he didn’t have a lot of patience for learning “regular” medicine.  He had a class rank of 40/130.

In his senior year, he did multiple externships at zoos and exotics practices throughout the US.  He applied for exotic animal internships through the VIRMP with letters of recommendation from three exotics specialists.  He did not match on the first go-around, did not Scramble, and decided to enter into private practice where he would get to do a fair bit of exotics work.  He applied the next year for an exotics internship through the VIRMP and was accepted.  Thereafter, he applied for an exotics/wildlife residency but did not match.  Since then, he has continued working in small animal/exotics practice and applying to exotics/wildlife residencies.

My treatment for Mark is very much my own opinion, and others may differ- I welcome your comments!  My treatment is for him to find a zoo where he can volunteer to work with them and drop his dream of being paid a decent salary to work with charismatic megafauna.  This would achieve his goal of working with those animals while acknowledging the reality that he is very unlikely to get a residency in wildlife medicine.

The match rate for wildlife medicine is one of the lowest of any specialty – 3% for exotics and 9% for wildlife as of 2021.  Wildlife medicine had 97 applicants for 9 positions and exotics had 83 applicants for 3 positions.  Not impossible, but statistically poor, particularly for someone who has already failed to match.

I think the learning issues for Mark’s case focus on what you do during vet school and how you choose your specialty.  Mark didn’t do any research, and his grades weren’t great because he was so focused on his species of interest.  If he had focused on being a more general veterinarian, he may have done better.  Pursuing a rotating internship before a specialty internship may also have improved his application.  Specialty choice is also incredibly important.  Obviously, you want to do what you enjoy doing, but I believe most people would be happy doing a wide variety of disciplines.  I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon and I am incredibly happy in anesthesia.  One of my colleagues trained to be an equine internist and is very happy in anesthesia.  There are many routes to happiness.  If you focus too closely on a single outcome, you may be limiting your options for happiness.  Consider the match rate for your specialty.  If you aren’t one of the absolute top candidates in the country, you may never be able to get that residency.  Another path may bring you greater happiness.

M&M Rounds: Didn’t Match for an Internship

During M&M rounds, we will examine some fictitious cases and evaluate the facts and consider some solutions to these problems.

Ivey Sprigs is a 27-year-old Caucasian female presenting for not matching into an internship through the VIRMP.  Her eventual professional goal is to do a cardiology residency, so an internship is virtually essential as a first step towards that.

Ivey’s history is that she came to vet school planning to do mixed animal practice and return to the small town where she grew up.  She was an average student through vet school, focusing more on learning the material than grinding for a grade.  Her class rank was 50/130.  She did some research during the summer between freshman and sophomore year but it did not lead to a publication.

During her junior year, she began to think that she might want to specialize after vet school, but wasn’t sure in what.  In her senior year, she did an amazing job on clinics.  She arrived before everyone else and left after everyone else, was enthusiastic, was humble, and applied all that she had learned in her pre-clinical years while her classmates were just focusing on the next test.  She particularly enjoyed her cardiology and internal medicine rotations, and decided that she wanted to be a cardiologist.

When Ivey applied to internships through the VIRMP, she only applied to highly competitive academic internships, since she felt these would be more likely to lead to a cardiology residency.  She had her mentors review her letter of intent and had a letter of recommendation from an internist, a cardiologist, and a pathologist.  Because she did well on clinics, they wrote her strong letters of recommendation.

The treatment for Ivey is both simple and complex.  The simple part is that she now needs to Scramble to get SOME kind of reasonable-quality internship.  While she could enter private practice and try again next year, I think it’s harder to get back into the academic system once you have gotten out.  The complex part is that she needs to make herself a more competitive candidate during her internship year.

Unfortunately, that’s going to be hard to do.  Her class rank is probably adversely affecting her for some institutions, particularly if they have other stellar candidates with a better class rank.  She can’t do anything about that, though, so let’s look elsewhere.  While she has some research experience, she doesn’t have a publication.  Getting a publication during the intern year is hard, but not impossible.  Telling the faculty at the start of the program that doing research and getting a publication is of top importance may be helpful.  But remember, the internship is a year for clinical training.  Very few interns successfully complete a research project or write a case report.

Ivey is probably going to have to do a cardiology specialty internship to be competitive for a residency.  To that end, finding an internship at an institution that has a cardiologist during the Scramble will be key.  Another alternative may be to enter a PhD program in physiology or pharmacology and then finish that program while getting good grades in it.  That is a very long road but, if Ivey can’t get there through the internship/specialty internship route, that may be the only option available to her.

There are a lot of lessons I think are important here.

  1. Sometimes, grades do matter.  However, learning the material matters MORE in my opinion.  Being an RFHB is even more important than that.  Don’t neglect your development as a person or as a clinician just to score good grades.
  2. The competition for high-quality academic internships is fierce.  You would not believe what the applications I read look like.  Multiple peer-reviewed publications, letters of reference with them in the top 1% of candidates, incredibly well-written letters, a wide variety of experience, and letters of recommendation from people in core disciplines.  Ivey could have done a few things differently:
    1. Follow through her research to a publication (or make sure she worked with someone who would enable her to do so).
    2. Applying to less-high-quality positions but rank them lower.
    3. Get a letter from a surgeon rather than a pathologist.
  3. Working hard counts for far more than almost any other variable.  However, your hard work is not remarkable.  It is EXPECTED that any intern applicant will work hard.  So, unfortunately, putting in the hours is the minimum baseline to be considered for an internship.  You have to somehow go above and beyond, like Ivey did- being humble, knowing what is clinically relevant, and being pleasant to work with.

If you don’t match for an internship, it’s not the end of the world.  There’s always the Scramble.  However, this is why I advocate that you apply and rank anywhere you think you COULD be happy, not just the high-quality positions.  Because I think it’s far better to get a mediocre internship than to go into private practice if you’re keen on specializing.

M&M Rounds: Expensive School

During M&M rounds, we will examine some fictitious cases and evaluate the facts and consider some solutions to these problems.

Jasper is a 26-year-old Caucasian female presenting for just getting accepted into an expensive veterinary school.  She has been struggling to get into vet school since she graduated from undergrad, and so finally decided to apply to private schools to increase her chances of acceptance.

Jasper’s history is that she has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 5, when her family’s Golden Retriever got sick and Dr. Martin helped him feel better.  Although she shadowed vets and had plenty of hours of experience, her grades throughout undergrad were fairly poor.  She has been working at veterinary clinics since graduation, and has applied to her state school and other inexpensive schools every year since.  She has never even gotten an interview, so she applied to a private school this year and got in.

As tuition will be upwards of $60,000 per year, she will owe at least $240,000 at graduation.  This does not include living expenses, books, and anything else that might happen, like a car breakdown.  So let’s add $120,000 for those, for a total of $360,000.  Unfortunately, if her debt:income ratio is greater than 2:1 (that is, her debt is $360k and her salary is less than $180k), she will never be able to pay this amount off without Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or income-driven repayments (IDR).  Let’s break down why.

Let’s assume Jasper gets the mean income for a new 2019 graduate in small animal practice of $90,000.  How much debt accumulates on that loan amount every year?  At a 7% interest rate, Jasper has $25k in interest she will need to pay off, in addition to the principle.  If Jasper pays just 15% in taxes, that’s another $13k.  If Jasper can live very frugally, maybe her expenses are $30k a year.  That leaves $22k a year to pay down debt and contribute to retirement.  Forget about contributing to her future kid’s college savings.  Let’s say she gets an employer match up to $10k for her retirement, so she contributes $10k to retirement, leaving $12k for her student loan.

How long does it take to pay off $360k at $12k a year?  $360/$12 = 30 years.  Jasper will be 60 years old, won’t have contributed to her kids’ college savings, and will have lived a very frugal life for 30 years.  No buying a house, no buying a new car, no vacations, no eating out.  Do you really want to have gone through vet school to live life on $30k a year?  The debt is too large for the potential income.

The treatment for Jasper is simple, but it isn’t easy.  The treatment is two fold.  One, borrow as little as possible by living extremely frugally during vet school.  Two, get a very high paying job on graduation in a low cost-of-living area.  Working ER in Phoenix and taking 26 shifts a month is an example.  If Jasper only spent $20k on living expenses during vet school, rather than $30k, her debt would be down to $320k, making her payoff time 21 years.  She’d be 51 by the time she pays it off.  Still not great.  If she also gets a high-paying job, let’s say $110k, her payoff time would be 9 years.  That still involves living a very frugal life for that time.  She will be making a six-figure salary but living like a student for 9 years.

Going with PSLF would mean her debt is paid off in 10 years AND she doesn’t have to pay taxes on that payoff.  Academia is looking pretty good now.  Internship and residency years can count for this (if they are in a state or 501c3 institution), so that’s only 6 years earning a faculty salary to be debt-free.  Income-driven repayment (IDR) is also an option, but it will still take 20-25 years for the debt to be gone and she will have to pay taxes on the forgiven amount.

Going to an expensive school will affect every decision you make for the subsequent 10-30 years of your life.  Is that really the route you want to take?  I think students go to expensive schools because they don’t run the numbers.  Or maybe they have an idealized dream of, “But I HAVE to be a vet, no matter the cost!”  Frankly, I think that’s a child’s sentiment.  Adults should make better decisions.

I think there’s only one lesson here: DO NOT TAKE ON MORE THAN A 2:1 DEBT:INCOME RATIO TO PAY FOR VET SCHOOL.