Should You Take a Break Before an Internship?

The Vetducator - Image of vet career progression with option private practice step.

Many times, new graduates are on the fence about doing an internship versus going into private practice.  I have heard several say, “Well, maybe I will go into practice first, and then come back and do an internship.”  Although this is not impossible, it is very much the harder path.

Internships and, to a lesser extent, residencies, are designed to fit within a certain career progression.  Vet school leads to internship leads to residency. This is rarely deliberate on the part of the program supervisors, but it is a side effect of a number of differences between academia and private practice.

Letters of recommendation.  When you are a senior student, you will get letters from specialist clinicians who work with you in that context.  If you go into practice, who will write your letters? Your former faculty perhaps, but they haven’t worked with you as a veterinarian- they can only speak to your performance as a student six or more months ago.  Your boss and colleagues in practice probably don’t have much experience writing a letter of recommendation for an internship or residency, and this lack of experience shows plainly when evaluators read applicant packets.

Mentoring and advocacy.  If you are at an academic institution, you have mentors who know the system and can give sound advice on how to proceed through it.  I routinely would get an email from an anesthesia colleague who was on the internship selection committee at their institution asking my opinion on the list of students applying that year from my institution.  I knew them and had worked with them, so could advocate for them. The boss at your practice is almost surely not getting that same email.

Money.  Oh man, is it addicting to get a real paycheck.  I remember going from a resident salary to a faculty salary and thinking, “How am I going to spend all of this?”  Fortunately I saved/invested a lot of it, and you should, too. But many people get the big paycheck and realize, “Hey, I don’t have to eat ramen every week!”  It is very hard to go from earning a fair salary in practice to a third or less in an internship or residency.

Habits.  I don’t agree with this, but I do know program evaluators who are worried about those who have been out in practice coming back to academia with bad habits which will have to be corrected.  I know one prominent neurologist who wouldn’t consider an applicant if they had graduated more than 3 years before applying for a residency for this reason.

Ego.  Are you prepared to go from being The Doctor to being a cog in the wheel of academic medicine?  You have clients who look up to you, even if you’re “the new doc,” you have a certain degree of authority.  In an internship, you will have to swallow your ego and be OK being near the bottom of the ladder. I know some programs who are concerned accepting applications from those who have been out in practice too long, because they are worried the applicants’ ego will be too developed to be teachable.

I know some residencies- notably radiology- tend to take a fair number of applicants who have been out in practice for several years.  In general, though, most programs will select those who have gone through a more traditional route. You can be successful going out into practice and then coming back into academia, but it is an uphill battle.

8 comments on “Should You Take a Break Before an Internship?

  1. -

    My sister is a Vet student, and she’s currently looking for a clinic where she can apply as an intern because this will be a huge percentage of grades and performance. I’m glad you shared this; we’ll make sure to seek a letter of recommendation from her former faculty. Well, it is true that my sister would have to experience being an assistant since she still has to learn a lot from this internship.

    • - Post author

      Glad to hear this was helpful!

  2. -

    I have a question! My school graduates later than most typical programs (in august). Some students were able to reach out to internships in private practice and match after discussing changing start dates. However, if one wanted to be able to apply on cycle to not have to worry about discussing changing dates, and allow them to potentially rank more institutions, do you think an institution or practice would look negatively at a student who practices for 8/9 months to fill that gap?

    • - Post author

      Great question! It’s not unusual for those in the southern hemisphere (e.g. Australia) to work for 6 months before entering their internship. They would apply at the same time (usually Dec), graduate in Jan, then work for 6 months, then start the internship. For someone graduating in August, it’s also not unusual to have 8-9 months of work. There’s not _that_ much time between when you graduate and when you apply, which I think is the more important thing. This post was really aimed at those who think, “Meh, I can go into practice and then if I want to go back and do an internship.” If your PLAN is internship as soon as possible after graduation, I think you’ll be looked at as well as any other applicant.

  3. -

    Thank you! This would be great so that way I wouldn’t have to worry about any extra hassle with cycle dates or limiting my options!

  4. -

    This is a follow up question- do you think academic small animal rotating internships would be hesitant to accept a student that practiced for a few months after graduation due to the scenario that I mentioned? (Graduating in August instead of May?)

    • - Post author

      It’s always hard to know what people are thinking when they’re evaluating candidates. But in my experience, someone who graduated “out of cycle” and then worked did not merit comment from people evaluating that individual. So the short answer is “it’s probably fine.” But you never know. I knew one neurologist who wouldn’t take a resident who had been more than 3 years from graduation since they believed the resident would have picked up bad habits that would need to be broken. Do such people out there exist who are evaluating intern candidates? Probably. But I think making money is WAY more important than that very slim chance. And, on a fundamental level, you can’t DO anything about when you graduate. So just carry on and do your best!

  5. -

    Thank you!!

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