Hello, pre-veterinary hopefuls–this advice is for you.
Getting experience in veterinary hospitals is IMPERATIVE. You will need to know about this career you so covet. A lot of kids, at one time or another, want to be a vet–but do you really know what you’re getting in to? Maybe once you see it’s not all kittens and rainbows, you wouldn’t like it so much after all. Also, you will need experience hours to put down on the application when you are applying. Plus, admissions is so super-competitive that you will need to be as well-rounded as possible. And finally, vet school can only teach you so much–so anything you learn above and beyond your curriculum will give you a leg up. If you have not gotten your foot in the door, I suggest you do so. Yesterday. You can never start too early, or be too competitive of a candidate.
Talk to your local veterinary hospital, go to the humane society, join an animal-related club, even talk to the farmer/rancher down the road. If you have already observed at one place–do not stop reading this post. You need varied experience. Vet schools want to see that you’ve worked in private practice, research, small, large, and exotic medicine. The more, and wider your body of experience–the better candidate you will be. Call, ask, beg, write letters, ask people already in the field, utilize your networks to get in the door–anywhere. Once you get in at one, you will more easily get into others. Job shadow, observe, volunteer, make a day trip, whatever–just get involved somehow.
*Just remember it’s the GPA that is ultimately THE most important factor*
Here are 6 tips for when you get in the door:
1) Try to stay for a full day
Veterinary medicine is different every day. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful and exciting. So it really is difficult to try to schedule when you are likely to see the most interesting things. If you are there for an entire day vs. a few hours, you will maximize your chances of seeing a variety of interesting things. In between said exciting and interesting cases, refer to #3 on this list. And as part of this one–bring you own snack/lunch. You may or may not get an exact-timed, scheduled and timely lunch break. And you certainly do not want to miss the most exciting thing of the day because you had to drive somewhere to pick up fast food. Besides–when you’re on your feet all day and trying to remain engaged, do you really wanna chow down icky, fattening greasy food? Bring in high protein food to help curb hunger pangs and maintain your energy throughout the long day. But a lot of the time the boss will buy you lunch. If they do–include it in the thank you card that I suggest you write in point #5.
2) Expect to feel awkward and out of place.
You won’t know anything about the place you’re seeing on your first day there. It will take time to build a re-pore, establish trust, and get into a routine. This is expected. Try to stay out of the way and avoid touching/interfering with things. When I began volunteering at my local veterinary hospital in 5th grade, the great majority of my time was spent jumping out of the way of the volatile veterinarian. Firstly, just hang back until someone gives you the go ahead, and until you see what is normal around there.
3.) Be interested!
Yes, you are feeling everything out when you first go to your animal-related experience. This does not mean, stand there looking bored. My biggest piece of advice is to maximize your time. Take a small notebook in with you. Ask questions! The adults at veterinary hospitals love to feel important, impart their knowledge, and give advice. Use this to your advantage and learn everything you can. And you don’t just have to ask the vets and professionals. Everyone there will have some useful tips to share. You can ask the vets about the career, medicine, and veterinary school. The techs can tell you day-to-day routines, animal care tips, and impart info on potential back-up career plans, and even the younger staff can tell you about the current pre-reqs, ins and outs of the application, give standardized test advice, and maybe even let you know how/where to get a (summer) job.
3) Once you are comfortable–jump in and help.
With permission, observers and volunteers can file, run and grab things, clean cages, and help with light restraint. Get in the habit of cleaning off counters once an animal is off of it. It will just show some initiative on your part. If you feel comfortable and confident–and the staff you’re working with is handling the big stuff–it’s OK to help. Learning is multi-faceted and it will cement what you’re seeing and writing if you actually DO things too. Just don’t get crazy and do anything over your head or without DIRECT supervision/permission.
4) Compare–but in your head, not aloud–each place you observe.
Keep track of things you liked and didn’t. Each hospital/place will have their strengths, tips, and awesomeness. You will also see your share of struggle, weaknesses, and maybe jerks. Write down what might work for YOU in the future, and things you should remember to avoid iwhen you’re the one running the show. It’s OK to make private judgements. But that is what they should remain. Do not, under any circumstance bad mouth vets, practices, or clients you’ve encountered at other places–especially when going to a subsequent hospital. It’s unprofessional, makes YOU look bad, and in this world of highly competitive veterinarians that often judge/bad-mouth each other without actually having seen anything in person–needs to stop. Also, you don’t want to burn bridges. And you never know what ties these people have to each other. Veterinary medicine is an insular world. To a lessor extent, don’t be the annoying newcomer that says, “But ___________ does it THIS way.” No one wants to hear it, and vets tend to bristle against change–especially coming from a new person they don’t know well.
5) Write thank yous.
Your main goal is to learn about the veterinary profession, but your secondary goal in observing/volunteering is to garner support from people on the inside. Whether it’s a future part-time job, letter of recommendation, or future veterinary partnership–or all of the above–a little appreciation goes a long way in fostering important ties. If you are given the opportunity (and trust!) to get inside an animal related job, jot a quick thank you note to the hospital (or farm staff, or whatever relevant group of people).
6) Move on
This is the part I was never that awesome at. Because veterinary school wants you to both be well rounded and have a 4.0 GPA, after spending time at one place–go somewhere else. Loyalty will only limit your knowledge (and references). And getting a full-time job will not garner you more points from admissions, but less. Right or wrong, they figure if you’re standing there with no responsibilities that you are learning more then if you’re walking dogs or cleaning kennels on the time-clock. So after you’ve learned what you can, get into a completely different aspect of the animal world and learn everything you can (in a brief span) from them.
I guess I should mention why I am a person you should listen to. My advice is sound: I volunteered 633 hours at my local vet hospital, observed for 6 months at a large animal practice, helped vaccinate and Coggins test employee horses, and spent weekends helping at an Animal Sanctuary, and more that I don’t remember without looking it up. I hope this helps.