Shadowing a Veterinarian

Part One: Where to Start

By Paige Roth

Under the veterinary experience part of your application, you will often find some line that basically says, “You must, must, must shadow a veterinarian.” Of course, shadowing is a critical way to learn what the daily life of the doctor really looks like and to determine if the field is the right fit for you. It’s also a way to expose yourself to all different types of medicine – small animal, large animal, exotics, surgery etc. And for many, it can be the first step to a more regular position helping out in a clinic and gaining those coveted veterinary experience hours.

But how do you ask: “Can I please follow you around all day?” without revealing your true desperation or, as was my case when I started, total lack of relevant veterinary experience.

It helped me to remember that every single one of these vets has been in my shoes. In fact, several responded sympathetically, “Ah, I remember my shadowing days,” as if calling to mind former days of poverty, ramen and a life bound to the corner of the exam room trying not to breath for fear of breaking the vet’s concentration.

Many vet students had luck going door to door with their resumes – this is a great strategy to prove you are a real person and to look the receptionists in the eye so they can asses your earnestness. I, on the other hand, am rather shy and live in a huge city. Though probably less effective, I began with the email strategy. And while I can’t say it’s as favorable as the old-fashioned, in-person approach, it ultimately paid off.

Here’s what I did:

1. Make a list. Search for clinics in your area and gather contact info. Some may already have shadowing programs in place. I started with small clinics, so I would have more of a chance of my email being read, and with small animal clinics. Most of my experience has been with horses, so I really wanted to spend some time with small animal vets. I started with a LinkedIn search to find alums from my school who went on to veterinary school. In my case, this was a very short list, but the school connection is a great place to start and secured my first shadowing opportunity. Also, keep your list long and remember you probably won’t hear back from most practices. Don’t hesitate to follow up with a phone call.

2. Draft the email. Luckily, you can use a basic template for each shadowing request. However, I recommended adding a sentence or two with the specific reason you are interested in their practice. Also, attach your resume to help confirm that you are a serious applicant.

It could read something like this:

Dear Dr. _____,

My name is _____ and I am a student at _____ University hoping to apply to veterinary school in ____ year. I have completed many of my pre-requisite courses and am hoping to gain shadowing experience before applying. I learned about your practice through ____ and am very interested in learning more about (a few of the cool things they do). Would it be possible to shadow you/ a member of your staff sometime this month?

I have attached my resume for your review, but please let me know if you need any additional information. I would be so grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the work you do in ____ . I hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you in advance for your consideration!

Sincerely,

______ (with your contact info)

3. Send a thank you note. If you do secure a shadowing opportunity, don’t forget to send a thank you note after the fact! Include some of the great stuff you learned and thank the vet for taking time out of his or her busy schedule to let you peak behind the curtain of the profession. More about what shadowing is really like to come in my next post.

Be prepared to shadow a variety of vets, especially if you are hoping to secure a more regular position. This has been one of the most validating parts of my veterinary application preparation to date, and while the reaching out initially may feel awkward, the pay off will definitely be worth it. In all likelihood, the experience will give you some needed motivation to keep on going and remind you why you started this whole process in the first place!

Stay tuned to learn more about what to expect while shadowing in my next post.

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Which vet schools should I apply to?

By Paige Roth

The million dollar question. Last week I spoke to a pre-veterinary advisor from Duke University who shed some light on the surprisingly daunting task of choosing a vet school.

Unlike selecting an undergraduate institution, there are a limited number of vet schools to choose from and they are generally fairly comparable. Of course, some have stronger shelter medicine programs or exotic focuses etc., but they will all set you up well to do the job. On the other hand, undergraduate institutions vary dramatically in terms of size or subject- matter strengths.

However, unlike medical schools, veterinary schools all have slightly different prerequisite courses, which means you need to first pick your schools, then choose your undergraduate courses accordingly. Read more about prerequisites here.

There is one school that should definitely be on your list – your in-state institution. It will offer you the best chance of admission and the lowest tuition. Focus on completing that school’s prereqs first, before expanding your list. If you don’t have a designated in state school, check out reciprocity arrangements. Some schools will extend the in state qualification to other states without vet schools. Also look into private schools that don’t give preference to applicants from a certain state.

I found this general info chart helpful when wrangling all this information.

According to the pre-veterinary advisor, some students only apply to their in state school because it is by far the best option and they can save money on additional applications to schools where their odds of acceptance are slim.

If you are like me, applying to only one school seems far too risky given the years of preparation involved in my application. I am planning to apply to 4-5 schools, including my home institution. As someone who would be willing to live virtually anywhere if it means becoming a vet, choosing those additional schools gets tricky.

My first instinct was to base my decision on applicant statistics – where do I have the best shot of getting in? But my advisor cautioned me against ruling out schools with low acceptance rates.

First, compare the list of prerequisites you plan to take for your instate school with the requirements for other universities and see if you can kill multiple birds with one stone. Then, if you want to add schools to your list that require additional courses, try to pick one or two classes that will open the most doors. For example, an animal science course or taking physics II could mean way more options.

Ideally, you should pick additional programs based on your specific areas of interest. However, I plan to pursue equine medicine, which most schools offer at comparable levels.

It may sound obvious, but consider tuition. Some schools, like North Carolina State, will grant out of state students the in-state tuition rate after their first year in the program. When we are talking about 10s of thousands of dollars saved during the course of the degree, this is a huge factor.

Finally, if you have a particular affinity for one state, he assured me that it’s ok to target that school, even if it seems a bit arbitrary. I was struggling to narrow down my list, but I have family in California and Florida, which may be the deciding factor.

While picking the right vet school can seem frustratingly arbitrary for people who like to quantify their decisions, it is critical to making the most of your undergraduate coursework.

Current and aspiring vet students: What helped you decide which schools to apply to? Did you have critical determining factors? What advice helped you the most while crafting your list?

Vet Student Volunteer Experience

By Paige Roth

Growing up, my family wasn’t big on volunteering. We always admired families that made a weekly appointment at their charity of choice, but skillfully justified our lack of participation with busy schedules or commitments that would one day make us more capable, generous philanthropists. During a particularly lean year I remember asking my mom why we didn’t volunteer more (read: why are we such lousy, selfish people), to which she good-naturedly responded, “I am my own charity.”

While I feel like most people my age pride themselves on over-committed schedules, keeping up the appearance of a break-neck pace to convey competence and possession of their life’s direction, my schedule really isn’t that busy. Even with a full time job and grad school, I find myself with infinitely more downtime than I ever had in undergrad. I immediately went in search of a vet-school-relevant way to fill it.

One of my short-term goals is to acquire more small animal experience. I was offered a position working as a kennel assistant, but couldn’t afford (financially or egotistically) to spend 40 hours a week cleaning cages for $8 an hour. I realized I could get similar experience volunteering at an animal shelter that could open the doors to positions like  a veterinary assistant – some clinics are willing to train these employees as long as they have some relevant animal experience.

Most animal shelters have organized volunteer programs that will work with your schedule – perfect for someone who works full time. I chose to volunteer at the Houston Humane Society. They had a very thorough volunteer training that covered not only the shelter’s policies and public health protocols, but also taught us basics of animal behavior and how to handle a variety of animals. The shelter also offers monthly courses for additional learning that can expose me to new subjects, like handling exotic animals, nutrition or grooming. Besides, it happens to be the shelter where we rescued Scout, so the least I can do is pay it forward.

After only a few hours of volunteering, I have learned a lot about the special health concerns pertaining to shelter medicine. As a dog walker and matchmaker for potential adopters, I have been exposed to a wide range of animals and can asses a variety of temperaments more quickly. Volunteering also means hanging out with other die-hard animal lovers, which makes it easy to stay motivated to keep checking vet school boxes.

I will continue to chronicle my journey and the various approaches I’m taking to fulfill my clinical hours. I would love to hear about your experience! What did you get out of volunteering? What tips do you have for vet students in need of hours?

Saving Scout: Rescuing a Dog with Heartworm Disease

By Paige Roth

“We’re just looking. If the right dog declares itself, we can talk about it,” – the serial dog rescuer’s famous last words.

We rescued our first dog almost a year ago, and had been considering adopting another for several months when Scout declared herself. John wanted a dog’s dog – one we could take running, who might catch a stick, swim in a lake and wouldn’t look out of place lolling its head out of the pick up truck.

Scout 1
Scout’s first day of sweet sweet freedom.

Scout was all of those things. A distinguished pointer mix, she looked ready to chase a pheasant. Agile, cuddly, a bit of a ham, a natural athlete, and, most importantly, approved by our miniature schnauzer, we were sold. But of course, there was a hitch.

Scout was heartworm positive. Coming from Colorado, we had honestly never worried about heartworm disease (you can see why on this incidence map) until a Texas vet suggested we test our first dog. And in Texas shelters, it seems like every other dog is positive for the disease. Afraid of the price tag and the follow up, we had passed up numerous dogs simply because we didn’t think two grad students had the resources to treat it.

As we turned to survey the next kennel, a purple sticker caught my eye, “Treatment sponsored.” Optimistic and uninformed, we asked a volunteer to meet her.

From down the hall, another volunteer’s face lit up, “Wait one minute. I need to tell you about Scout (then Sam).”

“This is my favorite dog,” the volunteer, Abbey – with whom we are now on a first-name basis – said, “She is the best dog and she’s been stuck here since February.” It was now the second week of May.

On cue, Scout rolled on her back, thumping her tail in the dirt.

scout and paige

“We noticed her heartworm treatment was sponsored, is that typical?” John asked.

Abbey grinned sheepishly, “No. I did it. It’s the reason no one would adopt her.”

Abbey had paid for the $450 treatment with her teacher’s salary. If that wasn’t a vote of confidence, I don’t know what is.

“What do we do next?” we asked in unison.

heartworm drugs 2
The new decorations on my kitchen counter.

If you are considering adopting a heartworm-positive dog, here are a few things we’ve learned:

  1. Can our current dog catch heartworm from the infected dog? No. The disease is transmitted by mosquitos, so as long as your healthy dog is on monthly heartworm preventative, you have nothing to worry about.
  2. How long does treatment take and what’s involved? Treatment takes about three months. This includes pre-treatment medication, a series of three shots (administered monthly), and heart and lung exams to make sure the treatment is working. Click here for more details.
  3. What’s the owner’s job? Besides shelling out about $450 for treatment and chauffeuring to appointments, the most important part of heartworm treatment is limiting the dog’s physical activity. They are basically on house arrest for the duration of treatment so ensure their blood pressure doesn’t get high enough to circulate the worms from the heart to other blood vessels or the lungs, which can cause lethal clotting. Click here for tips on entertaining your dog while on bed rest.
  4. Can it be cured? Once the dog has undergone treatment, they are considered cured as long as they remain on regular heartworm prevention.

Treating heartworm is a nasty business, but like any good pre-vet student, I’m up for the task. Stay tuned for more Scout updates as we get her health back in good standing!

Pre-Requisite Courses for Vet School

By Paige Roth

What is the number one reason veterinary schools reject applicants? Low GRE scores? Lousy GPAs? Minimal clinical experience? The real answer surprised me. According to VMCAS, “the applicant doesn’t meet the specific minimum requirements for that school.” My first response – how could anyone possibly screw that up? – soon gave way to some deeper criticism.

Most veterinary applicants are probably pretty smart people – or at least doggedly persistent – so there must be some reason pre-requisites threw them for a loop. In an effort to avoid the same fate, I took a closer look at the required courses.

For those of you just learning about pre-veterinary requirements (and if you aren’t, read ahead), each veterinary school has its own specific list of required courses. While there is certainly a good amount of overlap between the schools, the variation is just enough that students can’t blindly submit to any school that suits his or her fancy. The common courses tend to coincide with the pre-med list (read: all the chemistries, upper level biology, physics, statistics and calculus, a helping of humanities, and an English course for good measure.)

For a complete list of requirements for each school, click here.

But beyond those “core” classes, most schools have their own specific requirements. For example, some want genetics or microbiology, some want both, some want just upper level biology. Others require one semester of physics, more require two – but disagree on whether or not you need a lab. Animal nutrition is the famous added requirement (for schools like Texas A&M, Purdue and a few others). If you didn’t go to an agriculture school, finding this course can be a needle in a haystack. (Hint: Purdue offers the course online and most schools will accept that credit).

The bottom line: plan way ahead.

The best strategy is to start with your in-state school (because that’s where you have the best chance of admission) and design a plan of study to fulfill their requirements. Then sprinkle in a few more widely required courses (a microbiology or an animal nutrition) or classes to fulfill pre-requisites for a few of your other favorite schools. It feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse to write up your carefully selected list of schools before you even know if you can pass general chemistry, but that’s the nature of the beast.

Beware of credit hour requirements. Some schools require three, four, five, six or eight hours of physics (one semester or two? yay or nay on the lab? and I have no explanation for five). Because these requirements are generally based on the schools own curriculum, be sure you ask if your course counts. Same goes for courses with slightly different names (ex. my school’s public speaking course was called “human communication”). A few schools make this easy for you with lists of courses that count from other institutions. However, in most cases, your best bet is to contact the admissions team, unless you have a seasoned advisor.

Like many things in the veterinary application process, pre-requisites can seem a bit muddled. But take heed, it’s nothing a good spreadsheet, some direct emails and the occasional online course can’t fix.

My Return to Horseback Riding

By Paige Roth

I am the classic tale of the little girl who has ridden horses since she was five years old. In high school, my time at the barn took up a substantial but delightful chunk of time out of my social life and taught me the canonical lessons mother’s often use to justify exorbitant spending on their daughter’s school-night hobby. But at 18, when I signed my college acceptance letter for an out-of-state school, riding taught me the biggest adult lesson yet – how to give it up. I sold my beautiful dutch warmblood, who I trained from a gangly 5-year-old who trampled the stable-hands his first day of the truck, to a mature, well-mannered event horse, donated my riding gear and wondered how I would ever fill the gaps in my schedule.

For four years in undergrad, I committed myself to the “real college experience,” which in my case meant extra library time, and only rode horses occasionally summers. But when I got to grad school and finally had a reliable paycheck, I decided I was going to do the first less-than-fiscally responsible thing I’d ever done – get back into horses. And it was the best decision ever.

hershey 3

I joined my school’s equestrian team and started taking weekly lessons at a hunter jumper barn. An eventer by training, I was a fish out of water, and my inner leg strength was an embarrassment. Even though I’m an avid runner, nothing can keep you in riding shape except hours in the saddle.

Because my high school horse schedule generally consisted of me hacking around after school with minimal supervision, a strict lesson schedule worked wonders for my progress and confidence. Though I missed having my own horse, riding a different lesson horse each week– and I was lucky to be at a barn with at least twenty wonderfully schooled horses to choose from – made me an adaptable and thoughtful rider.

It took about six months of lessons for me to really start to feel like my old self. Old habits reared their ugly head – leaning too far to the right, getting to relaxed about my deep heels – but I had uncovered this important part of myself to keep me grounded as I navigated the most tumultuous transition of my young adult life.

hershey 2

I am now planning to lease, and ultimately buy my own horse, and have been offered a position teaching beginner riding lessons part time. I even have my first show this weekend (expect a post). And though I will never buy clothes unless they’re on sale and manically monitor my savings account, this has been the best investment for making me feel like a complete person again – instead of a corporate robot or beleaguered grad student.

As for vet school? My hours at the barn are always the thing that keep me motivated to sign up for harder classes, find my volunteer opportunities, and stay the course. Because every time I drive home from the barn, I can’t wait for the day I’m making a similar drive home from work.

A Pre-vet Student’s Trip to the Vet

By Paige Roth

I love going to the vet. As a dog owner, I tend to be a bit of a hypochondriac because I love guessing what the diagnosis will be, the tests they’ll run, the treatment and preventative plans, and dreaming up the questions I’ll ask. But on Tuesday, I had a real reason to go to the vet and the trip was an important lesson.

My miniature schnauzer Katie – light of my life and keeper of my soul – was just recovering from bladder-stone-removal surgery when I rescued her 9 months ago. She came from a high-needs shelter where wonderful vets, the vets I one day hope to be, perform life-saving operations on animals that would otherwise be abandoned and euthanized. Since then, she has been on a special urinary diet designed to keep more stones from forming.

But over the past few weeks my boyfriend and I noticed she would urinate, and then keep trying to pee, but nothing would come out. She asked to go out more frequently and could barely walk around our apartment complex without sitting down for a break. We knew the signs and took her to see a new vet, hoping we had caught the stones early. Maybe they would give us some medication to break up the stones and adjust her diet.

Katie 2
Sad about surgery in the morning

After an ultrasound, an x-ray, and urinalysis, it was clear that she had a giant bladder stone and needed surgery as soon as possible. During the first visit our vet was great about walking us through the diagnosis and explaining the urgency of the surgery – we didn’t take much convincing. She scheduled the surgery, suggested it wasn’t a big deal and sent us on our way before we could ask many more questions.

That night my boyfriend – also a scientist, son of a doctor and a pharmacist, and brother of a medical student – and I sat down to research the surgery. We researched the mineral composition of her stone and which urine pHs were most conducive to their precipitation. Most clinics performed the procedure laparoscopically, if the stone could not be removed with a catheter. This meant minimal recovery time and often a same-day pick up.

But when we got to the clinic at 7 the next morning, we were met by an assistant, not the vet. She told us the surgery would involved at least a 3-inch incision and likely overnight monitoring. No one was there to answer our questions about how the surgery would be performed – little things like how much anesthesia was required, what type of sutures they would use, where the incision would be made, or possible complications we might anticipate. From my nervous research I learned that bladders can rupture during the surgery and leave stones scattered throughout the body cavity – how comforting.

While I realize we may have wanted more information than the average bear (and might not be satisfied unless we were peering over the surgeon’s shoulder during the operation), I felt something I hate feeling – uninformed. I felt nervous, unsure of what to expect, and a little angry. I thought the $1500 bill would be the most consuming, but I didn’t care at all. I hated feeling like I didn’t understand what was happening or worse – that the vet didn’t think it was worth telling me the more complicated or scary details. As I sat in the car crying after dropping my dog off for surgery, I realized the root of my sadness was knowing I hadn’t been an effective advocate for my animals because I wasn’t in possession of all the facts.

Katie 3
Recovering beautifully (a weight loss program is next on the agenda).

In hindsight, the surgery was a great success.

Though the vet removed an oreo-sized stone from my dog’s bladder and she recovered beautifully, the experience taught me what kind of vet I want to be. Though I hope to be a killer surgeon and patient advocate, I also hope I never forget how important it is to thoroughly explain the treatment details to owners who will worry unnecessarily.

Even if the information is complicated, I hope I take the time to communicate it as simply as possible and as many times as it takes for the owners to understand.

And even though not-knowing gnawed away at me for two days, I can still say I love my trips to the vet and my passion for animal medicine has only been reaffirmed.