Clinical Experience

By Paige Roth

The successful veterinary applicant has over 2,000 hours of quality “hands-on” experience in the veterinary field (according to UC Davis). But where do all these hours come from?!

“Hands-on” veterinary experience is one of the main things standing between me and a viable veterinary application, so I have dedicated a post to mapping out a realistic path to get these hours.

Like many pre-vet students, I have buckets of hours of normal animal experience – and vet schools will have you know that owning a pet does not qualify. I have had horses for most of my life, done Pony Club and 4-H, taught riding lessons and fostered dogs. But clinical experience was hard to come by.

First of all, most vet clinics aren’t looking to employ an eager pre-vet student who has no hands-on experience. I interviewed for several vet assistant positions at small-animal clinics, thinking the staff would be willing to train me, but when they realized my main animal experience was with horses and that I had never actually set a catheter or taken a cat’s blood pressure, they were less than enthused. Ultimately, I was offered a position as a kennel assistant (read: poop scooper and occasional dog walker) that paid less than $8 an hour. Disheartened and in need of some semblance of financial security, I passed.

vet tech 2

Basically, like many things on the road to vet school, you have to climb a certain ladder to even be eligible for relevant “hands-on” experience. Generally this means work as a kennel assistant, then a vet assistant, then a tech. While I know some people get lucky and have a friend or neighborhood vet who enthusiastically takes them under their wing, shows them the ropes and makes sure they check the boxes to certification, I am under no such wing.

So, here is my game plan for getting clinical experience:

  1. Volunteer – Because I am a full time employee and student, I can’t take a low paying kennel assistant position to gain experience and keep a roof over my head. Instead, I decided to volunteer with the Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services Veterinary Public Health group as a kennel assistant. I feel better about voluntarily performing menial tasks to help rescue animals, rather than having a clinic lord an $8 pay check over me while I bleach their floors. I can keep my pride, work flexible hours and make important steps toward a real clinic. There are lots of great sites to help place volunteers with organizations that interest them. I found my opportunity here and they responded to me the same day.
  2. Online Veterinary Assistant Certification – Most clinics want someone with a credential, or at least working toward one. I was discouraged to see that most vet assistant programs take almost a year in the classroom, and technician programs take closer to two years. That’s basically the equivalent of becoming a nurse before you become a doctor. No can do. While I’m volunteering and keeping up my grad program, I enrolled for about $700 to work toward my veterinary certification online with this program. At first I was skeptical of an online certification, but after some LinkedIn stalking, it looks like their students land where they say they are and I’m willing to give it a shot.
  3. Teaching Riding Lessons – Though this is not clinical experience, I found a way to keep up my animal hours, make some money and make connections with large animal vets (the veterinary specialty I’m most interested in). If you can find a way to involve yourself with the local animal community, I think it will help keep your spirits up and remind you why you want to do this in the first place.

I should mention that I am planning to apply in the summer of 2017. That means I have a full summer and school year to get these preliminary credentials, and ideally hope to work as a vet tech during the year I’m anxiously awaiting interviews and admissions decisions.

Stay tuned for more thorough posts about the online program, teaching lessons and how I like my first few days of volunteering!

 

Study Tips for the Pre-Vet Science Student

By Paige Roth

Science courses were really hard for me. You are talking to a girl who wrote paragraphs instead of diagrams when my organic chemistry professor asked me to explain a synthetic pathway. For many pre-med or pre-vet students, science classes seem like a masochistic but ultimately satisfyingly pleasant challenge as they simply expand their already linear minds to greater heights. I did not experience that pleasant climb. My experience was a bit more Sisyphysian as I watched my giant boulder role back down the hill after each semester.

But I am here to say, I did figure it out. And while I may never be the first student to shout out the answer after my professor flashes a slide with a complex signaling pathway and asks how some hormone’s presence will alter it, I am the student who can figure it out and, even better, explain it to someone else.

I am not going to give you generic tips like sleep more, eat right, go to class, take exercise breaks, for the love of god go to office hours – because if you have come this far I am assuming you have that all figured out or have tactfully chosen what to ignore. Here are some of the tips and tricks I learned to help my non-linear mind tackle the logic required for my courses.

  1. Study better not more.
    My freshman year seemed terribly unjust because I would spend countless hours in the library reviewing material to only see marginal improvement. After that year, I thought about how to maximize my studying efficiency. Realistically, you only have a couple good hours of focus at a time to crank out useful studying. Anything after that usually dissolves into mindless Facebook scrolling or scheduling weekend plans. I started making to do lists for each short study session that included the exact material I needed to cover and the exact study tools I planned to use (flashcards, flowchart, rewriting terms etc.). This proved far more effective than trying to reread every chapter.
  2. Focus on the material you professor presents.
    Disclaimer: some professors really will test you on random paragraphs in textbook reading. But, in my experience, professors generally only test you on what they think is important (i.e. what they covered in class). Prioritize power points and in class material over re-reading supplemental information. But, if you are shaky on a concept covered in class, then review it in the reading. This saves you valuable time and ensures you cover the most important concepts if you are in a hurry.

    paige studying 2
    Check out that cute dorm room! I think it’s critically important to like where you’re studying. You’ll spend a lot of time there, make it nice!
  3. Flashcards are still good for rapid recall.
    While any science professor will tell you not to memorize, sometimes it’s unavoidable. I kept a running stack of flashcards, particularly for chemistry classes, with critical reactions and terms. I found that I was much more comfortable on tests when I was able to quickly recall a familiar term to contextualize myself than when I tried to apply a broad concept to a specific term I remembered hearing at one point in the lecture. Flashcards also helped me calm my nerves right before exams because they were a tangible way to reassure me that I did have command of a good chunk of the material.
  4. Handwrite and consolidate notes.
    I learned the benefits of handwriting my notes in class far too late. Studies show that you remember concepts better when you handwrite them instead of typing. Now, I will say there were certain classes that definitely required a laptop or I wouldn’t have gotten nearly half of the class content. It is also nice to be able to annotate directly on slides. For those courses, be sure to rewrite your notes on a regular basis in a consolidated form to help you organize and internalize concepts. I used these consolidated notes as study guides in addition to my flashcards before each exam.
  5. Use study groups strategically.
    People often rely on study groups or office hours to teach them concepts through osmosis. My rule about study groups were: 1) never the night before an exam 2) I would only go if I had finished all my own study checklist items. Here’s why. Study groups can be cancerous and kill you confidence before an exam. But, they are also a great way to see how other people approach concepts you struggle with or to catch important concepts you may have missed during lecture. So, it’s important to prepare and feel like you can confidently contribute and teach concepts (that way you are also not the study leech that everyone hates). Also, allowing yourself time after your study group means you can review any concepts you missed after the group session instead of letting your friends terrify you that you are dismally unprepared.

This is by no means a definitive guide, but I hope it shows you have a crafted, modified and strategized my study habits during my four years in undergrad. These were some of the tips I wish someone had told me, so I hope they help you gain some confidence in those difficult classes!

Staying On Track

By Paige Roth

When the going gets tough, how do you stay the course to vet school? When you have at least a year of prep work left to pay for an additional required course, retake the GRE, get extra clinical hours and, not to mention, worry about whether it will all pay off, how do you convince yourself to stick to the path that seems to meander into nowheresville?

In all likelihood, if you are seriously considering vet school you are a talented person with lots of other interests. When I feel disheartened, my de-facto response is to channel my anxious energy into researching other career paths. I mean outlining graduate schools, noting the career trajectories and satisfaction rates of those in the field, making pro con spread sheets and more. I could probably be a career advisor with the number of jaunts of taken down career paths like teaching, writing, human medicine, law or even opera singing.

While this kind of exploration may be healthy and encouraged in high school or the first few years of undergrad, it becomes some sort of concerning, anxious, unfocused tick when you are climbing the everest of vet school. So what does one do when the going gets tough? I called my mom.

The answer that satisfied me most was that we all eventually have to weed out and narrow down our interests to make forward progress. This doesn’t eliminate future hobbies, but it streamlines our focus and means we can’t chase every appealing career alternative that pops up on our friend’s LinkedIn profile.

She also noted the unfair expectation of 100 percent job satisfaction all millennials seem to be lusting after. I have now openly admitted that I know there will be parts of veterinary medicine that I love but things like finances, floor mopping or memorizing more biochemical pathways may leave me feeling less than inspired. As an aspiring vet, I always heard not to pursue this career unless I was 100 percent certain it was what I loved. I think that’s false. Acknowledging the less than sunny aspects of my dream job made me feel more confident that I could prepare myself for the inevitable disappointment that is to come when you’ve built something about for so long.

At the end of the day, I take comfort in knowing that no matter how many other better-paying, family-friendlier job options come my way, somehow I keep winding my way back to veterinary medicine. And that experimental evidence helps me keep one foot in front of the other on this long winding road.

 

Should I get my master’s degree before veterinary school?

If you had asked me during my junior or most of my senior year if I wanted to get my master’s degree before starting veterinary school, you probably would have received a severely judgmental eyebrow raise. All I could think about was finishing my last semester of chemistry and making sure the registrar signed the transcript for my double major in blood. But now I have such whimsical perspective!

paige studying
The joy of learning! (Photo credit: Anh-Viet Dinh, Trinity University)

The answer to this question is not a straightforward one. For many people – read: those with solid GPA’s, finished prerequisites, little to no doubt about their professional goals and adequate time to complete an application during their junior year – going straight into vet school makes a good deal of sense. There is certainly something to be said for heading straight into professional school rather than worrying about how to fill the limbo years between college and, well, more college.

But this post isn’t geared toward such respectable and organized undergrads; it’s geared toward people like me who had a slightly less linear route. See, I was not 100 percent sure about vet school by the time I got to senior year. My ego had been knocked around in some challenging science classes and by an overcommitted schedule.

I was afraid of the advice that undergrads are too scared of the real world so they blindly apply to graduate or doctoral programs because that’s all they know. I also, frankly, feared rejection and figured I should play to my strengths so I started applying to jobs.

Employment out of undergrad was not a pretty prospect and one day, in April (yes you read that right), I saw an advertisement outside my research lab for a professional science master’s program. The program was flexible but challenging, at a credible institution with lots of professional networking opportunities, and it would allow me to take Ph.D.-level science classes in addition to some business classes to boost my GPA, confidence and business sense. I applied the next day.

I am unusual in that I only applied to one program, I applied late and I got in. But I can tell you, it’s been well worth it. I should add that I do have a full time job on the side, where I have gained important professional perspective, but this grad program has done wonders for my confidence and renewed my enthusiasm for science.

I have talked to several career advisors who echo the sentiment that completion of a master’s program can significantly improve your chances of admission, especially for borderline undergraduate candidates. Essentially, vet schools see that you can handle the rigor of graduate coursework, are (hopefully) performing at a higher level in your classes and that you are truly driven to get to vet school.

Even if you aren’t sure you want to apply to veterinary school after graduate school, it’s a great way to network and gain marketable skills while you sort out your professional interests.

Research Experience for Vet School: Why Bother?

Somewhere down on the laundry list of admissions wishes for the perfect veterinary applicant you will often see “research experience.” Not necessarily veterinary-specific research, just plain “research.” You may be thinking, “Of course. Let me just tack on a research intensive honors thesis that requires 20 plus hours a week in some laboratory to my 20 plus weekly clinical hours and my sixteen credit course load and additional extra curriculars (that make me look like a socially functional person). I’m on it.”

I totally get it. I never thought research would be for me and never thought I could find the time, but it ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate career. In fact, I wrote a whole other blog about it.

If you are someone, like me, who struggled to find work at a vet clinic for an 8-10 week summer stint, but still wants to find a productive, vet-school-relevant way to spend a summer and make some money, research is your answer.

My research had nothing to do with vet school (or even mammals). I studied cucumbers. But, not only did I make a respectable summer income, I also developed a fabulous relationship with my research advisor who provided incredible support throughout my undergraduate career.

Paige first research conference
Yours truly at her first research conference!

As someone who was admittedly anxious about my science capabilities, research was a great way for me to learn a lot without the pressure of tests or competitive classmates. The key with research is, theoretically, no one knows more about your topic than you do, so when you go to a conference, you are automatically the expert. That’s a great feeling.

Research also requires that you stick to a project, navigate challenges and ultimately present your findings in a compelling way to experts in the field. If that doesn’t teach you perseverance and confidence, I don’t know what does.

John and Paige at research conference
Research conferences make great date nights (just ask John). If you aren’t into plant biology, you can at least count on free food.

Even if it’s a tight squeeze in your schedule, I recommend making time for at least one semester or summer of research. I truly believe it provides new scientists with the confidence and drive to pursue ambitious futures in science and medicine.

If you are interested in learning more about my trying and often humorous transition into the life of a science student and researcher, read my essay “Counting Cucumber Hairs” here.

Should I take a gap year before vet school?

Yes. Actually, I’m kidding but I did so I can shed some light on the pros and cons. Gap years get a bad rap because they have become synonymous with backpacking across Europe on daddy’s dime. Here, I’m defining gap year as time between undergrad and vet school that can be filled in a variety of ways. My gap years (plural) involve working, getting my masters degree and obtaining clinical experience.

My gap year was less intentional than it sounds. I have friends who have known since sophomore year that they wanted to take a gap year to make money and take a breather before medical school. I was not so sure. I had many competing interests throughout undergrad and generally thought professional experience would be the best game plan to try the adult world on for size and figure out what I wanted to go back to school for.

Instead, I saw an advertisement outside my lab (learn about my undergraduate research life here) for a master’s program that combined business and Ph.D. level biology courses and I applied. In April. One month before graduation. Once I was accepted I almost immediately found a full time job as an editor at a think tank on campus, the stars aligned and I found myself with both a job and a graduate plan. Not my original plan, but so far so good. Here are the pros.

As someone who was nervous about my science background (even though I’m a biology major) and who could definitely beef up here science GPA, taking more graduate level science courses was a really good call. I am much more confident in my classes and know it means I will have a stronger application and will feel more comfortable in the heavy hitting veterinary courses.

By now I have had several internships and a full time job. Most of my professional experience has been in writing, social media, marketing and biology research. See something missing? Nonetheless, it has really helped me determine what I don’t want to do and given me a lot of conviction heading in a very challenging direction. I also have those adult skills like networking, navigating office politics, and getting up and showing up every morning, which will certainly be helpful in the professional vet world.

Ok, let’s talk about money for a second. I had no sense of how much the real world cost as a senior in college. I worked three jobs in college and saved money for things like food and plane tickets, but I was clueless. Let’s be honest. I know you can rely heavily on student loans to cover living expenses in veterinary school, but as a graduate student with similar loans, I can tell you – it would be tight. I didn’t expect I would be so grateful to have a nest egg going into five more years of school. It may just save me a few nights of eating Ramen.

I’m gently dipping my toes into adulthood rather than plunging head on into the real world and the most difficult educational years of my life.

I have learned things like how to pay rent, taxes, maintain a decent standard of living, manage stress, and begin to build a social life beyond the confines of a dorm room. And I think that practice will make the transition easier when I’m pulling my first series of all-nighters.

I have time to devote to clinical hours. Like I’ve said before, I don’t know how people find the time to get clinical experience in undergrad. I wasn’t lucky enough to find a vet to work with my schedule (believe me, I tried) and I now have a full year carved out where I have more time to dedicate to clinical experience than I did in undergrad. Not to mention, I can catch my breath before starting in on my application.

Though I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had greased the tracks to head straight into vet school, I am living proof of the benefit of taking time to get to know yourself, learn to adult, and make a little money before starting my DVM program.

The GRE: What you need to know about taking (and retaking) the test

Veterinary schools require the GRE as part of your application. I, frankly, had now idea what to expect from the test and assumed it was something akin to the dreaded MCAT. Not so, my friends. Not so.

I have taken the GRE once for my graduate school application, so I now know the drill. The test contains five sections– two quantitative sections, two language sections and one analytical writing section (two essays). Most GRE’s are now entirely online and you can take them almost any day of the week (unlike the MCAT). You have to go to a very official testing center, scan your finger print, be on your best behavior, etc., so get there early (I missed that memo…).

While the test is certainly not the gauntlet med students face, it is trickier than I anticipated and I strongly recommend a good test prep book (or two). My friend and I actually compared two prep books side-by-side, ETS and Kaplan. I recommend both for different purposes. The ETS book is best for practice tests because they actually make the exam and we found the Kaplan tests were not representative of how hard the questions actually were. The Kaplan book is better for test prep strategy (it seems like the ETS folks don’t want to share their secrets and the Kaplan team tells all).

I studied for about two months (a few times a week) before the exam and felt confident. I didn’t feel like I needed a test prep course, but I am also fairly disciplined when it comes to studying – call it a masochistic streak. If you are someone who benefits from someone forcing you to sit your butt in a chair and study the material, definitely take a course.

My main advice is to understand how the test works and familiarize yourself with some of the tricks test makers play – the test required more strategy than I thought.

Keep a little cheat sheet with tips you learn along the way. The test recycles the same types of questions each year and you will do much better if you know what to look out for.

One tip a friend of mine, who scored very highly on his MCAT, offered for studying was to take practice tests with a timer at the same time of day you will actually be taking the exam. That way you can condition your mind to focus at a time of day you might typically spend daydreaming or even sleeping.

Before I started studying, I had no idea what a “good” GRE score was. For vet school purposes it seems that anywhere in the mid to upper 150s is respectable and higher is even better (obviously this varies by school). My scores were within range for my graduate program and average for the vet schools I’m interested in, but I decided to retake the exam this coming summer to see if I can improve to be a bit more competitive. Note: many schools super-score GRE scores, meaning they take your highest scores even if it’s from an old exam, so retaking the test won’t hurt anything but your bank account and your social life! Woo!

I know test prep isn’t the sexiest topic, but it’s something that raised a lot of unanswered questions for me. Bottom line: do not fear the GRE, mere mortals (like me) have conquered it and lived to tell the tale.