An open letter from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate
Recently I had an interesting conversation with a technician at work. She's bright, motivated, diligent and interested. She wanted to be a veterinarian when she was younger, but those dreams went by the wayside due to life circumstances and finances. Her father asked her if, since she's now working in a veterinary hospital, her old desires had been rekindled. Did she still want to be a vet?
"I think you would make a good veterinarian," I told her. "But I don't think you should go to vet school." The other recent grad and the fourth-year extern standing nearby immediately echoed my sentiments.
Why did we offer this advice? And why are veterinary students so unhappy? Why do they suffer from anxiety and depression at alarming rates? It's a multifaceted problem, but everything boils down to incredible anger about our experience in vet school.
Anger because we worked hard with little reward. Anger because we had to sacrifice our hobbies, social lives and emotional well-being to study, do grunt work and write volumes of paperwork no one would ever read.
Anger because we were at times mistreated, yelled at and punished for things we didn't do.
Anger because we were bombarded by statistics and articles that say vets are overpopulated, vets make salaries that are not consummate with the time and tuition they put out, vets are to blame for killing animals or practicing pseudoscience and are crucified on social media—with career- and life-ruining effects.
Anger because we watched animals suffer and die needlessly, were witness to errors we didn't have the power to fix and slogged on daily through injustice and mismanagement.
Anger because of the cumulative effects of massive, unrelenting stress.
It's true that veterinary medicine attracts type A people—the overachievers and the perfectionists. But I'm not referring to stress from internally driven motivators. There's a prevailing attitude in veterinary medicine that people need to "put in their time"—work like a dog for years, suffer, slave away, and slowly crawl to the top of the pile through copious blood, sweat and tears. I disagree.
This field needs collaboration, camaraderie and healthy competition. Instead, it has backstabbing, gossip and cutthroat antagonism. And at the university, I saw efforts to sabotage careers out of personal vendettas. I saw great attempts to discredit and embarrass clinicians in front of their students and peers. I saw patient care go by the wayside, a casualty of intra- and interdepartmental quarrels. And I saw—and even received—unjustified, over-the-top criticisms and punishments in order for someone to maintain a façade of undeserved authority.
At school I also had to follow orders I didn't agree with. On one occasion, I took part in a euthanasia for an ailment with a treatable solution, though the client hadn’t been apprised of this fact because the head clinician refused to acknowledge its possibility. Those of us in the opposing camp were vindicated—too late—at necropsy. Obedience and fear of consequences kept our mouths shut. But such cases continue to haunt me.
I can't wave a magic wand and make the outlook better for graduating vets. But I can offer some guidelines to serve as counterpoints to some of the negative behaviors I observed as a clinical student.
Be realistic. If the head clinician is overwhelmed, the house officers probably are, too, and the students are probably running around like maniacs trying to keep the whole thing afloat. Each person should try to recognize when someone is in over their head and help out accordingly. There were many times when I witnessed technicians sitting around gossiping or snacking while students juggled menial patient care and other pressing responsibilities—or when senior clinicians vanished to an office hideout while underlings were left to clean up messes, both literal and figurative.
Furthermore, 15-hour days, five days a week, plus emergency shifts, nighttime patient medication and walking, and weekend care just isn't sustainable for a student who's also trying to study for a block exam, prepare for boards, take care of responsibilities at home, read up on upcoming cases, finish paperwork and more.
Be respectful. The Golden Rule still applies, even behind closed doors when superiors aren't watching. I've witnessed some utterly heinous behavior from respected "professionals," directed both at students and at fellow doctors. This is demeaning, stress-inducing and morale-killing. It seriously contributes to workplace dissatisfaction, which leads to further pent-up anger, tensions, inefficiency and ultimately bad service for animals and clients.
Be receptive. Sometimes good ideas come from unexpected places. Sometimes clients can diagnose their pets before the doctor can, because they know the animal better. Sometimes students are armed with more up-to-date knowledge on their cases than the clinician, since the classes are fresher in their brains or because they took the time to comb through PubMed looking for a solution. Don't discount these ideas just because they didn't come from an "expert."
Be relevant. I've seen bad or outdated science touted as unquestionable fact. We must grow and change with the times. Universities should be at the forefront of medical progress, not stuck in the Stone Age out of stubbornness and reliance on "tradition." We have to challenge our dearly held beliefs daily if we hope to grow, remain current and be good doctors. Our patients and clients deserve nothing less.
There are certainly some excellent individuals serving as clinicians and teachers at universities. I hope these people who still value teaching high-quality medicine and the pursuit of scientific knowledge will remain in academia so future students can benefit from their knowledge and altruism.
This is how dialogue in the veterinary community ought to work. Please don't forget this.
A Young Veterinarian