An open letter from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate

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An open letter from a disillusioned veterinary school graduate

While the financial problems plaguing veterinary education may hog the spotlight, this young veterinarian says it’s time to talk about the other issues—those that occur behind closed doors and within closed minds—that are making students sour.
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May 26, 2017
By dvm360.com staff

Isaeva Anna/Shutterstock.comRecently 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.

 

Sincerely,

A Young Veterinarian

 

 

 

Leadership sessions at CVC

Vet School - from the outsiders view

I have hired, trained, managed and consulted for veterinarians for over 30 years. To me they are some of the best people on earth. But after some visits and some work with vet schools and universities I have to say as a consultant this letter makes very valid points.

I once heard a veterinary speaker say, "every person who teaches at a vet school should be required to work in practice - with the public- for 5 years before being hired. I agree. You don't know what you don't know. Academia is its own world. I have spoken to students who's professors have no interest in teaching them and they know it. Others who abandon them mid procedure to go teach class. Still others who's clinicians use them as vet assistants instead of training them to leverage their tech team. But of course they can't learn that because there are not enough techs to handle the service. One school has no radiologist so the senior students are teaching the juniors. Others have no Boarded Dentist yet this is a service that is performed daily in practice. And for this they pay thousands of dollars.

I have had conversations with several influential DVM's who taught at vet schools and they agree there are major issues. There are some very good people at the schools who do desire to educate the students and are hobbled by academic hell. But there are also the unbelievably arrogant, self focused entrenched employees who are only concerned with using funding to buy the latest toy for their pet project. Believe me the vet students and techs can make a list of both. The teaching hospital is at war with the veterinary school - each begrudging the other the services of the clinicians and students. - Instead of that new toy how about investing in software that teaches students to use paperless records instead of still using paper charts. How about taking the top 10 illnesses these vets will see in practice and teaching them to be highly competent in those areas instead of showing them " zebras" . I understand the need to know how to diagnose many illnesses but technology can help overcome that problem if they are confident in the basics. I once asked "why can't vets track the curriculum they want to practice instead of spending time on species they will never treat" My very honest response - "Because some of our clinicians wouldn't have a job". WOW.

I don't claim to know the solution but as an experienced management consultant I can surely see some of the problems. I have actually been working with some other consultants, practitioners and technician leaders to start this discussion. If anyone is interested in joining our conversation feel free to contact me through my website. www.dboone2managevets.com

So , Are vet schools there for their students - or for themselves? Maybe it is a question that should be asked..

We can do better

There are a lot of people here in the comments that are perpetuating exactly what this writer described, creating an environment that makes it hard to function and grow. I want the writer to know, if you read the comments, that there are plenty of others that feel the same way you do. As new generations graduate veterinary school, I think we can work to have a more respectful mentality when working with students. Vet school will always be hard. That's not the debate or what I think this new grad was upset about. Its the lack of respect or thought that you are working with a person that may have a little bit of a life outside of vet school or work (gasp!) and may be close to burning out. We all know someone who has experienced burn out or suicide in this profession (if you don't, it's only because someone didn't feel comfortable enough to share that information). Depression and anxiety are real, and we cannot properly discuss these things and solve problems when the people around us see others that are struggling as weak, incompetent or entitled. Overall we can certainly do better.

thanks

As the author of this article, I had to admit that I was taken aback and honestly hurt by the comments from people who know nothing about me, yet did not hesitate to made (ludicrous) assumptions to allow them to denigrate me and my generation. Some of it may stem from miscommunication (I posted a standalone comment last night, containing the unedited version of my open letter, which hopefully clarifies some viewpoints, rather than painting me as the whiny millennial they so desperately want me to be), but a lot of it just proves my point that there is a lot of rank nastiness in veterinary medicine. Colleague to colleague, thank you for standing up against it.

And You Wonder Why Our Profession Has a High Suicide Rate?

Rather than posting nasty remarks that assume the author of this piece is some sniveling Millennial pantywaist, how about a dialog regarding the issues s/he brought up?

"Because it's always been done that way" should never be an excuse for not improving how things are done, including veterinary education.

Phoenix Watt, DVM

Anger can only take you so

Anger can only take you so far, new graduate. I will agree that I witnessed more ugly scenes in academia than are appropriate in a professional setting, but I left it in the past. Act on the power you have to control your professional destiny. If your current job is not a good fit, find a new one or create your own. Be the professional you think a veterinarian should be. Don't allow circumstances to drag you down into a world of self-pity and cynicism. Nobody is going to come and rescue you.

We are responsible for our own destiny--

--but that doesn't mean we shouldn't hold others accountable for their actions. We owe it to ourselves and the following generations to try to make things better. If we shrug our shoulders and say, "that's just the way it is," the self-fulfilling prophecy will, well, self-fulfill. We can do better. We must demand better (of ourselves, our superiors, our staff, and our peers), and work together to see it realized.

Disillusioned

Wow.

My practice caters to a large cross-section of people, and I have friends and acquaintances in a large range of careers.

Anyone who owns their own business has stress and pressures equal to those we experience in veterinary medicine, as they are responsible for providing for their families,their employees, and are committed to high quality products that impact every day life for their customers.

Many clients and friends are directly responsible for life such as doctors, emergency helicopter pilots and personnel, law enforcement, etc. and others make multiple daily decisions impacting quality of life such as lawyers and entrepreneurs. Teachers are responsible for sculpting our children in all their shapes, sizes and colors.

In a nutshell, we are not the only ones with stressful careers. That is the price I believe we are all happy to pay to change the status of our beloved companions from that of one equal to a table lamp.

Although honestly I never saw the horrors you described in my veterinary school, smaller scale infractions did occur for many of the reasons you noted. In a polite and respectful way, it is alright to remind each other when we overstep boundaries. Humor goes a long way to relieving tension.

You have to make choices as you advance in life. I could have partied or studied. Traveled or worked in the Radiology Department over the summer. Have kids during school or postpone till I was more comfortable with my knowledge as a vet. Just like an open marriage doesn't work, I had to devote time to my chosen profession to become good (hopefully) at it. But as I look back at my life and career, doors shut, but windows opened onto unimaginably incredible vistas.

I think the utopia you seek is non-existent. But if you do find it, give me a call ;) My advice to you: either enjoy the ride, or move out of the way.

Vet School Grad

Firstly, I ask, why would you not sign your name? Oh, I could go off on you millennials, however, my generation retains some decorum. I say to you, VSG, our profession requires sacrifice, the giving up of hobbies, etc. You graduate with the title of "Doctor" and with that comes blood, sweat and tears. You've got a lot to learn young lady. What we do is a privilege and an honor. Whatever high horse you rode in on I suggest getting off, roll around in the dirt and make a difference in the world. Few have that opportunity.

you wonder why I wouldn't sign my name?

It's because of people like you, and those individuals whom I wrote about in the letter, who would blacklist me from the profession I have worked to hard to join. In a backstabbing, cutthroat, hateful environment, it pays to keep a low profile.
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As the author of this letter, I don't have a whole lot to say to you, besides that you have judged my peers and I completely wrong, and your dismissive attitude is exactly what drives us to the brink. You have absolutely no clue how tirelessly I have worked at this profession since it was held out as the proverbial carrot before me as a young undergrad. I devoted my life to this career, foregoing all else but the desire to better myself as a student and finally as a veterinarian. I graduated at the top of my class, respected by my peers and highly valued by virtually all of my instructors on account of my commitment, my performance, my knowledge, my patient care, my leadership, my extensive extracurricular research, and yes, believe it or not, my attitude. I was, with sincere truth but with modesty on hold, the model veterinary student. And yet beneath the pristine surface, this is what was brewing. I guarantee you that a majority of my classmates share my sentiments, and they are a motley crew, but most of them good, honest, and hardworking young vets. I then went on to complete an internship, working 80-100 hour weeks, every week, for $2000/month minus withholdings, all so I could better serve my clients and patients (here, I suffered exactly the same horrendous treatment, but I took it as par for the course, as did my peers). Please, tell me again how we don't understand hard work or commitment?
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It doesn't have to be this way, but in order for it to change, so do attitudes like yours.
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(I did post a standalone comment with my original letter, before it was substantially cut by editorial staff, which clarifies a few of these points, should anyone care to read it.)

Perhaps the wrong school?

Sounds to me like you chose a school with a bad cultural fit. Everyone I know who chose this field for anything other than personal satisfaction/passion for the work has been sorely disappointed. I am amazed that during the time you might have been studying and looking for ways to better yourself, you were instead engaging in the "drama" of your surroundings. (I don't hire people who are into drama.) There will always be people in life who make it their goal to sabotage your well-being. You alone have the power to decide how you will respond to those situations. Get some therapy. Cut the energy sucking folks out of your life. Exercise. Learn to work hard. Make wise choices about how you spend your money - including return on investment for education. No one owes you anything, so do the work. There is not a system stacked against you, just a system that says you have to do the work to reap the rewards.