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

sigh

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.)

Disillusioned grad

Sorry to hear but I believe your generation expects things to be handed to them, get a trophy for showing up. Hard work, long hours, giving up some of life's hobbies is part of the learning curve. I work a lot of hours yet found time to be involved in my children's activities, coached sports for my son, took my daughter to dance and was even a dancing dad (5 years of tap), camping in the desert riding ATVs, went to almost all their high school events, my wife and I were very involved as band boosters as our son was drum line captain for 4 years, etc AND all while building a successful practice and working 50 - 60 hours a week. You can have it all, you just have to be motivated enough to do it. I love my life as a veterinarian and, if need be, I would do it again. I have professional, emotional and financial satisfaction. My daughter, growing up in a vet practice (since she was 5 she has assisted me) wants to take the practice over one day. My kids see the value of hard work, the rewards of a job well done and know it may not come easy. But, hey, that's life, get over it! There are plenty of well paying jobs for vets in our area (So Cal). More jobs than applicants so no excuse for not finding a good job. I owe you nothing except the acknowledgement that you have done something many of us before you has done - graduated from vet school. Good for you, so did I! Now, welcome to the real world, time to grow up. This is a great and fantastic, noble profession, be part of it, be a winner, not a whiner.

sigh

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?
.
It doesn't have to be this way, but in order for it to change, so do attitudes like yours.
.
(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.)

Veterinary School Graduate- Disllusioned

Working in a Veterinary Teaching Hospital as a Veterinary Technician I will have to agree with most what the article stated. The veterinary students have a lot of burdens, and I had witness bad behaviors from clinicians, residents and veterinary technicians. However, the veterinary technicians at this particular veterinary teaching hospital where I worked (located at a big ten school) ran in circles. The pay was poor and hours very long. Twelve hour work days or more were the norm. Receiving overtime pay was always a fight. The veterinary technicians did the hands-on clinical teaching from critical care to anesthesia. Most of the veterinary technicians barely got 1/2 hour lunch everyday. It was at times worst for the students. But, I told that they were in veterinary school, and it was supposed to be "tough." Tough didn't even touch the organizational behavior and environment. As for patient care, that can be another set of articles of what I witnessed. Some sound judgments and some bad. When I left this prestigious institution in 2000, my yearly income was $26,000 a year. Of course, there were benefits and they were not the best. We all had to pay for parking which amounted to $300 plus a year for the late 1990's. We lost that parking during football season. Because of the low pay most of the veterinary technicians had other part-time jobs to make ends meet. I hope all veterinary schools are not like what the author and I experienced. I am sure there is post-graduate of veterinary school had a good educational experience!

agreed

Unfortunately, often the technicians and support staff suffer, too. As I said, "it trickles down."

in the late 80s, we too, were

in the late 80s, we too, were told of the insurmountable debts, paucity of jobs, etc., etc. veterinary medicine is still thriving. i'm not thrilled with the increased class sizes, new colleges, etc., but that is the way of the world--if there's opportunity to educate, and more applicants than positions, the colleges will follow the opportunity to earn more $$ by admitting more students.

if you learn your craft, think of the patient first and foremost, treat every pet owner as if they are your favorite client, you will be wildly successful, whether your profession is crowded or not. a veterinarian once told me, as i was looking for the utopia of locations to start a practice---there is always room for a GOOD veterinarian, regardless of demographics.

response to article

in 1989, the university i attended for my dvm degree reduced the requirements for acceptance to veterinary school. i was admitted in 1987, and we had one classmate who openly cried after struggling on an exam. (our valedictorian vomited before most exams, and is a successful boarded surgeon now). two of the classes admitted after the reduction in requirements to qualify for application had dozens who cried after exams. I was told by two colleagues in 1985 that i should apply along with them--they were 1 and 2 yrs ahead of me in undergrad and i could have all the requirements met after my sophomore year in college if i took summer school. i did not feel i was mature enough for the rigors of vet school (and i was right on the money there---it is a bear). my point is, i believe most veterinary entrants are not mature enough for the rigors of graduate school (NOTHING WORTH ANYTHING IN LIFE COMES WITHOUT HARD WORK, LONG HOURS, AND A LOT OF DUES--marriage, education, jobs, parenting, and often getting up in the morning). i don't care about one's gpa, boxes checked on an application, etc., if you aren't mature enough for what goes on in graduate school, nothing can fix it. one of the remedies our college took was to stop making exams comprehensive??? in the real world, do your patients choose to be derm cases for a quarter, gi cases then next, etc.? how was this conducive to a better veterinary education. easier, less stressful, less disruptive to faculty having to deal with emotional students, yes. better for education---NO. i see many of this student's points. after all, i went through them too. if you think it gets easier once you graduate----forget it. you hold many patients' lives in your hands on a daily basis. you have to have a full schedule to earn a living. emergencies are never scheduled in that full schedule. they are disruptive, stressful, time consuming, and challenging, offering little time to hit the books, take care of family, etc., etc... education can be improved upon. the stresses of a good and comprehensive education cannot. nor, those after you receive your degree. if you love what you do, chose your profession because it is your passion, you will find the stress is worth it. if not, veterinary school, and a job in veterinary medicine will drain the life out of you.