Hierarchies are a much more important part of vet school than they ever were of undergraduate life. In college, after freshman year (sorry, freshmen) everyone was pretty much on even footing academically and socially. You could have sophomores and seniors in classes together, and people tended to hang out in the same places. Even the bars had a selection of everyone, because — let’s face it — fake IDs weren’t hard to come by.
In vet school, hierarchies are an integral part of life, at least academically. The first years are on the bottom of the filing cabinet (this sounds like a weird metaphor, but we actually have a filing cabinet where each year gets a drawer where we each get internal mail, and the drawers move up every year) and each subsequent year has a little more “power,” at least in terms of the fact that the younger years look up to and defer to them.
Part of the reason for this is built into the curriculum. In the past, I’ve written about how we learn an immense amount of information in a short period of time. Each class looks at the class above it and realizes that those students have successfully gone through significantly more of the coursework, which earns them a certain amount of respect.
The idea of hierarchies is reinforced in the clinics. Roughly, the third and fourth year vet students who are working in the clinics report to the interns / residents, the interns report to the residents / faculty and the interns / residents report to the faculty, who are generally perceived as brilliant by everyone involved. All of this sounds like a lot of unnecessary segregating and you hear people complain about it lot — “oh I couldn’t see anything because the upperclassmen and interns were in the way.” I’m coming to realize, though, that it’s actually a system we’re incredibly lucky to have.
First of all, the hierarchy clearly isn’t arbitrary. People have worked extremely hard to obtain their positions, and the benefits they get are well deserved and should serve to motivate us. Secondly, it’s not a tyrannical system. The people higher up don’t tend to boss everyone else around or expect people to be at their beck and call. Instead, more often than not, they remember what it was like to be in a younger year and they are more than happy to offer guidance and advice.
Most importantly, we take advantage of the fact that the hierarchy is really a built in safety system. It means that when you’re less experienced and something goes wrong, you get scolded but someone higher up takes the brunt of the responsibility. A teaching hospital needs this kind of setup to exist so that things don’t fall through the cracks when an animal’s life is on the line. The students don’t want to disappoint the clinicians, and the clinicians oversee the students very carefully. (As a side note, I hope this makes you readers who are clients feel good about everything — maybe the appointments take longer than in a private clinic and you have to talk to students, but think about how many people are working for your animal!)
The system is also good preparation for life after vet school. When we graduate, we’re still going to have a lot left to learn, especially in terms of real-life experience in an environment that isn’t necessarily a tertiary referral center with an immense amount of resources at our disposal. This means that we absolutely won’t be top dog (haha …) wherever we end up and will probably be a part of a system much like the one that we’re already used to. The main difference is that we’ll be more accountable for ourselves and could get fired over making a big mistake, which is where being accustomed to reporting to someone else will come in especially useful: We’ve gotten used to checking everything we do before reporting to the clinicians, and these habits will help us make less mistakes in the future.
Also, the hierarchies in vet school don’t tend to extend to the social sphere. In general, people hang out more with friends from their own class only because they’re the most familiar with each other, but they can be (and are) friends with whomever they want, which softens the environment in school because relationships with people are often more than just professional ones.
Although this concept of hierarchies is rigidly implemented in health professions, it’s really applicable in many professional fields. So next time you complain about your boss or that annoying co-worker who has a higher salary than you, remember that they also might have a lot more at stake than you, and you might be complaining even more if they weren’t around.
Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a second-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.