By NIKHITA PARANDEKAR
Most of us fourth year veterinary students are facing (or have already dealt with) a serious life decision right about now — to apply for an internship or not? To explain this, I’ll start with a brief description of the veterinary hierarchy. After passing board exams and graduating from veterinary school, you are legally licensed to be practicing veterinarians — the equivalent of human general practitioners. If you want to have more specialized training, then you can apply for an internship, which is a year of intensive immersion in a field you are interested in. For example, there are equine internships and small animal internships. After completing an internship, due to the intense nature of the program, you are ideally equipped with significantly more experience and knowledge. You could go out into the world armed with your new skills, or you could decide to get even more serious and complete a residency. Residencies are usually around three years long and encompass everything from ophthalmology to large animal surgery. At the end of your residency, you take another set of board exams and then if you pass them become a licensed specialist, with extra fancy letters after your name and ideally a higher salary when you find a job. After your residency, you can either enter private practice as a specialist or continue down a path to get a PhD and enter academia. So, to summarize, you have vet students who can either pursue being general practitioners or go the route of being interns, residents and, ultimately, specialists.
Internship applications are due soon (soon is relative depending on what kind of internship you’re thinking about), which is why I’m writing about this now. I’ve heard statistics that the first two years out of school are the most important in terms of developing clinical skills, so many people complete internships even if they’re not interested in specializing in order to be more competent general practitioners. That being said, if you can find a job where you have a good mentor, then it might be just as valuable to you as an internship would have been. Unfortunately, the decision to do an internship generally has to be done sooner in your career rather than later — years ago it was common for people to practice for a few years and then go straight into a residency, but the trend lately seems to be to go straight from vet school to an internship and then residency.
Some people already know that they want to specialize — they’ve fallen (and stayed) in love with a specific area of veterinary medicine and are ready to start on that path. A lucky few have jobs set up already in practices that they’ve spent time with throughout the years. For the rest of us, there are a few factors to weigh into the decision. The first is finances — interns make next to nothing (in 2013, the median intern salary for academic internships was around $25,000, it might be a little higher for some private practices), and when you’re graduating from vet school with significant debt (around $150,000) you need to have enough income to start paying off your loans. An internship might not be financially possible. The second is location — would you move anywhere around the country for your internship? It is only one year, after all, and most people do not end up practicing where they completed their internship, but moving around the country every year is not an easy task. The last one I can think of is priorities — do you want to have some semblance of a work/life balance after you graduate, or are you willing to sacrifice that for another year? First year associates don’t often have the best schedules but most of the time they are at least marginally less all-encompassing than an intern’s schedule. And then there’s always the elephant in the room — what if you decide you want an internship and apply and then don’t get one?
So these are the things that a lot of us have been thinking about in the relatively recent past and into the future. The anxiety associated with the process is not one that I think I’ve ever experienced or witnessed before. That being said, I try to keep in the back of my mind that most of the veterinarians I know don’t have stories that go “I wanted to be a small animal internist in a university setting so I did an internship and residency and went into academia.” A lot of the time, it’s more along the lines of “I really wanted to work with cats so I did an internship but then I found that I liked dogs too so I applied for residencies and I happened to get one and then I started this project that was interesting and decided I wanted to go into academia instead of private practice.” So maybe, once we’ve thought circles around everything and think we’ve come to a decision, what we really have to learn to do is roll with the punches.
Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a fourth-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.