Veterinarians, unlike their counterparts in human medicine, are not required to complete internships (except in the state of Oregon) or residencies before they can practice independently. In human medicine, internships almost always lead to residencies. However, even though they have no intention of pursuing a residency, more graduating veterinarians are choosing to do an internship for the express purpose of getting more training before they begin practicing medicine without a net. In theory, this sounds like a great idea. Why not?
There are three reasons why future veterinarians should think hard before pursuing an internship. First of all, based on the difference between average starting salaries of new veterinary graduates going straight into clinical practice, and those of veterinary interns, and combining that dollar amount difference with the accrual of interest on the average student loan during internship year, a veterinary internship is estimated to cost $50,000! Secondly, while residency training that leads to specialization yields higher future earning potential, internships don’t. That’s right, future vets: Future employers may be more likely to offer you a job if you’re internship trained, but they’re unlikely to pay you more than your non-internship trained colleagues! Thirdly, unlike in human medicine, there are no set standards for internships for veterinary doctors, and no one is overseeing veterinary internships to make sure the interns are getting the education and training they’re paying for.1 Any animal hospital can offer an internship, even the worst animal hospital on planet Earth. Why, you might ask, would the worst animal hospital on planet Earth offer an internship? Two words: Cheap. Labor.
On the flip side, according to a survey published in 2013, compared to respondents who had started practicing independently right after veterinary school, “significantly higher percentages of respondents who had participated in internships rated themselves as having become extremely or very competent” in general and advanced clinical skills, as well as communication skills, and almost 95% of those who had completed internships “felt they were better veterinarians because of their internship experience.” This survey also found that the average time “worked with supervision each week was significantly greater for respondents who entered internships than for those who entered clinical practice.”2 That makes me wish I’d done an internship before starting to practice independently. $50,000 might have been worth it to avoid the stress and emotional trauma that comes with practicing medicine independently before you’re ready. Think I’m exaggerating? Go ask any MD or DO if they think they could have practiced independently immediately upon graduating from medical school! The operative word however is “might.” $50,000 might have been worth it…If I’d landed a good internship.
There are two components to getting a good internship. The first is being a competitive candidate. The best internships are going to want the best new graduate veterinarians. Your grades in veterinary school can play a role in how you’re rated as a candidate, so for all the advice I give about not being a perfectionist and not competing with your vet school classmates, unfortunately, you may need to ignore this advice if you want to get a good internship. But grades aren’t the only factor you’ll be assessed on. If you have exceptional references from your school’s faculty, or you have other degrees (MPH, PhD, MS, or an impressive undergraduate degree like nuclear engineering), or you have an interesting and amazing past professional history, these could still give you an edge even if your veterinary school grades aren’t the best. Make sure your application is flawless – no spelling or grammatical errors – and stellar – get the best possible references you can. Faculty member references are better than references from residents.3
The second component to getting a good internship is being selective and doing thorough research. Begin by checking out the Veterinary Internship & Matching Program (VIRMP). Most, though not all, internships are listed with the VIRMP. Through the VIRMP website you can see a list of internships being offered. You can get quite a bit of preliminary information here. For example, what salary is being offered? Does the program pay for the state veterinary medical license, DEA license, health insurance? How many board certified specialists are employed there? How many certified veterinary technicians do they have? How much vacation do interns get? What’s the ratio of interns who started the internship program to those who actually completed it? What kind of equipment do they have? Are teaching rounds held regularly? Do interns have primary responsibility for any cases? What percentage of time will the intern spend on overnight emergency shifts?
This preliminary information however should not be taken at face value. Ever hear the phrase “looks good on paper?” First, familiarize yourself with the internship guidelines published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS). Then, visit the places you’re considering. As a fourth year veterinary student, try to do external rotations at the places offering internships you’re interested in. (This can also give you a chance to impress them. They may be more likely to select you from a pool of applicants if they already know and like you.) While you’re there, observe the current interns. Do they seem happy? Engaged? Exhausted? Embittered? Make sure to speak candidly with the interns – even if you have to arrange to speak to them by phone after hours. Ask them if the program delivers what was promised, what they expected, what they hoped for? Do they really only spend 20% of their time on overnight emergency duty or is it actually more like 50%? Ask faculty members at your school about the programs you’re considering.3
Don’t underestimate the importance of avoiding a bad internship. $50,000 is a lot of money. Subjectively, it’s a lot more if you end up with an even greater amount of emotional trauma than had you simply started practicing independently after vet school. To drive home the point of how high the stakes can be, read the recent Newsweek article, Veterinary Interns Speak Out Against Exploitation.
- Geller, John, DVM, et al. “A Call for Internship Quality Control.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. April 15, 2012. Volume 240, Number 8.
- Shepherd, Allison, J., et al. “Veterinary Internship Survey – 2012.” .” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. October 1, 2013. Volume 243, Number 7.
- Smith, Bradford, P., DVM, et al. “Finding the Fit: Selecting an Appropriate Veterinary Internship.” Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. (33)1.