If you want to be a veterinarian, you better like people!

My advice to anyone aspiring to be a veterinarian? Get used to talking to people.

Pursuing a career in veterinary medicine is tough. Just considering the process of applying to veterinary school is daunting. There are numerous standardized tests, the need for superior letters of recommendation, and the stress associated with composing the perfect personal statement of why you’re choosing this particular path. Individuals must have top notch grades, possess a wide breadth of animal-related work experience, and be well-rounded in their extra-curricular activities.

Plenty of worthy applicants are denied admission based due to a lack of available spots. The competition is palpable, and is potentially one of the biggest detriments to the vocation. The aggressive nature of the application process selects for individuals who excel academically. All too often, such individuals lack critical attributes such as comfort with public speaking or interpersonal interactions.

It’s no mystery that veterinary medicine requires a love for animals and science. Whether pursuing small or large animal practice, or a career as a wildlife or zoo vet, or even biological research, individuals are driven by a passion to preserve the health and welfare of animals.

What is often overlooked is the extent to which veterinarians must work with people. Though driven by a passion for helping animals, those working in the profession will be always be surrounded by owners, other veterinarians, technicians, assistants, co-workers, practice managers, owners, etc. who each require time, energy, and attention.

Every pet that steps through my exam room is attached to at least one human being. My interactions with animals comes easy, but those with people come less naturally. Further complicating my particular scenario is that as a veterinary oncologist, I meet people at an extremely emotional time in their lives. I possess no formal training in grief counseling or psychology. My education regarding “bedside manner” comes entirely from personal experience, both as a patient myself and over my years of worming in the field.

I may be walking into my third canine lymphoma consult of the morning, while the people I’m meeting with have never even considered their dog could be diagnosed with cancer. I have to be able to connect with those individuals despite having to repeat facts multiple times within the same work day.

I could be running a half an hour or more behind on appointments, or lack appropriate support staff, or simply not feel well and am still expected to complete my daily roster of appointments with the same amount of kindness and care as I would on a less busy or emotionally tolling day.

The animals I work with never consider my credentials or bedside manner, but I will constantly be judged by their owners on my knowledge, compassion, and ability to make them feel as though their dog or cat is the only pet I am seeing that day. I’m cognizant of how owners acutely remember every word I say and every interaction I have with them and their animal, even when doing so exceeds my reservoir of compassion and my abilities are worn thin.

The best advice I could give would be to learn how to be comfortable speaking to people and in front of groups of people. Learn about how people learn and process information. Discover new ways to listen to people. Observe and record their behavior. Consider ways to keep yourself interactive, even when you don’t feel as though you want to. There will be so many times during your career as a veterinarian you will want to withdraw, but be forced to continue to talk. You won’t always be comfortable doing so, but you need to find sooner rather than later if you’re able to push through your comfort zone.

Attempting these activities is especially important if you’re a particularly shy person. While studying, and memorizing facts will afford you the academic qualifications, what will carry you through this profession as a career will be the way you interact with other people. The more you practice these tasks, the more comfortable you will become with the process.

I’m an imposter?

What are the “things” you use to define yourself? Do you best identify with your familial status (mother, husband, daughter?) Or do you describe yourself by your talents (musician, artist, writer?) What is it that matters most when it comes to saying who you are?

 

I happen to classify myself most consistently with the person I am in my professional life. Despite my varied and intricate physical and emotional components, the sum total of how I label myself is by what I do for a living. I am a veterinary oncologist.

 

These were my thoughts as I attempted to thaw myself out after completing a soggy, icy, and slippery 15-mile group run. I was a few weeks into a new-to-me marathon training program, contemplating what I’d gotten myself into. I was an experienced (though not fast) runner, having completed two previous marathons, three half-marathons, dozens of 5 and 10K races. But I’d never participated in a running club before and I’d never attempted training for such a lengthy distance over the frigid winter months.

 

My muscles were aching, my body was chafed, and I had blisters encircling both insteps. In the midst of my misery, I questioned what kind of person would subject themselves to this torture. My gut answer was only a real runner would commit to such an irrational plan. But deep down, I didn’t consider myself as a real runner at all.

 

Veterinarians are notorious over-achievers in their professional lives. We work extended hours, frequently sacrificing personal time for the sake of the pets we treat. We undervalue our worth, providing discounted services because otherwise we could be accused of ‘being in it for the money”. We are criticized for being greedy and inflexible when we don’t do such things. We struggle to please owners and help animals, despite facing severe financial and emotional restrictions that thwart our best intentions.

 

Many veterinarians possess an “imposter syndrome”. This occurs when highly accomplished individuals lack confidence in their capabilities, downplay deserving their success, and fear their inadequacies will be exposed.

 

Veterinarians consider themselves “lucky” to have achieved their degrees rather than recognize their hard work. They’re worried owners may discover they aren’t as knowledgeable as their accolades suggest. They compulsively try for their patients, even those they cannot save. They worry about not being good enough, even though the truth tells the contrary.

 

Despite defining myself by my career choice, I was guilty of possessing the imposter syndrome in my professional veterinary life. And on that freezing cold morning, I also felt like an imposter as a runner.

 

When people would tell me how remarkable it was that I could run 3 or 6 or 10 miles, I would discredit my abilities and think of those who run further and more frequently. I was constantly considering how far I didn’t run or a how slowly I completed my miles.

 

Given my propensity to temper my accomplishments at work and on the track, I couldn’t help but wonder if I possessed some sort of baseline character flaw. Why was my default set to lessening my achievements? When I really considered it, when push came to shove, each time I’d felt like the biggest of imposters, I always made it through. Could I really be that duplicitous and be as proficient as I’d grown to be?

 

I don’t always have the solution to help my patients. There are times they die, despite my greatest efforts to the contrary. There are times when owners are unhappy with my service, or expect more than I can provide. I constantly worry about being an ineffective doctor. But I help far more owners and pets than not.

 

Likewise, I’ve had many times where I’ve set out to complete a long distance, only to find myself walking after running a few shabby miles. I’ll never win the races I participate in. My mile time has fluctuated greatly over time. Yet I still register for races and train for their distances, and still feel compelled to run as often as I can.

 

On that cold winter morning, I recognized that when I feel like an imposter, I’m allowing the critical voice inside my head to act as my enemy rather than my champion. Whether working in the exam room or running on the road, I would always be the only one appropriately equipped to decipher that voice.

 

It’s just as easy for me interpret something negative, allowing insecurity to propel me towards disappointment professionally or on the pavement, as I could hear something encouraging, and use it to push me towards achievements in either venue. And if my definition of myself rests on what I hear, I must listen carefully and be more objective in my interpretation.

 

And that in the end, all that really matters is that I push through and finish, one step at a time.