By Claire Porter
You’ve decided you want to be a veterinarian – but how do you know it’s the right career for you? While many prospective applicants to veterinary school cite a love of animals as the driving factor behind pursing veterinary medicine, there’s a lot more to the field than snuggling puppies and kittens all day. So how do you decide if the rigorous path is worth following?
“Shadowing” is a word used to describe following alongside a veterinarian for a period of time to get an idea of what their job entails. If you aspire to become a veterinarian, shadowing should be the very first thing you do, as oftentimes people aren’t aware of all the non-animal related work veterinarians perform on a daily basis! While small animal general practice (the first stop for your family pet’s vaccines or illness) is one of the most visible faces of veterinary medicine, there is great value in shadowing in a variety of veterinary settings so that you can begin to understand the breadth of the field. Examples of other lesser-known facets of veterinary medicine include large animal medicine (both equine and livestock), research, zoo or aquaria or even government work. Not only will these diverse experiences help you understand veterinary medicine as a whole, it may help you to clarify your career goals within the profession.
To begin shadowing, you’ll first need to identify local veterinarians. Start your search at animal hospitals, emergency clinics, animal shelters or sanctuaries, animal-based attractions such as your local zoo or aquarium or even your university. Consider that not all veterinarians are willing or able to take on a shadow. Not everyone feels comfortable having a stranger with them in sensitive appointments or high-stress situations. Perhaps their schedule is unpredictable or their work location requires special security measures to allow unaffiliated people to shadow. If at first you don’t succeed in finding a veterinarian to shadow – keep looking!
When contacting possible shadowing experiences, showing up in person (if possible) is ideal. Busy clinics receive many phone calls, emails and messages throughout the course of the day and your request may get lost or put at the bottom of the priority list. By showing up in person, you gain the chance to make a good first impression and attach a face to your name. Treat this first visit as a miniature job interview – clinics often have many students wanting to shadow their veterinarian and gain experience; you want them to select you from the list of those interested. To make a good first impression, you should be appropriately dressed – think business-casual – keeping any jewelry, perfumes or make-up conservative. You want to convey that you will be a pleasant person to have at their clinic: friendly, polite and excited to learn. To help potential experiences get a better understanding of who you are and why they should offer you shadowing time, bring a hard copy of your resume outlining any previous animal-related experiences you may have had. Include a basic cover letter explaining why you want to shadow at that particular place, your career aspirations or what you hope to learn or see while shadowing.
Keep in mind that not all experiences will allow for an unexpected guest to show up and ask about shadowing. If you are pursuing a shadowing experience at a research facility, government agency, zoo or other limited-access venue, sending an email to an appropriate point-of-contact is best. (Hint: check their website! There may be an email address available for a volunteer coordinator or public education/outreach administrator who can best direct your inquiry.) Be professional in your request and remember to include your resume and brief cover letter attached to your original email to give them a better idea of who you are and why you should be invited to shadow.
While you are eager to learn about veterinary medicine first-hand, start small. By asking for just one day of shadowing experience, you are more likely to have your request accepted than if you were to ask for a longer time commitment upfront. The staff – including the veterinarian! – want to get to know you and gauge how you fit with the group before inviting you to work alongside them for an extended period of time. For this reason, it is important to continue the good impression made at your initial visit.
Dressing appropriately will depend on what you will be doing on your shadowing day. If you will be following the veterinarians into appointments, business-casual is preferable unless you are asked to dress otherwise. Imagine that you yourself are the veterinarian in these instances, interacting with members of the public who may be more conservative than you. To present a professional appearance, stick with natural or neutral hair and nail colors and consider covering easily-visible tattoos and removing all but the most basic of piercings. If you will be shadowing technicians or in surgery, a scrub set with clean, comfortable shoes will serve you best. If you will be observing a variety of things or you aren’t quite sure what to expect, bring a change of clothes with you.
Be punctual. Being late is a quick way to start off on the wrong foot. Arriving a few minutes early will allow you to meet the staff, get a brief tour of the facility and set your things down before the day gets started. Plan to stay throughout the day to get as much exposure to the field and to the particular clinic as you can.
You are there to learn about veterinary medicine and what a veterinarian does each day – don’t be afraid to ask relevant questions. You might ask the technicians why they decided to become technicians, what they enjoy about their job and what their biggest challenges are. You might ask the veterinarian what started their interest in veterinary medicine, what their particular interests are within the field, what they do and don’t like about the profession and any advice they might have to offer to someone just starting out.
However, keep in mind that any clinic will have hectic moments – perhaps an emergency comes in unexpectedly or a client is angry or upset. During these moments of peak stress for everyone, it is best to stay out of the way and to allow each person to perform their part of the job without interruption. After the situation is handled or if there is a lull in the usual bustle, you can ask more in-depth questions and build up more of a conversation. (Hint: bring your lunch! If the veterinarian has enough time to take a brief lunch break, ask if you can join him or her and learn more about them and what they do.) If you are shy or more reserved by nature, build your confidence by practicing questions or small talk with a family member or friend – you don’t want to be standing silently in the corner for the duration of your shadowing experience.
By demonstrating yourself to be an engaged, interested observer who is punctual, friendly and professional, you greatly increase your chances of being invited back for further shadowing time. Oftentimes, these shadowing experiences can become opportunity for employment, allowing you to accrue veterinary hours and to develop professional connections that may lead to a supportive letter of recommendation, both integral parts of your veterinary school application. Good luck!
About the Author
Claire Porter is a veterinarian in Maryland. She works with small animals and exotics…and the occasional goat or chicken. She is an avid hiker, sports enthusiast and bookworm.