Veterinary students struggle to find hands-on experience, mentorship

A large-scale shortage of mentorships and externships is leaving many veterinary students with frustration and disappointment as they seek guidance and hands-on experience outside of school.
American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) President Mark Russak, DVM, CVJ, said one of the biggest reasons for scarcity of external learning opportunities is that veterinary practices are hesitant to assume the considerable legal liability stemming from hosting interns and volunteers who are at risk for bites and other injuries. Another reason is that practices that normally operate efficiently fear they will be bogged down while working with students, Russak said.
Despite these barriers, there are opportunities waiting for you if you make an effort to find them. Consider using the following tips to greatly increase your chances of success.
  1. Stay local – Your chances of finding a mentor or externship are better if you look in your immediate area, Russak said. You might already know a local veterinarian through church or other social groups, which presents the perfect opportunity to turn that relationship into work experience or a mentorship.

  2. Let your school help – Many schools are eager to help their students find mentors and externships, said Stith Keiser, business manager for AAHA’s Career Development Program, but too many students don’t take advantage of the assistance. Be sure to learn exactly how your school can help you gain the experience you need, and don’t be shy about asking for assistance.

    The other advantage of school-affiliated externships and mentorships is that veterinary practices might be more willing to host you because your school assumes most of the financial liability, Russak said.

  3. Pick up the phone – If you want a veterinary practice to pay attention to you, it might require you to make phone calls to several local veterinarians. This conversation gives you a better chance to display your personality and intellect than if you simply drop off your resume.

    You can build a list of local practices to call by searching websites such as for veterinarians near you.

  4. Get social – Employ a well-rounded approach to getting your foot in the door by utilizing social networking in addition to phone calls. LinkedIn, for example, is an oft-used method of establishing professional connections online with other people in your chosen field.

    Because asking a relative stranger to be your mentor is no small request, an article on titled “How to Find a Mentor” recommends that you begin your online or phone interaction by simply asking for advice about a particular situation. This approach is more likely to elicit a response, and you can gradually transition into discussions about mentorship and learning opportunities.

    As with all social networking, be sure that your online profiles are highly professional just in case a veterinary practice decides to examine them while checking out your background.

  5. Interact with associations – Many state and national associations offer resources to help people find externships and mentors. Keiser pointed to AAHA’s externship directory, as well as the Academy of Rural Veterinarians’ list of regional mentors, as examples of valuable resources that some associations offer to students.

  6. Demonstrate your value – Instead of asking what the veterinary practice can do for you, ask what you can do for the practice. Keiser recommended that students approach externships with the mindset of striving to make a memorable impact during the weeks or months they are there.

    Similarly, Russak said that when talking with veterinarians you should emphasize that you love to work, you love animals, and you would like to help their practice. Once the veterinarian sees that you are ready to roll up your sleeves and contribute, he or she might be more willing to take a chance on you.

  7. Practice persistence – “One of the keys to success is persistence,” Russak said. He emphasized that there might be some difficulties or disappointments along the way, but that persistence can carry you to where you want to go.