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7 tips for getting wild (animal) experience in vet school

INSTAGRAM @wanderingvetstudent    
Ciara Peace is a fourth-year veterinary student at Ross University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and currently finishing her clinical year at Iowa State University. With a special interest in zoo, wildlife, and aquatic medicine, Ciara has spent a large amount of her time involved in various conservation projects both at Ross and internationally. To follow her journey, connect with her on social media.

Wild, huh? No, I don’t mean spending every night at parties or going crazy out on the town—I’m talking about gaining experience with animals. From the moment I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian, I had one goal in mind: I wanted to work with unique species. Whether it is with zoo animals, aquatics, wildlife, or exotic pets, I was interested in all of it. I know many fellow and future students have similar goals, so I wanted to share some the tips I have learnt through my journey to help you on yours.

1. Join clubs.

This is a HUGE one—I think of it as the kindling that starts the fire. Clubs are by far one of the best things about vet school as they provide so many opportunities for experiences and learning. At Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (Ross), we had several exotic clubs, including ZEW (zoo, wildlife, and exotics), WDA (wildlife disease association), WAVMA (world aquatic veterinary medical association), AAV (association of avian veterinarians), and many others that often partnered together. Since there is an aviary on campus, a tortoise pen, as well as a turtle pond, students in the clubs would rotate to take care of them to gain experience. Overall, clubs offer tons of chances to expand your skills, such as wet labs/skills labs, animal handling, potential for hands-on work/animal care, and guest lectures (doubles as networking).

2. Hold an officer position in a club.

While this might not seem feasible for everyone, I truly think being an officer in a club can bring about some amazing things and help you gain more than just being a member. An officer position can be a lot to handle, so it is always recommended to hold it for two to four lower semesters due to scheduling. For me, I started out as secretary for WDA then moved up to president and vice president of Scuba Club and fundraising chair for ZEW. This may seem like a lot, but it was completely doable with great committees and my schedule had more flexibility in lower years. While holding positions like these can be hectic, it also has its rewards, which usually comes with networking and gaining more experience. As a club, we would bring down guest speakers. Officers would be the ones to drive them around and we’d eat together. Being able to speak with our guests one-on-one or in small group settings has allowed me to learn even more about the industry.

3. Be a research volunteer or assistant.

Ross was my first choice for vet school for many reasons, but one of the top pros was the potential for me to assist with sea turtle research aside the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network (SKSTMN). I had worked at The Toledo Zoo prior, but didn’t have any experience with sea turtles and wanted to learn. Luckily for me, the in-water research team was holding tryouts my first semester and I made it onto the team! Only a few semesters later, I was asked to become one of the research assistants and take on more responsibility with the team, to which I happily agreed. Overall, I was a part of this wonderful project for eight semesters and not only gained a lot of experience, but mentors and connections as well. Being involved with SKSTMN, I was able to help with a variety of other things and branch out with my aquatic knowledge. I helped out with a pilot whale stranding and necropsy, volunteered at Dolphin Discovery with their veterinarian, and volunteered with our spotted eagle ray project as well.

4. Go on an externship.

The classroom for me is not where I learn best, but rather when I’m immersed in a clinical setting. For this reason, I chose to go on externships every break and most of them were wildlife related. At Ross, we only get three small breaks during the year, so I knew I wanted to make the most of those if possible. I visited Belize, Guatemala, South Africa, Thailand, and Vietnam. There, I was able to gain a lot of wildlife experience. One of the biggest lessons was to do research. So many schools offer veterinary trips and the program fee is much more than we may be able to afford as students, which is very unfortunate for those of us who want to go into this career. I found that by searching for wildlife centers and contacting them myself, it was a much better (and cheaper) way to do things. If you can’t afford these programs, I suggest looking at wildlife centers in your area and asking if you can volunteer over break—the worst thing they can say is no. There are so many amazing places out there, an externship doesn’t have to be international for you to benefit from the experience.

5. Go to conferences.

Conferences are one thing I am lacking in when it comes to experience, since I could never go unless they were held in St. Kitts. That said, we did have some, like the WAVMA, which held events in St. Kitts in 2018. I was able to attend most of the lectures and since I am a member, we were invited to meet the speakers and network, which was great. This conference is where I met Antonio Mignucci, the director of the Manatee Conservation Center in Puerto Rico. Since I had introduced myself there and had his business card, I was able to email him before going to Puerto Rico this January to ask about volunteering and he said yes. When I say it doesn’t hurt to ask, I truly mean it!

6. Take electives.

This will vary depending on your school, but I would highly recommend taking any exotic or wildlife electives available to you. While I love all things in veterinary medicine, I know how hard it is to keep our big career goals in site when we don’t get a lot of zoo and wildlife medicine in our normal lectures. Being able to take specific electives for wildlife and exotics truly helped remind me of why I wanted to go into this and since the class sizes are quite small, it gives you a chance to know the professor and make a better connection. At Ross I was able to take two semesters of aquatic medicine and one semester of sea turtle medicine, which gave me a deeper understanding of things we were doing with SKSTMN and other research projects.

7. Make connections.

I wanted to end on this note, because even if you were only able to do one of these things listed here, I think the absolute most important thing to do in this industry is to NETWORK. Make connections that you can call when you need advice, want to do an externship, need a recommendation letter, etc. Vet school is full of many other students who have similar goals to you, so I find it extremely important to make yourself known. Whether it is a professor, a research advisor, a veterinarian you’ve worked with on a trip, or a colleague, the connections we make in this field are imperative and can open doors you never knew existed.

While I listed just seven things you could do in your years of veterinary school, everyone and their path is different and that’s what makes this field so wonderful. Go out there and be your amazing self and ask for the opportunities and they will come. Remember, the worst thing they could say is “no.”

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