Mental Health

I quit an externship on the second day

The summer following my second year of veterinary school, I set a goal for myself: I was going to make the decision on whether to pursue a small animal rotating internship as a post-graduate or go straight into practice.

At the time, I had been vacillating on this decision and was confused by the disparate guidance I received from my peers and mentors. I had minimal pre-vet experience in small animal practice and did not know where to begin to determine the best path into the small animal world. In order to assist with my decision-making process, I scheduled an externship at a well-known referral hospital that offers an internship program so that I could experience the opportunities of that particular path first-hand.

I arrived 30 minutes early on my first day and sat in my car full of anxiety. I was nervous and wanted to make a good impression. I knew my performance in this externship would be considered if I applied to that hospital for an internship. I was ready to jump out of my comfort zone to meet new people and push myself to ask questions. I was ready to form meaningful relationships with veterinarians and begin clinical learning.

After just one and a half days of participating in the program, I felt discouraged, confused, and disappointed. Although the externship program required a formal application process, I arrived at a program that lacked structure. Instead of meeting with a member of human resources to go over program details, I was given a 10-minute hospital tour, and then was basically “let loose.”

I had expected to arrive and meet all of the staff for the service I was with, but I did not even know which interns and technicians were a part of that service. I assumed there would be a schedule for the externship, but I was never given a specific time to arrive and leave each day.  I was told to ask the doctors in the department if I could shadow them, as students were not assigned to work with a particular doctor. I was asked by some of the doctors “who are you” and it made me feel so uncomfortable to have to be the one to inform them on the spot that I was a student externing with them. I found myself, on multiple occasions, wandering and lost around a hospital I knew nothing about, with nobody to ask for guidance and nobody who was assigned to be a “point person” for the student externs and no one who made me feel welcome. There was no structured programming at all.

Despite the circumstances, I tried to maintain my positive mindset and make the best of my time in the program. I continued to put myself out there and take initiative. I went to the room where the interns wrote their medical records and tried to get to know them. Additionally, I asked multiple doctors to shadow them. When they agreed, I would try to ask questions and would be met with little engagement or discussion in return. After an appointment, I would often find myself unable to locate them. I would have to search through the hospital to know where they were going next.  I assumed they were truly trying to multitask, and that they would forget a student was with them to engage with and bring with them. Whereas initially I was eager to ask questions, eventually I stood there silently and watched during any appointments or procedures because I felt that I was just hindering the doctor’s ability to perform their tasks. At one point, I was trying to read a textbook I found while the doctor I was with answered emails. I felt as if I was simply an annoyance and that my presence was getting in their way. The doctors gave the impression that they were overworked and were just trying to survive their brutal schedules. When I tried to make conversation, and ask how they like the local area, it was made clear they had very little time to actually get to experience the city that they lived in.

On the second day of the externship, around lunch time, I found myself, yet again, wandering alone through the old building. I had no scheduled responsibilities, duties, or learning opportunities. Surprisingly, while the application made it seem like I would be an integral part of the team for my time there, nobody from the clinical to support staff, ever inquired about where I was.

Overwhelmed with my confusion and disappointment, I walked outside and sat in my car. I felt so conflicted, guilty, and ashamed for not having a meaningful experience. I blamed myself and thought I was not doing enough to take an active part in the learning process. I agonized over the negative implications this experience would have on my future career. However, deep down, I knew the hospital was at fault for failing to take the time to clearly define their externship program, highlight areas for externs to be involved in, and develop learning objectives for their externs.

I also realized this experience was not serving me and the environment was not conducive to my learning. Reflecting on my short time there, I decided the best decision for me was to leave the program and I do not regret that decision. With the veterinarians overstretched, I did not feel they had the capacity to teach a veterinary student. Additionally, it was abundantly clear that no one was relying on me to help or assist in any way. Because no one seemed to be aware I was a veterinary extern and knowing that I would not be shirking any responsibility, I felt all the more confident in my decision to leave.

After taking a deep breath and reflecting to myself in my car for a few minutes, I walked back inside the building. I walked upstairs to the Human Resources department and wandered the halls until I found someone. I told them I was a veterinary student there for an externship, and that something came up and I needed to leave the program. I grabbed my belongings, and never went back.

Yes, I quit an externship on the second day of being there.

As I drove out of the parking lot, with the sun shining on a beautiful summer day, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I would never have to walk into that hospital again. Because I had planned to be in that city for two weeks while doing the externship, I kept that plan and instead spent that time with old friends. The veterinary school schedule does not allow for much time to travel for leisure and to connect with friends outside of school. I was able to spend quality time with friends I had not seen in years. Feeling connected to these friends reminded me of who I am outside of the veterinary profession. It was invaluable to reflect on my need to take time with other aspects of who I am as a person.

I tell this story because I want people to accept and understand that not every opportunity will work for every person and not all externships are the same. Pre-veterinary and veterinary students have such limited free time and we often utilize it to gain clinical experience. Veterinary students should make sure they do research and ask about the details of how an externship program will work beforehand, especially to determine whether it will be a positive learning environment. We should not spend our precious time working at a voluntary externship that does not serve our goals or provide any opportunity to learn.

I want to encourage other veterinary students to consider carefully what opportunities are worth their limited free time and which ones are not. As long as the student acts with courtesy and respects any commitments or responsibilities that were undertaken, it is acceptable to quit something that is not serving you. It is okay to try new things, discover what we do and do not like, and change our goals along the way—that’s what veterinary school is all about!

One of the most rewarding parts of veterinary school for me has been discovering more about what I want and do not want from a career. As a current fourth year veterinary student, I have experienced a myriad of different aspects of veterinary medicine. Along the way, I have realized that identifying what does not work for me is just as important as discovering the parts of this profession that I do love. I encourage everyone to research opportunities in depth before making any commitments and to listen to your own voice to discover what your path is, regardless of external input. That way, you can prioritize what will best serve you to reach your goals.

Looking back at this experience almost two years later, I realize that the only reason I applied to this externship was because I felt the external pressures of hearing my classmates, faculty at school, and other mentors talking about their path through specialized medicine. I was swayed by others’ experiences and goals and not confident enough at the time to realize that those were not my personal goals. I never wanted to do an internship or residency, and I am so glad that I had this experience to challenge me to make that decision for myself. I am excited to begin my career as a general practitioner after graduation, and to work towards my career goals in practice ownership.

Rachael Strauss is a fourth-year veterinary student at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She will be pursuing a career in small animal general practice after graduation, and has a special interest in business management and practice ownership. Outside of veterinary medicine, she enjoys cycling, Pilates, and Yoga, reading and writing and cross-stitching.



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