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You don’t have to be miserable in vet school: 5 tips for achieving positivity and happiness

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Rachael Strauss is a third year veterinary student at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She graduated with a BA in Biological Sciences and a minor in Religious Studies at Cornell University. In her gap year before veterinary school, she was a Senior Patient Care Coordinator at Weill Cornell Imaging in New York City. In that position, she learned that she has a passion for helping clients and patients, especially in terms of conflict resolution. This discovery has led her to pursue a future career in small animal medicine. She has served as a Peer Mentor at school and greatly enjoys helping other veterinary students find their joy while at school. Rachael will serve as the 2020 National Vice President for the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA), and credits the VBMA organization and its amazing members with teaching her many of the lessons described in this article. Rachael’s future career goals include becoming a small animal general practitioner and multi-practice owner.

My 2020 VBMA National Board team members have become some of my greatest veterinary school friends and they’ve taught me a lot! From left to right: Rachael Strauss (me), Sarah Montoya (NC State), Helena Montin (Minnesota), Jeff Lowenthal (UC Davis), Kelsey Pearce (Auburn), Kenzi Wattenburger (Missouri).

I vividly remember the emotions I felt on the first day of veterinary school: the excitement of finally achieving a dream I had worked toward for years, the uncertainty around making new friends, the anxiety of whether I’d be able to excel in the new curriculum, and the sadness that came with accepting the next four years would be miserable. As a pre-veterinary student, I believed that veterinary school is a means to an end and that it’s a four year sacrifice to reach a career as a veterinarian. So, those first few months, I spent 13 hours per day at school and I gave up all my hobbies. My studies became my whole life and I constantly felt inadequate. Now, as a third year student, I want to proclaim that this assumption—that veterinary school is undeniably miserable—is a lie.

In my second year, I served as a Peer Mentor for first year students. I met with students who were struggling with the transition to veterinary school, just as I had the year before. During this time, I realized the biggest impact I made was when I validated that they didn’t have to fall into this trap of working so hard to the point of losing themselves. I would tell these students that I support them and what they need to do to be happy and that most importantly, it was possible to enjoy being in veterinary school. I could see in the relief on their faces after hearing those words.

This however, does not mean that veterinary school is wonderful all of the time, it absolutely is not. It is draining and challenges many of us at tumultuous and uncertain periods in our lives. I have to ask myself on a daily basis why I am choosing to continue down this path. The thing that has changed between my first year and now is my outlook. I realized that my happiness is an active process and that I had to make the choice to prioritize it. With that, I feel as though I have agency to choose this career path daily, maintain my sense of self, and find joy in the everyday.

Make veterinary school a more positive experience with these five simple tips:

1. Prioritize your physical and mental health.

Its cliché, but it needs to be said. Veterinary students try to defy this basic principle all the time. However, sleep, exercise, nutrition, and mental health are the foundation of how we interact with each other and challenges. We cannot reach our full potential without this foundation. To help establish health as a priority, you can schedule it (therapy appointments, workout sessions, yoga class, etc.) into your calendar just as you would any other item on your to-do list. With this, you can feel just as accomplished when you check it off as you do with your homework assignments and study schedule.

Sleep is one of those things we all know in theory we should prioritize, and the research behind its importance is resounding, but it often gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. I do believe that we all have a different minimum amount of sleep we need, and I would encourage you to prioritize getting at least that much sleep for you. I have found that sticking to a regular sleep routine (going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time) throughout the week (including the weekend) helps with this a lot.

As for exercise, the main point is to get your body moving. This is going to be different for everyone, but find something that you enjoy doing. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t maintain it. The long-term health benefits of exercise cannot be overstated, and in the short-term, it has a hugely positive impact on mental health, especially when you find something that you like doing.

With respect to nutrition, my biggest advice is to make sure that you’re actually eating real meals throughout the day. It’s so easy to get caught up in an all-day study session and just eat candy and snacks all day, but our brains rely on real food to function. Luckily, a lot of club meetings will provide meals to attendees, and I would encourage you to take advantage of these events to take a study break and also have a satisfying meal.

It is essential that we take care of our mental health both within school and when we enter the veterinary profession. Before veterinary school starts, or before the next semester, you should familiarize yourself with the various resources available to you at school, or in your area, regarding mental health. I also have found it to be helpful to write down who my core support system is. This way, when I’m starting to recognize that my mental health needs tending to, I can reach out to one of those people.

2. Establish meaningful and healthy relationships with your classmates.

Veterinary school friendships are unique. For many of us, this is the first time we work, study, and socialize with the same friends. Because of this, we can quickly spend 12 hours a day, seven days a week with the same group. This intensive schedule can often cause tension, especially during stressful periods at school. I found that establishing friendships outside of the academics was important to maintain these friendships. It is important for me to enjoy our time together outside of the school setting, rather than only associating the friendship with stress.

In addition, it’s okay to establish boundaries in veterinary school friendships. Everyone talks about school: how much homework they’ve done, how many hours they have studied for a test, etc. One of the most difficult transitions for me was tuning out when other people talk about school. It’s easy to let anxiety creep in and compare how we are doing with our peers. However, I cannot stress enough that each of us has our own path through veterinary school, and that comparison to others will only cause unnecessary stress. The most freeing mind shift towards happiness in school is when we stop the comparison and the competition, and view friendships as support for one another’s individualized path to graduation. It is really difficult to tune out when your classmates are talking about school, but the most important gauge of your personal academic progress is how you feel you are grasping the material and learning, rather than how any of your friends are doing.

Some strategies I’ve used to establish these boundaries in my friendships include forming friendships with students in other class years and being upfront with my friends when I would prefer not to talk about school or studying. Forming friendships with students in other class years is helpful because it removes the pressure to compare your progress. In addition, I’ve found that my peers in other class years have become mentors and serve as a source of encouragement.

3. Get involved with one or two clubs/organizations you care about in the veterinary field.

 At the beginning of veterinary school, the club fair is overwhelming because there are so many amazing organizations to join. With the minimal time in our schedule available to spend on extracurricular activities, I suggest joining one or two clubs to which you can be fully dedicated. As you get more comfortable with veterinary school, you can attend events in many other clubs, but establishing your priorities at first can help narrow down what will take up most of your time and prevent you from over-committing. If you have a job while in school, I suggest dedicating your time to only one club. When there are elections for board members for extracurricular groups, I highly recommend becoming a board member for a club if you have room in your schedule. With many of the clubs that have a national organization, being involved with the local school chapter can open so many opportunities to engage with the veterinary profession, even while you’re still in school. When you meet veterinary professionals, attend national conferences, and/or meet veterinary students at other schools, it can help remind you why you are working so hard in school and spark your motivation when you need it most. Involvement with a club also helps with finding mentors within the veterinary profession. These mentors can provide a sounding board for navigating many decisions you have to make while in school regarding your career path.

4. Embrace a growth mindset.

 As mentioned above, it is important to gain confidence in doing what works for you in the classroom. Actually finding what works for you, however, will take some trial and error, and also an open mind. For example, when I was an undergrad, I had to write every single word down that I wanted to know, and I never studied with anyone else. Through the last three years, I’ve learned to become more efficient by not writing everything down, but I still stick to the fact that in order to learn I do need to write the main points down. I also heavily rely on group studying in veterinary school, but it took almost the entire first year for me to discover that. Overall, I would suggest that you identify what strategies worked for you as an undergrad, but also be open to evolving those study strategies to meet the needs of the veterinary curriculum. If you find you are struggling with a particular topic or class, I encourage you to reach out to the professors as early as possible. The professors often can work with you to identify how your study strategies are lining up with the objectives of the course.

In order to embrace the challenges of veterinary school in general, my biggest advice is to view them as learning experiences, and as opportunities to evolve as a professional and as a person. One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned in veterinary school is that we are not expected to master everything on the first, or even the tenth try. A lot of the veterinary school curriculum pushes students out of their comfort zone, and challenges us to see how much information we can handle at any one time. Rather than setting unrealistic expectations of perfection, it can really help to remind yourself that veterinary school provides you with the opportunity to adapt and develop as a future doctor, as well as a future professional, both within and outside of the profession.

5. Take time away from school on a regular basis.

For many of us, being a veterinary student means that we are physically isolated from our family and friends. Therefore we aren’t present for social events with our friends, and while our friends are settling into their careers, we are still in school. This creates a gap in where we are in our career and life trajectory compared to them. This can be even more difficult when life-altering events happen, such as a death in the family. It is very difficult to process and work through these events emotionally when someone is physically isolated from their support system and when the veterinary school schedule is consistently rigorous.

Rather than allowing these challenges to cause relationships to drift apart, I believe that making the effort to be present for life events with your friends and family is a wonderful way to stay connected to yourself outside of the veterinary profession. It is so refreshing to get away from school and have conversations with friends and family that have nothing to do with veterinary medicine and therefore allow you to re-connect to other aspects of your personality. Even if you go to school too far away from home, you can still take advantage of your university’s events and meet other graduate students, or do non-veterinary related social activities with your veterinary school friends. Dedicating one day a month to schedule time away from your life at school helps to maintain a sense of self, and serves as a reminder of who you are outside of the veterinary profession. It’s also important to acknowledge when you need to rely on your core support system and to prioritize the time getting the support you need from those individuals, even if they may be located far away.

My hope is to encourage a shift in the dialogue around veterinary school. Rather than a self-fulfilling prophecy of telling ourselves we have to be miserable and then making it so, I hope to support current and future veterinary students in viewing veterinary school as a positive and exciting period that will challenge us into a growth mindset and help us to achieve our career goals, especially when we support each other through the process.

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