The vast majority of veterinary schools allocate time during the clinical training curriculum for students to venture off campus and spend time in private practices or other large institutions to see what the “real world” is like. We call these “externships” or “preceptorships.” Why not “internships,” you ask? In the veterinary medicine world (for those of you that don’t know yet) an internship is an optional additional year of training (which is paid, though not well) after you’ve graduated veterinary school.
If you’re beginning to plan your clinical year(s) of study in vet school or are in your clinical year(s), don’t take the time you have for externships for granted! Take advantage of this time! Medicine in private practice can differ greatly from what we’re used to in academia!
But there are so many choices for where to do an externship. How do you choose and what do you look for in a practice at which to extern? Throughout the course of my clinical training, I have completed 5 off-campus externships. Here are my two cents on how to spot a great externship opportunity.
1) Do the DVMs there want to teach? You may think this is a redundant question, but believe you me, there are a lot of DVMs out there that are quite apathetic about teaching and mentoring the next generation of vets (and that’s their prerogative). So, it’s important to ask the coordinator of an externship about how they value a learning environment and how receptive they are to teaching. This can make an externship great or terribly challenging.
2) How much hands-on experience will you get? I’m talking about diagnostics, surgery, dentistry, and the like. The amount of hands-on time you get at an externship can vary greatly depending on the type of practice and species. For example, you’re much more likely to get very hands-on at a small animal general practice clinic as opposed to a small animal specialty hospital or high-end equine clinic. But after all, you’ve likely spent hundreds or even thousands of hours shadowing prior to vet school, and now you have the base knowledge and skills to actually practice medicine. An externship is a great time to test your skills while under the supervision of a DVM. An externship where all you do is shadow can be frustrating.
3) Will you get to interact with clients? One area we generally need to work on in our profession is communication. This has been an area that has become more commonplace in our curricula. Consider an externship as a great opportunity to practice your communication skills with clients. This may be explaining a certain disease or test results, talking about parasite prevention, or making wellness recommendations. Every DVM will have different views on this, of course. But it’s definitely worth asking about if you want this practice.
4) Will there be opportunities to work up cases alongside the DVM? Being able to follow a DVM around and see how they conduct their medicine is one great learning opportunity. But what can be even more valuable to you as a student is to actually work with the DVM as they work through the cases. As daunting as it may seem, having the DVM ask you what you would do next or how you would treat this patient is a great way to learn and test your knowledge.
5) Could you see yourself working in a practice like this after you graduate? It’s hard to think far ahead and beyond vet school, while we’re in the trenches of it, but seriously consider an externship as an informal working interview. If you’ve had your eye on a practice at which you want to work or will be looking for a job in a certain area, try to get an externship at one of these practices. You don’t have to disclose that you may want to work there in the future. But an externship will give you the opportunity to impress them and open the door for a conversation in the future about possible employment. They’re more likely to hire someone they know and have a history with rather than someone they don’t.
And lastly, externships should be fun! And don’t forget that it’s important you have personal liability (malpractice) coverage for yourself! Veterinary students are eligible for free personal liability insurance via AVMA PLIT.