Veterinary Internships Part 1- To sacrifice or not to sacrifice

Many current veterinary students have to face the looming question of whether or not to pursue an internship after graduation. Wait a second I have my DVM degree, can’t I just start practicing? Indeed you can, but internships have become more popular for clinics and students. For the graduating new veterinarian an internship has pros and cons that need to be weighed before making this major decision. In this post, I will break the answer down from simplest to most complicated situation. In a follow-up post, I will discuss what an internship is like, based upon my actual experience.

Scenario 1: If as a student you know for certain that you want to specialize and embark on the journey to become a veterinary surgeon or oncologist, etc. this is your only option.  There is no need to read any further.

Scenario 2: If you think you may want to specialize, but you are not 100% sure, you should probably complete an internship. Once you practice full-time, regressing to an intern salary will prove more difficult, as will being a student vs. practitioner. Some internships, many in fact, allow you to be your own practitioner with guidance as needed. However, there is always some hazing/unfairness in being an intern and not an associate. Completing an internship may also provide the information you need to make your next career move. Many internships rotate through the specialities and have elective time. These opportunities would give you a chance to decide if you want to specialize. These opportunities may also provide good references and potential mentorship opportunities for your future specialization. It may even open a door to a specialization internship- the new wave in the long road to a veterinary specialty.

Scenario 3: I want to go to into emergency medicine. The simple answer used to be: complete a small animal internship. This is the path that I chose. I chose this path because I exclusively wanted to work in emergency and most of the larger small animal emergency hospitals n major metropolitan areas only hire internship-trained veterinarians, and occasionally will hire seasoned general practitioners. I was not taking any chances. I also have toyed with the idea of doing a critical care residency (see scenario 2).  My experience was difficult, but worthwhile. When it came time to apply for a job in a new state, I was a very competitive candidiate because of my internship experience.

The flip side to this story is that at least 3 of my classmates found positions with good mentoring in emergency clinics as their first or second job. They also have now received more surgical experience then I have. The risk you take is the question of good mentorship, I am not a risk taker, but if you are and are willing to weigh your options, completing an internship is not a requirement for a position in small animal emergency.  It does provide a competitive advantage in a tight job market. You must also consider I made a 1/3rd of my current salary during my internship year, so there is an opportunity cost.

Scenario 4: I want more mentorship and experience prior to becoming an associate. This is where the question becomes harder and will be different for every person. For many graduating students, jumping into practice is scary and they do not feel they are ready.  You are more ready than you think, however the first 3-6 months is tough with or without an internship.

The cons of doing an internship in this situation are:

  • opportunity cost, less earning potential your first year
    • There is little evidence to support you will make more money as an associate after completing an internship, but depending on your field and the job market you may have a competitive advantage.
  • spending time doing emergency medicine if you don’t like it- this can be brutal
  • longer hours
  • more learning/research based, especially if you are at a university
  • less surgical experience
  • One more year at the bottom of the veterinary food chain- ego’s can take a beating
The pros of doing an internship in this situation are:
  • Depending on your field and the job market you may have a competitive advantage upon completion. Some practice owners prefer non-internship trained students, so they can be modled. Others prefer internship trained and find the associates more seasoned, stronger medically, and more efficient.
  • Keeps the door open for a specialty.
  • Guaranteed mentorship, although this will differ in style by program.
  • The first few months may be tougher, but you will edge up the learning curve faster than your peers. This is important to some people but in no way a requirement.
  • More time to explore specialized interests in veterinary medicine.
This debate rages on, as more students have been selecting internships post-graduation. The AVMA’s 2011 survey found that, of about 1,540 graduates who had accepted employment offers, 700 had accepted internships, according to JAVMA. The 2009 survey indicated that, of 1,525 graduates who had accepted a position, 600 had accepted internships.
Source: American Association of Veterinary Clinicians
Based on AVMA data, the average internship salary is $25,000 annually versus $65,000 mean starting salary for all veterinary employment types. 
In conclusion, there is no black and white answer for scenario 4. My best advice is to know yourself and do your research. Consider the financial and career implications in order to make the best decision.

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