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10 tips to rock your externships!

dvm360dvm360 December 2023
Volume 54
Issue 12
Pages: 42

Be prepared when immersing yourself in the veterinary clinic for the first time

The American Veterinary Medical Association requires an accredited veterinary technology program to include “practical veterinary experience.” This invaluable experience is usually termed an externship, internship, practicum, etc. These externships should be a minimum of 240 hours. Many programs have students complete the hours between 2 different sites. While at externships, students can expect to gain hands-on clinical experience while working to complete their Essential and Recommended Skills List for their program. For some students, this is the first time they have ever been in the back of a veterinary clinic, and it can be nerve-racking to enter a new environment with an already established hierarchy and culture. The following tips are not only for surviving externships but also for making the most of them.

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / stock.adobe.com

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / stock.adobe.com

1. Treat it like a real job

While many externships are unpaid, you should still treat your experience like a real job. That includes your personal appearance and professionalism. Make sure you are on time. Showcase your work ethic by not sitting around during slower times. Stay off your phone. You might not be a “real employee” (yet), but you should be acting like one.

2. Be teachable

This one is huge, and I have seen it firsthand in many students. If you come across as a know-it-all, people can often be reluctant to help you or teach you any of their knowledge. Remember that everyone knows something you don’t. Likewise, avoid coming across as overly sensitive or standoffish when receiving feedback or instruction because in either scenario, you will miss out. I also recommend avoiding discussions regarding title protection and any sense of superiority to assistants or on-the-job-training technicians. You will make enemies doing this.

3. Stay busy!

This is related to treating the experience like a real job. A handout written by Kathryn Primm, DVM, CVPM,1 outlines examples of tasks that can be done during downtime. You can also always ask your supervisor or other staff what you can do to best help them catch up on their work. Be sure to know where the cleaning supplies are and how and where to run laundry. I am an RVT, and I still clean. No one is above cleaning.

4. Ask questions

It’s simple: You will learn more if you ask questions. Just be mindful about certain questions in front of clients. Also, if someone is concentrating on a given task or during an active emergency, it might be more appropriate to save the question for later.

5. Remember that textbooks don’t always equate to real life

I was always told, “There are a thousand ways to skin a cat,” which may be the most gruesome saying ever. However, this idea can be applied to how different hospitals and clinicians are going to do similar things completely differently, and sometimes there are many right ways to do something. Do not quote the textbook and tell someone they are doing something wrong. Along with this, keep in mind the saying that “Not every dog reads the book,” meaning that sometimes the animal is not going to follow whatever criteria we might expect based on literature. The animals do not care about what literature says.

6. Prevent burnout from day 1

Almost every single person I know who has experienced burnout either had to take a break from the field or completely left veterinary medicine. I have experienced burnout myself; you will likely experience it too. To combat this, learn about burnout and burnout prevention strategies from the get-go. There are a plethora of resources out there on this topic. Prevention is going to look different for different people. To take care of these animals, we must first take care of ourselves.

7. Take notes and bring resources

Bring a pocket-sized notebook that fits in your scrub top pocket. Taking notes while someone is going over a task with you (eg, how to run bloodwork on the machines) will demonstrate to that person and the team you care and want to learn. No one should have to go over relatively simple concepts with you several times, so if you are repeatedly asking someone how to do something, write it down step-by-step.

8. Not everyone is going to be your best friend

There will be people and clinics you just don’t jibe or fit with. And that’s okay. There are some toxic cultures in this industry (and in all industries). If someone doesn’t like you, don’t take it personally. You can also help be the change for a more positive clinic culture. If you don’t like someone, so what? Play nice and work as a team regardless. Be respectful of differences. Don’t gossip.

9. Ultimately your success is up to you, not your site

This experience is what you make of it. If you feel like you aren’t getting to do or learn anything, ask, for example, “Hey, can I do [insert task] on a pet during their dental treatment?” There will be many situations where it is not feasible or logical for you to practice, but if you just sit around on your phone, no one is going to ask you for help or whether you want to learn or practice a skill.

10. Be confident!

It can be scary, but you got this! Be yourself. Many people who come into veterinary medicine are like-minded individuals (for the most part). Be kind, keep these tips in mind, and you should do great!


Primm K. Veterinary team handout: things to do in downtime. dvm360. June 14, 2019. Accessed August 2, 2023. https://www.dvm360.com/view/veterinary-team-handout-things-do-down-time

Maranda Carter, RVT, resides in the Wichita Greater Metropolitan Area in Kansas. She graduated from WSU Tech (formerly WATC) in 2018. She has experience in small animal general practice, exotic animal, as well as emergency and critical care. She also currently teaches as an adjunct instructor for the WSU Tech Veterinary Nursing Program.

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