Find a mentor, shape your veterinary career

March 4, 2021
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

Learn how to connect with a mentor who can help you navigate the early years of your career as a veterinarian.

Making the transition from veterinary student to practicing clinician is uniquely significant. There is no longer a teacher assigned to guide you through the nuances of a disease, and cases are no longer hypothetical or reviewed in the safety of a classroom. But beginning a veterinary career does not have to be a solitary experience. Finding a senior veterinary professional to serve as a mentor and provide guidance can be a notable factor in the happiness and success you achieve.

At the Fetch dvm360® virtual conference last week, Kate Boatright, VMD, and Tannetjé Crocker, DVM, were immediately forthcoming about how having mentors has helped shape their careers. As veterinary students, novice professionals, and even multiple years into their respective careers, both doctors have relied on the stewardship and support of mentors to navigate common challenges that veterinarians face.

“As soon as you get the DVM or VMD behind your name, you are in a leadership role and that can be overwhelming,” said Crocker, who practices at Northwest Animal Hospital and the Animal Emergency Hospital of North Texas, both in Grapevine.

Armed with first-hand experience as both mentors and mentees, Boatright and Crocker hoped to motivate new and incoming veterinarians. They were eager to share advice about how to establish—and make the most of—a mentor relationship.

Mentorship is important

Creating a professional relationship with a mentor can help alleviate many of the stresses new veterinarians face:

  • Imposter syndrome. Moving into the role of diagnosing patients and communicating with clients leaves many veterinarians doubting their abilities and feeling like a fraud. “A good mentor is going to be able to build your confidence and help you express your knowledge,” said Boatright, an associate veterinarian, freelance speaker, and author in western Pennsylvania.
  • Feeling disconnected. Having a mentor to offer support is extremely beneficial, she explained. “Yes, it is a teaching relationship, but the keyword there is relationship. It is someone who is going to be there to support you through the difficult days.”
  • Lack of confidence. A mentor will help develop the areas you are not as skilled in and push you outside your comfort zone. “Right now, with students and young graduates entering the profession not getting as much hands-on experience because of COVID-19, the fear of surgeries and medical cases that are a little more in-depth is higher,” Crocker said. This is all the more reason to seek guidance from a more senior colleague or professor.
  • Little experience with soft skills. When it comes to honing soft skills, nothing compares to hands-on experience. “A great mentor is going to let you observe them when they are having those tough conservations or will walk through those scenarios with you,” Crocker said.

Overcoming the COVID-19 complication

The added stress of the pandemic on veterinary students is not going unnoticed. Although they are daunting, virtual classrooms, a lack of hands-on experience, and canceled externships are not career enders. Instead, mentorship is more important than ever, Crocker said. “You will get through this and be more resilient in the long run. Just know you are not alone and that the COVID complication is real. We veterinarians are very aware of it and want to help.”

Boatright encouraged attendees to make the most of any opportunity that comes their way:

  • Externships: Even if your externship was canceled, do not be afraid to reach out to the clinicians with whom you were supposed to work and start a virtual mentor relationship. “Don’t let it be a completely missed opportunity because of COVID-19,” Boatright advised.
  • Shadowing: Many students have to forfeit clinical rotations, but Boatright encouraged attendees to take advantage of shadowing opportunities. “Ask the clinicians questions,” she said. “Most of us love sharing stores.”
  • Online opportunities: As the pandemic has progressed, universities, associations, and conference hosts have become increasingly creative. “There are some really cool networking opportunities out there, both through social media and virtual conferences,” Boatright reminded attendees.

Above all, remember that everyone is dealing with the effects of the pandemic. You are not alone in feeling frustrated, unprepared, or confused about what the next steps should be.

Build your network

Establishing a relationship with a potential mentor while still in veterinary school is ideal, Crocker said. Not sure where to start? The doctors suggested looking into these 3 avenues:

  • Make connections with professors and clinicians. The experts available to you through your college or university can help you explore different areas of practice or research that pique your interest.
  • Attend conferences. Whether in-person or virtual, conferences are an excellent platform for connecting with potential mentors. Network with fellow attendees, listen to what the speakers are most passionate about, and make an effort to connect after the conference ends.
  • Join clubs and associations for students. The Veterinary Business Management Association and Student American Veterinary Medical Association are 2 great places to start. Crocker advised using the associations’ connections to follow up with speakers who visit your school or people involved in wet labs. “Those people are taking extra time out from what is usually a very busy schedule, and that means they are invested in you as students,” she said.

Networking tips and tricks

Be brave

Do not be afraid to put yourself out there—and you might have to put yourself out there a few times. “If you send an email and don’t get a response, then move on and send the next email,” Crocker said. “It is not a rejection; it just means it wasn’t the right mentor or situation for you.”

Be prepared

Do a little homework before emailing a clinician who guest-lectured at your school or connecting with a speaker at a conference. Find out what specific field they are in, what their research has been about, or what some of their general interests are. Being prepared shows the other person that you care.

Have a question prepared, too, Crocker advised. “Don’t expect to say ‘Here is who I am, now what can you do for me?’ Instead, come to people wanting to know something specific about their career path. That is how you will connect initially, and then organically that relationship can grow over time.”

Be social and be you

When you are at a networking event, remember that the other attendees want to meet new people, too. Don’t be afraid to take the initiative and start a conversation. You have to be authentic,” Boatright said. “People know if you are not being yourself.”

Creating and practicing an elevator pitch about yourself can make introductions more impactful. “Be able to communicate who you are, what your interests are, and what your goals are, even if you don’t have it all figured out yet,” Crocker said.

Now find your mentor!

“We really think the right mentor is out there for you,” Crocker said. You have to be open to potential opportunities that come your way. “I think mentorship could be one of the keys to success in this profession as a whole.”

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.