Veterinary medicine is one of those professions where students might learn as much about the job while visiting a practice as they can while attending class. Bovine Veterinarian magazine asked beef and dairy veterinarians and veterinary students about their experiences hosting students and being hosted as students. What follows are some do’s and don’ts they listed as important when entering into mentoring/externship relationships, from both the veterinarian and student perspective.


When offering externship opportunities

  • Be honest with yourself about how much time you have to devote. If you’re too busy to teach and answer questions, you’re too busy to host students.
  • State clearly the type of student you are willing to host (i.e., any year of veterinary school, seniors only, bovine only, etc.), so that you won’t waste your time or the students’ if they don’t fit the right profile. Be open to students of any year in veterinary school if they have the desire and enthusiasm for bovine practice.
  • Do not make your application process too formal or cumbersome. Help the student with relevant paperwork, if needed, to assure that finances (grants from organizations, scholarships, etc.) and housing arrangements are in order.
  • Invite the student (or prospective students) to tour the facilities and learn about your practice and philosophy before the externship.
  • Don’t discount “city kids” as many have a true interest in and make wonderful bovine veterinarians.
  • Talk to someone at the veterinary school about the student before you commit to an externship and make sure it’s a good fit.
  • If you don’t offer housing, offer to help find affordable housing for the time period the student .will be visiting.
  • Provide a list of local fitness centers, softball leagues, movie theaters and local events, especially if the student is far from home. Show him/her there are a lot of activities to participate in, even in a rural area.
  • Before the student arrives, send him/her:   information on dress code, laundry facilities, care of housing (if provided); a list of any supplies or particular items he/she might want to bring; any topics or a reading list he/she might want to brush up on; and client or case profiles to give an idea of what he/she will experience.
  • Check with your practice’s insurance carrier about your responsibilities in the event of an accident.

At the practice

  • Pay for as many expenses as you can, as most students have a large debt load.
  • If you do offer housing, though it does not have to be fancy, make it safe, clean and comfortable for the length of the student’s stay.
  • When possible, house the student at your house, share your family life and talk to them about rural or small-town living.
  • Offer the “basics for life” — food and Internet. E-mail is the way students communicate today, and it will keep them in contact with family and friends.
  • Put a note in the local newspaper announcing that you have a student at your practice and tell a little about him or her.
  • Communicate effectively to the student your expectations, and make sure others at the practice are on the same page.
  • Don’t leave your student alone in the practice to receive patients.
  • Keep in mind the student’s skill level. Students just beginning clinics are less prepared than students nearing graduation. Adjust your expectations depending on their level of knowledge.
  • Go over safety protocols for handling needles, dangerous equipment and handling (or not handling) certain pharmaceutical products.
  • Assume students don’t know how to handle livestock — teach them to handle livestock safely and the way you would like them to do it.
  • Make sure students are familiar with chute safety and operation, or don’t have them handle chute operations if you (or they) are unsure.
  • Take them on as many calls as you can, including middle-of-the-night calls.
  • Students are not cheap clinic labor. Don’t leave them to-do lists like truck washing and cleaning up. That doesn’t mean they can’t help stock the truck and learn about inventories, but don’t abuse their time with too many simple tasks.
  • Act and dress professionally to set a good example.
  • Put together a confidentiality form for the student to sign so that you can openly discuss client situations. Communicate to clients that all information will be handled confidentially (See confidentiality tip).
  • Take an interest in their knowledge base — make sure to ask the students what the schools are teaching about procedures today.
  • Discuss the joys and frustrations of your practice as with a colleague, but don’t make it a negative experience.
  • Encourage the students to share their long-term career aspirations with you.
  • If it’s a multi-doctor practice, take turns inviting the student(s) over for a meal away from the practice and talk about cases or what it’s like to be a rural/bovine veterinarian.

When visiting farms

  • Meet with students 15 minutes early so you can prepare them for what will happen on the client visit.
  • Tell clients ahead of time that a student will be visiting and ask how much clients are willing to allow students to do. Talking to clients ahead of time can also involve them in the mentoring process, which many are willing to participate in.
  • Introduce the veterinary student to your clients, let them know where the student is from and why he/she is there, and involve them in the farm call to the degree that you can. Express confidence in the student’s abilities.
  • Compliment the student in front of the producer when he/she does something well and give constructive criticism in the truck when you leave the farm.
  • If you work hourly and letting a student help may slow you down (i.e., processing calves), eat that extra time that you would have charged the client. Explain to clients that you are investing in the future of the profession.
  • Go out of your way to find opportunities for students to get hands-on experience, whether it’s treating diarrhea calves, helping with necropsies or even spaying/neutering farm cats.
  • If the client is comfortable (and time permits), let students examine animals and give their thoughts. Guide them through an exam and ask them questions.
  • Engage the client and student by excusing yourself “to make a call” and let the client give a farm tour or talk about the farm to the student.
  • If possible, have the student shadow a client or herdsperson for a day. This can be especially important for students with little livestock background.
  • Do not give students just the “grunt work” such as working chutes during processing or at a sale barn — they need real learning experiences.
  • Include the student in disease investigation and surgery.
  • Show students who are unfamiliar with a farm where a restroom is if they need it.
  • Use road time to quiz students on the case you are leaving or the next one you’ll see. Have “rounds” on topics or cases that were seen. Discuss with the students why certain decisions might be made by clients — whether it’s an economic factor, tradition, or they aren’t comfortable with something new or different.

Make time for fun

  • Take the student to a livestock show, a fair or high-end cattle sale. If possible, take him/her to a local veterinary conference or meeting.
  • Check out other local attractions, especially if the student is not from the area.
  • Give the student some free time (especially if he/she is staying at your home) to explore on his/her own or give him/her space to spend quiet time alone.


Finding a practice

  • Talk to as many people as you can and find out which practices provide quality mentoring experiences.
  • Don’t think you can’t work with food animals if you didn’t grow up around them. Be open to listening and learning from those with more experience.
  • Be honest with yourself — if you aren’t very interested in food animal medicine, don’t waste the practitioner’s and your time by accepting a bovine-focused externship.
  • Don’t go on a “fishing expedition” — have goals in mind and areas of interest you want to explore when you
    are at the practice and communicate those.
  • Don’t procrastinate — don’t wait two weeks before summer vacation to look for externships, as the better opportunities may already be taken.
  • Find out when the busy times of the year are for practices — you don’t want to be sitting doing nothing during a slow time of the season.
  • Plan for variety of experiences — go to a different type of practice (feedlot vs. cow-calf) or a different part of the country than what you have already been to.
  • Have a goal for the externship and state it ahead of time, but be flexible.
  • Send the practice your resume and what you are interested in so the practitioners can get to know you better.
  • Depending on your level of experience with livestock, read up on livestock handling. Livestock handling expert Bud Williams has references and training materials at www.budwilliams

At the practice

  • If you want to do something, ask. Sometimes veterinarians forget to offer the opportunity or don’t realize you would like to do a particular task.
  • Dress for success. Be neat, clean and professional. You are representing yourself, your university, and when
    on-farm, the practice.
  • Anticipate needing several changes of clothes/coveralls/boots depending on how many farm calls you may have. Ask how many sets of coveralls you should take.
  • Follow the protocol of the practice regarding clothing and hygiene practices.
  • The practice’s employees are not your housekeepers. Clean up after yourself, including putting dirty clothes/boots/trash where they belong.
  • Punctuality is key. Be on time and ready to go when you get to the practice each day. That includes eating a good breakfast, as lunch may be a long time off.
  • Though many veterinarians will pick up your meals, always have some cash.
  • You may feel that you have the latest veterinary education, but don’t turn your nose at the opportunity to do things like practicing suturing techniques on a euthanized animal when offered.
  • Though you’re not just cheap labor, be willing to pitch in for everything from cleaning stalls/kennels or assisting in surgery to talking with clients.
  • To the veterinarians, clients and others at the practice (including family members), be polite, thoughtful, considerate and professional.
  • * When your stay is over, make sure to send a thank you note to the veterinarian, the practice employees and family members who have hosted you.

When visiting farms

  • Shake every client’s hand when introduced and thank them upon leaving.
  • Talk and ask a lot of questions to the veterinarian(s) and the clients.
  • When unsure of a procedure, or if you are having trouble, ask for help.
  • Do not go wandering off and poking around the farm by yourself unless you’ve been given permission to do so.
  • Observe how the veterinarian and client communicate with each other. Do not ignore the client (or his employees/family) by focusing only on the veterinarian.   

Students: What do you want out of a mentor?

Most students are required to have some sort of externship before graduating, but beyond the requirement, students need to think about what they really want out of a mentoring relationship.

Samuel M. Fassig, DVM, MA, Boise, Idaho, says students should ask themselves these questions when entering into a mentoring relationship, and writing them down will help clarify them:

  • What do I want to learn as a result of this mentoring relationship?
  • How am I going to learn it? What responsibilities am I, the student, willing to take to insure personal learning takes place?
  • How will I know if I learned it?
  • How will I demonstrate to my peers that I learned it?
  • What qualities do I want in a mentor (e.g., advanced training, guidance, support, challenge, sponsorship, friendship, etc.)?
  • What do I bring to a mentoring relationship?
  • Do I have the time and energy to commit to such a relationship?
  • What is the best communication style I can use to help me ensure communication with my mentor is taking place? How do I share information? How do I know I am being heard?
  • Do others say I listen well?  For the learner, good listening skills are essential.

Young students and technicians

Not all who visit your practice will be veterinary students — some may be in junior high or high school, or may be veterinary technicians. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, Purdue University, says when he was in practice, over 15 years they had about 60 young kids shadow veterinarians at the practice. He notes that four of those are now veterinarians.  Hilton gives some suggestions about hosting younger and/or local kids:

  • We had a rule that kids had to be at least 13 years of age and have all As and Bs in school before we would let them ride with us. We were not babysitters, and it emphasized that veterinary medicine was a challenging career path.
  • We took anyone with an interest if they fit the age criteria and had good grades. Most of our job shadowers were “city kids.”
  • Spend a lot of time discussing safety and always make sure they are not in harm’s way.
  • Talk to kids about confidentiality, especially if they are local kids and may know the clients. Discuss what they can and cannot share with their family and others when they get home.


Another area where veterinarians have the opportunity to help the food animal profession is in hosting veterinary technicians for externships. “You may be surprised how much they can do for you,” Hilton says. Hilton suggests calling the veterinary technician school ahead of time and discussing with its program director what the students will learn during their experience.