January 2023

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Dr. Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT talks about whether you should do a small animal rotating internship… or any internship at all!

By Dr. Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT
Director of Medicine / CEO, VETgirl

Should I do a small animal rotating internship?

OK, full disclosure, I never thought I was going to be an emergency care care specialist and have letters behind my name. And I DEFINITELY never thought that I’d be double-boarded (DACVECC, DABT). But if you ever think that you want to do a residency, you almost always have to do an internship FIRST (with most traditional residencies).

Now, a little background about me. I was the classic 7-year-old girl… I always wanted to be a small animal veterinarian. However, after years of training and traipsing in manure during my Animal Sciences classes at Virginia Tech, I decided to attempt mixed-animal practice… after all, I wanted the James Herriot life.

After learning that it’s really hard to be good at mixed animal (there’s A LOT to know!) and that it would be a physical toil on my 5’4″ self pulling calves in the middle of winter, I switched back to dogs and cats as my main mojo my 3rd year at Cornell. And that’s when I decided to pursued a small animal rotating internship post-graduation at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, one of the oldest, non-profit, specialty clinics in the world.

So, why did I choose to do a small animal internship?

It wasn’t for the pay. Back in 1997, I got paid a whopping $17,500 to work 100-hours a week while living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States (Boston, MA).  It wasn’t for the long, long hours, as my internship year was – by far – the hardest, most grueling year of my life.

It was for the case load. And the experience. And the additional training. And the expertise. And the long-term care.

Because my internship single handedly made me the clinician that I am today. It gave me 5+ years experience in one short year. It taught me how to be an amazing, hyper-efficient clinician. It taught me how to learn from my mistakes and bounce back. It taught me how to (quickly) ask for help from colleagues and veterinary specialists. It taught me how to learn from way-more-experienced veterinary technicians. It made me appreciate “nutritional consults” from Dunkin Donuts, thanks to my internmates (The late night doctor traditionally brought in Dunkin Donuts for the overnight doctor). It taught me that clients can try to sue you, and hence, it taught me to document my medical records better. It taught me that street medicine can work. It taught me to work with financial limitations. It helped me master procedures (e.g., spays, neuters, bite wounds, urethral obstructions, gastric lavage, thoracocentesis, abdominocentesis, etc.). It grew my knowledge base. It taught me to grow wings and fly. It FORCED me to fly.

Angell Veterinary Class 1997 1998

Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, intern class 1997-1998

What bad things did an internship do to me?

It made me burnt out. So burnt out that I didn’t apply for a residency the following year. It made me cry at times. It made me lose 5-10 pounds (which I normally wouldn’t complain about) from sheer exhaustion. It made me eat leftover food (from fellow staff) that was questionably old (7 days is still ok if you broke, yo.). It made me drink “pop” (what we midwesterns call soda) for a year. It made me wake up at 5 am every morning so I could stop by the corner convenience store, pick up 2 large coffees, and meet my internmate to soap 15-20 cases before I had to start calling all my pet owners at 7am and before I started rounds at 7:30am. It made me cuss a lot more. It made me bitter and cynical. It made me superstitious (I would only  wear a certain outfit and ear rings on my overnights). It made me dislike some internmates (who were slow receiving “on the list” or had a lot of “booms” come back through the ER – what we called the “boomerang effect.”). It made me paycheck to paycheck. It made me a life-long fast walker (“Hurry up, extern. You’re walking too slow!”).

But, I never met an Angell intern who ever regretted doing an internship.

Because we all came out better on the other side.

So, when veterinary students ask me if they should do an internship or not, I don’t say YES. I say HELLYA. [Formerly during my cuss-filled internship, it wouldn’t be an “F (*! YEY!”)]. Ask any specialist out there, and the majority highly, highly recommend doing an internship.


Because honestly, there are some bad vets out there. And there are some mediocre ones. And one of the biggest “I’m-going-to-eat-you-alive-and-crush-your-professional-dreams” as a budding veterinarian? Lack of confidence. And a GOOD internship gives you that.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some bad internship programs out there. Ones that only use you for cheap labor. So, how do you pick?

The exact advice I got from my favorite surgeon at Cornell when it came to picking internships? (Thank you, Dr. Harvey!) Pick the ones on the East, the ones on the west, a few smattering around the South and midwest, but most importantly, the ones that are really well established. That have had an ongoing internship for the past 30+ years. That provide a lot of internmates for you to bounce ideas off of. That give you 50-75% ER shifts (YES, because that’s how you get your confidence! If you can rock at ER, you can do anything!). That have lots of specialists that you can bounce ideas off of.

What you don’t need? A repeat year of your 4th year, where you’re being babysat and coddled, without any primary responsibility. You want primary case responsibility. You want to do all the surgeries. You want to do all the sedations. You want to write all those treatment sheets and estimates and client communications. You want to grow your knowledge base and your confidence. You want to learn to be efficient and how to do the “spiel.”

And that, my friends, is what a good, solid internship program does.

If you’re thinking about it, I really encourage talking to interns and residents and specialists out there. And I really encourage hearing from the other side and talking to well established veterinarians out there too. And ER vets. When in doubt, you can even watch our “Should I do an internship?” webinars HERE and HERE too (and oldie, but a goodie!), if you’re a VETgirl ELITE member (which, btw, is FREE to veterinary students and vet tech students, so why aren’t you taking advantage of it!). Plus, check this LINK HERE to find lots of advice on internships and residencies in veterinary medicine, at least from the bias of this VETgirl.

You can read more about this in a few weeks in my blog “How do I maximize my chances of getting a veterinary internship.” Likewise, you’ll want to check back in a few MORE weeks on my blog “Why you shouldn’t go into ER after you graduate veterinary school.” Because you know what? I really want you to be set up for success in your career, while loving it at the same time.


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