There are so many opportunities available to us vet students to dive into the zoo/wildlife fields. There are so many that you can’t do it all.
Before deciding on how to spend your valuable externship weeks or summer break, ask yourself these questions:
1. What career do I think I want to have?
Wildlife vet? You’re in luck because many of the wildlife externship opportunities are very hands-on. Try to get a wide variety of experience in the field: fish and game departments, wildlife rehab centers, population and disease management research centers. You’ll probably need to get a PhD or Masters because much of wildlife work has to do with populations and research—two things that we don’t get much training in with a typical veterinary curriculum. You might use externships as opportunities to check out school’s wildlife programs as well.
Zoo vet? It’s going to be a long road for you. Most new zoo vets looking for jobs are boarded by the American College of Zoological Medicine, which requires a residency in zoo medicine, 5 first-author publications, and passing the ACZM board exam. In order to be competitive for residencies, plan on completing an average of two internships after graduation (one small animal, one exotics) and on using externships to prepare yourself for residency. Get experience in wildlife, free-ranging captive populations, typical zoo management, aquatics, pathology, and exotic medicine. You would be wise to use externships as a chance to network with potential residency programs. Having a publication or two under your belt before applying to residency, so getting research experience in the summers after your 1st and 2nd years is helpful as well.
Companion Exotics Vet? If you’re interested in becoming an exotics faculty, there are a few ACZM residencies to take you there. This site won’t cover the cornucopia of private practice avian/exotics opportunities because those are just too many to mention. Check with the AEMC club, the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, and the Association of Avian Veterinarians for externship opportunities.
No clue? Great! Externships are a great way to try out different fields and careers. Think about careers or fields that interest you. If you are always doing things that interest you, you’ll always be in the right place. Here’s a few career opportunities for veterinarians in the zoo / wildlife fields: wildlife rehabilitation vet, disease monitoring, conservation medicine vet in the field, clinical zoo veterinarian, research or clinical faculty at a university, One Health researcher, exotic laboratory animal facility (think primate center, avian research colony, etc.), oiled wildlife response vet, private practitioner who takes wildlife cases, fish and wildlife department vet (i.e. bighorn population management), zoo reproduction specialist, wildlife conservation policymaker, and SO many more.
2. What kind of experience am I looking for?
Just checking out the field? Observational externships where you’ll have a mentor to answer your questions would be great. They don’t have to be more than 2-4 weeks if you’re just looking.
Hands-on training? Before committing to an externship, check to see how much hands-on experience and case responsibility you’ll be given. Be aware that many zoo externships are mostly observational.
Networking connections? Connections are very important in the zoo/wildlife fields. If you need to broaden your network, choose externships that are with “influential” and kind people. If you stick around for at least four weeks, hopefully you’ll have a nice letter of recommendation tucked under your belt.
Research publications? Summer is the perfect time to conduct a small research project. Respectfully talk with your research mentor ahead of time about any authorship expectations you may have. Many externships have you complete a small project or presentation while you’re there. A few institutions will let you write up a case report or conduct a retrospective study from their records if you are motivated and tell them ahead of time. Contact them to see if a more in depth project is possible.
3. How much time do I have?
A few weeks? Use short time spans to observe institutions you’re just checking out or reconnecting with vets you know.
A month or two? This is a great span of time to really gain experience because you have time to build up confidence and rapport with the staff. Externships 4 weeks or longer come with the expectation that they will be able to write a letter of recommendation for you.
A whole summer? This is a great amount of time to do research or really get a whole intensive training program. You’ll definitely come out with relationships and great letters of recommendation. Or kind of like a sampler appetizer, you can split up your summer amongst many opportunities. This is great if you are just trying to see what’s out there.
4. How much money can I spend?
Little to none? Don’t fret. You can still just get great opportunities. Choose local opportunities that you don’t have to fly to, those that provide housing, or those were you might be able to stay with family (time to get reconnected with your extended family!). Check out the tab to the right that breaks up externship opportunities by location.
As much as is necessary? That’s great. You can go on international training opportunities and bounce around the country no problem. Not many opportunities will be out of your reach based on finances. Whoever is funding you is so generous.