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Veterinary Medical Center clinician discusses treatment options with client.

While animals may be the center of their attention, vet med students at the U will increasingly be looked to for communication skills and business acumen.

Raising the bar: vet school screens students for people skills, business savvy

Vet school screens applicants for people skills, business savvy

By Jamie Proulx

With only 90 spots available for 650 applicants, the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) is one of the most competitive colleges at the University of Minnesota. And CVM recently raised the bar another notch. This fall's incoming class went through an application process unlike any other in the college's history, or in any vet school in the country. Not only were students quizzed on their grades and their GRE score, they were personally interviewed one at a time to assess their communication skills and business savvy using a new tool called the PDI behavioral interview guide.

"We have not used interviews for the past 25 to 30 years, and we were afraid we had become too narrow in focusing on the academic side of our applicants," says Laura Molgaard, associate dean for academic and student affairs at CVM. "Having a 4.0 alone doesn't make you the best candidate for this program so we decided to add this interview. We believed it was the best way to discover the applicants' non-technical competencies--such as the ability to communicate and build relationships with others."

In almost every case, veterinarians will deal with at least two living beings at a time in their work: the pet and the pet's owner. And like human doctors, vets may need to deliver sensitive news to the family. Looking into the eyes of a 10-year-old boy and his mother while telling them their puppy is ill is a difficult task. It makes one's ability to work with people a critical skill.

Molgaard and her colleagues began looking at the application process a few years ago with a consortium of veterinary schools, which included Iowa State University and the University of Wisconsin, in light of the negative trends found in veterinary medicine such as lagging career success, shrinking salaries, and low job satisfaction. It was becoming evident (and widely reported through studies) that applicants lacking certain interpersonal skills and business sense were at a disadvantage to succeed.

Looking into the eyes of a 10-year-old boy and his mother while telling them their puppy is ill is a difficult task. It makes one's ability to work with people a critical skill.

So why does it matter if a future veterinarian can make small talk and run a business meeting? It is more important than you think. For example, more than 50 percent of veterinarians own their own practice, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. This route can be lucrative, yet many graduates aren't prepared for the managerial tasks required of them, which can lead to low productivity, low income, and failure.

And encouraging a stronger and more viable field for veterinarians is crucial for the general population in light of the work they do in research labs on public health issues. Seventy-five percent of all new diseases come from animals, which drives the Center for Disease Control to employ more than 60 veterinarians.

The long-term growth and viability of the field of veterinary medicine has been an issue for years, and in 1998 the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues was formed. It commissioned the Brakke Study to look at veterinarians' economic future and found that the lack of strong management practices, financial expertise, and basic presentation has a negative impact on salary growth.

"Right now the average salary for a starting veterinarian is around $50,000," Molgaard says. "This is dramatically behind other similarly educated professionals. Some experts believe the problem lies in the lack of business knowledge our graduates have, but it's too complicated of an issue to point to one thing. These studies were one of the drivers in updating our application process and we're hoping it's a good first step to helping vet med graduates succeed."

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