Online Vet Tech Program Advice: Finding A Clinical Mentor

All online vet tech programs require some sort of clinical mentorship that allows you to get hands-on experience. After all, I doubt a vet wants to hire someone who has done nothing but read words off a screen for 2 years, no matter how much of their textbooks they’ve memorized. I was wondering how to go about finding a vet or credentialed vet tech to mentor you, and decided to reach out for some advice. Dr. David Wright is the Program Director at San Juan College’s vet tech distance learning program. He was kind enough to provide me with this great advice via e-mail:

First of all, we do not keep a list of potential Off Campus Clinical Instruction (OCCI) facilities. That is because of confidentiality reasons as well as the unpredictable employment situations in veterinary practices. There are no practices that simply take our students and train them as a part of our clinical instruction requirements. For students that are not currently employed in a practice, you will need to find and obtain employment in a practice, and then begin working on your classes after you have made sure that you and your OCCI site are going to be a good fit for each other. In a few cases students and preceptors may just not get along very well and you want to insure that you will have a positive and productive practice site before you begin your Tier Two classes.  Usually the best place to start is with your regular veterinarian, or with practices that are near where you live. If a prospective preceptor has questions about the program, feel free to have them call the program and talk to a staff member. We are always glad to talk with prospective preceptors. Even if we were able to place you in a practice to meet our clinical instruction requirements, there is no guarantee that it would be a productive and suitable place for you. That is something that is always best left for each person to determine and decide for themselves.

There are several places to start looking for an Off Campus Clinical Instruction (OCCI) site and a preceptor(s). Many students start with the regular veterinarian or with practices close to where they live. You can usually find information about positions in the newspaper or on your state veterinary association web site. In some cases humane societies, shelters, or rescue groups facilities can serve as an OCCI site. Almost all private practices will have the needed equipment and facilities to meet all the OCCI requirements ( but it is rare that a non-practice facility will meet all the requirements. As you look at potential OCCI sites you should keep that in mind.

Don’t approach potential preceptors as a student looking for a site to learn, but instead, as a potential employee looking for a staff position. Even kennel or receptionist positions are a good way to get started and get your foot in the door. Our best and most successful students start out as employees who then transition to being students. By doing that you can show your willingness to be a part of the practice and you can insure that you will have a good working relationship with your preceptor and others in the practice. The last thing that you want is to start your classes with a new preceptor and then discover that you will not have a good and satisfactory relationship. It really is best to start as an employee and then transition to a student later on. It is always best to be honest, so when you are interviewed for a position, be open about the fact that you want to find a stable and professional practice and then pursue your degree through an AVMA accredited veterinary technology program. Let any potential employers know that you are looking for a long term employment relationship. Emphasize that you want to contribute to the success of the practice for years to come. Make sure that they understand that you’re not just there to get your degree and then you plan to move on. Most folks are really looking for long term committed employees. Let them know that you are willing to start at the bottom and work your way up. Be willing to clean cages, walk dogs, and answer the phones. Be willing to do what it takes to contribute to the practice.

When you interview or talk to someone, emphasize your personal and professional qualities. Employers are looking for honest, hard working, and dedicated people. Personal qualities are usually the most important factor in getting hired. Dress like a professional and act like a professional. Employers may say that they are looking for experience, but in reality they are usually looking for bright, hard working, dedicated, honest, persistent people. Don’t quit trying if you get a no. Don’t quit after one hundred no’s. Veterinary medicine is a profession for the dedicated and persistent. Resiliency and a strong positive upbeat attitude is what it takes to be successful in all areas of the profession. Let potential employers know why you want to work for them specifically and let them know that you plan to work on your degree through San Juan. If any of the practices have any questions or want more information I can send them or you a Preceptor Handbook, or I am always glad to talk to prospective preceptors on the phone.

Remember also that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. If it doesn’t seem or feel right just walk away. Finding the right practice to work in is like finding your true love. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs along the way until you find the perfect place for you. Some people find the perfect practice for them right away and for some others it takes time. Just because the first place isn’t right, doesn’t mean that the right place isn’t out there if you keep looking and don’t lose your patience.

Also keep in mind that preceptors do not have to be veterinarians. Credentialed technicians can also serve as preceptors and often make the best ones we have. Technicians may have more time to devote to students and more interest in teaching and supervising your clinical work. Also, you can have as many preceptors as there are people qualified to serve as preceptors. We commonly have students with three or more preceptors. This helps lighten the load on any one person in the practice and also gives students lots of input and instruction from several people in the practice.

Often students ask us about serving as volunteers in practices or other facilities. We recommend that students be employed in practices, rather than serving as volunteers for three main reasons. First of all it is illegal in many states for individuals to work as volunteers. That may violate several states employment rules and regulations. It can be seen as using free labor to displace paid workers. The second reason is liability. If you were to be injured on the job as a volunteer you might not quality for workers compensation and that might put you and your practice in a very awkward legal and liability situation. Some practices will not allow volunteers for just this reason. Thirdly, it will take, on an average, about 8 to 10 hours per week to complete the clinical assignments in the Tier 2, 3 and 4 classes if you are taking two or three classes per term which is about the average for most students. Paid employees frankly get more attention and commitment from preceptors than do volunteers. Also, traditional practices are more likely to meet the Off Campus Clinical Instruction (OCCI) criteria that the AVMA has set for all programs. Sometimes shelters and rescue facilities will not have the required facilities and equipment to meet those criteria. Students may serve as volunteers or unpaid employees, but generally paid employees in private practices have the best academic and clinical experiences.

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