You Look Too Young to Be a Doctor

Many veterinary colleges are graduating a new class of doctors this month. I thought I’d relate a few stories about learning to be a doctor and how to find your way among all the new challenges these graduates will soon face.

Something that most newly graduated veterinarians will encounter is that client that turns to you and says, “Wow, you look too young to be a doctor!” Now with COVID curbside protocols, that may not come up as soon when you aren’t seeing your clients face-to-face, but once normality resumes, you need to be ready for that question.

First of all, you AREN’T too young to be a doctor. You put the years into your schooling and you graduated. You are ready for this. I was the youngest person in my class and graduated veterinary school at twenty-three. I skipped a grade in elementary school, finished my undergraduate studies in three years, and got into vet school on my first try. So unless you cut another year out somewhere, you aren’t going to be any younger than I was when I was thrown into a challenging internship.

I was asked, “Aren’t you too young to be a doctor?” or some variation on this ALL THE TIME. Usually I looked away, muttered something embarrassing, and went awkwardly back to what I had been trying to say.

After a few years in emergency practice, I realized that my age was rarely commented upon by clients, despite still being in my mid-twenties. Outside of work, I was occasionally asked what high school I went to (hah!). I wondered what had changed, and the best explanation that I can come up with is that I had developed a subtle confidence in how I spoke with clients. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be something you can fake with clients as a new grad. You’re going to have to give your communication skills some time to develop.

So what is the alternative?

Think about this ahead of time and have your comebacks ready. If anyone comments on my age now, my go-to is to thank them for the compliment and move on with what I was saying. That likely won’t be as helpful if you aren’t already a seasoned veteran in the field.

I like to think about comments like this from the client’s perspective. Why are they saying this? Are they expressing a lack of confidence in your knowledge or skills? Are they impressed that you are so accomplished at your age? Do you remind them of their own son, niece, or grandchild?

If you know that you look young, you can certainly start by acknowledging that to the client. From there, you could take an honest approach, or maybe a more sarcastic one, depending on your personality and the vibe you are getting from the client.

For the honest approach, saying something like, “Yes, I graduated six months ago and I’m so thankful to be able to finally start helping pets.” Turn any possible doubts from the client into positive thoughts by showing your enthusiasm.

You could take this a step further. “The senior docs here have been wonderful in making sure that I always have someone to talk to about my cases.”

If you choose sarcasm, “Yes, I just finished kindergarten last week,” may suffice.

Lastly, I wanted to relate a story about one case I saw as an intern. I don’t remember the details about the dog, but it was old and very sick. I had no idea what was wrong with it. But I spoke with the clients, recommended some initial diagnostics, and figured that I could think more about it later or ask one of the specialists for advice. I told them that I’d call them later that day with an update.

As I was walking them out, they stopped me in the hallway.

“Doc, we just wanted to tell you that you look very young to be a doctor.”

(Cue self-doubt and anxiety here).

“But, we’re so happy to have you as Max’s doctor today. Our niece just graduated from medical school and you remind us so much of her. So we just wanted to let you know that we’re confident to have Max under your care today. Thank you for helping him.”

So to all the new doctors out there, there will be obstacles out there, but with a little thought you can be ready for this one.

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