Starting a career in veterinary medicine

For new veterinary graduates, finding your niche in the profession can be challenging. Use these tips to help navigate your early career.

Early in my veterinary medical career, I had to reconcile my new role as a veterinarian with my simultaneous desire to explore other more integrative and innovative treatment options. I felt somehow set apart from my mainstream colleagues. I envisioned a medical metaphor — a mountainous horizon, with the peaks of the mountain range representing the traditional paradigm, and the sky in between holding other healing interventions. Though the mountain peaks and sky were distinctly different, by viewing them together you could grasp the full picture of what medicine could offer.

The original veterinary profession was founded on mentorship and apprenticeship. Years of on-the-job training, often from a younger age and with a committed teacher, guided a fledgling healer on the professional path to self-sufficiency. Since then, various economic, socio-cultural, and corporatization factors have evolved, sadly dashing that dream for countless aspiring young veterinarians. There is so much value in new and recent graduates: they have drive, passion, and have generally anticipated the harsh learning curve of real-world medicine “where the cases don’t read the book”.

Today, for a young veterinarian with no place to roost, it can be terrifying trying to find the right fit. But there are some career guideposts you can follow:

Maintain your network

Believe me when I say I had no idea what I was looking for, other than “a job”. The position I filled was never even advertised. During my senior year of veterinary school, a recent graduate emailed our class to recruit for an opening at her clinic, located where I was planning to move. While I was rejected for that position, she afterwards informed me that the owner of the clinic where she had done her preceptorship was seeking another associate. I went for an interview and got the position — all thanks to this person maintaining her network!

Even now, as I meet veterinarians at educational events, social functions, and conferences, I try to present my best self and keep their contacts, because ultimately we are a small and tight-knit tribe, and we are in the position to help each other out tremendously.

Trust your gut

The interview for my current job lasted almost three hours, with a somewhat unstructured yet easily-flowing conversation. I felt free to ask any questions I wanted, and felt like I was getting honest answers.

Incidentally, I later learned through the grapevine that the place where I had first applied was quite a toxic work environment. I had a bad gut feeling during that particular interview, but I was so desperate for a job at the time that I would have signed up anyway. When I look back on all the job interviews/initial job experiences I’ve had in my life, I can trace back a consistent “gut feeling” about my potential happiness there. Those feelings have generally proven to be accurate.

Maintain loyalty, commitment, and quality

I have been working at my current job for almost 12 years. I know a good thing when I have it. The hours are long, the workload can get crushing, frustrations and miscommunications can be found everywhere, but we are humans in the real world and this should hardly be surprising. Outside of that are many bonuses.

The feeling of a work family is strong. We have a diverse and engaged team — people with diverse prior lives, careers, and means. Despite the variety of backgrounds, they are all folks who decided they love working with animals for a living. All these people should be made to feel welcome in your chosen work family, too.

We hold our clients to a very high standard. It’s not easy to always stick to recommending the gold standard every time, when it feels as if we spend so many of our days “wheeling and dealing”, but it’s the right way to practice and we strive as a group to show clients the value of our services.

The staff is highly trained as we delegate as much as possible to technicians and assistants for increased clinic efficiency. We take the time to educate them with skills and procedures, and we hold them accountable.

We have a progressive administration that communicates well. I have watched my clinic evolve from a 2,300 sq ft strip mall unit to a 12,000 sq ft freestanding building. I have seen many managers come and go over the years as our practice identity and culture has evolved to incorporate growth. Change is very difficult, and over time we have assembled an incredible team running behind the scenes. Looping in a cloud-based communications platform was a crucial part of this evolution. The COVID-19 pandemic was peaking at the time of this writing, and our clinic’s size may not have survived as successfully without a coordinated effort from each individual staff member’s participation within this portal.

None of this would be possible without a practice owner with sound business sense and a talent for medicine and surgery alike, which my boss surely is. He is a rare combination of superhuman and human being who embodies what this profession was founded upon. This owner respects me, protects me, has observed my development, and trained me to protect myself from liability. He has been generous with benefits and has shown integrity in the community.

Don’t hang on to dead weight

One of the primary reasons I like my job is that we do not hang on to dead weight, whether it involves outright termination, documentation of policy violations, or dealing with people just not in step with the group. People choose this type of career to do great work; they are there because they want to be. General practice is not for everyone, and nor is emergency/critical care. Regardless, it is imperative to have an administration that will prevent toxic, disengaged employees from hanging on, and that will keep the liabilities out.

I have worked in practices that drag on for years staffed with the worst kind of people. I have heard countless stories of utter shock and horror from all my colleagues and classmates. I once worked in a place that caught an employee stealing controlled substances, and instead of firing and reporting them, the practice allowed them to stay on —  a huge red flag! Working for animal health and shouldering the humans attached to them is a hard enough job as it is. The rates of suicide and other mental health issues among veterinarians are top-priority issues. Veterinary employers who prioritize standards and integrity are essential.

Market yourself

“You know, acupuncture would help that.” “Please have your family contact me with any questions they may have about this modality.” “I would like to apply this great treatment to your pet.”

Yes, you will say the same things over and over again; yes, you will get some painfully polite declines; and yes, you won’t always get the results you want. But we do this every day in regular veterinary medicine anyhow. It’s just another tool in the kit, as we like to say. That doesn’t make it any less potent or applicable, so keep putting it out there!

Make your boss comfortable with it

Perhaps your boss heard one too many stories about that quack down the road. Perhaps they put their reputation on something that didn’t succeed. Perhaps they have lost associates to something they didn’t understand.

Even though my boss encouraged me to pursue acupuncture, I realized over the following few years that he was not as comfortable with it as he initially let on. He just trusted me enough to realize that if it was something I felt I needed to do, then he would let me do it.

Provide clear instructions to your associates about what makes a good referral case. Be patient, treat hospitalized cases, practice interpreting these complicated paradigms to the captive audience of your staff so that your clients understand it better when you talk with them. Document your successes; I have a case I like to show of a dog’s vertebral heart score reducing over time with just acupuncture. The fireworks will occur eventually for those who “need proof”, but over time your work even on basic cases will build up enough magic to open the eyes of your coworkers and clients.

The future of veterinary medicine

The entire veterinary industry is creeping closer to the table as One Health initiatives progress. Veterinary associations have been keen to keep the profession’s future in mind as we pass through a critical time of legislative, commercial, and educational growth. Hopefully, there will also come a point where the word “medicine” will conjure more in the minds of the general population than just drugs and hospitals.

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