Graduation daze: practical advice for life after veterinary school
It’s almost 20 years since I graduated from Glasgow University Veterinary School. A boozy lunch was followed by an eagerly chanted (if slightly slurred) Hippocratic oath. Then my band of brothers and sisters emerged from under the vast, gothic spires of Glasgow University having achieved our life’s objective. Fresh-faced but entirely qualified Omni-competent vets, or so we thought as we blinked and grinned into the camera lenses of a hundred proud sets of parents - so we thought.
Since that day, which seems like only a moment ago, a lot of water has flowed under a lot of bridges. There have been highs and lows, laughter and tears, joy and tragedy. In this article, I hope to share with you a few things that I wish someone had told me on that fresh spring day back in Glasgow.
Welcome, young vet, to the amazing world of veterinary medicine.
It’s good to talk
Fear of litigation will be one of your biggest worries. I would say I have been fortunate to avoid any form of legal action lodged against me, but fortune had only a small part to play. I can talk the hind legs off a donkey (one of the many reasons I did not think it wise to enter the equine side of our profession). But more importantly, I know how to listen to what others are saying. Being able to communicate clearly, openly and honestly with clients and colleagues is probably the single most important skill to have.
It will make life easier if you do the following things:
1. Be polite and courteous to all around you, even when they are being morons. 2. Listen more than you talk. You stand a fighting chance of learning something useful if you close your mouth and open your ears. 3. Unlearn all the jargon you squeezed into your brain at college, think like a vet, but talk like a real person, in plain English. It does not impress clients to hear big medical words; it confuses the heck out of them. 4. Provide estimates for any work you recommend. 5. Update clients when the plan changes before you spend their money. 6. Call when you say you will call. Try to keep your promises. 7. Write up your notes.
Stand tall like a lion (even when you feel terrified like a mouse)
Confidence is the magic ingredient that will help you through your day. Think about how you would feel if sitting on a plane ready for take-off; the pilot gave a very nervous pre-flight address. Now think about how it looks to a pet owner if you ask them to place their pet in your care, but you sound unsure of what you intend to do.
Having the bottle to sound convincing, even when you are feeling nervous, is a skill that you can practice and learn. The good news is that as you gain experience, you will naturally become more confident in your skills. Just remember, you are selling not just your skills, but also those of your team collectively. So have confidence in your team too.
Retain a sense of perspective. Confidence has a rather less appealing close friend called arrogance. You should avoid being arrogant at all costs. Not doing so will lead you astray and into trouble. Overstepping the limits of your skill is a dangerous game. Know your limits and ask for help before you find yourself out of your depth.
Do not fear mistakes - embrace them
You will screw stuff up. How could you not? You are at the very beginning of your career, and it takes time to get good at anything, let alone mastering a subject as diverse and complex and veterinary medicine.
Just accept this as a normal part of life. In fact, it’s a huge part of the learning process too. So rather than getting stuck in a rut of self-flagellation when you do something wrong, you should instead view the problems you encounter as opportunities to develop. Critically appraise what happened, ask what you might do differently next time, and if you are not being closely supervised or don’t have a direct mentor then ask someone senior for advice.
Knowing your limits will help to avoid making life-threatening/career ending errors, learning from your smaller ones will make you a better vet.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T – find out what it means to me….
This may be the hardest lesson of all. From the word go, we vets have been set aside from others; we’ve worked harder than most, we’re smarter than most and the world spins with us at its very core right?
We vets are just one part of a larger team that come together to solve the problems of our pets. Everyone in that team has equal value, though some will be paid far, far less than you to be there.
Respecting your colleagues and recognising that you couldn’t do your job without them is crucial to a happy, respectful workplace. Look after those about you, and they will look after you too. Quid pro quo.
Clients rock. If you don’t think so, then stop right here.
You may or may not have worked out by now, that veterinary medicine is as much about people as it is about animals.
Being a good vet and healing animals is about way more than clinical skills, you have to be able to bring the client and your team on the journey too.
Every successful vet I have met has developed the ability to communicate with and woo clients successfully. In any other industry, this would be called selling. But as we vets seem very much allergic to the word I’ll call it “relationship building”. If you want to fix pets, first learn how to talk to their owners properly.
Call on the power of your Veterinary Heroes
There are people I’ve met throughout my career that shaped my development; I call them my Veterinary Heroes! I bet you have some of your own. Take a second to think about them, what made them so awesome and more importantly, what did you learn from them that can help you now?
My style is most certainly a tapestry woven from things I saw and liked in the approach of others. Every day I thank my Veterinary Heroes for what they gave me – and sometimes, if I’m stuck, I still call them for advice too.
Choosing the right job for you
So how do you choose the right job? That’s the million-dollar question (or, more accurately, the circa £30,000 one).
The reality is that there is no formula for success here, but the same is true for you as a new grad as it is for puppies in their socialisation period. Your early years will set the tone for the rest of your career. The experiences you have and the people you learn from at this impressionable, vulnerable stage in your development will have a profound impact on how you act, behave and develop.
It is imperative therefore that you try to learn good habits, (bad ones – like peeing on the carpet - are a lot harder to break at a later date).
I would recommend assessing your first job based on the following criteria:
1. Does the practice share a common set of values (values are the core things that matter to a person or group), and are these values the same as your own. If for example, you want to work in a clinic that will fix animals above all else, but you end up working in a place where generating profit is all that matters then you are probably going to have an unhappy experience.
2. Will you be learning good habits? There’s a saying in golf that just practising doesn’t improve your game. This is because if you’re practising bad habits, then you’re only making bad habits worse. That’s why it is so important to choose a job where you learn good habits.
3. Select a practice where the team are passionate about work. Passionate people are usually happy people because they are getting to do what they like the most. Every vet clinic has a vibe, try to tap into this by hanging around for a while at your job interview to see how people interact.
4. Choose a job with a mentor or seek one out. I didn’t have a mentor as a graduate vet; the concept didn’t exist then. But I was fortunate to be surrounded by some awesome vets (all of whom are still very active and passionate about what they do).
Sadly, few practices will have the resources or awareness to provide a mentor, but finding one should be an imperative for you. I pay thousands of pounds each year on my coaches and mentors. It is money well spent and has helped me learn new skills, and look at life in different ways. I see it as an investment in my future, and I’d strongly advise you to seek out a mentor to help guide you through these formative months and years.
5. Money matters, but not that much. If you have two equal jobs and one pays more than the other then definitely take the cash. But don’t choose a job because of money alone. Instead, you should look to boost your skills and hence value to your new clinic. Money follows talent. So build your skills if you want to succeed.
Isolation is dangerous. Stay in touch with family, friends and most importantly your fellow new grads. Sharing your growing pains is a big help so make an effort to meet up and laugh about things over a few beers.
But also make the effort to start finding your place in your new community. Join a local club with a social scene, get out there and explore your new home.
A word on poor choices
If, despite your best efforts, you end up with a bad boss, toxic practice or lousy job, don’t hang around thinking things will get better. Working in a practice where it is culturally acceptable to bully, mistreat others or makes you feel like you don’t want to be a vet anymore is not OK. My advice is to leave, immediately. They are not worth you. Move on; life will improve. I promise you.
Life is a fun journey - but make a plan
When you chose to become a vet, you chose well. Now you have achieved your goal there can be a sense of emptiness, a question of “what now”?
So before you leap into the next part of your life, there is time for a short pause. A reflection on how well you have done to get to where you are now, but also to look forward and imagine what you want the next ten years to look like.
The options are virtually endless and exciting. That’s why it’s even more important to have a plan to help you make good decisions.
Whatever route you choose, I wish you well on your journey. Good luck and please, do me a favour? Don’t forget to have fun along the way. OK?
If you like what you read here and want to learn more lessons in veterinary life from Dr Dave, then you can purchase a copy of his new book, "So You're A Vet...Now What? which has been selling like hot cakes to rave reviews. Click here to buy a copy - we ship anywhere in the world.
This article was originally published in the Veterinary Times, 2012.