5 Years as a Vet…now what?
As you approach five years into your career as a veterinarian, it’s time to step back and do some reflection. Take a few moments to carefully consider what you have learned, how your job has impacted your worldview, and how you’ve managed to balance your work responsibilities with social or family obligations.
You probably don’t need to be convinced of the importance of self-evaluation. After all, you have been pushing yourself since your pre-vet days. Even as a practicing veterinarian, you likely work hard to keep up with evolving technology and techniques. You may put in long and irregular hours, either at the clinic or at home with your nose in reference books and veterinary journals, all in the continued quest for personal and professional development.
Five years into your career, you’ve earned your chops and gained confidence in your work. Now it’s time to take a step back and take a big-picture view. What’s ahead for your career? What are your goals in your personal life? Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Applaud Your Strengths
Self-reflection can be tricky because we all tend to focus on our shortcomings and failures. You have probably lost several patients by this point in your career… and you may even have lost your patience with coworkers or clients a few times. Many veterinarians are perfectionists by nature, which only increases our tendency to dwell on our failures instead of our successes.
The first step in honestly evaluating your career is to acknowledge your victories. Set aside some time to write out answers to the following prompts, while reflecting on your veterinary experience to this point.
- List five medical or surgical cases that made you feel proud of your skills, training, and professionalism.
- List five situations in which you galvanized your staff or inspired a colleague, nurse, or tech to rally after a work conflict or disheartening case.
- List five skills you have gained since graduating from veterinary school. These skills could be medical in nature, such as understanding how to diagnose and manage a complex condition, or they could include mastering a new surgery or medical procedure.
Now, keep this list accessible. You may want to refer to it as you complete the following exercises, as a reminder of how much you have already accomplished.
Identify Your Weaknesses
Every veterinarian has opportunities for improvement. Perhaps you don’t feel like your surgical skills are up to par, or you freeze when faced with a difficult ECG analysis. Maybe you become frustrated with your support staff or clients more often than you would like.
Think about which workplace situations send you over the edge, then ask yourself what you would need to do to be calm and confident in those scenarios. Are you making active efforts to address your weaknesses and improve your workplace performance? If not, what would those efforts look like?
Maybe you have berated yourself for not staying up-to-date on new medications that could potentially help your patients. Joining an online veterinary discussion group or making a commitment to reading journals regularly could help.
Perhaps you’ve been so focused on the well-being of your patients that you’ve neglected that of your colleagues, staff, and yourself. Look for books or continuing education courses that will help you promote well-being among your staff.
Or, maybe you’ve found that your family has stopped expecting you at holiday gatherings, school events, or the dinner table. In this case, you may need to take a hard look at your prioritization and time management skills.
We all have room for improvement. If you don’t have an area in which you feel “deficient,” think of an area in which you would like to develop new expertise. For example, five years out of school is a point when many general practice veterinarians consider pursuing certification with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. Maybe you’re interested in acupuncture or another specialized field. Consider what additional skills or training would benefit both you and your patients.
Don’t despair if your list of desired improvements feels brutally long. It’s when you can’t think of any problem areas that the alarm is raised…because that suggests that you are not evaluating yourself honestly.
Assess Your Mental Wellness
Veterinary medicine is fraught with stress. We’re constantly exposing ourselves to trauma, and in these high-stress situations, we’re in charge. We’re responsible for monitoring our staff for signs of stress and we have to keep our clients calm in high-stress situations.
Have you been taking care of your mental health? A 2020 study of veterinarians in the United States showed that work stress and concerns about keeping up with financial aid payments are even more evident in the newest generation of veterinary professionals — those age 45 and younger — than their older colleagues. Women, in particular, experience more stress than their male counterparts.
It’s imperative that you seek therapy and utilize other mental health resources of you feel that work stress or the effects of trauma are negatively impacting your life. The American Veterinary Medical Association maintains a list of resources on veterinary wellbeing, but you may also need to seek help through other sources. In addition to caring for yourself, it’s important to encourage your colleagues to do the same.
Career Development: Balancing Professional and Personal Life
Now that you have reviewed your strengths, outlined your opportunities for improvement, and taken stock of your mental wellness, it’s time to create a plan for the future. This plan needs to not only take into account your professional goals, but also your goals and desires for your personal life.
Do you need to make any career adjustments to maintain a balance between healthy social, familial, and work activities? If you’re like many veterinarians at this stage in your career, you might be a parent or thinking of becoming one. If you’re in a serious relationship, you’ve had a chance to figure out if your current routine is beneficial to a mutually-satisfactory partnership. No matter your age or marital status, it’s important to make sure that you aren’t neglecting your friends, healthy social interactions, or the personal interests that allow you to decompress from workday stress.
“A life outside the practice—family time, socialization, travel, exercise—is ‘absolutely essential,’ researchers say; it correlates highly with well-being.” —Kristi Reimer Fender, dvm360
Five years out of veterinary school is also a good time to decide if you should remain in your current clinic environment or pursue other endeavors. You may have already changed jobs once or twice since graduation, but you should now be in a better position to select a position that best meets your individual professional and personal needs.
Are you interested in specialization? The hours, stress, and financial compensation might be better for your lifestyle if you can handle the challenges that accompany a residency and the board certification process.
If human clients are more aggravating than you can handle, you might want to pursue research or other valuable, behind-the-scenes areas of veterinary science.
If you’ve fallen in love with medical technology and the educational side of veterinary medicine, you could pursue a career training veterinary professionals on the use of new medications, procedures, or laboratory equipment.
Maybe your clinic’s culture isn’t a good fit for you. This doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t get along with your co-workers; it might mean that your schedule doesn’t meet your needs or that the clientele doesn’t allow you to pursue the workups you recommend. You may want to find a more suitable clinic that’s a better fit.
If you’d rather work outdoors and don’t mind irregular hours and lots of road time, a large animal practice might be the change you’re looking for.
Take some time to think about the directions that your career could go, determining which direction is the most appealing for both your professional and personal development.
You’ve endured vet school and your first five years of veterinary practice. From here on out, you’re calling the shots, but it can still be helpful to consult others for guidance. Sit down with trusted colleagues, close friends, your partner, and your family. Engage them in frank discussions about your prospects, options, and objectives. Make sure you’re ready to listen to their input, even if it’s sometimes painful to hear.
Whether you choose to stay on in your current position or seek greener pastures, your success is ultimately in your own hands—and it’s attainable through frequent self-evaluation, realistic goal-setting, and mindful self-care.
- The Challenges of Perfectionism – 8 August 2017. https://www.dvm360.com/view/the-challenge-of-perfectionism As viewed on 18 November 2021.
- American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. https://abvp.com/veterinary-certification/ As viewed on 18 November 2021.
- Merck Veterinary Well-Being Study – January 2020. https://www.merck-animal-health-usa.com/offload-downloads/veterinary-wellbeing-study As viewed on 18 November 2021.
- AVMA Resources: Wellbeing. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing As viewed on 18 November 2021.
- Merck study: Veterinarians have normal mental health but poor well-being – 16 February 2018. https://www.dvm360.com/view/merck-study-veterinarians-have-normal-mental-health-poor-well-being As viewed on 18 November 2021.
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