Turning Your "Perfect" Job into a Long-Term Career
Congratulations, you have completed 4 years of veterinary school and have just been offered a position with the practice you’ve been dreaming about! You had a great working interview where you spent several days watching the practice in action, and you are convinced that this is the perfect job for you. The owner seemed eager to have you join the team, the associates were welcoming and friendly and the staff appeared to run like a well-oiled machine. Life is good and you are on the path to success!
While this position may truly be the one for you, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as “perfect.” Realizing this, the challenge is to ensure that what looks to be the right fit actually remains the right fit; inevitably there will be bumps in the road, and you will find that some things aren’t quite what they seemed to be from your initial assessment. Unfortunately, one of the most common ways that new associates deal with these discrepancies and “bumps” is to internalize their feelings, rather than try to manage the situation, communicate with the practice leaders and work to find resolutions. If this is how you choose to deal with concerns that arise, you will most likely find yourself unhappily pounding the pavement looking for a new position with only yourself to blame.
The latest statistics show that associate veterinarians change jobs 3–4 times in their first 5 years out of school1 but it doesn’t have to be that way if you understand the challenges ahead of you and cultivate the skills to handle the frustrations and potential disillusionment that may arise as you embark on your new career. With a little self-realization, and the ability to communicate with professionalism, there is no reason that your first job can’t be the last one you’ll ever have to find.
Mentorship & Expectations
Understandably, many new graduates are coming out of school without a lot of hands-on experience and are concerned that they will be left to sink or swim in their first position. The saying, “you will learn more in your first year of practice than in the rest of your career,” is not exaggerated and reveals the sometimes overwhelming wealth of information to which recent graduates are exposed. Therefore, it is critical to optimize this opportunity and understand the value of your first year on the job.
There is a dichotomy in today’s job market regarding the wants and needs of many new graduates versus those of practice owners. “Mentorship” has become a buzzword over the past few years. Graduating veterinarians are taught to ask for mentorship when interviewing, and practices will include it in job postings to attract candidates. Keep in mind, though, that mentorship can mean very different things depending on whether you are the job seeker or the potential employer. New graduates must be careful of making assumptions; if a job advertises mentorship, make sure to sit down and pin down the owner about what that means to them. Some practice owners think they are willing to mentor a new graduate, but often times they have not given consideration to the amount of time, training and coaching that this truly entails. While the graduate may feel pressured to get up to speed, owners are concerned about seeing a return on their investment and can become impatient for their new doctor to start bringing revenue into the practice.
There is nothing wrong with asking for and expecting some amount of mentorship from a new employer, but as a new associate you must be realistic about the amount of direct supervision you can expect. Veterinary practices can be very busy places, and if you need more help than you are getting, you must learn to speak up and ask for it. One of the best ways to reduce the odds of miscommunication surrounding mentorship is to sit down with the practice owner prior to your start date and come up with a written and signed contract regarding each party’s responsibilities to the other. You are then literally starting out on the same page. When things are put into writing, misunderstandings and/or miscommunications are no longer viable excuses, which forces both parties to be held accountable if they do not live up to their end of the agreement. Another excellent option is to suggest that the practice owner use a third party resource to facilitate and enhance the mentorship relationship and keep the lines of communication open. The American Animal Hospital Association offers mentorship guidelines and the new generation of consultants can often be of assistance.
Becoming a Servant Leader
While being the new employee is always tough, it is fair to say that being a new DVM and a new employee can be one of the most trying situations you will find yourself in during your professional career. Let’s face it, there is a good chance that your knowledge and abilities will be challenged, whether by another veterinarian, or more commonly by others in the practice who have a history of this type of behavior. While humility is a great personal quality, it is not the same as allowing yourself to be railroaded or made to feel that there is some magic initiation rite that you must figure out in order to become part of the team. The fact is that you do probably know less than they, but you have been hired as a doctor and you must behave like one at all times. This is where subscribing to the philosophy of servant leadership will serve you well throughout your career.
The term servant leadership was originally coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, and his writings and philosophy have led to a concept that has become the foundation for many well know authors and speakers. Unlike leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, servant leadership instead emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement.
Being a servant leader doesn’t just happen; it requires making a conscious decision to behave in a certain manner, not solely for your own personal gain, but for the organization as a whole and the individuals that make up the organization. While you may not see yourself yet as having a position of power, the key is to make the choice to behave like a leader from the very first day on the job. Start early by offering to take on a project or facilitate a program that will benefit the practice. Commit to getting as much education as you can so that you can implement new protocols, as well as increase your own productivity. A perfect example of this would be making a commitment to do spays and neuters at the local shelter on your days off. The lack of surgical experience most new graduates display, and the potential for lost income that results, is one of the greatest concerns among practice owners. Both by volunteering your time, and taking the initiative to increase your speed and comfort level in surgery, you are displaying a commitment to your profession and your practice.
Servant leaders behave in a certain way. They don’t fall prey to pettiness or gossip and don’t get involved in conflict among other employees. They maintain a positive outlook and treat everyone with equal respect. They offer to teach others, encourage their interests, and are not afraid to ask for assistance when needed. A servant leader is always appreciative of others, does not ignore or condone inappropriate behavior, and handles conflict both quickly and with professionalism. When conflict arises, a servant leader may offer to be a mediator but will always remain impartial unless it is in the best interest of the practice to do otherwise. By doing this from the outset, you will successfully avoid becoming “part of the problem” in the future; instead, as a result of your commitment to others and the health of the organization, you will be the one that others look to for solutions.
Whether you are just beginning your first position as an associate or have been practicing for years, a definitive understanding of mutual needs and expectations, along with a commitment to the servant leadership philosophy, will stand you in good stead. Not only does it demonstrate dedication to your own professional growth, the advancement of others, and the health of the practice, but it will greatly increase the odds that your “perfect” job becomes a long-term career.
1. Factors associated with veterinarians' career path choices in the early postgraduate period. Jelinski MD, Campbell JR, MacGregor MW, Watts JM. Can Vet J 50:943-948, 2009.
Stith Keiser is a former hospital administrator and founder of MyVeterinaryCareer.com. Jessica Goodman Lee is a certified veterinary practice manager and is the hospital administrator of Angel Veterinary Center in Flower Mound, Texas. She is also a veterinary specialist for MyVeterinaryCareer.