Thursday, March 10, 2011

How to find a job (maybe)

So, I had a request to do a post on how to select your first job out of veterinary school. It sounded like a breeze. After all - I have a great job. Then I sat down to write it, got incredibly long-winded, and realized I hadn't given that much good advice.

I'm going to post what I wrote, but I'm thinking this might not be my best post ever. Feel free to email or post specific questions, perhaps I'll be better at answering those. I'm happy to do this with the caveat that I am not an expert. True, I am extremely happy with where I wound up, but some of that might be attributable to luck. Who knows? With that said, this is my attempt to guide my fellow vet students into a job that is fulfilling. It is not an easy path, not everyone looks for the same attributes in a job, and these answers might not be right for everyone.

The most important thing for me was identifying exactly WHAT I needed in a practice to be happy. There are some things that are negotiable, and there are some things that are not. What matters most to you? Good medicine? Excellent support staff? Excellent pay? Good benefits? Long stretches of time off? Vacation time? High volume, low cost? Predominantly preventative health-oriented? Predominantly sick patients? ER v. GP?

Figuring those things out early on is crucial. I knew immediately upon graduating that finding a practice where I could do excellent medicine was the most important thing for me. Mentoring was not as important to me, as I'd been through a grueling internship and felt ready to start out as an ER veterinarian. I knew that going to a place that prescribes steroids and antibiotics without doing any diagnostics was not an acceptable compromise for me. Thus, I looked for practices with access to top-notch diagnostics (ultrasound, digital xray, full in-house bloodwork) and readily available and current therapies. Not necessarily because good practice isn't possible without these things, but because (to me), the presence of these diagnostics and treatment modalities indicates a willingness to stay current. As a result, I felt I could do the kind of medicine that I'd learned.

KNOW what kind of veterinarian you want to be. Figure out what things you can compromise on and what you cannot. Do you need an IV catheter for your spays and neuters? Do you want BP and SPO2 monitoring on all surgeries? Are multi-modal pain protocols important to you? Are you more laid-back and prefer to practice less invasive medicine - no catheters for neuters/spays? Less aggressive diagnostics and treatment? Find a practice that fits with YOUR take on veterinary medicine. Compatibility with your fellow doctors and their practicing methods is absolutely 100% vital. Every single friend of mine that currently is miserable in their job is miserable for one of 2 reasons: incompatibility with how medicine in that practice is done or financial compensation (which I discuss later).

Decide what kind of pace you can handle, and look for a practice that fits you. If you feel like 15 minute appointments are within your ability to handle, look for a high volume, fast-paced job. If you need mentoring, longer appointments, and more time to think, look for a practice that is interested in fostering a new graduate. The problem with this is that some places will say that they want to mentor a new graduate when really, they run a new grad mill. That leads directly to my next recommendation: the working interview.

A working interview for several days to a week is an absolute must. I would recommend doing it for more than 2 shifts. Everybody can be on their best behavior for 1 or 2 days. If you work in a practice for a week, the warts will show eventually. Red flags for me are running out of important inventory when it is needed, in-fighting and gossiping behavior between technicians, receptionists, and other veterinarians that is tolerated by management, a lack of camaraderie between veterinarians, and complaining clients. Appointments that are consistently too closely spaced, veterinarians that do not get lunch breaks due to overwhelming stress and responsibilities, and unhappy technicians are also signs that a practice is not a healthy environment.

Knowing turn-over and the whereabouts of previous veterinarians can be a good indicator of a work environment as well. If a place has a high veterinarian turn-over, that is usually an indication that there are problems. A good friend of mine works in a practice that has lost 5 vets in 5 years. She is miserable and now understands why the other veterinarians left. If you can talk to previous veterinarians, that's even better! They can tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly. Just because they don't work there anymore doesn't mean it's a bad job. Some people move on for family reasons, changing life circumstances, better salaries, retirement, and any other number of reasons. Contact previous veterinarians if possible and get the details on a practice.

Finding a salary with which you are happy is crucial, as well. We all know that leaving veterinary school, the majority of us have an enormous debt load. It just goes with the territory. Salaries can vary wildly. From the $40,000 range to upwards of $120,000/year, it is all possible for the new graduate. Pay is not everything - but it IS important. I personally derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from my earning power. On the converse, I have a friend who is brilliant, internship trained, and absolutely miserable that she only makes $65,000 annually. She took the job for reasons of family, husband-to-be, and location, but the fact that she is so under-valued in a practice that she basically runs really eats at her.

Other things a good practice should offer: membership to the state VMA, the AVMA, VIN, health insurance, licensing fees, some sort of savings plan/IRA/401K, a discount on pet care, annual CE (ranging from $1000-4000+/year), and a clear policy on maternity leave (whether paid/unpaid, time period, health insurance coverage during that period, etc).

Those are all good guidelines and served me well. There are however 2 really important things to remember.

First, give it time. No job is perfect initially. It can take a while to fit in and feel comfortable. It took me at least a year to really settle into this job and feel like part of the team, but it was worth the initial rough patch.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, give yourself permission to leave if the job isn't a good fit. I've had so many friends hate their first jobs, but they feel tied to them, obligated to their employers. Or they feel bad that they want to leave their first job, as it must constitute some failure on their part.

Dispense with this thinking. If a job isn't a good fit, you've done what you can to make it work, and you're not happy - move on. There are veterinary jobs all over the place. Going to school for 8 years, spending $100,000+ for that education, and sacrificing personal health and happiness for a DVM means that you should do what makes you happy. There is no martyrdom for staying in a job that you hate! I promised myself long ago that if I was ever truly miserable in a job and couldn't make it work, I was free to leave and do something else. Life is too short to be unhappy.

If you have specific questions about contract negotiation or a job - feel free to comment or email me at I'll be happy to try and help.


Holly said...

excellent points. I do not work in this field but once upon a time, there was a young woman who married a man that was unsuitable. He had never held a job, and he was the type that would depend on her to bring in the money. I said to a mutual friend...."her life is going to be difficult married to him." Friend said "they love each other" and I said, "they do, but it's much easier to stay in love when the bad things happen if you have enough to eat and a roof over your head". That holds true for jobs as well. There are going to be plenty of times when you can't seem to get anything right so you'd better have enough salary to help compensate for it. Money is not everything, but it sure makes the difficult things easier to handle. And co-workers can make or break you at work, bad ones can ruin the whole environment...good ones shoulder enough of the burden you don't mind going to work.

Anonymous said...

I think these are great points! Well done! Everyone's perspective will vary. I got very lucky in that my first job out is the same job I have 7 years later--still loving it.

Nicki said...

I stayed at my first job 5 years. It was a great first job and there are a lot of things I miss about it. But over time the owner was so difficult to be around I became miserable. I have a much lower stress job now but am working to bring the clinic up to date and modernize some ways of doing things. Priorities can change over time, espeically with personal circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Be very wary of practices where both the husband and wife work. Very wary indeed.

Also, look at non-compete clauses carefully. Two years and fifteen miles? Reasonable, and probably enforceable. Ten years and fifty miles? Not reasonable, but IMO you can't sign a contract knowing you plan to violate this clause. Address it before signing.

The Homeless Parrot said...

Anonymous: EXCELLENT advice, and I heartily agree. The first vet I worked for had hired his wife as the office manager. He made sexual comments towards me, and I think she was aware of them - as she HATED me. It was a miserable, miserable job. Granted, this was when I was 19 and a receptionist, but still - good advice.

Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I may still be quite a long time away from job-hunting, but it crosses my mind now and again and I found this full of helpful things to think about. I think we get some guidance about this sort of thing during third year of vet school, but it's things such as 'a contract should have x, y, and z' and 'this is how you negotiate salary.' Seeing this more personal point of view was great.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, it's great to hear a variety of opinions on what's important during the job search.

Now, what about selling yourself? What would YOU look for in a new grad, and what should we be pushing to our future employers once we find that perfect fit practice?