Each May, thousands of new veterinarians graduate and join the profession in a variety of career paths. Those entering private practice directly after graduation may hear their more experienced colleagues say two things:
“You will learn more in your first year of practice than in four years of school,” and “You’ll really excel after about five years in practice.”
I found both of those statements to hold a large amount of truth after my own graduation. Looking back on my first five years in practice, I’ve found that the most important lessons I’ve learned are not about medicine or surgery, but about myself and how to thrive in a profession that is full of challenge and is constantly changing.
1. Confidence takes time to develope
Every new graduate will have a different amount of confidence, shaped by clinical experience and innate self–confidence. For some, the transition from student to doctor is especially jarring and may create feelings of imposter syndrome, or the feeling of being a fraud. Over time, young veterinarians will develop confidence in their clinical and communication skills and grow into the best doctors possible.
Much of how a new veterinarian’s confidence is perceived comes from the way they communicate with clients, colleagues and staff members. I was initially nervous to admit that I didn’t know the answer to a question or a case, but I quickly learned that most clients are very open to an honest answer. It is never wrong to ask for a second opinion.
Clients are generally receptive to statements such as, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll look it up and get back to you,” or “I would like to consult with one of my colleagues on this case.” Clients appreciate a doctor who is willing to take the time to get them an answer—whether they’ve been practicing for a month, a year or even a decade.
It is also essential for staff to remember that a lack of confidence is not the same as a lack of knowledge. New veterinarians may take longer to work-up their cases or may need to rely on colleagues or other resources frequently at the beginning of their career, and this is okay. These young veterinarians have a lot of information and are learning how to apply it as each case comes along. More often than not, they know what should be done or where to find the information and just want the reassurance of an experienced colleague.
Confidence will develop more quickly for those who are in a supportive clinic environment with strong mentorship and an understanding staff.
2. There is a spectrum of Care
One of the biggest challenges many veterinarians face daily is working within clients’ financial limitations. As compassionate veterinarians, we must find a way to care for our patients and clients within their means. Sometimes, economic euthanasia is the best option, but many times, there are numerous alternatives between this and the gold standard.
At graduation, I knew the gold standard for diagnosis and treatment of many diseases; however, for many clients, the traditional gold standard was not financially feasible. I was fortunate to begin my career in a clinic with a wide array of clientele and learned how to offer numerous options without judgment. As my clinical skills developed and my experience deepened, my comfort level with the various options grew.
When I first graduated, the fear of missing something serious like metabolic disease or a foreign body often led me to push for diagnostics in all cases presenting for vomiting. Now, while all my vomiting patients are still offered diagnostics, I find myself reaching for supportive care options first in cases with a mild, acute presentation and unremarkable physical examination.
When looking for a place to start a career, I encourage young veterinarians to decide where in the spectrum of care they would like to practice and find a clinic that supports that level of medicine and has a clientele that can afford it. With time, each veterinarian will develop their own comfort level within the spectrum of care.
3. Veterinary Medicine is a team sport and It may take Time to Find the Right Team
Many veterinary clinics call themselves a family, and many operate like one. Just like a family, some clinic teams are more functional than others, but a good team will come together and support each other when times are tough. I was lucky to find a great team right out of vet school, and I give them a large amount of credit in helping me become the veterinarian I am today.
While the characteristics of a good team will vary for every individual, great teams share some common traits:
They celebrate achievements and give credit where it is due to all members.
They provide support when cases don’t end well and help each other to learn from mistakes without judgment.
They create an overall positive working environment.
They allow each member to grow and develop into the best veterinarian, technician or receptionist that they can be.
After a year of practice, I left the team and clinic I loved to relocate closer to family, and it took a while to find another great fit. Leaving my second clinic was a difficult decision, but it allowed me to find my current superstar team, who I have no intention of leaving any time soon.
While it can be discouraging to work with a team that is a poor fit, young veterinarians should remember that they can move on. They will find a better fit. And it is not unusual for recent graduates to move between a few clinics before settling into a permanent position.
4. Setting Boundaries Isn’t Selfish
Setting boundaries is essential to thriving in this profession. While these boundaries will vary for each veterinarian, there are several types of boundaries that need to be established:
Separate work-life from home-life and learn to leave concerns about patients and case outcomes at the clinic to allow for complete focus on family, friends, hobbies and self outside of work.
Set expectations with the clinic in terms of working hours and how cases are handled when the primary clinician is out of the office.
Find a clinic that respects personal time away from the office for all employees.
Learn to say no to those who are looking for free veterinary advice outside of the office. It is certainly fine to help a family member or friend, but don’t be afraid to say no or advise them to call during office hours.
I, like many new veterinarians, found leaving my cases at the office to be a particularly difficult boundary to set. Shortly after graduation, I managed two cases of Feline Panleukopenia from the same household. I sent my patients to the local emergency clinic for continued care over the weekend, but I worried about them constantly. On Sunday, I called the emergency clinic to check in. The ER doctor was happy to give me an update, but before we hung up the phone, he gave me some advice. He told me to relax and enjoy my time away from the hospital, and that it was his job to worry about the patients on the weekend, because I needed time to recharge for the coming week. I still go back to this conversation when I’m having a particularly hard time leaving worries about a patient or client at the office.
5. Not Every Client Will Like You
There will always be clients who don’t like a certain veterinarian, sometimes because of the way a case ended and sometimes for no identifiable reason. It can be startling the first time a client makes a complaint, requests not to see you in the future or writes a negative review on social media. Sometimes, these relationships can be smoothed with time and open communication, but other times, it will ultimately be less stressful to not see that particular client again.
But those facts don’t make the initial insult hurt any less. My first boss assured me that I’d eventually have many more clients requesting me than those who were upset with me. Thankfully, that is now true. Sometimes, it is hard to remember the happy clients over the unhappy ones, but as the successful cases, thank you cards and gifts accumulate, it does get easier to find strength in the confidence of those clients who do appreciate the work we do.
This list only begins to scratch the surface of the things I wish I’d known at the beginning of my career. I hope that my new colleagues will remember these lessons as they begin their journey in this wild, wonderful profession that we call veterinary medicine and add their own insights to pass on in the future. +