You’ve done it! Five, or even six, years of lectures, practicals, placements, projects, rotations, deadlines, exams, and, of course, a whole lotta fun and here you now find yourself. Graduating, finally, as a fully qualified vet. Hoorah! It is most certainly the end of a MASSIVE chapter in your life and the start of, some would argue, an even BIGGER one. Now I don’t profess to be the font of all wisdom or to be able to bestow upon you the ultimate guide to be awesome as a new vet – to claim to be so would be both horrendously arrogant and plain wrong – but what I can offer to do is pass on a few tips that I have learn’t – often the hard way – along the path from newbie vet to older, more grizzled vet with less hair than I started with.
- Take some time off after graduation/ finishing vet school – I remember loads of people in my year rushing out and starting work the very minute they got their paws on that degree certificate only to hear many of them state later that they wish they had taken more time off post-graduation to just enjoy, well, being free. Free from the stresses of studying, revising, being examined and assessed all of the time, free even from competing with one another, which admit it or not is exactly what we do throughout university – it’s in our ‘high achiever’ DNA. Save for taking a sabbatical between jobs, which many vets do after a few years, often to travel the world before ‘finally settling down’, this is one of THE best opportunities to just kick back, relax and take some stock of what it is you have actually achieved over the past half a decade. Granted it is getting more competitive in the veterinary job market and, true, loans do need to be paid off but we have not yet got to the tragic state where ALL the best jobs will have been snapped up immediately and student loans only actually start getting paid back once you are earning over a certain amount (other loans, such as professional development loans, may, it is fair to say, come with different repayment terms but generally speaking there isn’t as much of a pressing imperative for you to rush out and jump into the frays of work that you might imagine). So simply ENJOY!
- Be selective about your first job – this kind of follows on from tip number 1 but is something that too many new grads forget, or just don’t even consider. Jumping into the very first job that is offered to you may well get you practicing, and thus earning, faster BUT it is a really smart long term career move to ensure that you accept an offer from the very best job that you can attract. This doesn’t simply mean the highest paid. No. What it means is picking a practice, a team, a culture in which you will be more likely to thrive as a new grad and grow and develop into the top veterinary surgeon that you surely have the potential to be. Regardless of what you might feel, or believe, immediately post-graduation you are not the fully formed product. Nay! You are, or certainly should be, ‘day one competent.’ There is a reason that you are expected to complete the PDP (Professional Development Phase) after graduation and that is because there are still loads of things you will NOT be anywhere close to fully competent at doing. And thats ok. It’s normal. It’s expected. So, with this in mind I am sure we can agree that accepting a position to run a solo branch clinic as a fresh-faced newbie with little to no support or meaningful guidance from the older, more experienced vets, does not necessarily lead to a smooth learning curve towards year one competency. What it almost certainly does guarantee is the mother of all baptisms of fire and if you are the kind of person who feels that they learn best by jumping into the ring and just start swinging, or find the whole ‘Sink or Swim’ philosophy appealing then a sole-charge position may be the one you do want. My first job, whilst being part of a larger clinic and technically not 100% solo, did see me mostly based out in one of the group’s satellite clinics, where we had a more limited set of diagnostics tools, a piss-poor surgical set-up and probably THE worst X-ray machine and processor ever that made me actually hate any case that required an X-ray to be taken (that’s a lot of the standard caseload!). Whilst I coped, relying on what I did know, what I could pick up along the way from books, online and colleagues, I know now that I would have developed into a far more competent, well-rounded, omni-skilled vet – and, if truth be told, enjoy my job more – had I spent my really formative years working in a truly multi-vet environment, with high clinical standards, equipment and staff to meet them. Well run practices that think long-term recognise the true value in developing their new grads properly and invest time and resources into them. They will often reap the rewards down the line when that same new grad starts, as second nature, to work cases up properly, fully utilising a range of skills and knowledge to maximum effect for their clients, patients and the clinic. So it might take a little while to find this kind of practice but trust me, it is worth the wait. The alternative, which a lot of people opt for, whether they actually realise it at the time or not, is to take one of the first jobs offered, struggle for the first year and then quit, moving to another clinic, often a little more jaded about being a vet. And that is just sad. The other reason to really be selective is to ensure that you also choose somewhere where you’re going to enjoy living. Having a good salary doesn’t make up for living somewhere crap!
- Sign up to SPVS to get the annual veterinary salary survey, and READ IT – make sure you actually enter the veterinary job market knowing your market worth and start your professional life on the best footing you can. For many of us the very idea of negotiating our salary, including ‘perks’ or extras such as the level of CPD allowance, is more terrifying than a 3am GDV (only marginally, mind) and most new grads will simply not attempt it, instead just accepting what is offered. It is rare that you will take a salary cut as your career progresses, unless you change to a part-time position or change direction entirely thus dropping down several rungs on the old career ladder, so why not do yourself a favour and try and start a little higher up the greasy pole? Knowing what the market generally says you are worth paying via salary surveys is a good starting point in any job hunt. Whilst we’re on this topic it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to maybe use some of that post-graduation downtime to read some good books on subjects that might not seem immediately relevant but that will actually pay dividends many times over. Books on topics such as negotiation, sales and basic psychology are not only interesting reads in their own right but will equip you with some highly valuable soft skills that can be applied to job hunting and can make your transition into a working professional smoother and more productive.
- Be Confident of Your Worth – this naturally follows from the previous point but relates more to knowing why we charge what we do for our services and having the faith in your, and your profession’s, worth to avoid apologising to clients for it. It is a fact that you will be made to feel time and time again that you are a member of a “money-grabbing” profession who simply cares about profit over animal welfare. This charge, often spat at you when you are feeling at your lowest ebb, will come from clients who may well be frustrated, for whatever reason, legitimate or otherwise, but who have zero real appreciation for what it costs to provide top-class medical care and the fact that YOU are ridiculously highly trained and DESERVE to be paid reasonably for your skills, knowledge and service. I am as guilty as anyone of starting out in this game withering under these kinds of baseless attacks and finding myself nervously, awkwardly apologising for our prices being “expensive,” before feeling under pressure to cut costs, discount and generally acquiesce to unfair pressure. I have since developed a much tougher skin and fully appreciate both my worth and the worth of the profession, and of the wonderful service we provide. Business fact: without profit there is zero incentive to keep a business running, and veterinary clinics are no different. Having a building, medicines, surgical facilities, a skilled and dedicated team that is on hand round the clock to ensure animals, and their owners, have access to superb healthcare, does not happen by magic. Someone has to pay for it. If you believe that you should practice simply for the love of it then that is all well and good – go and work for a charity – but if you value the investment that you have made in your own training and the value of the service we provide then do NOT be bullied into apologising for what you do and what you charge to provide the service that you do. Of course some people will find the Gold Standard of care prohibitively expensive and may not have the luxury of insurance, or any other variation on the theme of not being able to meet the costs involved. We are, as a profession, sensitive to this fact and that is why as a professional you should be prepared to discuss all of the available options, including referral to charities, looking at less pricey (but often less effective) treatment options or, in the event of ‘treat or the animal suffers’ cases, offering euthanasia. As hard as it will be to remember this fact, it is NOT your fault or responsibility if the owner in question does not want to entertain any of the other options offered and still insists on the Gold Standard but without wanting to pay. You are not a money-grabber. You are not a bad person. You are not disinterested in animals. Quite the contrary – every one of us could have gone off and earned multiples of what we do in different industries and probably with less stress. You simply have confidence in your own worth and that of your profession. It is worth noting at this point that the vast majority of the clients you meet will appreciate and value the good work you do. That cannot and should not be understated.
- Be nice to nurses – well, you should be nice to everyone, obviously, but especially nurses as they very much hold the power to make your life as a vet, and especially a new grad, either awesomely awesome or miserable. They will know loads of super useful things way beyond the academics of being a vet, such as how to actually, safely hold a cat for you to examine, blood sample or the like without sustaining injury, and will be able to let you in on those little tips and tricks that are specific to the clinic in which you actually work and that can help to smooth the flow of the work-day. Aside from just being a decent person, polite, respectful and all that obvious stuff, you might find that mucking in and making the odd round of teas or actually cleaning out that shitty kennel that you happen to be the first person to see, rather than walk past and pretend you didn’t, will go a long way to ingratiating you as a genuine member of the team. In fact, just remembering the old adage “behave as you would want others to behave towards you” is a simple way of putting it.
- Develop interests/ a social life OUTSIDE of work – one of the biggest culture shocks to most new vets is the fact that we all go from being part of a pretty sizeable family, getting to see your mates every day, to often finding that you live miles away from both them and your family. Throw in the inevitable stresses that accompany starting work and the fact that you are now professionally responsible for what you do, plus lengthy working days and it is easy to see how one can quietly slip into a bit of a social rut or depressing cycle of ‘work-home-bed-work.’ Ensuring that you have an interest, hobby or social outlet outside of the clinic and that can serve as a healthy outlet for the stress et al of a vet’s working life will keep you sane, balanced and happy. Vets have an alarmingly high rate of depression, alcoholism (often started at vet school if my observations are any guide) and suicide, with the fact that the job can be quite isolating and lonely on a lot of occasions. Coupled with the sudden change in circumstance from being part of a big, social group of like-minded people to being out there in the world on your own can contribute to a deleterious cycle. Whether it be sport, or music, or art, or a whole host of other activities and interests, please do either continue to pursue them or develop one as soon as possible after moving to your new home.
- Treat yourself when you get your first salary payment – there is no sweeter feeling than being able to buy yourself something that you’ve always really wanted and that you can now afford. A big TV? A new car, perhaps? Or a holiday? Whatever it is that you will truly enjoy splurging on now that you can afford to enjoy doing so when you get your first payslip. It’s wonderful and screams out “I have arrived!” Savour the feeling of spending power and throw caution to the wind before you have to become all grown up by moving onto more responsible attitudes to your money.
- Save & Start a Pension – yes, yes, I know. I have actually typed those words and have instantly turned myself into a granddad in your eyes! Well, if thats the price I have to pay for offering really good advice then so be it. And it is awesome advice. Probably some of the best advice you will ever get. As much as you will not want to think about it the inescapable truth is that you will age and you will eventually want to do such things as retire, or maybe buy a house, or get married. You know, the kind of things that old people do but that you will end up doing too before you’ve had time to realise it. I am sure that you want to have a great standard of living when you finally stop working – I know I do – and that the likelihood of there even being such a thing as a state pension by the time we get there is pretty much zero. As such, you NEED to make provisions for your latter years and the truth is that the earlier you start the sooner you can begin to take advantage of one of the most powerful forces there is: COMPOUNDING. I won’t go into an in-depth definition of what compounding is here – you can Google it – but suffice to say that it is awesome and can be the difference between you eating baked beans everyday as a pensioner or living the good life. The key with compounding is time and so the earlier you start saving, and especially contributing to a pension scheme, then the more you will benefit from it. Establishing good habits – and we all know that saving IS a good habit – early can quickly lead to them becoming just that: habits. As in something we do without really giving it much thought. As in automatic. If you’re anything like me then without making a conscious, early decision to put aside a certain, fixed percentage of my salary automatically and regularly, I would probably just feel it burning a hole in my pocket and be the proud owner of even more Apple products than I already am! The fact that a set amount just disappears out of my account as soon as it lands in there and goes towards something with long-term benefit to me, means that I essentially do not even miss it because it was as if it was never really mine anyway. As such, my monthly budget is based on what I keep and it is amazing how I have adapted to this smaller amount quite happily. Having money saved regularly also means that should you wish to make a larger, discretionary spend, such as an awesome holiday, or maybe even need some ready cash in an emergency, it is already there courtesy of your good, early habits. That is incredibly liberating. So, start a regular savings plan as soon as you start earning and as much as it will feel like it is something that someone of your age has no place doing book an appointment to speak with a pensions advisor. (NB: I really, really wish we could change the word and use something other than ‘pension.’ It just has certain automatic connotations that I strongly believe serves to put young people off the very idea).
There are doubtless many more bits of advice that will see you sail smoothly from the life of an aspiring student to that of hard-working professional so feel free to suggest your own below. In the meantime, enjoy your success and good luck with whatever is next in this insane journey we call life.