How veterinary associates can manage work-life balance


Keep the home fires burning and your ambitions alive in your new career

Most veterinarians never get involved in industry groups such as AAHA, AVMA, AAEP and AAFP. Consequently, they never reap the many rewards such involvement can bring. Through these groups, you can find career and business mentorship, develop as a leader, make connections to people who share your interests and goals, and keep informed of career opportunities both in practice and in industry. Organized medicine can be your platform to call attention to a problem and your soapbox to elicit the changes you believe our profession needs. It can be your creative outlet, your source of energy and encouragement in pursuit of your passions, your leverage for creating better educational opportunities and your medium for improving the way we all practice.

Finding work-life balance is tough. Associates don't have the flexibility in their schedules that practice owners do. (JULIA CHRISTE /GETTY IMAGES)

However, it's also important to note that organized medicine can suck up a lot of your time, bog your ambitions down in bureaucracy, put you in an airport every weekend you have off, and generally make you wonder why you ever volunteered to pick up extra work for free. Managing your involvement and participating on your own terms is thus critical to leveraging organized medicine to advance your career and increase your happiness in our profession. I have seen great success stories among associates who took the initiative to seek organizations and positions that most inspired them while largely avoiding these common drawbacks. These veterinarians are currently improving their own careers, reaping the rewards of connecting and surrounding themselves with people who share their interests, enjoying life outside of practice, and actively making veterinary medicine a better place for us all. You can benefit from organized medicine, too, by following these simple guidelines:

Grab the reins yourself

Don't wait for a position that requires a veterinarian with your exact talents. It's not likely to fall into your lap. Instead, find a contact who shares your interests and let him or her know you'd like to get involved. Every month, DVM Newsmagazine and present dozens of articles on different initiatives that others in our industry. The people named in these articles are great points of contact. Just Google their names along with the associated organization, and you are well on your way to having their email addresses.

Alternatively, you can often contact an organization, search for specific people to contact or look for volunteer opportunities directly through the organization's webpage. You can also approach groups at conferences through their convention exhibit hall booths and ask them whom to contact. Finally, don't ever overlook your own network of friends and connections. If you know someone involved in the organization that interests you, contact that person and ask for direction. Even if your friend doesn't know the right person, he or she probably knows someone who does.

Get specific about how you can help

Once you have made contact with a person who is working in your area of interest, ask, "Is there a specific project that I can help you with?" This phrase is vital because the answer will provide you with a goal. It also will help prevent frustration on both sides by setting clear expectations about your level of involvement. Getting specific helps you set an end point so you can avoid entering into an endless commitment. That way, you can evaluate both the topic and the organization to see if you have found the right fit before entering into a long-term relationship.

Do not get frustrated if an organization is not currently working on one of your personal passions. Let your contact there know your interests in case the organization pursues them in the future. Additionally, ask if your contact knows of any other organizations that are working on your topic of interest. Then move on to a different group to pursue what most excites you.

Set boundaries to protect life balance

When you reach out, be honest about how much time you are willing and able to commit to an organization. It is better to be honest and set reasonable expectations for your involvement than to over-commit and then quit or produce sub-par results because you simply don't have the time to do exceptional things. Points you might like to make at the very beginning include:

Travel constraints. If you cannot travel more than once or twice per year, make people aware of that at the beginning. Work-life balance is tough. Associates simply do not have the flexibility in their schedules that practice owners do, and using all your vacation days for organized medicine commitments is not fair to yourself or your family. Offer to telecommute or read minutes from meetings you can't attend. If the position requires someone who can travel more than you are able, then it's better for both parties for you to remove yourself from the running for this spot early on.

Schedule constraints. Let people know when you can be regularly available. If your day off is Tuesday and the committee you're assisting has conference calls on Thursdays, ask if the committee could move it to Tuesday. If not, ask to schedule it early or late in the day, or possibly on the weekends. Maybe the committee could schedule every second or third call on a weekend so that you and other associates can participate. Some people will balk at the idea of having calls on weekends, but if these groups want participation from young veterinarians, then they would be wise to consider it when asked by a willing participant. Don't expect everyone to leap to your schedule, but don't be afraid to ask if the group can make some changes.

Standing committees. If you have had positive experiences with a group and are passionate about the topic of a standing committee, then this may be the best position for you. Take it if it fits with your goals, but don't feel like this is the only way to involve yourself. If it doesn't fit your goals, don't be afraid to decline participation on a standing committee. Even if you can't commit for 2 to 3 years, you can still volunteer to support these committees and help them on an "as needed" basis.

When it comes to organized medicine, you get out what you put in. Don't miss the many chances to be involved, to be connected to your peers and to learn about an entirely different aspect of our profession.

If you reach out to one group or committee and it isn't a good fit, then find another one that works better for you. Just be clear about what your interests and passions are and about how you want to be involved. Start slow and ease in until you are doing as much as you want, but not any more. You will be more passionate, creative and productive if you take this approach. Organized medicine can be a wonderful addition to your career, and it will almost certainly be even more rewarding if you approach it on your own terms.

Dr. Roark is an associate veterinarian in Leesburg, Va.

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