Scale up or scale back to make your veterinary career sing


Tuning in to your unique balance is key to strike the right notes in practice and in life.

Do you remember “hell week” in veterinary school? So many difficult exams and not enough time to study for any of them properly. Each test covered a ton of material in great detail-so much that you might as well ditch your hopes of high achievement and just focus on survival. Well, I got to revisit that feeling recently.

I was visiting with students at the University of Pennsylvania, and they were discussing the three-test week that was upon them. As I listened, I remembered being in their shoes, and I was struck by how much smarter these students were than I was. Let me explain.

I asked one student which exam she expected to be the hardest, and she said they would probably be equally difficult. I said, “So I guess there's nothing to do but cram for them all.” At that point, she cracked a smile and said, “Um, well, they're not all worth the same.”

What followed was a revelation that might make veterinary school professors cringe. But it can make most of us in veterinary medicine significantly happier and more successful. 

The student walked me quickly through her logic.

“I have three exams. They're going to be equally difficult. Most people will study the same for all three, but they're not worth the same credit. Internal Medicine is an 11-credit course, Dermatology is an eight-credit course and Ophthalmology is five credits. If they were all 11 credits … Well, I wouldn't be here hanging out.”

Let's consider this for a moment. I think her assertion that most of us would approach this week by studying like crazy for all three exams is pretty accurate. As veterinarians, we have a strong tendency to be perfectionists. We do everything, and we do it well. At least that's our mantra.

I pulled out a pen and went to work on the nearest cocktail napkin. In the standard GPA calculation, an A is worth four grade points, a B is three, a C is two and a D is one grade point. If someone worked hard and got a B on all three exams, they would have a 3.0 GPA. I think this is the scenario most of us would gravitate towards.

What if, however, this student didn't work as hard at everything? What if she picked what mattered most, worked there and let something else go?

If a student used the same amount of effort but reallocated her study time to achieve an A in Internal Medicine, a B in Dermatology and a C in Ophthalmology, her GPA would be 3.25, a quarter-point higher than if she got straight Bs. If she worked to get an A in Internal Medicine, an A in Dermatology and only squeezed by with a D in Ophthalmology, her GPA would jump to 3.4! That's a B+ instead of the B average most of us would strive for.

Now please let me be clear. I'm not advocating playing grade games in veterinary school, consciously doing shoddy work or turning a blind eye on Ophthalmology. But let's take this analogy one step further: What if, instead of veterinary school, we considered this scenario in practice? And what if, instead of grade points, subjects were ranked by how much we enjoyed them?

Let's say that your enjoyment of internal medicine could be ranked as an 11 on the happiness scale-or the financial productivity scale, if you prefer. Dermatology would fall around an eight and Ophthalmology would land at a five. How would you structure the time in your career? Most of us charge into the clinic every day and make no effort to segment our time. We respond to what is presented to us. We work constantly and get a B average in our career.

Why do we approach our careers like this? Why don't we step back and figure out how to do more of the things in practice that make us happy and productive and less of the things that don't? If dentistry is your 11, what are you doing to devote more time to it? Are you making it a focal point when you talk with clients? Are you seeking new ways to educate pet owners on the value of the dental services you provide? Are you investing in focused, high-value dental education for yourself and your team? Are you investing in the equipment that will make your practice the obvious choice for pet dental care in your area?

If doing paperwork, managing staff or performing surgery ranks as a three in terms of your enjoyment or productivity, what are you doing to decrease the amount of time and energy you spend on these activities? Could someone else do them for you? Is there a new technology that will take some of these tasks off your plate? Could team training be the answer?

Too often we react to what practice-and life-gives us. And sure, sometimes, in the moment, we have to. But taking a big-picture view, could we do better than just putting our heads down and working away at our careers the way they are now? I believe we could all be happier and more successful if we spent a little time working on our careers-choosing what we want to do and don't want to do and then devising a plan to get closer to that reality.

We only get to go through life once. Let's get the highest grade possible in the things that really matter. 

Dr. Andrew Roark, MS, is an associate veterinarian, author and speaker. He practices at Cleveland Park Animal Hospital in Greenville, South Carolina, and is founder and managing director of veterinary consulting firm Tall Oaks Enterprises.

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