It is almost time to go to work. You have been in school for almost eight years and this year, you likely will receive your veterinary degree and become a licensed veterinarian. Naturally you will be eager to find a job. After all, you have devoted most of your time and effort toward reaching this goal. Just as you have spent a lot of time studying the various subjects in the veterinary curriculum, you will be well served by spending additional time in seeking your first job as a veterinarian.
Each of you will have invested well more than $250,000 in opportunity costs—tuition and missed salaries—for your education, so it is important that you find a position that you can begin to recover your investment. Equally important, it is critical that you find a position that will be rewarding and satisfying to you. There are many factors that you should consider when seeking your first veterinary position. These factors include quality of practice, growth opportunities, type of practice, geographic location, and community benefits and services. These factors are reviewed in this article.
What quality of medicine do you want to practice?
A desire that frequently is expressed on the resumes of new graduates is that they want to work in a clinic or hospital where high-quality medicine and surgery is practiced. This is a laudable objective. It might be the most important factor in selecting your first job.
"I recommend that you carefully pick your first jobs based on your perception of the quality of medicine practiced there and the positive tone of the owners, associate veterinarians and other staff members," notes Dr. Ross Clark, author and veterinary entrepreneur. "Your level of financial success, as well as the quality of medicine you practice, is very likely to be a mirror image of the first practice."
Adding to Clark's advice, there is empirical evidence that one of the major reasons that new graduates leave their first position is due to dissatisfaction with the quality of medicine practiced. If you truly want to practice quality veterinary medicine, then it behooves you to investigate each of your job opportunities carefully. Unless you are unusually astute, it is unlikely you can do this in a short interview.
- Determining quality medicine. How can you determine the quality of medicine practiced? Although quality can mean different things to different people, there are a number of factors you can explore. You might be able to learn a lot from a telephone call, and it is essential that you spend time in the practice. Interact with the doctors and the staff. Listen carefully and ask pertinent questions. It is also important to use your senses. Is the facility clean and well organized? Is it free of odors? Does the practice have adequate equipment to provide quality services? Does the practice have the appropriate doctor/staff ratio? What is the quality of the radiographs? How thorough are the doctors in their diagnostic work ups? What quality-control procedures are practiced? What is the attitude of the doctors toward one another, staff, clients and patients? Is there evidence of in-house continuing education? Does the practice use modern sterile technique for surgeries? Are modern drugs and treatments in use? Is perioperative analgesia used? Are modern business practices applied and evidenced? Ask to see the employee handbook. Is there a practice policy and procedures manual? Can you determine the mission of the practice? Is it stated anywhere in the practice? How does the practice handle legal and regulatory matters? Does the practice's philosophy on cosmetic surgery and genetic defects match with yours?
From this list of questions, it should be clear that there are many factors that can affect the quality of medicine practiced. If you want to practice high-quality medicine and surgery, you can improve your chances of job satisfaction and success by obtaining appropriate answers to the questions presented above.
What are the opportunities for personal, professional and financial growth?
- Personal growth. The opportunity to grow in your first job might be as important as the quality of medicine practiced. Obviously, if one doesn't grow, then stagnation and obsolescence result. This is often experienced as frustration, dissatisfaction and a lack of self-fulfillment. To avoid disappointment, it is important to ask yourself the following personal questions when seeking your first job. Am I looking for something to do? Or, am I seeking to do something? You might believe that because of financial obligations that you must look for something to do. In other words, you might need to get a job to pay some bills and to get on with life. Although this might be a necessity for a while, working as a veterinarian because it is something to do can become boring and non-rewarding. In general, you will achieve much greater job satisfaction and gratification if you are engaged in doing something worthwhile and personally meaningful.
Many individuals enter veterinary medicine because they want to make a difference. They want to enhance the quality of life of the animals they work with and provide peace of mind to the owners. Many veterinarians not only make a difference in the lives of their clients and animals, they also make major contributions to colleagues, staff, their community and organized veterinary medicine. If you want to make a difference, then it is important to explore the opportunities for personal growth when seeking a new job.
- Professional growth. Similarly, you must consider the opportunities for professional growth. You will enter practice with considerable current knowledge. Unfortunately much of this knowledge becomes outdated within a few years. It is extremely beneficial therefore to go to work in a cooperative environment in which colleagues are willing to mentor you and provide constructive criticism on how to manage medical and surgical cases. It also is helpful if the doctors and staff engage in self and cooperative learning. Does the practice review new medical management procedures? Do they routinely go over new treatment regimens with doctors and staff? Does the practice contain an up-to-date library, and do they subscribe to current online veterinary literature services? Will you be encouraged and supported to participate in external continuing education activities? Is the practice willing to send you to workshops to learn new techniques that can be brought back to the practice? Do the doctors engage in networking with other practitioners and experts in the field? Although it is possible to grow professionally by doing everything alone, it is a lot more fun and stimulating to be in a practice where everyone enjoys growing professionally.
- Financial growth. Should your first job provide the opportunity for financial growth? Each of you might have different reasons on why you entered the veterinary profession and frequently financial reward is not one of them. The reality is, however, that you must exhibit fiscal responsibility if you and your families are to survive. Thus, your first job and any succeeding job should provide you with a certain basic standard of living, a reasonable quality of life and the opportunity to grow financially. All too frequently, young graduates take positions and do not explore the long-term potential for financial growth.
One of the first questions to explore in this area is whether the position you are applying for is a new one or whether you are replacing someone who left the position. (Why did the person leave?) If you are entering a newly created position, you need to perform a financial feasibility analysis. That is, is there enough potential revenue to support your position? If the prospective employer does not have specific information to answer your question, then you can obtain some estimates on your own. A crude estimate can be obtained by determining the gross community income (GCI) within a certain radius of the practice. The GCI is calculated by multiplying the number of households by the median family income within the practice radius selected. This information can be obtained from the latest U.S. census data and from state or county economic data. You then divide the GCI by the number of practicing veterinarians present within the same geographic area. Generally there should be $70 million to $80 million GCI per veterinarian in order for the veterinarian to have a reasonable income. If the GCI exceeds this range, then there might be good potential for financial growth. If the GCI is considerably below this range for the number of veterinarians present, then one would have to think long and hard before accepting a new position in the community. There are other formulas that can be applied to approximate the potential revenue in a practice. These frequently depend on market survey data. Although the cost of doing these surveys can be expensive, you might be able to find out local human and animal demographic information by contacting the chamber of commerce, the regional small business development center or the economic development commission. Frequently, representatives of pet food companies will have similar information that can aid you in assessing revenue potential of an area.
- Personal compensation. Another obvious topic that you should discuss with your prospective employer is the amount and form of compensation that you will receive. It is of fundamental importance that you determine if the job you are considering can support you and your family.
You must know precisely how much you will need to support yourself and your family. This means that you must have a budget prepared in which you outline your potential income against all of your known and estimated expenses. If you don't have a budget, then you might be surprised and very disappointed when you discover that you are not earning enough to cover your expenses. This can be devastating if you enter your first job with considerable debt. It is imperative that you be prepared to negotiate your salary and benefits in order to protect yourself. This may mean sharing personal financial information with your prospective employer. Once they see your situation, they may be willing to work with you in improving your financial situation.
- Salary increases. Once you agree to a basic compensation package, you need to explore whether there will be opportunities for salary increases. If so, how frequently and how are these determined? Does the practice have any type of incentive or bonus program to reward good performance? Are there opportunities to participate in practice retirement plans? If the practice has no system in place, you could work for a long period at the same salary. Would this be fair to you and your family? If you are meeting performance expectations, then you deserve to have periodic salary adjustments. If you consistently exceed what is expected of you, then you should receive some type of additional compensation.
What type of practice do you want?
- Practice species emphasis. There are numerous opportunities available to you. By the time you reach your senior year, you usually know the species of animal with which you would like to work. Even so, it is good to consider the future. Those who choose to enter companion animal practice are likely to have good opportunities for many years to come. Not only is the population growing in the United States, there is a clear trend that clients are willing to spend more on services, including veterinary medicine. For those who choose to enter large animal practice, it will be important to investigate whether the livestock population is likely to remain stable in the community where you want to practice. It is not always easy to determine animal numbers, but one can obtain information on trends. By checking the county agricultural statistics for the community where you want to practice, you can obtain data on recent trends. You also can visit with leaders of various commodity groups to seek their view on the future of livestock production in the community. For those wanting to pursue work with exotics, it is again important to determine if the exotic animal population is sufficient to support your practice. Similarly, those who want to pursue a specialty, such as behavioral medicine, will be served better by living in metropolitan areas. Those pursuing careers in equine medicine and surgery also need to explore areas where there are adequate numbers of horses to support a practice.
- Practice legal structure. Today, you should consider the type of practice structure that you want to work in. With the advent of numerous corporate entities, you are restricted no longer to the traditional private practice. You are encouraged to explore the opportunities in each type of structure: examine the advantages and disadvantages of each. Those who are interested in practicing for a corporate entity are likely to have the opportunity to choose from many different geographical locations. If you want to join a traditional private practice, then you need to give consideration to the size of the practice, the number of doctors, and the number of support staff available. Working in a two-person practice or even a solo practice can be very rewarding and self-fulfilling. It also can be very demanding and might not leave enough time for family and personal growth. Multiple-doctor practices provide the opportunity for mentoring and for professional intellectual stimulation. These are personal decisions you will have to make. It can be helpful for you to spend time in each type of practice before making your decision.
Location, location, location
It is important to consider and involve your family when answering questions about where you want to work and what you want available in the community. There are a number of factors to consider. Do you want to work in a metropolitan, suburban or rural area? Do you want to work in a stand-alone hospital or in a shopping center clinic? Are housing and living expenses reasonable and within your budget? A visit to the chamber of commerce, extension office, or a realtor's office can provide you with good information on housing and living expenses. What are the opportunities for spousal employment? Your prospective employer might be able to assist with this information. It can also be helpful to see of the town or community has a Web page. Finally, how important is it to be reasonably close to your parents or other important family members?
What is the employer looking for in a new associate?
As you become involved in the job search, take some time to imagine yourself as the prospective employer. What is it that you would want in a new veterinary associate? What skills would you expect them to have? What traits and characteristics would you want them to have? How much would you want them to work? What would you provide for your new employee? What type of working environment would you provide? By taking time to examine the situation from the other employer's perspective, you can clarify the things that are important to you.
Dr. Draper is associate dean for academic and student affairs in Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He is a professor of biomedical sciences and has been interim associate dean since January 2003.