Besides deciding to become a veterinarian, the most important career decision a veterinarian will make is what practice type they will pursue. There are multiple paths a young veterinarian could pursue and many ways to combine the various business structures available.
The crux of experiencing different practices will occur during veterinary student rotations, and most veterinarians will have chosen their practice type by the time they graduate. However, veterinarians should not feel railroaded as they grow into their veterinary career.
Exploring Practice Types
Some may know exactly what they want and jump right into that. For others, what they end up enjoying most may surprise them. Pre-veterinary and veterinary students are in a prime position to explore various practice types through school and should take every opportunity to experience these by using the summers before veterinary school and after the first and second years of their veterinary medical education to work in veterinary practices, research facilities, the pharmaceutical industry, or by undertaking a series of externships.
Externships are an invaluable way to get hands-on experience in the day-to-day life of a practice type. Dr. Taylor McLendon, a young equine veterinarian who recently bought her own practice, encourages veterinarians to utilize that time to decide if the lifestyle, workload, environment, team, and more are right for them. She points out that being a large animal veterinarian would not be the right path for someone who would doesn’t enjoy being outdoors and in the elements, just like an industry position may not be a good choice for someone who doesn’t find fulfillment in creating interpersonal relationships and networking. Dr. Marci Kirk of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) encourages those planning to pursue externships to explore a variety of experiences. This will help better prepare candidates to understand what they are looking for in their ideal job.
If the time commitment of externships is not suitable or a student is looking to gain experience in a field prior to veterinary school, shadowing or volunteering is another great way to learn more about a field.
“Time spent volunteering can be valuable even if it is not directly related to veterinary medicine,” Dr. McLendon says. “Spending time involved in the day-to-day workings of a zoo, for example, may give you insight into whether or not exotic medicine is something that interests you.”
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Dr. Amy Grice, an equine ambulatory veterinarian of 25 years and now a veterinary business consultant, points out that rotations are the prime time to put what was learned through externships and shadowing into real practice.
“During rotations left open for externships in their clinical year, students should experience a number of different practices that are in the veterinary space they have earlier identified as their preferred niche,” she says.
Dr. Kirk and Dr. Annie Chavent, assistant director of student initiatives at the AVMA, encourage young veterinarians to push themselves to visit practice types that they haven’t considered previously as they may be surprised by what they enjoy.
Dr. Kirk always believed structured, set schedules were better for her. However, when an emergency would come in and the schedule got thrown off – by a lot – she found it challenging to cope, especially if she had plans outside of work that day. She says the current practice she now works in on Saturdays is a walk-in, and she has found she loves it.
“I just go down the charts in the order they come in, and it has helped me stay more present and focused,” she says of this previously unexpected choice.
Dr. Chavent also experienced a change of heart.
“I planned on pursuing an equine sports medicine residency after my internship, but during my job search, I also did a ride along with a solo, ambulatory practitioner at the suggestion of a mentor. I always thought I would specialize,” she says, “but I learned that I really enjoyed the close personal connections that farm calls foster, the rhythm of ‘life on the road,’ and the variety of cases.” Dr. Chavent ended up joining that practice as its first associate and stayed for three years.
“Finding out what works best for you includes what suits your work style and your personal preferences. It’s important to also explore how the team works together, the culture of the organization, the expectation of the clientele and what is best for you at your current stage of life.” Dr. Kirk says.
As veterinary students and veterinarians navigate various practices and clinics, it’s important they engage with the institution on all levels. Speaking to as many people as possible at different practices, including the customer service team, assistants, veterinarians, technicians, interns, and even veterinarians who may have left the practice, will provide valuable insight. All perspectives form the picture of that practice and that practice type so it’s easier to see whether or not it aligns with what is desired from a practice and an individual’s career.
Giving It Time
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When it comes to opportunities like externships, Dr. Kirk encourages everyone, when possible, to give it a minimum of a full working day to see the practice’s flow, with two days and two separate visits being even better.
“When you are considering different practice types, it is helpful to explore different experiences to determine what will fit your current professional goals,” Dr. Kirk says.
Dr. Chavent echoes the two-visit approach as it gives an extern a clearer vision of the practice and provides more opportunity to talk with a variety of team members. Multiple visits are for more than just the extern too as it sends a clear message to the practice that the individual is serious about the opportunity.
When it comes to a job, Dr. Grice recommends giving any potential path a minimum of two weeks in order to have a balanced view of typical practice at that location.
The ‘Right’ Choice
With so many paths available, it can feel overwhelming. How can a practitioner make the ‘right’ decision?
“There isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision as long it aligns with your current goals and you have done your due diligence,” Dr. Chavent says. “Each practice type choice you make along the way gives you valuable feedback on your likes and dislikes for your career. One of the amazing things about the veterinary profession is that there are so many different options, so you don’t need to worry about picking the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ one right after graduation. Learn from your experience, and it will help you make more informed decisions.”
When it comes to choosing a practice, Dr. Kirk recommends breaking it down to the things you currently prioritize most, perhaps this is location or salary or working hours. Having this initial criteria provides a basis to learn what works as you grow and as life outside of practice changes. Over time, your priorities may change and that may mean that the organization will adapt with you, or it may be time to explore other opportunities in the profession.
For those like Dr. McLendon with a firm vision, the choice only became clearer with time. Having grown up around horses, she was always very involved in the equine industry. This made her decision to pursue equine medicine very organic. As she navigated her journey through veterinary school, she was exposed to the business and management side of veterinary medicine, which allowed her to quickly identify a passion for this aspect and led her to pursue practice ownership.
No decision is guaranteed to be the ‘right’ choice, but Dr. Grice points to key positive signs to look for to know if the path chosen will be a good fit. These signs include being excited to go to work, feeling motivated to learn as much as possible about cases, and feeling supported by the practice team in an environment of psychological safety.
It is not unusual to feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities of veterinary medicine. There are so many different directions that it is almost impossible to experience them all, and, once in the workforce, there are many competing interests and issues that veterinarians may encounter.
In 2022, the average educational debt for veterinary graduates who borrowed was more than $179,000.¹ This makes financial well-being a key issue for recent graduates as there’s a concerning gap between educational loans and compensation. Different practice types have different earning potential, and there is variability among practices in each type as well. Researching potential earnings and asking about salary and benefits when visiting practices of interest will help set expectations, and, therefore, help ensure that income, lifestyle, and debt obligations are all aligned.
To tackle this issue, Dr. Chavent recommends working with a trusted professional such as a certified financial planner to look at the full financial picture and help explore various options.
“Talking about finances can be intimidating, but setting yourself up for success early will save you from unnecessary added stress in the future,” Dr. Chavent says. “Think of it as self-care for your future self!”
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Another big challenge can be veterinarians fully understanding what their goals are for personal time and personal quality of life. This leads to issues with work-life balance that can be exacerbated by corporate-owned practices tempting young veterinarians with large sign-on bonuses, which can stray a new graduate into a position with which they are unhappy. For work-life balance, Dr. Kirk recommends reflecting on what is working well and what can be even better yet.
When it comes to those ‘sweet’ sign-on/retention bonuses, Dr. McLendon advises veterinarians to always read the fine print and be wary of deals that won’t provide a good work-life balance. Both veterinarians hold that self-reflection is a crucial step in the decision-making process, as it is essential to identify key factors that are important.
Making a Change
While decisions about practice are important, they aren’t permanent. If a place doesn’t suit, it’s time to do some investigation to determine if it is the practice or the practice type. Dr. Grice points out that the former is very common.
“Practices in each sector vary widely within the sector,” she says. “If fit has been very bad, a new veterinarian may have lost confidence as well as their excitement about veterinary medicine. Reaching out to mentors and taking a short period of discernment may be the best approach before making big decisions.”
If work unhappiness persists, there shouldn’t be a fear of changing it up. Veterinarians invest a lot of time and money into their education, so staying in a position that doesn’t make them happy doesn’t make sense. A good job doesn’t mean counting down the minutes until work starts, but day-to-day life should be enjoyable.
“If you’re in a position that doesn’t fit your lifestyle or makes you unhappy, it is better to make a change now rather than continue down the same path for years,” Dr. McLendon says. “There is never a convenient time to make a major life change, but sooner is always better. As veterinarians, we work way too hard to not enjoy what we do!”
It’s normal to feel disappointed if things don’t work out as hoped, but seeking a change shouldn’t be seen as a negative.
“I don’t believe framing it as the wrong decision is very helpful,” Dr. Kirk says. “I believe we make decisions with the information we have on hand and as we experience things and grow, we learn about ourselves, and we learn about more opportunities in the profession, so we can make even better, informed decisions moving forward.”
Initiating change is a great time to rely on mentors and the veterinary network. Talking to people who are in the same practice type, and also who are in the practice type(s) being considered, will help clarify things and may even lead to new career opportunities.
“Change can be scary, but there’s no reason to feel ‘stuck’ long-term,” Dr. Chavent says. “There are too many options available to veterinarians for that. The key is discovering which options are the best fit for you at your current career stage. Then take the leap!”
Shaping Your Future
When it comes to shaping one’s future, Dr. Grice stresses that self-awareness is critical.
“Answering the question ‘What do you want your life to look like in five years, professionally and personally?’ is a start,” she says. “Understanding where [your] passion in veterinary medicine lies is critical. By imagining the life you want to lead, this provides a destination that can guide all further decisions, and help [you] create [your] desired future.”
Dr. Kirk encourages young veterinarians to think about their non-negotiables and what they might have more wiggle room on.
“Speaking to people in current roles you think you would enjoy and asking about the challenges and rewards to get a better understanding can be extremely helpful,” she says. “Spending as much time as you are able in a variety of practice types is also helpful. This will help you make the best-informed decision you can. Remember it is more than the contract or practice type, it is the culture of the practice, the people you work with, the community you will be serving, and the experiences you will have outside of work that are also important.”
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Like Dr. Kirk, Dr. McLendon recommends you have a list of non-negotiables.
“Identify the factors that are most important to you,” Dr. McLendon says. “If a certain industry or individual practice does not meet those standards, then you know that may not be the practice type for you. If working in high-stress, fast-moving situations with a variable schedule gives you anxiety, then emergency medicine is not for you!”
She also points out that when sitting down to interview with a practice, it isn’t all about them interviewing you – you are also interviewing them. Interviews are a great opportunity to see the ins and outs of daily operations, ask questions, and gather as much information as possible to make an informed decision.
It can be a process to emerge into the profession, but once that first job is accepted, it’s important to take time to reflect on what is working well and what could be even better. Dr. Kirk describes how her first job in small animal private practice offered a great location and great mentorship, but also on-call shifts and surgery — two things she didn’t enjoy or thrive on.
“I thought perhaps that practice wasn’t for me,” Dr. Kirk says, “but rather than leave all altogether, I switched to a different small animal clinic where I did not have to do surgery or on-call shifts.” She says that worked well for her until her personal goals changed. “I reflected again and made another career shift,” she says. “These points of reflection are critical to ensure we are making informed decisions about our personal and professional goals. It can be easy to get lost in the day-to-day, so set regular check-ins with yourself.”
Regardless of the practice chosen, establishing a support system is key to success. There are a variety of ways for veterinarians to expand their network and career opportunities. Networking can come from attending veterinary conferences, alumni meet-ups, or leadership/mentorship programs.
What’s most important to remember is that a long career awaits. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and careers will grow and change alongside the practitioner as their life, needs, and wants develop over time. Recognizing these changes and adapting to these needs are part of how all veterinarians will continue to thrive.
Written by: Katherine Pearce | Senior Creative Lead
with advice and input from Amy L. Grice | VMD, MBA; Marci J. Kirk | DVM; Annie Chavent | DVM, MBA; and Taylor McLendon | DVM;