The ‘Covid cohort’: careers, clarity and confidence
For the past 10 years or so, I have been researching early veterinary careers, the development of occupational and professional identity, and the transition into work. My current role with the Veterinary Management Group includes developing resources and training for veterinary leaders and managers at all levels to help them support their staff and colleagues, especially those at the beginning of their careers when starting off on the right foot is so crucial.
As a profession, we have a responsibility to ensure that our graduates are prepared for working life. Veterinary practices, like any other businesses, rely on good employees, and the implications of a poor match between newly employed vet and employing practice are extremely costly in terms of personal wellbeing and enjoyment of work as well as the time, financial and goodwill costs of high staff turnover for the practice.
So, one of my more recent projects was investigating just what veterinary employers are looking for when taking on a new graduate vet (Perrin 2019). I looked at over 1000 job adverts! I ended up with a huge dataset, and some really fascinating findings.
The most striking overall result was that the most common characteristic sought by a long way was ‘enthusiasm’.
In the literature, the concept of enthusiasm for work is strongly associated with employee engagement. Along with qualities like involvement, commitment, passion, energy, focused effort and satisfaction with work, it is easy to understand how these positive and active traits would be attractive to a future employer. You can also compare the language we use to describe burnout in the veterinary and other professions (exhaustion, cynicism, disillusionment, fatigue, frustration, etc) – enthusiasm and associated terms can be characterised as the exact opposite.
There is also a more subtle psychological aspect that I find really interesting. Showing enthusiasm for work demonstrates that you are eager to join a profession that you have worked exceptionally hard to become a part of and this positivity towards veterinary work is intrinsically (and not always consciously) valued and rewarded by the established veterinary community. For established members of a group that is historically difficult to enter, enthusiasm from new members reinforces their own position and creates a positive working relationship that can be really helpful at the early stages of a veterinary career.
The second factor that featured surprisingly often was having a particular interest in an aspect of veterinary medicine. This was highly valued by employers, and is something that can be directly utilised by new graduates and early career vets applying for jobs: cultivating an interest, and being prepared to sell it in job applications, will be a positive step. Interestingly, there was a wide variety of such interests listed in the job adverts – and over half simply stated that any additional interest would be an advantage. This emphasis was surprising, and supports the development of veterinary school curricula that permit you to study electives or a particular topic in greater depth as being useful for your future move into the veterinary workforce. The benefit of this for the practice will of course be the potential to offer additional services or expertise to clients, while, for you, there will be increased job satisfaction in feeling like the practice values your unique contribution, as well as the opportunity to continue to develop your particular interest.
So, here’s my advice to the students and new graduates of the ‘Covid cohort’.
First, choose jobs to apply for that fit with your personal values. A list of equipment in a job advert isn’t much help if you know that a commitment to community outreach work is where your heart is. Do your research, ask questions and seek evidence. Be demonstrative in your enthusiasm for the work, the practice, the area. Plenty of research shows that a good fit between the values of an employee and their employer results in a well-performing, committed, satisfied staff member who adjusts well to their new position and is more likely to stay. If you’re happy in your new role, you won’t need to work quite so hard for your enthusiasm to shine through.
Second, use the opportunities you have for electives, or things you encounter on EMS, to develop an interest, knowledge and/or skill in a particular area and practise selling it in job applications and interviews. What is the benefit to a potential employer? For example, how could a practice use your interest in canine behaviour? Could you offer a behaviour clinic to clients, specific consults, internal referrals, nurse training, local CPD? What about avian medicine? Could you take the load off a colleague who’s less keen, get involved in local bird clubs, advise on the practice’s ‘bird kit’? Of course, as a new grad, it’s crucial to ensure that your workload will be manageable (make sure you have this conversation!), but this is a useful way to make your application stand out.
And if things get tough: remember why you got into it in the first place. Remember when you decided that vet school would be your goal. Sit down with a cuppa and have a conversation with your teenaged (or however old you were!) self: explain where you are now, talk through the challenges, and see how proud they are. Then pick up their excitement, take it with you into your new profession, and introduce it to your new colleagues and clients. It will be made very welcome.
Perrin HC (2019). What are employers looking for in new veterinary graduates? A content analysis of UK veterinary job advertisements. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 46(1): 21-27.