Tips for entering your first practice role
It's really hard at an interview to know if the job will be just the right one for you. There are key things that can help; for example, vet turnover or, more specifically, new graduate turnover or presence in the practice. Is the practice in an area where you want to work? Are you near any friends or family? Is it a mixed practice or a narrower field? Many of my friends at university went into particular jobs and, four years later, are now doing the opposite. A job in mixed practice is a good idea unless you are really sure large or small animal work is not for you. It gives you a wider vision of practice life, and you might be surprised that you like doing routine farm work as much as the exotic consultations you were keen to watch as a student.
Don't necessarily feel obliged to accept the first job you are offered. However, that is what I did and, luckily, it turned out well.
Here are some things to consider when entering into your first practice role:
Within the first month in practice you will find out what level of support you can expect to get. It's important not to be afraid to ask for help or advice, even when it's busy.
"It's important not to be afraid to ask for help or advice"
As new graduates we feel under pressure to perform from day 1, worrying over things like what antibiotic to choose, or working out a dose of meloxicam for a guinea pig. When you're in a rush or unsure, it can take a lot of guts to go and check with the senior partner in the consulting room next door. Simple things seem complicated when you want to make a good first impression and you've got people waiting. In the long run, it's quicker and better to ask and get it right, than to lose a night's sleep over it. (Yes, I lost sleep over that guinea pig!) A good boss and work colleagues should empathise and help, not tell you you're stupid. As a new vet, I made a pocket notebook of doses for regularly used drugs; e.g. 1 ml per 10 kg or 0.04 ml per kg, etc, so that I wasn't juggling mg/ml and mg/kg in my head. And downloading a formulary app to your phone is handy for when you can't find the book.
It can take longer to become confident at routine surgery than you might think. Support is important in the first few months – get someone to scrub in, or have someone available to ask if you get stuck. It's not acceptable to be operating on your own in the first few weeks and it won't do you any favours in the long run. I'm not ashamed to say that it was a good year before I was doing bitch spays by myself and I was lucky to have a practice that held my hand through this. The truth is, we shouldn't have to be ‘lucky’ to get this support; the backing should be there.
Being on call
I don't think I know any vet who really loves being on call, but it's a requirement of our profession, and can be the time when we see the most interesting cases and learn the most. A decent on-call rota can make a difference. I would swap a one-in-seven on your own, for a one-in-four with a second vet on call with you. It's essential to have someone to call on for help or advice day and night, and this should be provided for all new graduates.
The Professional Development Phase (PDP) can be a useful tool in your first job. Admittedly, I didn't use it to its full advantage. It can be a good way to highlight holes in your experience or level of ‘achievement’ in a job that might not be ideal for a new graduate, or where opportunities are lacking. The idea is that you can use PDP to discuss areas that you are concerned about with your boss. A busy mixed practice will tick the boxes more quickly, though it's not about numbers, it's about personal achievement and strengths in different areas of clinical veterinary medicine.
Getting paid for your work has to be one of the most exciting things about starting work. Starting salaries vary geographically; if you don't know what you should be earning, the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons has data on this. Don't be afraid to ask for a pay rise after the first year; you will have come a long way and should be acknowledged for this.
A contract of employment is important, yet a surprising number of graduates don't have one. According to statistics from the BVA's 2009 online research through its Young Vet Network, 24% of recent graduate members who responded did not have a written contract of employment in place, and over 40% were in a job where they did not have one in place for over six months.
According to the BVA, 24% of recent graduate members who responded did not have a written contract of employment in place
A contract protects employees and is a guide in respect of working agreements and pay, including expectations from the employer regarding sick leave, resignation/notice periods, maternity/paternity agreements, and pensions, and so on. Until I read my contract, I had no idea about these guidelines for my job or my entitlements. If you don't have a contract of employment you may be open to ‘abuse’; for example, over the number of hours worked on-call. A practice that doesn't provide a contract straight away may have questionable management.
One important thing to note is that a contract is agreed between you and your boss; therefore, if you sign it, it means you agree, so make sure you address any concerns before you do so. And don't feel under pressure to sign if you're not comfortable. Further information can be found on the BVA's website where a downloadable leaflet on contracts of employment is available.
If you are in a job that does not tick the boxes you want, don't blame yourself that it didn't turn out the way you expected, or feel obliged to stick it out. Don't be afraid if you discover that small animal, large animal or equine practice isn't for you after all.
When you graduate, form a support network; ring friends regularly, text them for advice or to ask questions that you may feel silly approaching colleagues about. Make arrangements to meet up during the first few weeks into a new job, when you can vent, moan and swap stories. No job is perfect, but you can get an idea what others are doing or feeling by talking. Find a local recent graduate meeting through the BVA. Use the BVA Young Vet Network and community to ask advice, or start your own Facebook group.
Being a vet is demanding, I remember being so tired for the first six months after starting work that the only thing I could do after work was eat and sleep. It gets better, but you need to be in the right job to be happy...and if you're not happy, seek advice.