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Keep your eyes peeled for our new series, ‘Tales from the Clinic’ where we will hear from a real veterinary graduate as she embarks on her first job. In this introductory instalment, VetX interviewed Jessica* about her expectations and apprehensions. She has recently graduated from The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Edinburgh and has secured her first job in a general practice!

Hey Jessica! How have you found the transition from vet school to being a vet in real life?!

Where do I start! There’s a massive jump from being a student vet to a new grad and it’s a bit of a shock to the system, regardless of how supportive the practice is. 

I think the issue is that we gain most of our practical experience from EMS placements which we find ourselves in term breaks. These placements vary in the amount of hands on experience we get and are all very dependent on what cases come in. The end result is that we graduate with varying confidence in our abilities.

The majority of us start out in general practice, and I still feel nervous about being the first opinion. Even simple things like vaccinations and neutering are harder than the theory!

Do you think practices vary in the levels of support given? 

Definitely. In general, practices really vary with the level of support and whether the new vet is ‘thrown straight in’ or given just vaccinations and annual check ups to start with. 

Just as an example, I find being on call daunting. We gain some experience of being on call out of hours during EMS placements, but a vet is always with you then for support. When you get your first call out and you’re completely on your own, it feels like a lot of responsibility. You can feel very alone and anxious about whether you’ll know the answer straight away. 

Also, the support you get with this varies depending on the practice. Some make sure that another vet is with you, at least for your first call out, whilst others leave you to it. They might say ‘just call us if you have any problems and someone will come and join you.’ But what can you do when you’re waiting to make the owner feel at ease?!

I think a lot of new vets need to learn how to communicate with clients in high pressure situations like these. 

What about independent versus corporate practices, do they vary?

Yeah, a lot more corporate practices are offering graduate schemes now; I think they realise a new grad’s desire for structure when they start out! I’ve heard mixed reviews. I personally prefer to work for an independent practice because it feels like you have more say in how the practice is run and how you can enact your personal values. 

Some of my friends feel the initial structure provided by a corporate practice has been incredibly helpful and set them on a clear path. Others feel like they have become tied down and cannot explore their options fully.

Of course, there are other routes besides going into general practice. Some grads choose to do internships at hospitals if they don’t want to go into general practice. This is intense! My friend is working at an equine hospital. I don’t know how she does it! She works from 3am – 3pm. During placement I worked nights and every other day. I was knackered. I don’t think people outside the veterinary profession have any idea how hardcore us vets are!

Have you considered specialising?

Specialising is such a commitment. It can take 5 or 6 years. I don’t know if I’m committed or driven enough to think about specialising yet. Most practices offer an in-house certificate where you do extra work alongside your job. This takes about 3 years, I think it’s a really great option for those that don’t want to specialise yet.

Wow, that sure is a commitment! Have you encountered any difficulties during the pandemic?

The pandemic has made client communication even harder. It’s hard to gauge what clients are feeling over the telephone – even over Skype – and therefore how to relate to them. It’s been a huge learning curve.

I think this is all part of a wider issue though: many new grads find it hard to communicate with clients in general. A lot of it’s to do with how we channel empathy in client communication – getting the balance between offering them a service as part of the business and building an empathetic relationship. If the client can’t afford the treatment, it’s really hard to deal with. I don’t think enough practice owners understand that some clients can’t afford treatment, because they don’t give us many options when it comes to offering different solutions.

At university, they do role play scenarios with ‘clients’. Outside actors come in. But this is really scary because your whole class is watching you! I know it sounds pathetic, but I never found these productive because people were more worried about performing in front of the class than the actual scenario.

Being a vet is very unique in that sense – the bottom line is that it’s a business, but the reason you do it is to give animals the best care possible. How do you find the balance?

It’s hard to find the balance! I definitely have suffered with compassion fatigue and feel like this spills over into my personal life. It’s hard to separate work and personal life as a vet, especially a new vet who is overcome with emotion and compassion for the patients they’re seeing everyday.

I actually think new vets would benefit from learning exactly how the business side of things work. We will always be empathetic towards the animals, that’s not going to change. But I wish I was taught more about the business aspect at university.

I’ve just got my first job but I don’t even know if the contract/package they are offering is good or not because I have no idea what to expect! I feel like I’m being done a bit dirty, but that’s because I never learnt what to expect in the first place. For example, is it normal to have to pay tax on a company car? What sort of insurance do I get? What are the outgoings of the practice?

Maybe a mentor would help. Do you think every new vet should have a mentor?

Yes. A mentor can be a key source of support, but make sure you pick the right person for you. For some, becoming a mentor is purely a tick box exercise. My friend has been having Skype meetings with her mentor, but she met him for the first time in person the other day. However, she walked into the staff room, he looked at her and didn’t even say hello! Vets are so busy, but some mentors are never there and it can feel like you are being a pain when you ask for their help.

I would say that, especially in a small practice, having a strong practice culture can mean multiple people become your ‘mentor figures’ or that you naturally gravitate towards a mentor who recognises your strength and potential.

Also, a strong nursing team is a great support to have – both emotionally and practically. I really appreciate the nurses.

Thank you so much for chatting to me, Jessica! Graduating from vet school is just the start of the journey, and I wish you all the best in your new job, you will smash it! Do you have any final words of wisdom for fellow grads out there?

Well, as they told us at university, ‘Everyone will make a mistake. Everyone. It’s all about how you deal with the mistake.’ I try to keep that in mind when I start to panic or don’t know the answer straight away. It sounds corny but it’s true!

Although this is a generalisation, lots of vets have the same struggles because we are mostly Type A personalities! We are perfectionists, studied HARD all through university to pass all the tests and exams, and now find it difficult to communicate with clients. Knowing that a lot of new vets encounter the same issues can be a source of comfort. Building a community, supporting each other and sharing experiences is so important. That’s why I was so keen to share mine!

To echo Jessica – you vets really are hardcore! It seems that new vets receive varying levels of support, but many struggle with communicating with clients effectively, compassion fatigue and switching off after an exhausting day.

Non-clinical skills often go unappreciated during university, but they are essential when starting your first job as a veterinarian. This is where VetX:Thrive comes in. Providing 12 core modules of essential non-clinical skills to help you thrive.

Not ready to commit to the full course? No worries, enrol on Thrive Lite. For the first time, we are offering a free taster of the full course. That’s right, completely free. What’s to lose? Claim your free experience of Thrive here.

*Names have been changed

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