In the age of endless specializations, veterinary medicine can take you down exciting career paths. However, what we sometimes overlook is the diverse adventures that you can have as a general practitioner. Over the years there is one thing that I have learned with absolute certainty: There is nothing general about general practice.
How it started
As I reflect on the beginning of my veterinary career, I can assure you that my roots are both humble and relatively ordinary. I didn’t have any veterinarians in my family to make all the right introductions. The inclination to become a veterinarian blossomed naturally with my love of animals, which luckily coincided with my love of people. Undergraduate degree, volunteer veterinary experience, veterinary school acceptance, graduation and my first job; it all fell neatly under the figurative recipe card titled “How to Become a Veterinarian.”
What I didn’t expect as I made my way through four years of veterinary school, was that there would be an entire world available to veterinarians after graduation. In fact, there was an entire universe it seemed—albeit, quite specialized—ranging from oncologists, dentists, dermatologists, and so on. At one point in time, I considered specializing. I even remember overhearing a veterinarian telling a group of students one day that general practice was dead.
I was shocked.
Was there truly no place in the future for general practitioners? Was general practice not something to aspire to anymore?
I looked to my mentors to help me answer this question. Their careers were diverse, which in turn had allowed for their professional interests to flourish and their personal lives to thrive. Their role in the health of our community as general practitioners was anything but dead. So armed with that thought in mind, I proceeded to dive headfirst into my life as a veterinarian in general practice.
Choose your own adventure
Let’s face it; the first few years in practice are really like an extension of your veterinary school curriculum. Learning how to be a veterinarian means that you not only need to be book-smart, but you also need a crash course in how to be street-smart. Learning to read a room can become just as important as learning how to diagnose a medical problem. Needless to say, the first few years really had me focusing on these skills.
When I started to feel comfortable with my title of “doctor,” I began to look for new adventures to experience with my veterinary degree. I decided early on that I would start to say yes to opportunities knowing that I would either love them, or not, but either way would surely result in an experience worth living.
Now, this isn’t an article about veterinary volunteerism. However, I can’t write about my experiences in general practice without at least mentioning some of my volunteer adventures. It might even help for us to start thinking about your veterinary degree as an All-Access Pass to some of the most unique experiences on the planet.
As a general practitioner, I have travelled to the Polar Bear Capital of the World as a sled dog trail veterinarian. I have performed surgeries and One Health clinics in remote communities, recreation centres, and gymnasiums and under a tent. I have travelled to Mexico to spay and neuter 1800 dogs and cats with a group of veterinarians from around the world. I have served on the board of directors for our local Humane Society. I have served on advisory committees to obtain grant funding to secure veterinary care for underserved communities. I have become an Animal Protection Officer and routinely attend animal welfare inspections. I have become a shelter veterinarian, working for our city’s dog shelter. I have embraced writing, and have launched my own blog while also becoming a published author. I have become an equal owner in the private veterinary practice in which I have worked for ten years.
All of this has happened as a direct result of my career in general practice. And just like the title of this article suggests, there has been nothing general about it!
There are no average days in general practice
One of my favourite questions I get when I meet a new acquaintance is, “So what does a typical work day look like for you?” It’s my favourite question because there are no typical days in general practice. Just as a heart arrhythmia can be regularly irregular, a day in the life of a veterinarian is usually predictably unpredictable.
There will always be the expected components of general practice, like spays, neuters, wellness appointments and vaccinations. However, what can easily be overlooked are the incredible opportunities to explore your professional interests and to develop clinical skills in any number of disciplines. Variety is certainly the name of the game in this realm of veterinary medicine, and you are free to choose your own adventure.
Now, don’t forget that every patient you meet is also connected to a human guardian. And speaking of connections, let’s take a moment to mention the endless connections that you can make with people in your role as a general practitioner. You get to be their veterinarian from the time they meet their new puppy, to the day they say goodbye, perhaps fourteen years later. You are given the gift of being their family veterinarian. You get to see their human family grow up, change, and stay the same. In some cases, you even get the opportunity to mentor them as the next generation of veterinarians. General practice continually gives the gift of meaningful connections; with people and animals alike.
Challenging the traditional role of “veterinarian”
Is it cheesy to say that you can be whatever you want to be? Perhaps. But is it true as it pertains to general practice? Definitely.
Now more than ever before, veterinarians are able to challenge their traditional role in society and pave their way by means of crafting a career that suits their passions. Long gone are the days of the stuffy white coat, the minimum of fifty hours work week, and endless after-hours calls with no mentorship in sight. Today’s general practitioners have all of the power in the world to craft a position for themselves in the industry that brings them maximum fulfilment. It goes beyond the walls of the clinic; opportunities for public speaking, mentorship, writing, and industry consulting abound. You are allowed and encouraged, to be a veterinary entrepreneur, if that’s something that floats your boat.
For all of you general practitioners out there—and general-practitioners-to-be—I challenge you to ask yourself this question on the regular. Whether it’s going to a conference, enrolling in a business course, practice ownership, or an extended holiday, define your “next.” Be open to new ideas, and make sure to afford yourself time to have these great ideas. And just to clarify, this doesn’t mean that what you have now isn’t enough. It’s actually quite the contrary. What you do next in general practice might be to continue embracing the predictably unpredictable adventures of your days. General practice is, after all, an oxymoron. There’s just nothing general about it.
Dr. Samyra Stuart-Altman
Samyra is a veterinarian and veterinary practice co-owner. Her volunteer activities have taken her as far north as polar bear country and as south as the Mayan Riviera. She is passionate about the human-animal bond, animal welfare, mentorship, and workplace wellness. Samyra enjoys writing for her blog (The Tiny Vet Chronicles) and drawing custom pet portraits for her humble art business called 'Ink Naturally.'