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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Struggling As A Vet

Katrina emailed me and I wanted to respond publicly because this is a very relevant topic, and one I've touched on a few times before.

I've recently discovered your blog and have been really interested in a lot of your posts, views and opinions. I'm a Canadian studying veterinary medicine in the UK. I came here because it didn't take as long to get qualified (6 years as opposed to 8 years in Canada). I liked the idea of coming straight to vet school after finishing high school and not having to complete an undergrad first. 
I'm currently in my fourth year and to be honest, I'm losing the will to carry on.  
I have wanted to be a veterinarian my whole life and when I first came to vet school, I was bursting with enthusiasm and love for the career.. but over the years I have struggled with the immense stress and pressure associated with a course like this, felt disheartened by the realities of the profession; a very stressful and highly demanding job .. and not to mention discouraged by the current employment prospects for newly graduated vets. 

My final two years ahead of me are going to be the most difficult of them all, and I won't succeed unless my heart is completely in it. 
Right now, I feel like giving up.. but I know I might regret this in the future. 

I was just wondering if you had ever encountered difficulties like this.. and how you managed to pull through? 
Or if perhaps you wish you had gone down a different path and pursued a different career? 
And also.. with your career as a vet, do you have time for yourself, your own interests, your family, etc.. or is much of your life "your job" if you know what I mean? 

Going through veterinary school is one of the toughest things a person can do.  It's physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.  I think many of us have points where we wonder if we can go on and make it through. Somehow most of us do so.  Personally, I don't have any real secret.  I'm just so stubborn that I don't seem to know when to stop.  Often when faced with adversity I stop looking at the long view and just concentrate moment to moment, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.  That's how I keep going.

When we enter school we do have a certain rosy attitude, filled with hope and idealism.  As we go through we realize that good intentions aren't enough and it takes a lot of hard work.  The closer you get to graduation the more you realize that you're actually going to have to find a way to pay back the loans and somehow make a living.  Reality comes crashing down and that can be discouraging.

All of this was hard enough 16 years ago when I graduated.  I can't imagine having to deal with it now, as the situation is different and far more challenging.  Heck, I get depressed looking at and talking about the prospects for the profession nowadays, and I have a very good, secure job.  

I have dealt with depression many times and for many years, but am finding ways to overcome it.  Part of that is the stubbornness I mentioned.  A large part of it for me is my faith and reliance on God.  I also have a very loving, supporting family that I could not live without.  Everyone needs support structures like this to survive the difficult periods of life.

Have I wished for a different career?  Yes.  Many, many times.  If I had to do it all over again I wouldn't go into veterinary medicine.  My current thinking is that I would get a PhD in History and become a professor.  But I might be disillusioned with that job if I had chosen it, so it's hard to say.  I also have an amazing wife and kids and being a vet has brought me to this point in my life.  If it means giving all of that up I wouldn't change anything, even though I don't always like my profession.  

I've gone back and forth over the years.  At first I loved my job and was excited every day.  Then for years I struggled and got to the point where I dreaded every moment and wanted to quit every day.  Now I've reached an equilibrium where I don't exactly "love" my job, but I'm also comfortable with it and realize I have a great job and am well respected.  I'm at a point where I no longer hate what I do, even if I would like to do something different, and don't have to dread going to work.

Time outside of work?  It's taken me a long time to find the right work-life balance, and I'm still working on it.  One of the revelations for me was that being a vet is what I do, not who I am.  I try not to think about work much once I'm home, and actively carve out time for my family.  It's not easy to do, but more and more vets want to get away from the 60-80 hour work weeks of a generation or two ago where a vet was on call 24/7.  

I'd love to hear insight from my colleagues and even other students on how they overcome these challenges. 


  1. If you think there is something out there you'd rather do than veterinary medicine, figure out what it is and take the necessary steps to change career paths.

    Given the current job prospects for new graduate veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada, I don't recommend veterinary school to anyone, let alone anyone who is ambivalent about the field. I myself don't enjoy being a practicing veterinarian and am switching careers midstream. Trust me, even though it may be a hassle, it's easier to re-direct when you're still in school.

    I'd start by thinking honestly, outside the box: what is it you don't like about veterinary medicine? What do you still enjoy? Write it all down. Do this over a period of days or weeks. Then figure out what career would incorporate most of your likes and eliminate most of the dislikes. My own lists were quite surprising when I thought about what I actually hated and enjoyed, and I am satisfied with the decision I ultimately made.

    1. Hi Jenna,

      This comment was really helpful, thanks.
      I will work on making the list ..

      But as an already practicing veterinarian, can I ask what aspects of the job you disliked/hated in particular?

    2. Dislike:

      1. Working with clients, especially in emotionally charged situations. I can do it, but it's distressing and not particularly satisfying, especially when a client wants sympathy for herself instead of for the animal, which is sadly common.

      2. Discussing money, and the inevitable guilt trips. Even though I knew this going in, in practice it is very difficult not to bend the payment rules or cut the prices, especially if the client tells you they'll euthanize or even not provide minimal care. Not a sustainable business model. It's disheartening to learn sometimes you care more about clients' animals than they do.

      3. Not being done at the end of the day, and feeling I could never have time to myself. Before anyone judges me, I was in solo large animal practice for almost 10 years. Try just six months of continual call in any field before criticizing. The problem is not the legitimate emergencies, or even working on emergencies (= interesting cases) but the underlying worry that someone could call at any moment.

      4. The telephone. Related to #3 above, but I must force myself to speak on the telephone, a definite problem in clinical practice.

      5. Lack of scientific rigor. It's so disheartening to spend a long time on client education then hear they've hired a lay tooth floater, a human chiropractor, or, my personal favorite, an animal communicator. It adds insult to injury when they call for a follow-up appointment months later because the animal is no better, but have now blown a huge chunk of the budget on useless whatever and have less to spend on what you recommended in the first place. Also see #2 above.

      6. Mostly an equine issue, but poor horsemanship skills. Also, poor ground manners. I'll work on half-wild horses if the handler is top-notch, but it's a funny thing: in general, the less the owner knows, the more likely the horse will try to hurt me, or the owner (even worse). That gets old, especially when I return year after year and the owner has not invested in training.

      7. Routine practice is routine. After a few years, I found it mind-numbing. It's frustrating to have the same conversation with the same client every single year. My insight was when I realized this is probably related more to #1 than to actual boredom with the subject matter.

      So, I needed something intellectually challenging, evidence-based, with little repetition and the occasional immediate problem that needed solving, and I wanted to work predominantly with professionals. All this, and done at the end of the day, minimal phone time and a flat salary besides. Believe it or not, after much soul-searching I found a job that fits me like a glove. What I'm doing isn't important (it's not entry level) but you get the idea.

      Maybe finishing veterinary school but tailoring your final years towards a non-practicing option might be the best option for you, if one of those fields appeals to you (public health, epidemiology, pharmacology, pathology, bacteriology, teaching, etc.). If that's not the case, it may be best to explore something new. One of my classmates left veterinary school after our second year to pursue an MBA. A friend left veterinary school for medical school (and received advanced standing). It does happen. Another friend took a year's leave of absence. Figure out what is best for you, then figure out how to accomplish it. If you were accepted to veterinary school, you are smart and capable enough to have a lot of options.

    3. 4. Specialty training controversy: This is one of my biggest problems with this profession is the struggles of utilizing the knowledge of a specialist. For instance, an oncologist who has trained many years to specialize in the treatment of cancers will rarely work at full capacity because of the sheer cost it takes to implement it on an animal. Many owners are not willing to invest in chemotherapy or radiation therapy especially if the cost of the animal is free or thousands of dollars less. So what do most people, they euthanize them. What's the point of becoming a specialist if 80% of the cases end up being euthanized (this only applies to some specialities). This mentality delays any real innovation in these areas of research because they just end up being way too costly for owners to afford. Therefore there is less money funded in research or less money in acquiring better equipment.

      5. Ethical challenge: As much as this profession is dubbed to help owners help their animals, there are a few gray areas where unnecessary examination protocols are done. I won't go into detail what these are but there are some vaccination programs, anti-parasitic programs and uses of medicines that are pushed or marketed because they form a part of your income. This is not to say they are all unnecessary especially if you live in a region where these diseases or parasites are prevalent but there are some procedures that are pushed way too much and are unnecessary.
      Back to the point where an animal has no money, I find it so hard to justify convenience euthanasia if an animal is in no real pain but is either diabetic, has a heart condition, arthritic or some other ailment that can be managed with medication. Either because it is a money or they just don't want to deal with them, they put them down. Let's put this analogy to people. We would never kill or disown someone who faces similar issues. We give them medication and they manage. There is definitely a cost to love for animals and it stops when they become an inconvenience.

      6. Summary: I am 25 (not young but not too old) and I am having the hardest time deciding whether I should go ahead with this profession. Part of me thinks that I will be able to overcome these negative stigmas or by chance work in a location where animals are treated like family but another part of me says that this is the reality. I love animals and I love the patient doctor interaction. I love to see sick animals feel better and in turn their owners satisfied with the results. I want to try to change our reputation as animal physicians and be equally validated as medical doctor physicians. Our research has garnered important research to humans as well. We identified the salmonella, malaria, botulism virus and other epidemiological illnesses. We developed hip replacements procedures that were borrowed by medical surgeons. We do a lot and we don't get a lot.

      I have a month left (too quick) before the deadline of my school. There is going to be intense soul searching to see whether or not this is the right profession. I don't mean to discourage people but if you plan to work in a clinical setting, this is most definitely going to be the main factor in your general happiness. If you have desires to do research, teach or work for a pharmaceutical company where you avoid these patient interactions and make a fixed salary, I'm sure there is more promise.

      For now though, I echo the same struggles as Jenna. It's not all glamorous kids. Work in a vet clinic first for a few years before you narrow it as a career.

    4. Hi there Jenna,
      I am an Australian General Practice Vet (small animals lately) of 15 years experience in many pathways, and am in a similar position to you in seeking a change of career. My practice is for sale, and I am no longer trying changes in workplace nor geography nor the type of veterinary work as a fix - I have finally made the call that I need to make a complete change in direction. That's a positive step, and now I'm seeing a Careers Councillor to get advice on the options.
      Do you mind disclosing your new career choice? I am only very new to this stage of the process of career transition and would love any ideas you may have.
      Kind regards,

  2. If you (Katrina) don't think vet med is for you, that is totally okay. I am halfway finished with pharmacy school and we've had a number of people leave for one reason or another; most commonly, just realizing they don't have an interest in pharmacy as a career. As a career changer myself, it takes a lot of courage to even consider not pursuing your current path, but our dreams change. Don't feel like you're tied to a dream that you've had forever, just because you've had it "forever." Your life left to live is longer than the time you've aspired to be a vet, and it's always okay to re-evaluate. Best of luck to you!

  3. I was miserable in vet school. I found the teachers and students alike a very depressing and unhappy lot. But it is a very good education. And the degree opens doors that would not otherwise be possible. You don't have to do any "career" path anyone else dictates. So many times this degree has been my salvation. And I love most people. My life has been enhanced because of the people who love animals. Just be sure you don't listen to the negative. That and being sure I didn't work any more hours than I wanted to has kept me sane. (even sometimes I worked 60 plus hours it was my choice) 26 years out and I feel very lucky.

  4. Chris, Thank you so much for the reply post - and to the other people who added comments below. They are all very helpful.

    I can understand what you mean about being stubborn and just getting through. I have always been a very hard working person and if there is work/studying to be done, I will just get down and do it, regardless of whether or not I am happy doing it! And I think this is why have been able to get as far as I have..

    I do have other careers in mind.. but I've come this far (4 out of 6 years) and I don't want to make a decision heavily influenced by the stress, pressure and unhappiness that is currently consuming me, only to regret that decision at some point in the future.

    But right now I feel that, as much as I love the idea of working with animals, being a veterinarian is not the only way one can go about doing that. And when I think about other things that I want from life at some point in the future(family, travel, etc) I don't really see this career fitting in with that.

    Thanks again for all the information and comments ..

    Can I ask (and this is for all the other vet readers too) .. what aspects of the job do you really dislike/hate?? And what are the aspects of the job that keep you going every day and stop you from quitting/pursuing a different career?

  5. I'm not a vet, but from the time I was 5 years old until I was 19 I was going to be one. In the middle of my sophomore year I realized being a veterinarian was not for me and I needed to find something to finish school in that would bring a viable job if not a career. I became a Medical Technologist and worked in clinical laboratories for a while. Yes, that path has changed too, but my love for animals and their care has been a main-stay. My husband and I were very involved in pet therapy and had the chance to volunteer with an excellent trainer. When we moved, we felt the call to rescue and have placed numerous animals over the past few years. I also have my horses back and have just started raising chickens and goats. So, no, my job/career does not include animals, but they are a large part of my life and I am able to fulfill my love for them. Whatever path you choose, your love for animals can always be a part of it whether it is a part of your job, volunteer services, or whatever you keep at home.

  6. I agree with most of Jenna's dislikes.

  7. Hello Everyone,

    I just discovered this blog... I have been working in a profession (SA hospitals) for almost 10 years now... Finally I understood and accepted the fact that I really need to change a career. I am so tired of on calls and short weekends, problematic holiday approval, commercial side of the job, pleasing clients not pets... Great to read that I am not there are others feeling the same... I am thinking about going into research or working for a pharmaceutical companies... can anyone advise maybe where to start from, which courses to take... ??? I will be grateful for any info, changing career is not an easy task!

  8. Hello everyone. I know I am almost a year late to the game with responding to this blog but apparently the issue is still relevant since I was just googling for advice and readily found this blog. I feel there are so many blogs out there that people comment on and the comments end up making me feel worse inside. It is so refreshing to find this one. Not only do I feel that I am not alone, I have read other people's views that coincide directly with mine and are put so intelligently into words. I have struggled to put my thoughts into words for months regarding this topic. I agree with everyone Jenna and IL wrote -- and all the comments that followed. I am a practicing vet. I graduated in 2011 so am new the the field. I loved veterinary school so much. I have always loved school and have always been good at it. I actually have said that school is the only thing I am good at. I do not play sports, I don't have any musical talent, no real hobbies. But I love animals, dogs especially. I think where my problem is now is that you can love animals but does that really mean that should be your (my) career? Why can't that be my hobby? Like someone mentioned above, there is so much that can be done with animals outside of a job -- volunteer work, fostering, working with shelters, animal rights, etc.

    I do not dislike my job every day but there are some days that I leave work saying, "this is why I want to quit." It could be anything from working 13 hours with no breaks and being starving and physically exhausting. It could be working with a case that is difficult and the owner has no finances to support me working through the case.. but they still want answers. Fortunately I do have good coworkers and and good mentor. That alone is priceless. I also am never on call and I work in a large city where there are good emergency clinics and referral centers. Compared to other people's situations, I do not have much to complain about. And still... I am not happy. At this point in my life, I think what is keeping me from being happy is that, aside from work, I feel like I do not have a life. My husband is a pharmacist and also works demanding hours. My days off and his days off often do not coincide. I do not live near my family currently. On my days off, I relax, catch up on things around the house, and watch TV. It is hard to get motivated to pursue other things around the area when I am by myself. I'm also so tired from the long work days that it is nice to just stay home. At the end of the day by myself though, I start to be unhappy that the day was spent alone again. I am almost 30 and feel like I still do not know where my life is headed. My next goal is for my husband and I to move back home (we had to move for his residency) so that I can be surrounded my a bigger support group. My hesitation is, when I move back home, what else is magically going to change? Won't I still have the same work concerns? Will being around my family be enough to offset that struggle? Should I do something different when I move home? Many unresolved questions.


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