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Monday, August 12, 2013

Free Time As A Vet?

Jessica emailed with the following....

 I'm an undergrad student at Allegheny College. I have wanted to be a vet for years, and after getting a work-study position working for a wildlife rehabilitation center, I can't see myself doing anything else besides working with animals.
However, I'm told that being a veterinarian doesn't allow for any free time. Is this true? I love being busy and consumed by what I'm doing, but I would like to take some vacations from time to time. 

This is a common concern of veterinarians, but I don't think that it's as bleak as you may have been told, Jessica.  Much of this opinion comes from older vets who are used to being on call day and night, putting in 50-60 hours per week.  And as a practice-owner and single doctor, it really is hard to take time off.  But I'd summarize the answer as "it depends".

One of the changes that has been discussed about the recent generation of veterinarians is that they are not driven in their careers as much as previous generations might have been.  Vets who graduated in the last decade or so will work very hard, but are concerned about the work-life balance.  They want to put in solid, busy days at work, and then have time to have and enjoy a family.  Newer vets want to work hard for 40 hours per week and then have time off.  They're not lazy, they just realize that there is more to life than work and want to have time to use their hard-earned money.

If you work in a multi-doctor clinic you can likely have the opportunity to take vacations and have regular days off.  I'm in such a situation and work four days per week, putting in 10-11 hour days.  That means that though I have long days, I get three days off per week, as well as getting over two weeks paid time off per year.  I do feel that I get enough time to have a life outside of work.

As I mentioned first, if you are a single doctor and a practice owner, your options are much more limited.  It will likely be years before you have built up to the point where you can regularly take time for yourself, though that certainly isn't always the case.  This is the more difficult route to go, but can lead to greater long-term rewards if you're a good business leader and manager.

How much free time you have also depends on how well you can leave your work at the office.  I'm always trying to teach younger vets to avoid looking up cases at home, researching things every night.  While that may be necessary at times, it can lead to burn-out if done too often.  Everyone deserves to have time for themselves to forget their job and be something else.  This is a learned skill and something that can take years to master (if you ever do).  But it's important to try and develop the ability to leave work behind.

So Jessica, whether or not you get much free time depends on your personality and circumstances.  Being a vet is hard work and often long hours, but it doesn't have to consume your every waking moment.


  1. Good points Chris. Avoiding burnout is about balance and being able to engage in other activities and relax. Not always easy but it really is essential!

  2. The trade-off, of course, is that the fewer hours you work, the less money you make. Not a statement of greed, just simple economics. Salaries are already low in veterinary medicine and no practice owner can afford to pay an associate a 60 hour/week salary for 40 hours/week. That said, I was a solo practice owner who is now employed in a non-practice position. My current job does not pay for vacation time and the benefits are decent only because they're better than what I could afford as a self-employed veterinarian. I left practice for reasons other than the long hours so I don't mind the occasional long day (occasionally >12 hours) at my current job. It helps that I enjoy what I am doing now that I don't have to work with clients or worry about persuading them to pay me.

    If you can figure out how to graduate from veterinary school with minimal debt and live modestly after graduation, it is definitely possible to work "short" (40 hour) weeks, as long as you're planning a career in small animal medicine in a region with an after hours emergency hospital. The competition for those highly desirable jobs is currently fierce, BTW. If you're planning a career in large animal medicine, honestly, don't bother. All of my friends who are large animal veterinarians work long hours, even those who have what I would consider to be a decent work/life balance (family, children, social life, hobbies, etc.). Few large animal veterinarians work long hours because they love it. It's just part of the job, especially in the spring. Those who have children have supportive spouses, and that's something to consider as well. You cannot have it all without careful planning and compromise.


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