July 01, 2015


 Taking the leap

​AVMA, Virginia-Maryland center among groups helping veterinarians with career transitions

Posted June 17, 2015  

Almost 28 percent of veterinarians in clinical practice might seek to transition to a nonclinical veterinary career at some point in the future or are currently seeking such a transition, according to a 2013 survey spearheaded by the 2013-2014 class of the AVMA Future Leaders Program.

To what area of veterinary medicine are they interested in transitioning? Some simply wanted to retire entirely or partially. About 25 percent of respondents who answered that question were interested in transitioning to industry, 21 percent to academia, 11 percent to federal or state government, and 10 percent to a nonprofit. Others said they were uncertain of their next move.

Successfully making a career transition requires self-reflection and bravery, said Dr. Valerie E. Ragan, director of the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine at the Virginia- Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

“The beauty of this degree is that there is so very much that we can do that a lot of veterinarians really aren’t aware of,” she said. “I think most veterinarians  can find something that’s going to suit what they’re looking for if they approach it properly.”  

The AVMA and the CPCVM at Virginia-Maryland are among the groups that have provided resources in recent years to help veterinarians prepare to take the leap to another sphere of the profession.  

Virginia-Maryland workshops  

Career transition workshops at the CPCVM have attracted diverse veterinarians, many seeking to transition from private to public practice. The next workshop will be Oct. 9-10 in College Park, Maryland. The center also has put on miniworkshops at the AVMA Annual Convention and other conferences.

“We get a lot of contact from veterinarians who are looking into doing something different, but they still want to be  veterinarians, and they don’t have any idea what’s out there or where to start,” Dr. Ragan said.

The two-day workshop helps participants explore the reasons behind wanting to make a career change. One primary group is veterinarians who have been out of school for one to five years before they realize that private practice isn’t what they want to do for the rest of their careers. Dr. Ragan was in this category, working in small animal practice before she realized she did not want to be in the same building from sunup to sundown and wanted more variety.

Another group is veterinarians who have been in practice 25 years or longer and want to do something different for fun, to give back, or to travel.  

Dr. Valerie E. Ragan

“We walk veterinarians through a process, and that process includes first a period of self-reflection,” Dr. Ragan said. “What are the things that make you happy? What are the things that you are unhappy about or don’t want to do? What are your specific, particular needs, especially deal breakers, like ‘I can move out of this county or city,’ or ‘I have to stay here because my significant other is employed.’ Some people want to keep hands-on with animals; other people don’t ever want to touch another animal again.”

Workshop participants learn more about job opportunities for veterinarians. Dr. Ragan said another way to explore opportunities is simply doing a Web search for attributes such as “international” and “public health.”

After finding a field of interest, Dr. Ragan said, it is important to network to learn more about the field and get to know people. Steps can include informational interviews, shadowing, volunteering, or internships.

Resume writing is another important piece of a career transition. Dr. Ragan said job candidates need to explain how their background applies to the new position. She said clinical practitioners develop all sorts of skills, from communications to the control of infectious disease.

Sometimes a career transition can mean building a business on the side or completing additional training. Usually, there is a leap of faith.

Dr. Ragan made her first career transition when she saw a brochure for a Department of Agriculture training program. She went on to become a field veterinarian working on cattle diseases. She worked in the United States and then overseas, eventually moving into administration.

She left to start a consulting company focusing largely on brucellosis eradication around the world. She sold the company to take the position at the CPCVM, but she continues to consult on brucellosis internationally.

AVMA toolkit

The 2013-2014 class of the AVMA Future Leaders Program, with assistance from the CPCVM, created resources to help AVMA members with the career transition process. The class sent its survey on career transitions to 2,000 AVMA members and received 342 responses, with respondents indicating interest in a spectrum of resources.

The class decided to develop a decision tree to help veterinarians take the process one step at a time, said Dr. Eric M. Willinghan, a member of the class and owner of Winfield  Veterinary Consulting Inc. in Delray Beach, Florida. He led development of an online toolkit available to AVMA members.

“Some of it is very introspective, thinking about who you are and what you want to be,” Dr. Willinghan said. “Where do you want to be in five years? Why are you looking to change? What are you trying to get out of this?”

The toolkit starts with a long list of career options for veterinarians in academia, associations, clinical practice, computer software, government, industry, international work, locally based services ranging from disaster response to animal shelters, management, media work, research, the Uniformed Services, veterinary diagnostic laboratories, and writing, editing, and publishing.

Dr. Eric M. Willinghan worked with dairy farmers in Uganda as part of a Heifer International project while he was in poultry pharmaceuticals with Eli Lilly and Co. He has been a poultry scientist, poultry veterinarian, large animal veterinarian, and business consultant. (Courtesy of Dr. Eric M. Willinghan)

The toolkit goes on to link to two self-assessment tools from the CPCVM that help veterinarians assess what career might be best for them. Next is information about how clinical practitioners can translate their skills into other settings.

“When you’ve been in one job or one type of job for so long, your resume is going to really just look like that job,” Dr. Willinghan said. “You need to look more at what skills you develop.”

The toolkit also assists veterinarians with marketing themselves. Dr. Willinghan said job seekers always need to be networking, joining groups, and getting outside their current box.

“Most people like helping other people, like talking about their story,” he said. “You just have to pick up the phone and start the conversation.”

The last step in the toolkit is a link to current job opportunities in the AVMA Veterinary Career Center.

Dr. Willinghan has made many career transitions himself. He started out as a poultry scientist before becoming a large animal veterinarian briefly and then a poultry veterinarian. He worked for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. He earned his master’s of business administration and was a business consultant in Kazakhstan for MBAs Without Borders. He worked in poultry pharmaceuticals for Eli Lilly and Co. before returning to practice as a poultry veterinarian.

“You have to step through the door, you have to take the initiative, you have to take the risk,” he said.  

Other AVMA resources

Overseeing the AVMA Veterinary Career Center is Dr. Patricia L. Wohlferth-Bethke, an assistant director of the AVMA Membership and Field Services Division.

A career transition can result from seizing an opportunity, she said. After 27 years in small animal practice, she was looking for something new. She knew someone at the AVMA, there was a position, and she got the job.

Usually, she said, people need to make a plan. Particularly following the economic downturn, she received calls from veterinarians in clinical practice looking into other options.  

Dr. Patricia L. Wohlferth-Bethke (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

“The first thing I ask is, ‘What do you want to do?’” she said. “The other thing is, ‘If you weren’t a veterinarian, what would you have done?’”

Being able to move is a major consideration, and one idea for people with families is to try something for a year with visits home. In other cases, people who can’t realistically change jobs can figure out how to make work better or do something on the side to re-energize, such as teaching.

“A lot of times, I ask a few questions, and they end up just talking it out,” Dr. Wohlferth-Bethke said. “That means  somebody who was a little bit despairing actually had the answers in them.”

She said veterinarians considering a career transition appreciate learning that they are not alone and that there are resources. She points to the AVMA toolkit and career center. The career center offers not only job listings but also webinars on career opportunities and other topics.

At the same site, the AVMA has listings of certain training and service opportunities, including in conservation, environmental, wildlife, and zoological medicine and international opportunities.

The AVMA Annual Convention has featured an assortment of programming on career transitions. The CPCVM put on a general workshop during the 2013 and 2014 conventions and a workshop on global career transitions in 2014. The 2013-2014 class of the Future Leaders Program offered a symposium at the 2014 convention, plus a luncheon with veterinarians in fields beyond clinical practice.

The Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative will host two sessions on “Veterinary Career Transitions as a Leader,” focusing on creating a path in the world beyond private practice, during the 2015 AVMA Annual Convention in Boston. The sessions are 4-5:50 p.m. Saturday, July 11.

“Not everybody who considers transitioning is going to ultimately end up doing it, but it’s comforting to know that you have options,” Dr. Wohlferth-Bethke said.  

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