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February 15, 2021

Developing your career in a way that supports you

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Dr. Melanie Bowden knows that the young veterinarians she speaks to are, like her, working hard to be fantastic veterinarians—and probably working too much, at that.

She gave a talk at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference, held virtually Jan. 7-9, on “Developing An Amazing Veterinary Career: A New Way of Evaluating Professional Development With the Goal of Your Career Supporting You.”

She encouraged young veterinarians to think about professional development more critically and with more intention, “so that you can be one of those veterinarians who practices for 50, 60 years because you love it and because it supports who you are as a person outside of work.”

Graphic illustration: Career highway

Dr. Bowden gave a TED Talk on the same topic a year earlier, because she had seen, according to the description for the VLC session, “far too many amazing veterinarians quit and leave the field because they fell victim to a downward spiral from lack of support, unmet expectations, disengagement, being overwhelmed, becoming depressed and burning out.”

After earning her veterinary degree in 2016 from Washington State University, Dr. Bowden worked first for Banfield Pet Hospital and then at a small animal practice in Spokane, Washington. At those jobs, she thought she was doing really well, seeing a lot of patients and getting everybody out the door on time, although she often finished doing records late. But she wasn’t really thriving, she was surviving. There were nights she would get home, and her boyfriend would know not to talk to her. Hoodie up, headphones on.

And she thought work-life balance meant working hard and playing hard. On her time off, she’d organize hikes, go on overnight backpacking trips, and go to all her friends’ parties. Still, it was difficult to take paid time off for any reason without feeling guilt. She developed gastric reflux, then gastric ulcers, and started having panic attacks.

Dr. Bowden decided she had to figure out how to redefine her relationship with veterinary medicine. She turned to a wide variety of resources and went through professional coaching. A key resource was a fairly short book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, MD, about how to handle change.

She said veterinarians can examine their lives with the same SOAP format—subjective observation, objective observation, assessment, and plan—they use for their cases. In Dr. Bowden’s version, the S is for the veterinarian’s story. The O involves taking a look at eight dimensions of wellness—emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational, and social—and assessing work quality of life, drawing on Gallup’s 12 questions for team engagement.

For the assessment portion, Dr. Bowden listed the following things that impact workplace satisfaction:

  • How we are paid—production versus salary.
  • PTO—how easy and guilt free it is to take time off.
  • Support from management.
  • Scheduling and changes at work—Do you have any say?
  • Feeling what you do is important and people care about their jobs.
  • If you noticed an area to improve outcomes, do you feel you would be heard?

Then, veterinarians can make a plan by writing down the attributes of their ideal job. What are you most frustrated or dissatisfied with in your current position? What is it that you value most? What are you willing to compromise?

Also: What must your occupation support in terms of financial need, family schedules, activities, other creative outlets or passions, and health?

Dr. Bowden eventually wrote this mission statement for herself: “I believe in relationship-centered care for patients, their owners, and my team members. I practice medicine with honesty, safety, intention, and quality. I lead by example and through empowering and inspiring others.”

A little over a year ago, Dr. Bowden transitioned to full-time relief work to achieve better work-life integration. Recently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she accepted an emergency position in Maine where she works three times a week in addition to performing relief work.