SAVMA sessions prepare veterinary students for their professional journeys

Presentations focus on first jobs, contract negotiations, and career changes

It seemed as though one topic was on everyone’s mind at the 2023 Student AVMA (SAVMA) Symposium: jobs. For veterinary students, finding that first position is only the tip of the iceberg. Navigating interviews, contract negotiations, and eventual career transitions are all inherent to the profession.

Held March 17-19 by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, SAVMA Symposium presentations offered valuable guidance to eager veterinary job seekers.

Road sign with multiple directions
The AVMA offers various resources for job seekers, including information about job search etiquette and negotiating contracts.

Tips for your first job search

Compassionate, empathetic, people pleasing, and high achieving. These personality traits are recognizable among veterinarians and other professionals such as human medical doctors and dentists.

These are also the traits associated with the highest rates of burnout, explained Dr. Dana Varble during the session “Fun Facts, First Jobs, and the Fine Print” on March 18.

Dr. Varble is chief veterinary officer of the North American Veterinary Community and an associate veterinarian on a limited basis at Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital in Skokie, Illinois. She explained that finding the right job with a positive culture can have a substantial impact on wellness, regardless of personality traits.

“Your job environment is a better indicator of whether or not you’re going to burn out than your individual traits,” Dr. Varble said.

When starting the job search, Dr. Varble said veterinary students should prioritize being professional and shouldn’t ghost potential employers.

“Our profession is very small; you will run into people again,” Dr. Varble said. “If you decline an internship, it’s OK to do so, but be polite, be kind.”

If deciding among a few positions, Dr. Varble suggested veterinary students visit the jobs in person to see how the practice works and if they will fit in with the culture.  

When on site, prospective employees should shadow the veterinarians in examination rooms and in surgery. This is also a great chance to talk to the staff away from the boss. Interviewees can offer to assist walking dogs in kennels, help at the front desk, or see if veterinary technicians or veterinary assistants could use a hand.

Understanding contracts

When considering a contract, look at the parts individually, not just the contract as a whole. There are many elements of a position that aren’t typically included in a contract, such as specific or scheduled hours for staff and doctors.

Details about mentorship also aren’t usually in a contract. Ideally, an employer will have a documented plan they can show an employee outlining professional goals and what they plan to cover during different time frames.

“No one expects you to leave school and be rearing to go the next day,” Dr. Varble said. “If they do, that’s not realistic.”

Another important aspect of contracts is to understand the terms of the benefits that are offered, including mental health support, employee assistance programs, pet care, and 401(k) matching.

Sign-on bonuses are popular right now, and Dr. Varble emphasized that employees should carefully review the terms of these agreements.

In addition, topics such as educational loan repayment, profit-sharing, bonuses, buy-in potential, days off, memberships and dues, are not usually in a contract but worth asking about.

“I cannot stress this enough,” Dr. Varble said. “You need paid time off! You need days off just because!” 

Specifically ask what the policies, limitations, and restrictions are for paid time off, holiday shifts, and weekend work.

Finally, when considering a new employer, she advised looking out for these red flags:

  • Unwilling to negotiate and generally inflexible
  • Unwilling to arrange a visit or visit is limited
  • Unwilling to allow communication with staff
  • Unnecessarily applying pressure to sign
  • Hard to reach or poor communication skills
  • High employee turnover

When reviewing a job contract overall, prospective employees should focus on how the position can help achieve their career ambitions. 

“Start thinking about your one-year goals, your three-year goals, because your first job should get you closer to them,” Dr. Varble said.

Navigating career changes

People leave jobs for all sorts of reasons: financial situations, different life stages that require more flexibility, moving to a new home, having a baby, and more.

Dr. Tannetjé Crocker, an emergency and critical care veterinarian at Veterinary Emergency Group, shared career lessons from her 14 years as a veterinarian during the session “Navigating Career Transitions” at SAVMA Symposium.

She explained that if you experience bullying or a toxic work environment that is harmful to your health, get out as soon as possible.

“Job options are out there, and while there’s a lot outside of life that you can’t control, you can make the decision to find a better fit,” Dr. Crocker said.

If you’re considering leaving a job, she recommends exploring the following questions:

  • What are your top three concerns?
  • What have you done to address these issues?
  • What are your options?
  • Have you spoken to current employees?
  • Are you ready to make a change?

Dr. Crocker suggested having a conversation with leadership before putting in your resignation. She recommended giving your employer two to three months’ notice and suggested being as honest and straightforward as possible.

“You do have to approach these conversations more logical than emotional,” Dr. Crocker said. “Communication is key, ultimately.”

Ultimately, whether a veterinarian is seeking a fast-paced ER position, or a flexible schedule at a small clinic, they shouldn’t be afraid to pursue their interests.

“This degree is limitless so don’t limit yourself,” Dr. Crocker said. “I’ve worked at a lot of amazing places, and as much as you hear that it’s hard to find work that fits you, there’s absolutely a place for every one of you.”