Choosing Your First Job
Congratulations on getting through finals! Passing your finals as a vet opens so many doors to you as you begin your career. Although the profession is extremely varied, most graduates choose to start their careers in general practice, but it is worth remembering that there are alternatives. This article will focus on choosing a job in general practice. Remember that you can be picky about your first job, and you will be happier and more successful in the future if you take the time to make sure that you have made the correct choice, even if it means taking a few months, having several interviews and even turning some of those offers down!
Remember that an interview should be a two-way process. As well as allowing your potential employer to assess you, going for an interview also gives you the chance to explore the practice, ask probing questions about the nature of the work and the facilities and allows you to speak to existing staff about their experiences of the practice.
It may feel like you have been working all of your life to get to this point. However, it is important you think about more than just your career when choosing a first job. In order to enjoy your job and career you need to be happy with your life outside work, and therefore factors such as location in the country, your proximity to your friends, family and partner, and the availability of your interests and hobbies should be at the forefront of the decision making process.
As mentioned above the location is probably the most important factor to consider when choosing a job. As well as personal factors about where in the country you would like to live and work, the location of the practice you choose will affect the nature of the work you do. If you are set on a farm animal career, then a practice in Central London is going to be out of the question! Generally the opportunities for small animal practice will be spread throughout the country, although there may be more opportunities in more urban areas. Large animal work is much more geographic and you will find that the opportunities in the South West, Wales etc for cattle work are far greater than in, for example the South East. The farm animal work that is available will also vary, from large, progressive units with hundreds of animals to small holdings, with only a few pet sheep, and poor handling facilities! You will need to think about the aspect of the job you want to enjoy and choose accordingly.
Type of Work
The variety of life as a vet is one of the great draws of the career. As you set out into your first job you will need to decide what species you want to focus on. The main options are mixed practice or species specific practice, such as equine, small or farm animal. Although a sweeping generalisation, the more specific your job the faster you will be able to progress in that field, but the faster you will forget your vet school teaching in the other fields; if you split your time into mixed practice you will inevitably spend less time dealing with cattle than a solely farm animal vet – but you will be a more experienced small animal vet than that colleague!
When looking at practices consider the opportunities you will have within the team. Remember that opportunities even in small animal practices will vary widely, such as the amount of time a new graduate will spend operating, consulting and carrying out diagnostics. It is important to ask and be clear about the work you will be doing, and whether this is what you are looking for.
In mixed practice, the proportion of work is also important, and you need to make sure that you are satisfied with both the advertised proportions of work, and the true amount that you will do. Often the overall proportion of work is not shared equally with, for example, certain vets doing a larger proportion of large animal work, meaning you feel that you are unable to gain as much experience in this field. It is vital that you speak to other assistants at the practice about how they find the work and the amount of time they spend with each species. You may also want to consider how different work, such as TB testing, is shared amongst the vets; again, it is vital that you try to speak to the other staff at the practice, especially the person you are replacing (if appropriate) to get a true feeling for how the practice works.
The other danger of mixed practice, particularly if not close to 50:50 small:large, is having to deal with relatively unfamiliar species out of hours; you may be expected to deal with a calving, alone, at midnight when generally your boss sees all the farm animals during the day. Having said that, some people relish that challenge, and it should not put you off if you are confident in your ability to deal with emergencies and enjoy that aspect of the work. However, it is something you need to think carefully about if you are preparing to accept a mixed job.
Quality of Work & Facilities
It may seem obvious, but if you want to learn how to ultrasound, then you need to work at a practice that has an ultrasound machine. The facilities in practice vary hugely across the country, and how important the “toys” are is something you need to think about – endoscopy, digital radiography, ultrasound and so on, will alter how much you are able to develop your skills, and also how far you will be able to work up and treat animals before a referral becomes necessary. Some new graduates find the transition from the quality of work at a high end, referral centre at vet school to a general practice environment difficult; unsatisfied by the lack of facilities and expertise, whilst others relish in being able to take a more pragmatic and less intensive approach to veterinary care. Where you fit in that scale will determine how important the facilities at a practice are and the emphasis you will place on them. Generally I would say that for most people the challenge of starting as a new graduate is great enough without high level diagnostics – the facilities will probably become more important as you progress in your career.
Basic facilities such as a separate dental table, or a second operating table are probably more valuable to us in the first six months than endoscopy or colour Doppler ultrasound! Having these basic facilities will mean you may be more likely to have a second vet around while operating, and you are less likely to be pressured to finish your operation so someone else can have the table.
Basic facilities such as a good dental machine, computer records system, and automated X-Ray developer (if not digital) are things you should definitely be looking for.
Similarly, the quality of the work will vary with the client base and the other staff. Consider whether you want to work for a practice with certificate holders or specialists for, potentially, more opportunities to learn. Having said that you may find that that the presence of experienced, interested vets means less opportunity for a new graduate to “have a go”, and may leave you with less experience. It’s worth talking to current staff about case management and advice available, to decide whether it suits you. Additionally, although very hard to assess, you need to gauge how willing the other vets will be to teach you, as the latest toys are only as good as the person using them, and you will learn much faster if someone is prepared to help you.
Location and the clientele the practice attracts can also, but probably to a lesser extent, affect the work that you will be doing. For example, whether the practice attracts high numbers of insured clients or is in a wealthy area will alter how far you are able to work up cases and affect job satisfaction.
In all likelihood the step to practice will see a huge change in your social structure, moving from being with all your friends at university to, in the most extreme, moving to a village where you don’t know anybody for miles around. Hopefully you will have taken the location/work-life balance sections seriously, and only embark on such a job if you are sure you want to. Until you establish yourself in the community, through hobbies or other interests, the practice will probably be your main source of friends and social events. Therefore consider asking some of the staff about what the practice's social life is like. Practices are also very variable in terms of numbers of staff and the ages of the staff – large, “young” practices are likely to be more sociable, if that is important to you!
The size of the practice will also affect the work that you do. Larger practices will often offer you more opportunities to learn, with many different opinions and, in all likelihood, different staff with different interests and strengths, as well as more support. However, you need to remember that you may end up sharing certain work between more staff, with opportunities such as surgical time suffering if there a lot of vets to share the rota, slowing the speed at which you will gain experience in these areas.
As a new graduate, however diligent you were as a student, you will lack experience and practical skills when you first start. Support is vital from your colleagues to allow you to feel that you are doing a good job, not get too stressed out by the pressure and, most importantly, enjoy your career. Practices are extremely variable in terms of the levels and types of support they offer to new graduates. Consider whether they are used to employing new graduates and how rapid their turnover of staff is. Most importantly, ask how they will support you and talk to other employees, particularly the young vets about the support they have been offered. Think particularly about how much help will be available when consulting (will you be abandoned in the branch practice on your 2nd day!), operating (will someone else be around to help when the bitch spay starts bleeding?), and out of hours (will someone be available at any time, day or night, for advice or even to attend). Good practices will make you feel able to ask advice of the other staff about anything, however stupid it may seem! Some practices will rota a senior member of staff on call with a less experienced colleague out of hours, but this, unfortunately, is not the norm. A lack of support is probably the most common problem that new graduates experience when they start their careers, and leaves many young vets unhappy in their job.
Lots of the support you receive as a recent graduate will come from the nurses, as they often know lots more useful stuff than you when you start. A practice with a sufficient number of well trained, competent nurses will probably make your first few weeks a lot easier, as you badger them with questions about where things are kept and battle with wriggling animals.
OOH & Rota
People feel differently about whether they want to have a job that includes out of hours (OOH) work. Generally large animal work will involve providing night cover, whereas many small animal practices will use an OOH provider. Many new graduates will want to gain experience in emergency work and therefore want a job with an emergency service, whilst others would rather keep their weekends and evenings to themselves. Some practices will expect their vets to look after practice inpatients overnight, whilst new emergencies are seen by another provider.
If your practice does expect you to cover emergencies it is important to be clear about the rota – how often you will be working the night, with practices varying greatly, such as the difference of a 1 in 2 up to 1 in 6 nights, and how busy those nights are likely to be. Other staff will be able to tell you how the rota works and how tiring it is likely to be. It’s also important to consider whether the practice have a “2nd on call”, which may effectively double the number of nights you have to be immediately available if necessary, but will also provide the added comfort of knowing you can get assistance out of hours. Some practices will also have a senior vet on call for advice and assistance, which is an enormous benefit when on duty.
Another consideration is the nursing staff available, and it is worth considering whether you will have a nurse to assist you (in small animal work) in an emergency – trying to perform surgery whilst also monitoring the anaesthetic is challenging, to say the least!
The phone system will also vary between practices, between the vet accepting the call, an independent answering service with a pager, or one of the nurses accepting the calls. It will make your life less stressful and sleep less interrupted if someone other than you takes the phone calls... but in a pager practice you will still quickly dread that beeping sound!
The Society of Practicing Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS) produce a salary survey each year. This is the best guide to average pay in the profession and should be your first port of call when looking at this. The importance of your salary is very personal, and will depend on your own circumstances. For most new graduates I would expect that the salary, as long as it’s reasonable, isn’t as important as the location, support, facilities and experience you will gain, when choosing a first job, but it is entirely up to you as to how much emphasis you wish to place on pay.
Consider the whole package, and this can be quite confusing, with some practices offering cars and/or houses. The value of a house will depend on the location and quality, but generally is a significant benefit financially compared to renting privately. Alternatively you may be offered a housing allowance, separate to your salary, in order for you to rent privately or just paid a set amount, from which you can choose how much to spend on living. Some practices don’t tax you on your house, as it is considered essential for you to conduct your job, however you should check this at interview, as it could make several thousand pounds difference. Similarly you may be offered a practice vehicle, particularly if you are doing any element of large animal work, and this is a benefit worth considering when looking at the overall salary. Although you are often taxed heavily if you choose to use the work car for private use, if the practice pays for social as well as work fuel (not many do), it is nice to know you can jump in the car to visit friends or family without having to worry about the cost of the petrol.
Practices will have different policies on funding of CPD, membership of societies (BVA, BSAVA, BEVA, BCVA etc), RCVS membership fees and VDS fees, all of which can either be a significant benefit or large cost to you depending on their policy!
Bonus structures in practices vary considerably. Although many will offer a simple flat rate salary, it is becoming increasingly common for staff to be offered a bonus on particular work, particularly OOH work. It is worth bearing them in mind, and many seemingly poorly paid jobs may be significantly boosted by a hefty bonus. If the practice offer a bonus scheme it is worth having the terms explained and talking to the current employees about what it means in terms of real money!
You don’t have to take the first job you are offered. Please make sure that you definitely want whichever job you take; there will be plenty more offers if you turn this one down! However, if you like the first job you are offered then do take it!
Location, Location, Location! Make sure you will be happy with where you are in the country as you can feel very isolated when you first leave university.
Support is vital – don’t take a job unless the senior staff are going to help and support you throughout your early career.
Beware the “small by day, large by night” practice, making sure that the proportion of work with different species is what you want to do.
Ultimately, if you regret your choice of job then you can always plan your next move and leave it. There is no shame in not staying very long, and it is much better than being unhappy and in the worst cases compromising your future confidence and progress.
Know you know what type of job you want, are you ready?
Many recent graduates are daunted by the prospect of starting work and it is a very steep learning curve but it is also extremely fun and rewarding!
This article was previously published in 2017
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