Worldwide medical and scientific journal for animal health professionals

Issue number 2 Human Resources

Getting your first job

Published 22/04/2021

Written by Philippe Baralon , Antje Blättner , Pere Mercader and Mark Moran

Also available in Français , Deutsch and Español

In many countries there is currently a dearth of veterinary surgeons, and you may have various employment options once you graduate. But choosing the right job starts with having a successful interview; this article will ensure that you are properly prepared for the whole process.

Getting your first job

Key points

If you decide to work in practice, your priority as a new vet should be to perfect your technical training and to gain clinical experience.


In many countries, you’ll have the choice between working for an independent practice or a corporate one, so look at the pros and cons of both options.


To prepare an interview, do a “background” check, – for example, check out the practice website and its Facebook page.


During the interview, there are several questions you can ask which will have a positive impact on your image.


Introduction

Starting your professional career as a young graduate is one of the most interesting moments of your life, because so many choices are open to you. It is also one of the most stressful... because so many choices are open to you! 

There are many ways in which a career in veterinary medicine can be developed:

  • One of the first choices to be made is whether you wish to work only with pets and companion animals or in a mixed, equine or large animal practice.

  • Should you get involved as an employee in an existing practice or should you decide early on to go it alone? This choice will be discussed later, together with an explanation as to why the first option is chosen by the majority of young vets and under which conditions the second may be considered.

  • As a new vet, would you be better-off in a small independent practice or in a larger-sized group with several surgeries? The section focusing on this choice details the advantages and disadvantages of these two options.

  • Should you commit early on to general practice or would you benefit from a period of additional training or an internship prior to a more specialised career? The answer, also discussed later, depends on understanding your individual aspirations and areas of competence whilst dealing with the many preconceptions that exist in the sector.

Employee or entrepreneur?

By definition, anything is possible as you embark upon your career in veterinary practice. Nevertheless, there is one golden rule you would do well to follow: It is better to get some experience under your belt as an employee before setting up your own practice (Box 1).

Box 1
Three questions to ask yourself before deciding on your first practice
1. How much freedom will I have when prescribing?
2. How much time and support will I receive for continuing education?
3. What opportunities exist to develop my career in the future?


Regardless of the quality of your initial training, there are several good reasons why you should heed this advice:

  • Your priority as a new vet should be to perfect your technical training and to gain clinical experience (Figure 1).
 

Figure 1. A young vet should prioritise on gaining clinical experience. © Shutterstock
 

  • It is rare for a new vet to have the marketing and commercial expertise needed to promote your services and, subsequently, drugs and food or other relevant products (a subject covered elsewhere in this guide).

  • Regardless of your talent or natural skills as a new vet, you will need to acquire and develop strong managerial skills; firstly, to integrate into a team, then to supervise other colleagues, and finally to hire, motivate, train and retain employees.

  • Few new vets will have specific experience of growing a business. Doing your own job well is not the same as being able to develop the quality and quantity of work performed by a whole team, and is different again from being able to keep a practice’s service provision up-to-date and relevant.

  • As a new vet, it is almost impossible to identify opportunities for development or to choose those that can best be exploited using your own individual strengths. It is equally difficult to overcome the various obstacles hidden within the veterinary business environment.

  • The new vet often finds it difficult to obtain immediate access to the financial resources needed to set up a successful business.

  • Finally, setting up a new business at the start of your career may not necessarily be… good for business! In effect, young entrepreneurs have to bear the risks of setting up their new business without any guarantees of it making any decent returns in the short term. As a general rule, this initial drawback can become an advantage after several years of experience (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Young entrepreneurs have to bear the risks of setting up their new business without any guarantees of it making any decent returns in the short term. © Nonwarit
 

It may seem surprising that there are so many reasons not to start your own business very early on in your career, especially as this pathway has been widely chosen by many vets in the past. Simply put, times have changed and in the vast majority of cases it is not advisable to copy another person’s career. Veterinary practices have evolved significantly over the past 20 years. 

They are now more structured, built around larger teams with differing specialities, and this technical expertise is more focused and more expensive. In addition, veterinary practices based in larger facilities are often better located and better equipped. All these factors reinforce the obstacles, strategically known as “barriers to entry”, that make the creation of an independent practice more difficult, particularly for those at the very start of their careers.

The risk isn’t so much one of total failure but rather of not having the means to succeed quickly enough, so becoming stuck in a suboptimal situation with a practice that is too small, making it impossible to take advantage of the different opportunities that may arise over time.

However, there are rare exceptions to the above principle; situations which combine exceptional maturity from a young vet with a specific opportunity in a given place or with a particular business model. These exceptions are more frequently found in emerging markets such as South-East Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe, than in mature markets like Western Europe, North America or Japan. For those of you who, nevertheless, want to undertake the adventure of setting up your own practice at the start of your career, reading this Special Edition will provide you with valuable information to help you avoid many pitfalls.

Working for a group or an independent practice

As you start looking for your first real job, as opposed to an internship, one of the most important considerations will undeniably be the human team with which you will be working. This team will define the working atmosphere as well as providing the technical and psychological support that are key aspects to starting out on the right track, and developing the confidence needed for personal and professional development. Nevertheless, beyond this small daily working group, it is worth paying attention to the wider environment in which you will take your first professional steps. Will you choose an independent clinic with a single or several surgeries, or would you prefer a larger group, operating across many sites, from a dozen to several hundreds?
 
First of all, it is worth pointing out that the first situation is much more frequent than the second, because large groups don’t exist in all countries. Where such groups do exist, for instance in the USA, the UK, France, the Netherlands or Germany, they presently only operate a minority of the country’s clinics, with the exception being Scandinavia where the market is already dominated by very large groups. So, the question becomes: Are there any particular advantages or disadvantages to starting your career as part of a large group? Often the answer is nuanced, but there are some important issues that will have either a positive or negative influence, depending on your individual circumstances.
 
Hiring policies and, importantly, integration procedures often differ between group and independent clinics, with groups tending to be more professional, although there can be notable exceptions to this rule. For new graduates, one advantage of choosing a group would be to benefit from an integration process that facilitates the assimilation of internal procedures and rules as well as outlining appropriate behaviours. This can be both formative and reassuring. The drawback, however, is that freedom and opportunities to show initiative can be limited, as medical procedures are usually standardised (precisely the aim of larger groups), which therefore delays the experience of “real world” professional practice.
Philippe Baralon

Hiring policies and, importantly, integration procedures often differ between groups and independent clinics, with groups tending to be more professional.

Philippe Baralon

More generally, human resource management is often more formal and more professional in groups offering frequent feedback, annual evaluation meetings, and opportunities to assess your progress and your potential for further development. It must be noted, however, that an increasing number of independent veterinary surgeries are adopting these same tools and methods and, in both cases, the key HR issue remains the professional skill of your direct superior (line manager).

In the longer term, the possibilities for personal development and advancement in a group or an independent practice become more apparent:
  • In a group practice, you will often be able to take charge of particular speciality, a site or even a group of sites; however, whilst it is sometimes possible to subsequently invest in a share of the capital of the group, by and large this is fairly rare, is the opportunity of developing your career to the highest levels.
  • In an independent practice, it is often more difficult to have access to similar responsibilities at the beginning of a career because there are fewer opportunities available due to the small number of roles and surgeries; paradoxically however, it is often easier to become a partner or director, and this can occur much earlier than in a group setting.

It is very difficult to compare and contrast salary information for the two types of employment setting.

Ultimately, you should choose your work setting according to your individual aspirations, personality and, above all, according to the opportunities that are likely to be offered. Furthermore, the landscape of the veterinary industry cannot be split into large groups on the one hand and independent practices on the other. The reality is much more a continuum from standalone practices to a local cluster of clinics belonging to the same owner or partners and to larger groups.

How to succeed in an interview

Congratulations! You have been invited for a job interview and maybe even for a trial at the vet clinic where you would really like to work. So, it´s time to prepare an awesome presentation to impress your new boss and other staff members who are going to sit in on the meeting with you.


Do a background check

Even if you have already done a background check for your application, it´s advisable to go through all the available information about your new workplace again before your appointment to freshen up your memory. Table 1 shows the information you should try to find out beforehand.
 
Background information can often be easily acquired via the clinic´s website and other digital media like a Facebook page, as well as printed media-like flyers and practice brochures. The data you collect helps you to identify important staff members and get a “feeling” of the style in which this clinic conducts their business, in order to adapt your presentation so that you are able to point out where your abilities fit in perfectly.
 
Table 1. Useful background information on a veterinary practice.
People
Who is “on board” in the team?
Names and job roles
Specialisations
Key responsibilities
Organisation
How is the team structured?
Who is in charge?
How many levels of hierarchy are there?
Image
What is the “image” of the clinic?
Do they have a “mission statement”?
How do they describe their vision?
How do they conduct their services?
Facilities
Which services are offered?
What facilities and equipment do they have?
Which services are being especially promoted and highlighted?

 

Review your application

Up to this point, your application has solely been paperwork, so now your strengths should be shown and “sold” to the team that is going to decide if you get the job or not. Check your application because you could miss out if you have omitted something important or forgotten to highlight special knowledge or skills that would give you a unique and strong advantage. Even if you have made a good job of describing your abilities, now is an ideal time to review what you have written to ensure that your strengths are at the front of your mind when you go into the interview. Additionally, it´s a good idea to prepare a small piece of paper or a card containing the most important points from your CV that you can refer to shortly before your interview. Even if you don´t need the backup, it may relax you to know that it´s there.

Ask some questions

The best way to get on track for an impressive presentation is to ask yourself the following questions and to prepare “winning” answers:
 
  • Why do I want to work in this clinic?
  • Why should this clinic employ me?
  • What specifically qualifies me for the job?

You will often be asked these or similar questions in a job interview; so preparing for them is essential to ensure you give confident answers.

Ideally, you should try to find three major points for each of these questions. More points might dilute your message, so concentrate on three good ones which will make it easy for you and your audience.
 

Do a dress rehearsal

Now it´s time to think about what you will wear to the interview and how you will present yourself. It is a good idea to have a dress rehearsal in front of an audience such as a good friend or relation whose opinions you trust, and who can give constructive feedback on your performance. Choose clothes that are neat, but appropriate for a vet. This means don´t dress up too much, because that could intimidate your audience and give the impression that you are more concerned about your appearance than about your work and your clients. Role play all the major points that you want to cover during your performance, refer to your notes (see above) to check if something is missing and adjust accordingly. Rehearsing in front of an audience gives you the chance to get the feel of the situation that is coming up, especially if this is your first interview, it helps to calm you so that you can concentrate on creating an awesome impression. A dress rehearsal will help you to handle small glitches or unexpected situations flexibly and with humour. Prepared, you can now face the interview as composed as possible, knowing you won´t go to pieces if something goes wrong.
 

Tackle D-day

Now the interview is imminent, some final advice for this important day! First of all, make sure you get enough sleep the night before, and take time to schedule your travel to the clinic, including some spare time for incidents like train delays or traffic jams. Be punctual, but not too early (this might create the image of you being over-eager or it might add pressure on the practice team with you sitting waiting for your interview). Try to arrive in a positive mood, be confident and trust yourself that you are well prepared and perfectly able to meet the requirements of the job (Box 2).

 
Box 2
   Interview checklist

Background check done

Application reviewed and at hand

Clothes clean and ready

Hair done

Prepared for questions (answering and asking)

Transport planned with spare time (transport tickets/car ready, tank filled, etc.)

Relaxing activities and enough sleep scheduled beforehand

 

If you have more than one interview lined up, it is important to keep your standards high right to the very last one, even if in your heart you might already have identified your preferred job. You actually never know the outcome of a meeting until the very end, so it´s important that you go into all your interviews with the same diligence and the same positive attitude (Figure 3). Besides, each interview will teach you to perform better and better – so the last one may be the most important one. Remember – there is no second chance to make a first impression!

 

Figure 3. If you are asked to wait, don’t take it personally. Practices are usually very busy. It just means that they need your help! © Shutterstock

Good questions to ask at a job interview

Getting a good job without performing well in a job interview is highly unlikely. When being interviewed in a selection process, the interviewers will already have considered your CV and will normally not be particularly interested in going over precise details of your previous academic or professional career, rather they will want to get to know you better as an individual. They will want to verify your communication skills and decide if you transmit enthusiasm and confidence. They will also want to know if your interest in the work offered is genuine or whether you are simply looking for the first job that is available.

In this context, a candidate that asks intelligent and well-considered questions has more chance of standing out from the rest. Table 2 highlights some questions to ask and explains why they can have a positive effect on the candidate’s image.

 
Table 2. Questions to ask that can have a positive impact on the candidate‘s image.
Question The value of this question
“I've been looking on your webpage and I have been impressed to see the list of medical services that you offer. Do you have any additional or new services planned for the near future?” This question shows you have prepared for the interview and demonstrates an interest by having visited the practice's webpage. It channels the discussion with the interviewer to a higher level, relating it to the centre's services strategy.
“In this practice, what is expected of a young veterinary surgeon?” This question shows your maturity and an orientation towards results.
“On the basis of what criteria do you evaluate young veterinary surgeons and how do you judge if they are fulfilling their work in a satisfactory manner?” This question allows you to obtain a clear understanding of how you will be evaluated and where to focus your performance efforts.
“What are the distinctive characteristics of this practice with respect to others in the area? What do you offer your clients that is different or better than other practices offer?” Again, this question shows you have a global business vision and helps you better understand the business strategy and strengths of the clinic in which you hope to work.
“Is the position for which I'm being interviewed newly created or is this a replacement for someone leaving the role?” This question allows you to better understand the context of the job (increase in work volume, rotation of personnel, etc.). It also shows your interest in the evolution of the practice as a business, beyond the specific issue of the selection process.
“How can my career evolve over the next 2 to 5 years if I join your practice?” This question shows strategic vision from the young veterinary surgeon’s side. In addition, it allows you to know if your future employer has a defined career plan for their veterinary surgeons.
 

 

Conclusion

Whether you ultimately want to own your own practice or not, it is important to consider your immediate options and priorities when you first graduate. As a new veterinarian, the most important thing is to gain good clinical experience and know-how, and that means finding a job which is right for you. Take time to decide what matters, prepare carefully for interviews, and weigh all the pros and cons before accepting or declining a job offer.

 
Philippe Baralon

Philippe Baralon

Dr. Baralon graduated from the École Nationale Vétérinaire of Toulouse, France in 1984 and went on to study Economics (Master of Economics, Toulouse, 1985) Read more

Antje Blättner

Antje Blättner

Dr. Blättner studied in Berlin and Munich and after graduating in 1988 she set up and ran her own small animal practice. Read more

Pere Mercader

Pere Mercader

Dr. Mercader established himself as a practice management consultant to veterinary clinics in 2001 and since then has developed this role in Spain, Portugal Read more

Mark Moran

Mark Moran

Mark Moran has been a consultant to the veterinary profession for the last 19 years, providing business mentoring and support for veterinary clinic owners and key staff. Read more

Other articles in this issue

Issue number 2 Published 28/04/2021

Being a good vet (Part 1)

“If your only tool is a hammer, all problems resemble a nail”. This section will stress the different factors required to make you a “good clinician” and gain confidence in your medical decisions.

By Philippe Baralon , Antje Blättner , Pere Mercader and Mark Moran