Worldwide medical and scientific journal for animal health professionals

Issue number 2 Other Management

Looking to the future

Published 03/05/2021

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

Also available in Français , Deutsch and Español

It’s never too early to think about the future. For many young veterinary surgeons, their job is primarily the result of a passion for pets. The concept of “career” doesn’t seem to be adapted to their lifestyle, but this section will explain that having a career plan and living your passion can fit together and even be synergistic.

Looking to the future

Key points

In addition to clinical abilities, skills in communication, leadership and business are essential to your career.


There is no obligation to become a practice owner or partner, you can have a great veterinary career as an employee.


For any challenge, ask yourself the questions: will I be able to do it? Will I be happy to do it?


Many questions about your career will be answered after you have experienced various professional situations.


Managing your professional development

The professional decisions the young vet makes in the first few years of their career, such as in which field to work and how to broaden their training, will have a major economic and professional impact on their future. When making these choices, the young vet should be mindful of the following.

You should learn first in order to profit later

Figure 1 shows the typical career pathway for many professionals. The first years are when the greatest increase in learning takes place. As a young professional, it is the best time to absorb new knowledge, to integrate it and make it take root. However, the greatest salary increases will occur further on in your career, when the accumulated experience, personal and professional prestige, and your knowledge network in the sector often allow a better return on the accumulated investment in your personal career development.

It is therefore a very serious strategic error to ignore the lesson of this graphic and to become focused on small salary increases at the beginning of your professional career. The key question for a young veterinary surgeon with a vision of the future should be “In which of these clinics or alternative roles will I learn the most, so that in five or ten years I’ll be a more valuable professional in the market?”.

The salary differences between a successful professional and a mediocre one are much higher at the end of the professional career than at its beginning. Therefore, what is important is not to make more money in the first half, but in the second half of your career. It is a marathon, and the runner that wants to sprint at the start is at a serious risk of running out of steam on the way.

 
Figure 1. Typical career pathway for many professionals.

Balance continuous clinical training with organisational and personal skills

Recognising that for most veterinary surgeons their later career may well involve managing a practice and leading others, there are three areas of knowledge that deserve special attention from the young vet:

  1. Acquire communication skills. These are essential in order to be successful not only with clients but also with your professional colleagues.
  2. Acquire leadership skills. This is essential for anyone who aspires to be a team leader in the future.
  3. Acquire business skills. A good background in finance, strategy and marketing will be an excellent addition to the veterinary surgeon’s technical abilities.
 
Mark Moran

A good background in finance, strategy and marketing will be an excellent addition to the veterinary surgeon’s technical abilities.

Mark Moran

Travel and learn languages

In a more global world, the professional that travels and masters languages has a decisive competitive advantage. Being in countries with more developed veterinary sectors and establishing relations with professional leaders from other countries and cultures can mark the difference between an average-level professional and an advanced-level one. The growing tendency in specialisation makes it essential that any vet wishing to stand out in a medical discipline has to travel and interact with centres of excellence wherever they may be in the world (Figure 2).
 

Figure 2. The professional who travels and masters languages has a decisive competitive advantage. © Cybrain

 

Specialisation, but with common sense

It is undeniable that veterinary medicine, as with the other health sciences, is tending toward specialisation. As we have discussed, as a young veterinary surgeon you must soon choose if you want to be a good general practitioner or if you wish to follow the demanding and complex path to specialisation. Veterinary medicine, our clients and our patients need both career types so there isn’t only one path to professional success. However, what is clear is that those young vets that decide to chance everything on specialisation will need a bit of luck and a lot of skill when choosing their particular field. They will need to decide which specialities they think will develop most in the upcoming years and which of these has currently the lowest number of suitably qualified professionals, so providing the greatest opportunities. It is a difficult choice, with some suggesting Oncology, or Medical imaging, or Neurology or Gerontology.
 

Setting realistic career goals

Veterinary medicine today offers a wide variety of career options and associated goals. At the beginning of a professional life, it´s not always quite clear where the journey is going and which options will appear along the way. As such, it is always a good idea to look into more than one possibility and not to decide on a whim, or whilst feeling overwhelmed by all the options. Planning and consequently pursuing a career is something that takes time, but it´s worth it!

Do an analysis

Before setting goals and starting to work towards them, performing a written analysis of your strengths and weaknesses is essential to point you towards the right path and realistic goals for the future (Figure 3). Looking into your professional and personal traits will give you a solid background for your decisions because it creates a transparent and easily accessible overview to compare with career and/or job descriptions that you have in mind or come your way. Take some time, make sure nothing will interrupt you and write down your strengths and weaknesses in two columns on a piece of paper just as they come into your mind. Allow yourself to “self-brainstorm” and let your thoughts flow easily. Then sort these traits into two further columns, one for professional and one for personal characteristics.

 

Figure 3. Performing a written analysis of your strengths and weaknesses is essential to point you towards the right path and realistic goals for the future. © Shutterstock

Find your fit

Having completed your strengths and weaknesses analysis, you can now start to think about career options that fit perfectly to your professional and personal strengths. If you are a very precise and ambitious learner, then you might want to look into scientific jobs. If you also like teaching, then it may be an option to consider a position as an assistant doctor at a veterinary university. However, if learning and researching intensively is something that does not suit your strengths, it is safe to assume that you would probably be very unhappy in a research laboratory.
 
For outgoing characters who love to have a lot of varying contacts with humans and animals, a job in small or large animal practice is an ideal environment where they can exercise their strengths. For vets who love small animal medicine but are not so much into communicating, it might be an option to steer their career more into specialisations like surgery or diagnostic imaging, which are both fields that mostly do not require the practitioner to engage too deeply with clients. Take some time and research both print and online-media as to which jobs are available and compare the descriptions to your profile. In this way, you will find out which options are appropriate for your first or the next step in your professional career.
 

Plan steps & goals

When it has become clearer in which direction you want your professional life to head, then it is time to plan the necessary steps that will take you there. In most cases, you will have to build your career in several stages, acquiring knowledge and experience as you move on. Plan your career “top to bottom”, starting with your final goal and then moving down to your current position stage by stage. In this way, you will create a realistic career pathway with achievable steps that stays focused on your final goal.

If you have done your “homework” (consisting of analysing your strengths and weaknesses, and researching different options), then you will find a lot of offers that will take you to your final objective. If you discover that your final goal is not on the market yet, you could take this as an opportunity to invent a new service within the veterinary profession. Everything is possible so long as you conduct thorough research to find out, firstly if your new service is actually wanted by clients (and not just a “brilliant” idea), and secondly, how you would propose to offer this service and to get it into the market.

Investing in or buying out a business

At some point, in every professional veterinary career, the issue of owning or buying shares in a veterinary practice will come up. Everyone will have a different response, and our aim here is only to introduce a few issues for consideration.
 
The first point to highlight is that it is not “inevitable”. There is no “obligation” to become a practice partner or owner. It is possible to have a good veterinary career without taking this path. This is particularly true when working in large organisations such as hospitals, surgical groups, etc. where, as mentioned earlier, partnership is not the norm and it is possible to have an increasingly responsible and well-remunerated technical or managerial career without ownership. However, in smaller practices and surgeries, career development often involves investing in, or taking over, the business.
 
Philippe Baralon

There is no “obligation” to become a practice partner or owner. It is possible to have a good veterinary career without taking this path.

Philippe Baralon

It is important to understand what is involved. Becoming a shareholder or buying out a business does not mean that you continue in the same job as a vet but with a better salary in exchange for your financial investment. Your role will change completely because you will be taking on the role of a business director in addition to your existing role as a vet (Figure 4). This means that time and energy must be spent on running the business. That is not to say you will need to spend time preparing the accounts, or payroll, or paying supplier invoices, because these tasks can and should be delegated to a support team or external service providers, but rather on making the key decisions that any business director must make. 

Figure 4. The vast majority of entrepreneurs work more hours and sacrifice more family time for their work than employees. © Shutterstock

The wider business decisions that are taken by owners include:

  • Making major strategic choices: what specialisations should be added or abandoned, how many surgeries to run, with whom should you merge, which business should you buy and to whom should you sell?
  • Managing a team: recruiting, paying, evaluating, motivating, supporting, training and helping your employees to grow as well as where necessary, resolving conflicts and letting some people go.
  • Managing key functions such as defining know-how, enhancing services, defining pricing and purchasing policies.
  • Managing major investments such as equipment and facilities.

As you can see, none of these decisions relates directly to veterinary medicine or surgery. Indeed, if you dedicate time to some or all of these issues, you will have a correspondingly smaller amount of time for actual veterinary practice and will therefore have to accept that a step back from this part of your career may be necessary.

The two main questions to ask therefore relate to aptitude and desire: ”Will you be able to do it?” and “Will you be happy to do it?”. Of the two questions, the second is undeniably the more important as the best way of achieving good performance levels is through desire, training and a good support team. Such an important choice should not be made by default, because it is expected or because you feel you have no choice. Although historically all, or almost all, vets became business owners, these were usually small businesses in terms of staff, client numbers and amounts of investment. Although there is still plenty of variation from one country to another, and from one company to another, veterinary practices have grown and become more complex. They can now be owned and managed by a minority of vets or, in some cases, run by management professionals and owned by investors from other sectors.
 
At what point in your career should you move towards partnership or ownership? As we discussed earlier, it is rarely at the beginning. In fact, we can confidently say that it is better to be secure in your technical, interpersonal and business skills and, if possible, to have gained successful managerial experience as an employee before moving on to the next step. Depending on the individual involved, this can take 5, 10 or even 15 years. There is no standard answer, the time must be right for you.
 
For those considering entrepreneurship and having their own business, the following checklist may be useful:
 
  • Do I understand clearly that to become an entrepreneur means greater financial and professional risks than those of a mere employee?
  • Do I understand clearly that the vast majority of entrepreneurs work more hours and sacrifice more family time for their work than employees? On your marks, get set, go! Now the decision is yours!
  • Do I really like the fact that my work will have dimensions other than merely clinical? In other words, am I interested in and ready to lead personnel teams, to analyse my company’s finances, to design communication plans for my company’s clients, and to make hiring and firing decisions that will directly affect the team?
  • Do I already have some experience in these dimensions?
  • Have I acquired any kind of training that helps me supplement my clinical knowledge with other more business-related knowledge?


Finally

Finally, we should point out that regardless of the advice we have given, life is often about “taking” or not ”leaving” opportunities as they present themselves. Even if they are unexpected and their timing is less than ideal – and at that point, the decision is entirely yours to make (Figure 5).

 
Figure 5. On your marks, get set, go! Now the decision is yours! © Shutterstock

Conclusion

 In this Focus Special Edition, we have sought to provide the young veterinary surgeon with advice on how to get the best from their first years in their chosen profession, and guidance with the early decisions that will shape their veterinary future. A veterinary degree offers many opportunities, and you should take time to consider your options, explore different possibilities, and make careful career choices that are, ultimately, the right ones for you.
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