Okay, first of all, I am not sure if this blog is going to resonate with everyone. It could be one for the neurotic geeks. People like me. The ones who have a lot of themselves and their identities wrapped up in being a veterinarian. The ones who want their jobs to be perfect. When it’s not perfect, we are disappointed, we feel let down by our profession and ourselves. We feel like we are letting others down too. Perhaps we even start looking for greener pastures. And this is, I think, one of the biggest challenges of our careers and possibly, of life. When do you accept that this job (insert other big life questions in here if you wish) is as good as it’s going to get, and when do you cut and run?
My first job after my internship was at a truly horrific small animal practice. It was beautiful on the outside. It even had a waterfall in the waiting area and a pavilion where you could buy overpriced pet goods, but it was all a façade. The owner was a bad man. He hit dogs who were misbehaving in the back and both his medicine and ethics were highly questionable. He would use the same surgical pack for multiple spays and neuters. When I interviewed for the position, I asked him if he wore a gown for dog spays, as I thought this was a good measure for the quality of practice. He said yes.
Unfortunately, he neglected to mention that it was the same gown and that he and his colleague would pass said gown back and forth between surgeries, mostly to prevent them from getting blood on their street clothes. So, we had irreconcilable differences and I knew it after day one on the job. I should have run away, but I was too naïve, too stubborn and determined that this must be my problem somehow and I needed to make it work. I am not a quitter.
Turns out, if you don’t agree with the boss and practice owner, something has to give, and that something is you. You get fired. I got fired six weeks in, just after a fascinating discussion about whether or not a surgical pack was still sterile after the fourth or fifth dog spay and if it is OK for your tech to eat a sandwich in the OR during surgery. It was a very dark moment in my young career.
Perhaps this experience scarred me into constant reevaluation of my job. I also think that academia might be the most classic place for thinking the grass is greener. There are some pretty big problems in academia. Let me list some of them for you (these are things I have heard): overworked, underpaid (most specialists in academia make half of what their private practice counterparts make), underappreciated, the administration never follows through on their promises, being asked to do more and asked why they haven’t achieved X, ignoring Y and Z, blah blah blah.
There is a constant flow of talent streaming from academia into private practice. Young specialists often become disillusioned and realize that getting paid double and a four-day work week actually is better than being a part of the future of the profession and “giving back”. They can move into private practice and give up a part of themselves that they identify with in exchange for a chance to retire earlier. This sets off another round of the never-ending game of academic musical chairs. One academic position comes open, someone moves, another one comes open at another institution, and so on, and so on.
The question is, how do you decide if you are happy in your job? I don’t think you can let your job or career alone decide this. However, most veterinarians identify strongly with their careers, so it is a major factor. I don’t have all of the answers, but here are some things that I have learned in the past 20 years of vetting:
1 – Assholes are everywhere.
In every organization, there is a certain percentage of people that are complete dicks. Moving to get away from an asshole is a bad idea because you will just find a different asshole and it will take you a while to realize who the dicks are. If you can, try to manage your own dick(s). If you don’t know what I am talking about, please stay in your current job forever.
2 – Bullies are the exception to rule.
If you are being bullied in the workplace, this is an unmanageable situation and you need to find a way to change it. If your dick is a bully or a sociopath, it is not likely to be workable. You should try, but sometimes you do have to change jobs. Life is too short to be bullied. If you have insomnia and diarrhea more than you don’t have insomnia and diarrhea, this is a sign you need to make a change. Life is short.
3 – Are you stressed out all the time?
Starting your career is stressful and being a vet is stressful too. However, at some point, you need to feel like you are good at your job and that you’ve got this. If you are stressed all the time (see above, insomnia, diarrhea) it is possible that you need to make a change. You might even need to do something radical like move from a clinical to a nonclinical position or even get out of veterinary medicine altogether. (Side note, is it just me or has anyone noticed that the industry vets are winning?) Very scary stuff to consider, but compassion fatigue, working weekends, and getting yelled out by clients is not for everyone.
4 – Being a vet is really hard.
I don’t think that this can be overstated. We picked a tough profession. I think we need to give ourselves a break sometimes and try to work on ways to make being a vet more like being a normal person, but for now it is not. We are not normal. We don’t eat lunch, pee regularly, or have weekends off like normal people. Try not to obsess too much about the fact that you could have become a dental hygienist, drug dealer or hedgefund-douchebag and it would have been easier and you would have made more money. (No offense to the dental hygienists or drug dealers.) I don’t think it matters what kind of vet you are, there is some universal shitty-ness that unites us all. If it is just too hard, it’s ok. See #3.
5 – Love where you live.
I have moved a lot for work, which has been an exciting adventure in many ways, and I am grateful for this. However, it is important to keep in mind that you do need to love where you live so that you can enjoy life outside of work. This means many things to many people so you need to define this for yourself. Some people are great at finding things that make them happy anywhere they live, but if you really need something to make you happy – rural, city, mountains, ocean, heat, seasons, culture, like-minded people – make sure you try to find work where you can have access to this on your time off.
6 – Family and friends are a precious commodity.
I have always moved anywhere for the job. My parents were immigrants from the UK to Canada, so this was always part of my ethos. Also, I finished high school and vet school in Saskatchewan in 1996. At the time, the economy wasn’t great, so everyone left Saskatchewan (which is actually a huge shame because it is a wonderful place to live. You will have to trust me on this one.) So now my friends and family are scattered all over Canada, the USA and even further afield. I would love nothing more than to round them all up and make them all live in one place. If you have most of your family and friends in one place, recognize how precious this is and even if you wander a bit in your career, try to find your way back home.
7 – Look at Sarah’s job happiness formula.
Figure out what is important to you and try to get over 80%. You won’t get 100%, no one ever does. Look at the big picture. Try to examine if one factor is dominating in the numerator or denominator. It looks something like this:
Job X Money X People X Place (+/- Bully/ α )X100% = Grass Greenness
Dicks X Tough Hours X Commute X (Work Stress – It’s hard)
Never stop believing in your happiness. You worked too hard for this.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Boston is a veterinary surgical oncologist and public speaker. Sarah is also a cancer survivor and author of the best-selling, hilarious memoir, Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved my Life. Follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.