Veterinarians find new career paths with help of program aiming to become national center
Many veterinarians reach a point where they are looking for an exit ramp off the career track they have followed since graduation, even since childhood dreams.
A center based at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine on Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus helps veterinarians from across the nation find new routes, applying their education, experience, and skills to move into areas of veterinary medicine beyond private practice, such as government or industry.
The center was recently visited by an external review team as it seeks to be recognized as a National Center for Excellence. Plans are underway to develop a dedicated space for the center in the veterinary college’s newest wing.
“We view our work in career transition as a service to the profession,” said Valerie Ragan, director of the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine.
The center’s Career Transition Workshop for Veterinarians consists of one Monday night introductory session followed by Thursday to Saturday night sessions for two consecutive weeks. It is available via Zoom and costs $225.
“The reason for the evening and weekend scheduling is because most participants are private veterinary practitioners,” said Ragan, also an associate professor of practice in population health sciences at the veterinary college. “They're going to be working all day, and they can't leave the clinic for three days. So we do it in the evenings for two hours at a time. We also record the sessions, so they know if they can’t get there, they can watch it later.”
The workshop will inform veterinarians about the many career options available in veterinary medicine, provide practical training in how to find options that may be a good personal career fit, and discuss how to successfully apply and interview for those openings.
“We walk them through a process of assessing themselves, their personalities, their interests, and what criteria they are looking for in a career,” Ragan said. “And then we guide them on how to utilize what they learned about themselves to explore careers, including where to search to discover the kinds of things veterinarians are doing and to trigger some ideas about potential career options.”
Ragan has been conducting similar sessions since 2011, formerly in person. The shift to online during the COVID-19 pandemic proved advantageous, with a wider reach to people from all over the nation who no longer have to travel for the workshop’s benefits.
Jessica Watson, now a national enforcement coordinator in animal care for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service, attended a single day of a two-day career transition seminar Ragan led in Maryland in 2015. Watson, then a small animal veterinarian, said “it just completely changed my life.”
Watson, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine graduate from Michigan State who hails from the Washington, D.C., area, said she was encouraged by Ragan’s warm response to an email when she asked if it was worthwhile to only attend the second day of the seminar, which focused on resume building, after drawing a 12-hour clinic work shift on the first day.
Watson said she had been hitting a brick wall applying for government jobs before attending the seminar.
“I remember she [Ragan] held up this resume, and said, ‘What do you guys think of this resume?,’" Watson said. “We're like, ‘Oh, it's a lovely resume.’ And she replies, ‘No, this is not the resume you want to send the government. They don't care that you can spay a dog. They don't care that you can pregnancy-check a cow. … They want to know, do you have critical thinking skills? Do you have writing skills? What are your communication skills?’ … That's what they want to see, leadership skills, and you lead a team of medical staff every day.‘ “
Watson’s revamp of her resume landed her a subject matter expert job with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association within months and a few years later she joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Reasons veterinarians decide to make a career shift are wide ranging, but burnout is the most commonly cited factor. Private clinic work, in particular, can be emotionally draining with extreme demands on veterinarians' time, taking them away from family and other interests.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every six veterinarians has contemplated suicide, and Australian research found 70 percent of veterinarians have lost a peer to suicide.
“A number of the vets we’ve talked to have been close to that,” Ragan said of the high veterinarian suicide rate. “Some who seek the center’s help have already quit jobs and are currently unemployed.”
Health issues are another reason some veterinarians shift their career focus, as allergies, injuries, physical limitations, or inability to handle animals can make their work increasingly difficult.
“Some people want more time with family,” Ragan said. “But some people are just interested in doing something else. … We've had others whose spouse or significant other is moved to another town and the clinic there doesn't need another veterinarian. There's a whole range of reasons why veterinarians seek a career change.”
While a majority of the center’s clients are small animal veterinarians, others come from government, private industry, and academia wanting to learn about how to enter other tracks available to veterinarians.
“It's also important to realize that just because you work in government, doesn't mean you actually understand all the opportunities available to you,” said Cassidy Rist, associate director for the center and assistant professor of practice in population health sciences, who assists Ragan in conducting the workshop.
Ragan and Rist are also working to expand the center’s services with online modules that can be viewed anytime and providing additional counseling and coaching beyond the once- or twice-yearly workshops
“At least 50 percent come out of the workshop feeling like, ‘I've been equipped now with what I need to go out and make a change, I'm empowered,’” Rist said. “The other half might feel like they need a little more guidance. And that's where we've talked about building out our services even further."
Rist said the feedback received from participants in previous career transition workshops is “extremely positive, saying this is of great value.”
Watson, now working mostly remotely in her third role since leaving a small animal clinic, agrees.
“I'm forever grateful for Dr. Ragan and this program and I'm so glad that the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is continuing this program and allowing it to be available to veterinarians, and I hope that it continues for many, many years to come,” Watson said. “We can get veterinarians in these positions where we need them, working for industry, working for drug companies, working at the university level. It’s just so important, so impactful.”