When clinical practice doesn’t fit

Veterinarians who have switched paths offer advice

September 7, 2012 (published)
By Christy Corp-Minamiji

Photo courtesy of Dr. Radford Davis
Dr. Radford Davis, a public health professor at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, is asked regularly by colleagues in clinical practice for advice on how to change career paths.
Imagine that you spent your childhood summers walking dogs, cleaning kennels, mucking stalls or milking cows. Your school years were spent pursuing A’s with one goal in mind — to get into college.

Once in your chosen university, you studied instead of partied, took extra shifts at a local veterinary clinic or animal shelter and worked in a campus laboratory with the singular aim of making it into veterinary school.

Then, throughout those four years of classes, labs and clinics, you envisioned one thing — the day you would introduce yourself as “Doctor” and begin healing patients.

Now imagine that you find yourself with the stethoscope and patients, but without the guidance of a mentor. Perhaps you’re putting in 50 hours during the work week plus seeing emergencies on weekends. Maybe you find yourself caring more about your patients than their owners seem to. Or you realize that your education, being focused solely on animals and academics, offered no preparation for a service business, and you have no idea how to interact with people — and maybe don’t really want to.

These are real scenarios, not just imagined, for some veterinarians. Sometimes reaching that once-all-consuming goal of becoming a practicing doctor for animals can be a big letdown. In other cases, clinical practice simply doesn’t work out. Maybe a spouse or partner’s career dictates a job change, or other family obligations conflict with a veterinarian’s ability to meet the demands of life as a clinician.

Regardless of the circumstances, when private practice is not an option, what can a veterinarian do?

The question comes up regularly on the message boards of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession. As one unhappy veterinarian wrote recently, “I would really appreciate any and all suggestions because right now I feel that I have worked so hard to get to this career that I’m now not sure is for me.”

Among the many colleagues to offer words of advice and comfort to the dispirited veterinarian was Dr. Radford Davis. An associate professor of public health at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Davis has personal experience with the quandary.

Following his wife to Arizona after graduating from veterinary school, Davis began working at an emergency practice that he “thought should be good.” It wasn’t. Neither the practice culture nor the initial mentorship was what he had hoped. He stuck with it, but “after several years,” he said, “I realized that I don’t like dealing with upset clients. Also, in ER work, you don’t get to build a long-term bond.”

Once he accepted that clinical practice wasn’t for him, Davis began a Ph.D. program on plague, which is endemic in wildlife in the Southwest. He thought he might do laboratory research on zoonotic diseases such as plague, but along the way, Davis learned that he didn't like being in the laboratory. Fortunately, while in the doctoral program, he encountered veterinarians working in public health. Surprised to meet colleagues in this field, Davis was intrigued to learn that public health work was “like being sort of a detective,” which appealed to him. So did the notion of implementing plans. "Public health seemed to fit better," he concluded. And so Davis switched to pursue a Master’s in Public Health degree.

Today, 14 years later, Davis receives at least one email a month from veterinarians in practice asking his advice about changing careers to public health. His recommendation is to learn as much about the field as possible, consulting as many people as possible. As he advised the veterinarian in the VIN discussion: “Keep searching, calling, meeting, emailing, applying. Broaden your vision, talk with vets working in public health, volunteer your time to learn.”

In an interview, Davis added, “It may be as simple as hanging out with a veterinarian at your local public health department. It may be more complicated.” In any case, he said, “The more you can invest and explore, talk with people and meet people, the easier it is.”

Public health is but one alternative to clinical practice. Careers in government, industry and with professional organizations are other possibilities.

Practitioner finds food inspection palatable

Dr. Jaime Kirkpatrick went the government route after a less-than-stellar introduction to clinical veterinary practice. As a new graduate, she found herself taking call shifts every other night and every other weekend, working for straight salary and lacking the ability to call in assistants in a clinic with what she deemed “very poor management.” Kirkpatrick says that she received “absolutely no mentoring from anyone. I had no life because I was on call all the time.”

Her conclusion: “It wasn’t worth it.”

Kirkpatrick started looking online for ideas. She consulted, Career Builder, USAjobs. She remembered during a public health class in school hearing a presentation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). Unfortunately, she could call to mind no specifics. “It was an incredibly vague lecture,” Kirkpatrick said. “I didn’t actually know what was involved.”

She decided to apply for a position with FSIS anyway.

Kirkpatrick learned that the application process for federal positions can seem long and confusing to practitioners accustomed to the comparative informality of the clinical interview setting, and that the government has its own way of doing things. For example, a resume is required as part of the application to FSIS — the longer, the better, Kirkpatrick said. “Put in every experience you’ve ever had in your entire life,” she said. “A one-page resume is not going to get you very far when you’re applying for government work.”

Things went well for Kirkpatrick. She first received a letter letting her know she was qualified. Then a local frontline supervisor called to say that a position was open in her area of Wisconsin.

They spoke for an hour, during which Kirkpatrick tried her best to learn more about what the job entailed. With a background in small animal practice, Kirkpatrick had never been in a poultry slaughter plant before. She asked for a tour and to meet with the on-site veterinarian.

That veterinarian she found to be “brutally honest," Kirkpatrick said. "She said that she didn’t love the job, but she didn’t hate it. She loved the hours, and the lack of stress.” By lack of stress, she meant that food safety inspection work doesn’t involve dealing with distraught owners or worrying about missing a complicated diagnosis.

“FSIS is not for everyone," Kirkpatrick acknowledges. "A lot of people don’t like the slaughter aspect." But for those for whom that is not a problem, "it’s a pretty good career choice," she said.

Kirkpatrick began her FSIS career with two years as a supervisory public health veterinarian, which put her in charge of general inspection activities at a chicken plant. Today, her title is Enforcement Investigation and Analysis Officer. As such, she performs “comprehensive food safety assessments at plants that produce meat,” she explains. She calls her current position “fun. It involves more critical thinking and problem solving than an in-plant position.”  The position entails travel and inspecting facilities as varied as a small hog-butchering facility or a plant that produces pizzas.

Kirkpatrick hears occasionally from veterinarians thinking about government work and wondering if they’re qualified. She notes that her agency has a comprehensive training program for entering veterinarians. “Once you get into FSIS, there are a lot of opportunities, especially if you’re willing to move,” she said. Veterinarians may become frontline supervisors or district specialists or work up to positions in Washington, D.C.

Industry came calling

Dr. Wendy Vaala landed in an industry job circuitously and somewhat by chance.

Her original plan was to enter equine practice, but in veterinary school, she found she loved the training in small animal medicine as well as large. “I loved the people-contact in small animal and that feeling that I was treating part of the family,” Vaala said.

So after graduation, she worked in two private practices so that she could be involved with both large and small animal disciplines.

Eventually, love of horses won out. Vaala, now a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, pursued an internship and residency in large animal medicine and surgery. After the residency, she took a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, where she helped to start a foal unit at the New Bolton Center.

Her stint in academia lasted 15 years, after which Vaala started a private equine medicine referral service. While in academe as well as in private practice, Vaala would give continuing education lectures. In this way, she developed a network of contacts, including some with Intervet, a pharmaceutical company now owned by Merck Animal Health.

Vaala hadn’t thought about working in industry. But Intervet approached her, and she was receptive. “I liked the people I had worked with and that it was a science-minded company,” she said.

The job offer, to work on the Intervet equine team primarily as a lecturer in continuing education for veterinarians, also happened to jibe with her personal life. Unlike specialty practice, which tied her to areas of the country with high-end equine populations, an industry job gave Vaala the flexibility to move to the rural Midwest. She lives in Wisconsin.

Now a Senior Equine Technical Service Veterinarian at Merck Animal Health, Vaala notes that although she is no longer in daily physical contact with the animals she loves, they remain very much a part of her work. Her job is “all about learning new things and how I can apply that to the horse. The horse is still my passion,” she said. “In industry, I have the opportunity to help thousands of horses.”

Professional organization another path

Photo courtesy of Dr. Carla Burris
Dr. Carla Burris parlayed an interest in computers into jobs serving the veterinary profession.
Dr. Carla Burris entered and graduated from veterinary school intending to practice medicine in a private small animal clinic. However, less than a year after graduation, she found herself doubting that decision.

Like many new graduates, Burris had asked many questions of her employers and done working interviews. However, “I came to find out that their idea of mentoring and my idea of mentoring were distinctly different," she said. With no doctors’ rounds or assistance working through cases, Burris felt that her employer’s idea of mentoring was nothing more than "showing me the report of my numbers and saying I should be working faster.”

Burris also discovered the stress that client relations may bring. “Animals come with people attached to the leash," she observed, and that three-way relationship between owner, pet and practitioner can become complicated. "I came to find out that people equal awesome; animals equal way awesome; people plus animals equal not always so awesome.”

When Burris began looking for another position, she submitted resumes for positions in industry and veterinary publishing as well as clinical practice. She's always had what she calls "a computer bent," and wound up taking a job with a small company in East Illinois that, among other things, published veterinary conference proceedings on CD. After six years, that job led to the position she holds now as content resource coordinator for VIN in Northern California, where she has been for eight years. Burris’s duties include managing online proceedings and “Rounds” presentations.

Though less than a year of her career was spent in clinical practice, Burris says, “I don’t refer to myself as formerly a veterinarian – I am a veterinarian; I’m just not in clinical practice.”

Grappling with questions of identity

In a society where the question “What do you do?” translates as “Who are you?” a shift in career can feel like a shift in identity. “Who we are is in large measure related to what we do,” says Dr. Michele Gaspar, a small animal veterinarian in Chicago who has completed a graduate program in counseling.

This is especially true of the veterinary profession, she said: “For most people, veterinary medicine is like a religious calling.”

That can make contemplating a change all the more wrenching.

Gaspar has herself undergone several career shifts, beginning her working life as a journalist prior to applying to veterinary school. She later pursued a counseling degree in order to help veterinary colleagues in emotional distress.

For practitioners considering a career change, Gaspar recommends careful self-reflection, asking yourself: “What’s untenable here? What do I want?”

There “are always going to be difficult employers or individuals who rub us the wrong way,” she points out. “If you are identifying interpersonal issues, particularly if there is a pattern, then it may be about you and not about the situation.”

Beyond self-evaluation, Gaspar advises seeking support from outside — not family or close friends, but someone who isn’t emotionally involved. “You can start the process thinking through by yourself, but you’re going to need somebody to bounce it off of,” she said.

An alternative to ‘all or nothing’

Like many of her colleagues who left clinical medicine, Massachusetts veterinarian Dr. Amanda Cronin sometimes finds practice stressful. “Full-time veterinary medicine drains my emotional resources quickly. I spend too much time out of work worrying about patients,” she explained.

But rather than leave the clinic altogether, Cronin tried a different tack. She looked for a part-time career “that would be recharging but wouldn’t require retraining or more schooling.” The answer: teaching as an adjunct faculty member. She teaches at two schools — Quinsigamond Community College and Framingham State University, both in Massachusetts.

Cronin began looking for teaching jobs by contacting former professors and other veterinarians in teaching positions. “The easiest way to enter teaching is to start as a lab instructor in biological sciences,” she said. “Lab instructors are always needed, especially for evening and weekend labs. Colleges are more open to hiring candidates with broader ranges of experience for a lab instructor than for a full-time faculty member.”

With teaching, as with so much else in life, whom you know can be as important as what you know. Cronin stresses the importance of finding “experienced adjuncts who can help you find your feet and tell you how things are done at that particular institution. Culture is key in teaching.”

To those who worry about their options, Cronin offers these words of encouragement: “There are dozens of things you can do with a DVM.”

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About the author:

Dr. Christy Corp-Minamiji graduated from veterinary school in 1996 intending to go into large animal practice. Instead, she found herself working first in a small animal clinic then in research for a small biologics company. Finally, she landed her dream job with a large animal clinic. Ten years later, the economy imploded and the practice closed. An essay she wrote about the closure, published on, led to a writing job with VIN. “Like Carla Burris, I don’t consider myself ‘formerly a veterinarian,' " she says. "I am a veterinarian and a writer.”

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