Getting to where we want to be – or getting out of the profession... - Veterinary Practice
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Getting to where we want to be – or getting out of the profession…

Gareth Cross decides, as part of his mid-life crisis therapy, to have a look at veterinary life from that much- neglected section of society: those of us just right in the middle of it all

WELL, by the time you read this it
will all be over. I sit here now as a
30-something youngster; when you
get to read this I will have crossed
that milestone and be 40.

Any shred
of pretence I
was clutching to that I was
somehow still
“young” will
have gone.
Well past the
midpoint of
the three score and 10 allocation of
life, hopefully a lot less than half way
through but definitely on the downhill

My parent’s generation are the last
of the final salary pension scheme
baby-boomers merrily drinking their
way through the inheritance in the
Dordogne with half the retired
English middle class for company
whilst the current crop of teenagers
are struggling to find jobs so they can
pay taxes to fund my future pension
and healthcare.

This all leaves those of us in the
middle stranded as we will be too
numerous to support in our dotage by
the state, and also possibly by private
means too as the world economy
changes and pensions schemes seem to
go bust on a regular basis. Apart from
that cheery outlook on the future, I’m
feeling great at the start of the new

Diverse subjects

In this column I have written on many
diverse subjects and often looked at
veterinary working life from the
perspectives of other vets, be it in
other parts of the world (recently
India and the Falkland Islands), at
either end of the age spectrum, i.e.
advice to new graduates and also a
profile of a vet still working
successfully at the age of 73, and from
a historical perspective (December’s
column reviewed some veterinary
books from 1896 onwards).

So this month, as part of my
personal mid-life crisis therapy (I’ve
run a marathon, had a motorbike, can’t
afford a sports car and don’t want an
affair, so the classic mid-life crisis
options are pretty much used up) I
thought, let’s have a look at vet life
from that much-neglected section of
society: those of us just right in the
middle of it all.

Not new grads, not near to retiring,
just the taken-for-granted majority of us plodding along around the half way
point. I have also taken inspiration
from a melancholy quote by Flannery
O’Connor (from the book Wise Blood),
but used to great effect by “Dreadzone” in their Mean old World
song. It seemed fitting for a mid-life
crisis and I had it on repeat in the van
for a while:

“Where you came from is gone,
where you thought you were going to weren’t
never there,
and where you are at ain’t no good unless you
can get away from it.”

Where I came from, in a
veterinary context, is Liverpool
university, much of which has gone
(e.g. the old small animal hospital,
hardly used and designed like a nuclear
bunker) since I left or at least vastly
changed (all the clinical bits except the
equine surgical area – as seen on TV).
I graduated in 1998 from a roughly
50% male to female class ratio (that’s
definitely gone now) with a class size
of about 80.

We were at one of the six vet
schools. So if you subtract a few for
returning overseas students, that gives
a UK crop of about 450 new
graduates in that year. Most of us went
into mixed practice initially and no one
had more than a few months before
they landed a reasonable job.

There were fewer of us then but
the job market was more restricted:
there were very few referral centres
and fewer OOH-provider jobs which
now soak up more experienced vets
out of the first opinion market to
make room for new grads. Similarly,
fewer female vets in practice then also
meant less job sharing, maternity
cover, etc., which now makes room in
the job market.

Salary plus car plus flat

I started on £16,500 a year plus a car
and a flat over the branch (my living
room was used to store dog food and
my kitchen was the staff room –
housing did improve later on). My wife
started on less than that and a flat over
the practice.

When we went on holiday we
returned to find her boss had installed an Australian new graduate in the
spare room. In true “life on Mars”
politically-correct style, we called him
Skippy and made him pick stinging
nettles as he’d never seen one (with
hilarious results). He had also never
seen snow let alone driven on it and
immediately wrote off a practice car
when it snowed.

On graduation, nearly all of my
year were applying for jobs with on-
call, whether small animal, mixed or
large. “No out of hours” was a fairly
new concept.

A good friend told me that on his
first day he was given a well-stocked
car and a map and told by his boss,
“You are on call tonight, I’m going to
the pub.” I was luckier and had three
months before being solo on call.

New technology

Mobile phones were new: a student
had one at vet school two years before
I graduated and everyone mercilessly
took the piss out of him for it. The
RCVS then forbade vets to rely on
them as the sole point of contact for
out-of-hours work.
I bought my first
one when I
graduated. I also
awarded myself a
new hi-fi that cost
a fortnight’s wages:
a similar model
now would be
about £150.

The Pet Travel
Scheme was being
formulated and championed by Chris
Patten, the last governor of Hong
Kong, as he wanted to bring his dogs
home without quarantine. “Frontline”
was one of the only things available
that worked for fleas and if clients
hadn’t got flea treatment from you,
you knew their pets had fleas.

There was no other place they
could buy pet medications from. There
was no internet shopping and
regulation prevented clients shopping
elsewhere for medicines. Farmers and
horse owners got all their meds from
us or occasionally “…in a van from

After what was for me, all in all, a
good start, where did I think I was
going? Well, a long way abroad for a
long time after two years in mixed
work! But in terms of career, I think
with hindsight I would have specialised
earlier on, i.e. after my first mixed job.

There didn’t seem to be much
career advice when I graduated: you’re a vet now, get a job out the back of
the Vet Record. I now do some second
opinion work and, as a practice owner,
have more control over my working
life than employed vets I guess, but
lose that ability to move around for
career progression. I have to carve it
out myself in situ.

Changed landscape

However (here goes, I’m going to
write it) in our forties other
commitments in life have usually
rooted us by now anyway.

I was recently involved in a
discussion group setting up a new
certificate and was passionate that it
should be achievable by vets in
practice, without having to move jobs
for a residency, etc., and in a time-scale
and workload that was manageable.

The postgraduate landscape has
changed a lot over my career and it
would not be fair to introduce career
paths now that were unobtainable by
those who never had the chance first
time round.

In broad terms, however, I think where I thought I was
going is pretty much
where I am now, but
for a lot of vets
where they thought
they were heading on
graduation was never
there and a lot have
become disillusioned
with life in practice. A
common thread on
online vet forums is how to get out, career changes, etc.
Experienced vets have so many skills – other than fixing animals – that
there must be good routes out (any
ideas let me know on, would
make a good future column).

And where you are ain’t no good
unless you can get away from it. Well I
am happy with my current
employment, partly luck but mainly
due to hard work and being fortunate
to have a good (wife) partner and a
good (business) partner who put up
with me, more or less.

But the practice ain’t no good
unless we can get away from it so we
are now the proud owner of a three-
acre field with planning permission for
a brand new vet practice just across
the road from our current rented

Watch this space or, more
specifically, a small field-shaped space
on a main road in the West Country…

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