It's a vet's life... - Veterinary Practice
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It’s a vet’s life…

Why did you become a vet? Many of us had to answer that as part of our interviews for vet school and I understand the most common answer is a variation of wanting and enjoying working with animals.

Looking back now, without realising, it was probably my perception of the lifestyle that drove my decision to pursue such a career. Practices always seemed happy places where people enjoyed their work and going out on calls to visit the farm and equine clients was always a lot of fun.

The vets I saw practice with really seemed to enjoy their job on the whole but I remember one vet telling me to consider another career in professions such as law, medicine and finance as being a vet wasn’t what it used to be; the advances of commercial practices forcing vets to go out and find business rather than the traditional method of clients finding you and remaining loyal.

Quality of life (QoL) can be described as a form of subjective wellbeing, i.e. the level of satisfaction an individual feels within the context of the lifestyle he or she lives. A definite and quantifiable definition, however, remains relatively elusive and people will often list different indicators: a starving man may list food as his main QoL indicator; a cancer sufferer may name good health and remission as his or hers; a wealthy entrepreneur with seemingly everything may identify company.

Those with a greater understanding of sociology than me describe lifestyle as a combination of needs, wants and motivations. It is reflective of an individual’s attitudes and values and is based on the way an individual or population group live.

So is the QoL and lifestyle of the modern day vet comparable with the other professions and careers that young people of the calibre applying to vet schools consider? When I decided to write this article I planned to focus on QoL variables such as social and sports opportunities and the ability to continue to develop personal relationships, things which were as commonplace as background radiation during our time at university, especially as a Liverpool undergraduate.

I could argue for hours that Liverpool University and the vet school had a social scene unrivalled anywhere else! Let’s just hope that the loss of the existing bar doesn’t cause a loss in atmosphere!

As I spoke to many of my friends, I quickly began to realise that we are in a fortunate position. I asked several of my friends to list the top three things they were looking for as a new graduate to provide them with an acceptable quality of life, and was expecting them to list the same things that my fellow vets and I had listed.

Instead they all listed the same things: getting a job utilising their degree and the security of a house/car, etc. It then became apparent that the high employment rate of new veterinary graduates and the provision of either accommodation/transport or a salary that made securing those more realistic was not replicated in other careers.

It was in 1943 that Abraham Maslow first described the hierarchy of needs in A Theory of Human Motivation. Often represented in a pyramid (below), the most basic physiologic needs provide the base, progressing through to the tip of the pyramid: self-actualisation.

As veterinary graduates we very quickly achieve the first two layers: physiological and safety. It seems that achieving these first two layers after finishing degrees in other subjects is not so straightforward and as the hierarchy level of need moves upward after the previous level is satisfied the layers such as love/belonging, esteem and self-actualisation are not deemed as important. In contrast, vet graduates immediately reach the levels of upper 3 layers because the bottom two are more readily met.

I spoke to many students at the recent SPVS final-year seminar and consistently I was told the kind of position they were seeking. It is a fact of our profession that many of the positions new graduates take can be in places away from things like family and friends, which can make it all the more difficult to achieve the upper layers of the pyramid.

The working hours and responsibilities, on-call work and the requirement of vets to read around cases and continue their education with PDP and CPD also add additional obstacles to reaching the level of self-actualisation.

Level of contrast

What further compounds the difficulties many young vets describe in maintaining the QoL and lifestyle they want to have (i.e. lack of social and sport opportunities, free time, being sued, making mistakes) is the level of contrast from their time at university.

There is no doubt in my mind that the vet faculties’ social atmosphere is unreplicated in any other career, education institute or workplace – a clear indication is the number of past students who get involved/maintain contact with their old faculties.

So what does this mean for our profession? The profession looks after its young graduates very well by providing those first two layers of needs: physiological and safety. Because we do this, vets move onto the upper layers and as such demand and seek love/belonging, esteem and eventually self-actualisation. And as such we need to try and provide the opportunity to achieve this.

Some parts are easier than others – allowing vets to do their job and enjoy it helps immensely with esteem and respect. The harder part is in the social side of things because the bar is set so high during our time at university.

It is important for practices to acknowledge the likely demands on their staff and do their best to encourage the pursuit of the upper layers.

How to do that is difficult and I most certainly do not have the answer – regular social events, a good worklife balance and a supportive network of colleagues are three things that come to mind but those ideas are hardly exhaustive.

Is such pursuit one of the reasons the average time spent in the first job is less than two years?

  • The author wishes to thank everyone who answered his questions but particularly Mr D. Lace, BSc, and Mr S. McGovern, BA(Hons), for their help.

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