Getting a Job in Small Animal Private-Practice

Lee Fike, DVM, Dip. ABVP

A printable version, sans pictures, of this paper is also available.


Negotiating for your first veterinary job

The first thing to remember is that this isn’t a negotiation between equals.

You most likely have been a life-long student. You’ve spent many years in a university learning veterinary medicine.

Your prospective boss is a successful entrepreneur. She negotiates business contracts on a daily basis, and she has been doing this at least long enough and well enough to now be able to hire an associate for her hospital. This negotiation can be fun; it can be beneficial to both sides; you can (and should) make the negotiations friendly, but still… it isn’t a negotiation between people who might be expected to have equal negotiating skills. You don’t need to feel intimidated if it feels like you don’t know what you’re doing. If you are feeling intimidated in an interview, something is wrong; the practice owner should be trying to make you feel comfortable and should be trying to be fair.

This doesn’t mean that you need to point any of this out to the practice owner. It just means that you should keep smiling, relax, and remember that you’re interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.

Salary

Most people think the student/new grad should not be talked into requesting a certain salary, but should make the practice owner say what she’s offering first.

”Don’t ever let them know what salary you want,” a senior vet student told us in rounds recently, as we were discussing interviewing. “I just got a job up in Toledo, and they asked me what salary I wanted, but I just smiled and asked them, ‘What are you offering?’ They told me they’d give me $48,000 a year plus benefits. If I had been willing to give them a number, I’d have probably said, ‘$45,000.’ This way I’m getting another 3 grand a year!”

In my experience, most practice owners are quite willing to tell you what they’re offering. If, though, the practice owner insists that you say what salary you want before she tells you what she’s offering, then you should be ready and have a figure in mind. Take into consideration the owner’s attitude about this when you’re deciding whether to take that job or not. Does it mean she’s going to play hardball with you? Does it mean she might offer you a higher salary sometime in the future?

What do you do if they offer you a salary that’s less than you wanted/expected? Usually, the salary conversation takes place towards the end of the “interview,” which has hopefully taken a day or so (see below.) By that time, you should have some idea of how much you’d like to work there. Go into an interview with a salary range in mind. The low end of the range should be the minimum you can accept, even if you really love the place. The high end should be what you’re going to ask for if they corner you on the subject. If it’s a place you’d really like to work, and they offer you less than your minimum, then just tell them how much you like the clinic, what a wonderful place they’ve built, how much you admire their philosophy, etc., but that you simply can’t work for that little. And smile. Sadly. Like a mendicant dog. And wait. Maybe they’ll offer you more, maybe even more than your minimum. Maybe they’ll ask you what it would take to get you there. Trot out your minimum.

Or: Tell them that it would be tough, with your three kids/paralyzed mother/school loans/expensive taste in wines/etc., to work for that salary, and ask them if that’s their final offer. If it is, then you can tell them, sadly, “No.” Or you can tell them you need to think it over a bit. Practice owners will understand this. Talk it over with your parents/spouse/friends/family, and see what other offers you have on the table.

Most of the OSU VME class of 2002 that I talked to agreed that the average starting salary they were taking was in the $45,000-plus-benefits range. The AVMA website and Veterinary Economics magazine have lots of figures and tables that show what new grads, as well as all vets, are making this year, adjusted for different areas of the country and different types of practices.

If they offer you a salary that is above your high-end expectation, and it’s a place you’d like to work, I hope you’ll have the grace to simply stick out your hand, smile, say, “That sounds fine,” and leave it at that. There’s no sense in letting the “entrepreneur” know that you’ve outfoxed them -- you might want to negotiate a business deal with her again someday. In the meantime, work hard to justify your princely income, and hopefully it’ll just keep going up.

Government and industry

I see some jobs advertised for veterinarians, notably in government or industry, where the ad will say something like, “To apply, send your resume, a letter stating your intentions/career goals, and your salary requirements.” I have a low opinion of ads like that. I don’t really have a salary “requirement.” I might have more of a salary “request.” Maybe salary “hope” is an even better description.

The reason this is hateful, obviously, is that they’ve got you boxed before you even talk to them. If you give them a salary “requirement” that’s too low, then you’ll be getting paid less than you could have earned. And if you give them a number that’s too high, then they might not even consider you for the job. One friend of mine has handled this in the past by writing something like, “At this point, my salary is negotiable; I’m more interested in exploring what the job requirements are and in seeing what my unique set of skills can do for your company.” She says that will at least get her in for an interview, which will give her the chance to show them how valuable she could be and therefore get them to offer her the higher end of their salary range. Another friend offered the following magic phrase for use in such a situation -- “If I am selected for this position, I am confident that you will make me a fair offer.” She says that by stating that your expectation is that the company makes a “fair offer,” you are in the driver's seat. You get to determine what constitutes a “fair offer.” Another way to interpret that is to say that any offer they make is then, by definition, “fair,” which might not be the message we want to send.

Percentages

In clinical private practice, every bit of revenue that comes in is provided by client fees. This is the only source of money for salaries, new equipment, overhead expenses, return on the investment of the owner, and all other expenses associated with running a practice. What this means is that no matter what the associate veterinarian’s initial nominal salary is, in the long run, her total compensation package will depend on what she produces. Initially, most employers do not offer salaries that are purely based on a percentage of your gross to new graduates. They usually offer a regular salary and benefits. This is a good thing; it gives you a little security and keeps your attention where it belongs, learning how to practice high-quality medicine in a private practice. This also takes into account the owner’s work in mentoring you, which, for some of us, is a substantial investment. If you work in a high quality practice, though, your salary will eventually depend on what you produce. This means that you get to decide how much money you’re going to make, and if you’re doing things right, it will mean a pay increase over your starting salary.

When I got back to my hometown of Oracle, Arizona (population: 2,200) after vet school and an internship, I talked to an old woman who was a shopkeeper at the local convenience store.

“I’m so glad you’re back!” she told me. “We need a good vet around here! I had a dog, and he got out and got hit by a car, and I took him to the vet down in Catalina there (the closest town with a veterinarian, about 15 miles away), and all he did was take a couple X-rays, Rover had broken one of his little legs, you know, and the vet knocked him out and put a cast on it and gave him a couple of shots or something, and he charged me A HUNERD’N TWENTY DOLLARS!!”

I stared at her, momentarily at a loss for words. “That is indeed a remarkable price for those services,” I finally managed. “How’d the dog end up doing?”

“Oh, he did fine,” she said, waving her hand and laughing. “As it healed up, the vetnery felt so bad about overcharging me that he did all the rechecks and took the cast off for free.”

When you do start getting a percentage of your gross, it should be somewhere around 20 to 25% of your gross receipts. Some people now say it might go up to 30% in an emergency practice. This percentage will be your total compensation, which will include—

 

What percent you should be getting will depend on a number of factors. Some factors might make your percentage lower—

 

Some factors should make the percentage go higher—

Performance Reviews

Keep in mind that at some point in the future your pay/performance should be reviewed. After, say, 6 months in the practice, it will be helpful to look at your performance figures—how many CBCs, ECGs, blood profiles, x-rays, prescriptions, injections, etc., did you do, compared to the average doctor in the practice? What is your gross? What is your average client transaction fee, compared to the practice average? This kind of evaluation will help you see how you’re doing, what areas of your practice need improvement, and will help you decide on when you should start getting paid a percentage.

I picked up the phone after my last morning appointment and heard my boss’s voice.

“Meet us out front, Fike, we’re taking you to lunch to discuss your so-called performance.”

Five minutes later I was sitting in the leather back seat of the Mercedes, looking for the barf bag, as Matt* alternately accelerated and braked through Tucson traffic.

“We’ve been taking a look at what you’re doing over there at your clinic,” he began ominously, glancing at his business partner Dave*, who had joined us. “Here’s your production figures, shown relative to what the average doctor in the group does, broken down for each service.”

He quickly rifled through a big stack of papers as he said this; a blur of figures, text, and tables flew by.

“You’re doing about twice as many CBCs and panels as the average doctor. That’s good, that means that you’re trying to practice good medicine.”

“It means that he doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing,” said Dave. He was reading the menu and had been acting like he wasn’t listening to the conversation at all.

“But look here,” continued Matt, jabbing his finger at one of the pages, giving me 1.3 seconds to examine a busy, multi-colored graph, “You’ve only done 73% as many EKGs as average. What’s your story? Are you failing to recognize heart disease? Are you deciding not to work them up? Do you fail to see the value of EKGs in a cardiac case? Are you magically seeing fewer heart cases than other doctors?”

“He probably can’t interpret them,” mused Dave, eating another Zantac.

“Of course he can’t interpret them!” snapped Matt, looking like a Rottweiler having his anal glands manipulated, “But he could be asking us!”

Matt and Dave paused in their attack as the waiter arrived and uncovered their steaks with a flourish, then took the cover off my salmon. My bosses shared a look with the waiter that plainly said what they all thought of anyone who’d order fish at the Tucson Cattleman’s Club. My case was lost.

My bosses had this meeting with me after my first 6 months. They took time to discuss things like the fact that I was only doing fecal exams on about half of the vaccine appointments. If I’d done a fecal on every patient that came in for vaccines, they said, the difference in income would have made the down payment on a new endoscope.

They had an abrasive style, but they turned out to be great coaches for me. This kind of feedback helped me to refine my practice techniques, it taught me not to miss things. On the surface of it, they acted like they just wanted me to practice high quality medicine because it would make them more money. Down deep, though, they wanted to teach me to practice that way for the same reason I wanted to learn it -- because we each had a commitment to our patients and to animal health.

Their point remains, though. If you examine the thing, for just a moment, from a purely financial standpoint, it’s a good lesson for every new employee to keep in mind. Good medicine = good money.

Mentoring

There are lots of things to look for in a practice besides salary/money/benefits. Perhaps the most important of these is the type of people you’re going to be working with. Most new grads will benefit from finding a mentor, someone who will help you continue to learn how to practice high-quality, fun, productive, reasonably low-stress veterinary medicine, someone who will help you to love our profession for years to come.

What is the owner’s expertise level? Has he thought about becoming ABVP certified? What is his personal CE policy? What kinds of surgeries does he do? Does he make good use of any specialists in the area? Many times the highest quality practitioners are the ones who refer to specialists the most. How is she at managing employees? Clients? Sales reps? What’s her strategic plan for the hospital? It’s important that you practice with someone committed to the very highest possible quality of veterinary medicine at your first job. You’re going to be making habits that will stay with you for the rest of your career, and you want them to be good ones. Your mentor will have a big influence on you.

Average transaction fees

How do we decide on what kind of medicine is being practiced in a clinic? You can partly answer this question by looking at the average transaction fee. In general, higher average fees mean more diagnostics and more surgeries, and lower average clients fees mean more empirical treatments.

Some practice consultant once wrote in a trade journal that a practice can realistically expect to only attain two of the following three goals -

Which of these is most important to you? Which of these appear to be priorities in the practice you’re examining?

CAVM

What about complementary and alternative veterinary medicine(CAVM)? If this kind of medicine is important to you, ask your prospective employer what his opinion of CAVM is. Whether you want to include CAVM in your practice or not, it might be useful to at least have some knowledge of what’s available out there to people who are interested in it. Drs. Allen Schoen and Susan Wynn edited a book called Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine (Mosby) that outlines most of the common directions this field is taking. Some of your clients may ask you, as my clients have asked me, if you practice “holistic” medicine. What will they mean by that? How will you answer? “Holistic” medicine is a rapidly growing field with our human counterparts, largely because these practitioners are taking the time to really listen to their patients and are including them in the decision making process. This is something we can all be doing while still practicing the kind of medicine we’ve been taught to practice.

Appointment times

I’m always interested in how long the appointment times are. Some practices shoot for half-hour appointment times, others will try to double book 15 minute appointment slots. I find it hard to truly communicate with clients when I have a new one every 7 ½ minutes. In my experience, different types of appointments require different amounts of time. Most people agree with this, but not everyone has the same idea of what type of appointment requires what amount of time. For example, “vaccine” appointments are commonly held to be things that are accomplished quickly, but they usually take me the longest time, because there is so much to talk about; vaccine risks and benefits, fecal exams for parasites, heartworm testing and prophylaxis options, ectoparasite management, toe nail trims, plus various and sundry other topics that may come up like ongoing chronic ear infections, lumps and bumps and weird places on the skin, arthritis (the latter two being especially common as dogs get older,) low-grade chronic vomiting in cats, behavior problems, and anything else the client brings up. These are hopefully going to be long-term clients that will come to you when they really need help; this is your chance to get to know them, create some trust. It’s one of the truly fun things about practice, taking some time to listen to their stories.

A student recently led a young Golden Retriever back into the treatment room. “The guy with this dog says he’s from Canada,” she told me. “He had called the hospital just because he wanted some flea medicine, but they said he had to come in and get an exam, since he’s never been here, so here he is. Besides fleas, the dog seems fine.”

After examining the dog together, the student and I went in to see the owner. He was a guy in his early 20’s, wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a $60 haircut. He greeted me politely with a smile and a handshake. “So,” I began, “You’re from Canada? Are you relocating to our fair city or are you just passing through?”

“Oh, I’m just here for the day,” he replied. Then he added quietly, “We’re playing tonight.”

I had been prepared to launch into my flea talk, but something about the way he said he was “playing” tonight piqued my interest. “Playing?” I asked him.

“Yeah, we’re playing at the Stott... the Schrep... the, uh, the Swat...” his voice trailed off as he tried to think of the name of the place.

“The Schott? Schottenstein Arena?” I asked incredulously. “What are you playing, are you with a basketball tournament or something?”

“Oh, no,” he laughed, “I play with a band.”

“A band? Your band is playing at the SCHOTT?? That’s a big hall. What band is it?”

“We’re called Nickelback,” he said matter-of-factly, glancing at my gray hair. “Maybe you’ve heard of us?”

“NICKELBACK!” I exclaimed. “You play with Nickelback?! Wow, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m a huge fan of your music.”

“We’re doing the MTV College Invasion Tour with a band called ‘Injected,” he explained. I glanced at the student. Her mouth was open and she looked like she’d just seen Santa land the reindeer on her roof.

“That’s huge, dude” I said, smiling at him. “Score us some comps.”

The student’s jaw dropped even farther. “I thought he looked familiar,” she told me later, as we were laughing outside the exam room..

“Sure,” he said. He seemed used to hero-worship and he immediately got a phone from his pocket and hit the speed-dial. “Hey, Lou,” he said, “I’ve got a couple of people to add to the list. Mary Cerny...” He looked at the student’s name tag. “Yeah, that’s C-E-R-N-Y, plus one...?” he looked at Mary, who still appeared speechless.

“Yeah, yeah, plus one, plus one,” I sputtered, winking at Mary.

“And Lee Fike, F-I-K-E, plus one.”

“Thanks, Ryan,” I said. “How about throwing in some back stage passes?” He pretended not to hear me.

He got back to business. “Ben seems fine except he’s got these fleas all over him, and the guys on the tour bus are on me to get it fixed.” Now that we knew the whole story, we were able to prescribe effective flea control. He said he had to kind of step on it, they needed him for a sound-check, so we gave Ben a Capstar pill, prescribed some Frontline, thanked him about 18 times, and promised we’d enjoy his show that night. And we did.

I love office calls like that. They take a lot of time, and you don’t always make a lot of money (although 4 tickets to Nickelback worked out to a nice office call,) but you do get to know a little bit about people and make connections with them. Even when they’re not rock stars.

They don’t always go like that, of course. Other appointments may end up making a lot of money and requiring a lot of work by you and your techs in the back, but they won’t always require a lot of time in the exam room. Examples might include lethargic, vomiting dogs that ate garbage on whom you’re going to make radiographs and do blood tests and then put on IV fluids overnight, rat-poison toxicities, envenomations, traumas, like HBCs, BDLD syndrome (big dog-little dog syndrome, dog fights,) dentals and mass removals, and a host of others. You'll see a lot of these kinds of cases in practice. You’ll listen to the clients, discuss the facts of the case, tell the clients the technician will bring in an estimate, and you’re out of there in 5 or 10 minutes. The people won’t expect you to waste a lot of time before you get moving on the problem, especially if they’re people with whom you’ve already taken the time to establish a relationship and they already feel like they know you and can trust you.

Facilities

What type of practice is it? Mixed, large animal, equine, small animal, exotics? The location of a practice will be very important for many candidates. What area of the country, what city, what part of the city (or what rural area) do you want to live in? Is there an active local veterinary association? This question may not only tell you about the association, it may give you a hint about what your prospective employer’s relationship is with the other veterinarians in the area. Do the local doctors get together once in a while for dinner and/or drinks to share ideas and discuss cases, or even to have a journal club/study group? This is a great way to learn more about what other people are seeing, what kinds of problems are common in your area, how other people do things, what good (and bad) ideas they may have.

Equipment and Supplies

What kind of equipment is there? Do you really want to work at a high tech place? How high tech does it have to be? Are you going to be happy with a nice microscope, a 300 Ma x-ray machine, and an isoflurane gas machine? Or do you need ultrasound, an endoscope, an oxygen cage, and a blood gas analyzer? How about infusion pumps? Blood chemistry analyzer? What kinds of anesthetic monitoring equipment are there? Pulse-ox, end-expiratory CO2 monitor, automated blood pressure machine, or a doppler? What about high quality, German surgical instruments, a big selection of suture material, I.V. fluid warmers, a syringe pump, coagulation profile machine, surgery laser, electro-cautery, hot water blankets? Is there a bank of ICU cages in the treatment room where you can keep an eye on your patients? Is there an isolation ward? What about overnight tech-support for hospitalized patients? Is the hospital AAHA certified, or is that a goal of the practice? Not every practice has to be AAHA certified to be good, but it is a mark of quality. Do they reuse syringes? Needles? (Eeeeuuy!) What kind of anesthetic drugs to they use? What’s on the pharmacy shelves? I like seeing lots of different medicines, to me that’s a mark of quality. It says that the vet knows a lot about a lot of different things and is willing to treat them.

Library

What is the library like? If it’s crummy, will the practice buy you a few books that you need? I would find it hard to practice without some good references, like Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook, Birchard and Sherding’s Manual of Small Animal Practice, and Tilley’s The 5 Minute Veterinary Consult. These are great places to check when you need to look something up quickly. It’s nice to have more in-depth textbooks available, too; Ettinger’s Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Muller and Scott’s Small Animal Dermatology, the Current Veterinary Therapy series, as well as good surgery, endocrine, and anatomy books are just a few examples of what the good practice library will need to have. Does the practice subscribe to Veterinary Clinics of North America? The Capsule Report? (Check it out, http://www.thecapsulereport.com, lots of information for busy practitioners.) Any other journals? Go to your interview with an idea of what your favorite references are, and see if they have them there. What does your prospective employer do for quick references? Nobody can remember everything.

Hours

What are the working hours? How much time off during the day, how much time every week? Do you get a weekday off, or a partial weekday off, to compensate for working weekends/nights?

Do you want/need to work full time? Does the practice offer “part-time” employment, say, 3 or 4 days a week? Are you interested in this/can you afford this? What do they mean by “full-time?” Is there a set number of hours, more or less, that you are expected to work?

How much vacation time is being offered? How much paid time off are you allowed to go to continuing education? Is this in addition to paid vacation time? Is there a set limit to how much paid CE you get? Do they cover travel expenses, tuition, food and hotel while you’re away at a big meeting? Or do they expect you to get all your CE locally? Most practices will give you time off for a big meeting every year in addition to vacation time.

What provisions are there for family leave/maternity- or paternity- leave/etc.? What about sick days?

Do you have to (get to) see emergencies? Is there a special, additional pay incentive for emergencies? Some practices give you the whole emergency fee as part of your pay, others give a higher percentage of the gross of the office call for emergencies.

Accommodations

Does the practice offer a place to live? Not many do, but in some cases, it could be a useful thing. I lived in a funky trailer behind the vet clinic where I worked for a couple of years once, and it turned out to be a fantastic opportunity. It was completely free, which saved me the post tax dollars that I would have otherwise been spending on rent/mortgage/utilities, the commute to work was a 15 second walk, which saved not only time but travel expense, and I could easily go in and check on hospitalized cases in the evening during the commercials, a task I would have been doing anyway. With the money I saved on rent and utilities, I took 4 months off and lived in France for the summer; naturally, what you do with your pot of gold is up to you. Most people would not be interested in such an arrangement, although if you want to live and work in Manhattan, where cockroach-infested apartments the size of the average wet-table go for about $2,500/month (but hey—it’s the city that never sleeps), then a practice that offers you a place to live would be very valuable. Sadly, I have not encountered such an arrangement. (If you find one and don’t want it, call me.) A big part of the reason I stayed happy with my live-at-work situation was that I was strong enough and confidant enough by then to stand up to my bosses and not get talked into schlepping over to the clinic during my time off to do little errands for them. Look into your soul and see if this is right for you before you commit.

Techs

Techs are a hugely important part of a small animal practice. They are truly our partners in everything we do. When I interview someplace, I like to take some time to hang out with the techs and listen to what they have to say. Are they happy? Do they talk about all the cool things they get to do? If they’re not happy, or if there is a lot of internal tension in a practice, the techs probably won’t come clean about it to a person who’s there interviewing for the day, but you might be able to notice some reserve in the way the techs talk to each other and to the doctors, versus a place where the techs are happy, talking about the cool things they get to do. You may be able to see them doing technical procedures, assisting in surgery, talking to clients in person or on the phone.

How many techs are there? How many do you have devoted to working with you at any particular time? What is their training? What can they do/not do? Do they get blood samples by themselves, take x-rays, put in IV catheters? What about cystocentesis, can they do that? Do they administer the anesthesia? Do you have just one tech, which means that you have to participate in every venipuncture and radiograph? That should make you eventually get a higher percentage of your gross if you’re spending time doing stuff like that. If you have 2 or more techs at your beck and call, then you’ll be expected to spend more time with clients, seeing more clients and doing more thorough workups. My first job after I got my DVM was a practice where there were 3 doctors and one tech, so I spent a lot of time doing technician work. That was fine for me, since I got a lot of much-needed practice drawing blood and doing other technician duties. I also learned how to do a lot of things by myself. Is this something you would want in a practice?

I also worked in a practice where I usually had 2, and occasionally 3, techs all to myself. These techs could all draw blood, put in catheters, take x-rays, monitor sick animals, talk to clients about routine things, and do about a hundred other things without my direct supervision and, many times, without my even asking them. They made my job easier, they taught me a lot, and they helped me increase my production.

Do you have a tech to help you with emergencies? Does the tech come in automatically to help you with emergencies, or only if you request that the tech comes in on a case-by-case basis? Ask what the practice owner does about this; some practices say a tech is available if needed, but in reality both the boss and the tech discourage this.

“GOD!” my technician screamed at me one night at the emergency clinic. She sounded extremely frustrated. “Hurry up! Why can’t you do things faster! Make a decision!”

It was my second year in practice, the disasters were raining down on my head at an ever-increasing pace, and I was still moving a little slowly. My relationship with this technician had been deteriorating for months, but I had been unable to ascertain the reason. Finally, after she had a good scream, she was able to tell me. “You ALWAYS call me in after I go home at night! None of the other doctors call me as much as you do! Why can’t you be more like everybody else?!”

At my next performance review, Matt revealed to me that I was seeing about twice as many after-midnight emergencies as the average. Matt thought this was great, from an income point of view, but clearly it was driving this one technician crazy. I explained this to the tech, which helped a little bit, but she still hated working with me.

The point was that even though, in theory, the techs were supposed to come in on emergencies, in reality, they didn’t like to and they didn’t have to come in very often with other doctors. If you like having a tech at nights with you on emergencies, like I do, that's a good thing to know going in.

Also, how are the techs treated? What is their attitude to a new doctor? Helpful?/Not interested? And what is your attitude towards technicians? Are you going in looking at them as very valued members of the team, people who might be able to teach you as much or more as you’re going to teach them?

Other random notes

Does the practice pay for only certain kinds of CE, like training on their new ultrasound machine? This might be something some people would be interested in, maybe you could get lots of CE on ultrasound while you’re there and in return you could be the designated ultrasonographer, if that’s something you’re interested in.

Is there a dress code? Is there a policy about tattoos or piercings? For your interview, you should dress as professionally as possible. Men will not go wrong wearing a tie and even a jacket or suit. Women should also dress professionally. But what about at work on a daily basis? Are jeans allowed? Are ties required? Can you wear scrubs? It would be a rarely conservative practice, these days, to expect women to wear a skirt or dress every day to work, but if you wear a skirt/dress to the interview, you could at least look around and see if all the women were wearing skirts/dresses or if some wore pants. Out west things may be more casual than in the east or midwest. Some practices there will require ties on men everyday, although I worked at a very high-quality practice where jeans and even shorts were allowed.

"I don't think dress codes are fair," I told the students the other day. I was in a mood. "What is it with ties? I hate ties, they're a pain to wear because they're always getting in the way, you have to wear them with a shirt that's tight around your throat, and yet we have to wear them here. Women can get away with wearing T-shirts!

"Yes," one female student replied, thoughtfully, "but women have to do more than men, overall, to look professional. Most of us shave our legs, wear makeup, we do more with our hair, our nails, there's lots of stuff like that to consider. Overall, guys have it easy in the dressing department."

What are the practice’s conflict resolution policies/sexual harassment policies? Like a lot of this stuff, I don’t know quite how to bring this up in an interview, since we never expect there to be conflict, but many times, wherever people work together, there will occasionally be conflicts. How are these handled? Do the techs at your interview refer to ongoing strife in the hospital? Keep your ears open during the interview. Sometimes internal clashes and politics can make it impossible to work in a practice.

Can you make long-distance calls to professors at your vet school to get advice on cases? This might be something you’d like to do occasionally, although hopefully you’ll have a knowledgeable boss that will be willing to discuss cases with you.

One final word; “Interviewing.”

If you can, I recommend spending a little time at a practice where you’re considering working. It’s hard for me to really get a sense of a place in a one hour interview that consists of a tour of the hospital, a blur of meeting strange faces and hand-shaking, and sitting with the boss in his office listening to him explain his views of practice and the company health insurance plan. I’d rather hang out for a day or two, follow people around, talk to the techs, receptionists, other doctors. Offer to bring your lab coat and see if she’ll let you work for a day, shadow people. That way you get to know them better, and they get to know you. I don’t think it’s too fair for them to expect you to do a surgery for them, although I did get asked to place an IV catheter at my very first job interview as a DVM. I was so relieved when I got it in, although now, I think if I were interviewing someone, I’d be just as interested in what the candidate’s response was to failure as I would be in whether he was successful or not.

We all fail at things sometimes. Don’t freak out if they ask you to do something and you can’t. You’re going to be learning a lot in practice the first few years, so keep a sense of humor, say, “Caramba!” and ask someone there if they’ll help you. If you start going on about how you never miss a catheter, and you just can’t understand how you missed that one, you’ll tip your hand. To paraphrase Shakespeare, it’s best not to protest too much.

Before you go to your interview, it might be useful to think about what your own personal mission statement is. Knowing what you’re committed to is essential if you’re going to find a practice that’s committed to the same things you are. I have a short mission statement that I try to let guide me in every thing I do in private practice.

  1. I practice the highest quality medicine possible
  2. I help and heal animals and am an animal advocate (this is often, but not always, the same as #1.)
  3. I take care of my clients, educate them, and make sure all their questions are answered. I will do just about anything they ask of me, as long as it isn’t bad for the animal, isn't illegal, and doesn’t violate my personal ethical code.
  4. I take care of my coworkers and strive to help create a safe, productive, satisfying, and fun workplace.
  5. I make money, both for myself and for the clinic. If I do numbers 1 through 4, then 5 will take care of itself.

There are some questions you probably shouldn’t ask at an interview. I once had an interviewee ask me whom, exactly, in this organization should she sue, if the occasion arose? Questions about marital status, religion, ethnic background, age, and sexual orientation are inappropriate from both interviewer and interviewee. Any question you ask should reflect your desire to practice high quality medicine, have compassion for the clients and the animals, get along well with other employees and be a part of the team, and create a happy life for you and your family. Some of the questions above you’ll be able to answer by just listening to your prospective employer talk and by looking around and listening to other people in the practice, and some you may be able to directly ask.

Remember, you’re going to be in a job where you get to make a decent living, help people and their pets, stamp out disease, and work with fun people. You’ll be the envy of half of America! Relax and enjoy your interview, you lucky thing! It truly doesn’t get any better than this.

 

*The names of my bosses, as well as some other details, have been changed. I did get a lot of laughs out of those guys, but that shouldn’t obscure the truth that I learned a LOT from them. They are both great veterinarians and wonderful human beings.

 

Go back to Class Notes.

 

© Lee Fike, DVM, and Ham and Eggs WebPublishing, 2002. Unauthorized reproduction is a violation of applicable laws. Permission is given for fourth year veterinary medical students at The Ohio State University to copy this material for their own personal use.