Lucy Dobree

‘Any tips on that first job?’

We have a great student on clinical EMS with us at the moment. She’s been helpful, interesting and asks lots of good questions; one of which was:

‘Any tips for that first job?’

Because I was trying re-oxygenate a pug post nail clip (thank God for the Brachycephalic Working Group) I just reeled off my normal answer. ‘Yeah, just make sure its supportive,’ before turning back to the task at hand. After the pug’s mucous membranes were as pink as they ever go- i.e. slightly less blue than when clipping his nails – I expanded on my pretty crap original answer with more cliches that I was also told when I was looking for my first job.

These included:

Make sure you get what you want in terms of out of hours, surgical time etc. Oh and the old chestnut of ‘watch the Vet Record jobs pages, look for the repeat offenders’.

I heard myself saying all these things and I’m not really sure why. Before you start working its hard to know what a good and bad out of hours rota is. And also, what vet student has the time to scour the jobs pages to see what practices are repeatably advertising? I remember getting that advice and trying to watch the job pages but not being able to spot a repeat offender, especially with recruiters anonymising practices. I’ve been qualified for over three years now, I peruse the job pages as much as the next person (so, basically, after any vaguely stressful night on call) but I still couldn’t confidently tell you the practices to avoid by looking at the jobs pages. I’m guessing the person who coined this piece of advice was a jobs pages fanatic and not to judge them, because I get the theory, but maybe a jobs page fanatic is not the person to be taking advice from when it comes to looking for a new, hopefully long term, job.

Oh and read the advert! That was another fun cliche everyone told me.

All the bloody adverts sound exactly the same! Ooo you’ve got an ultrasound machine? I remember wondering (when I was looking for my first job) why that was something that should go in an advert? I had been in a university teaching environment where they had more ultrasound machines than students, why the hell would the fact a practice was boasting about the fact they had an ultrasound machine make me want to work somewhere? So yes, I suppose you should read the advert- but I’m not sure the advert is much use when it comes to finding a good first job.

So if that vet student would permit me I’d like to change, or at least, expand (again) on my original answer of what I think you should for look for in a first job.

Find a supportive practice.

That piece of advice wasn’t wrong and its the most important thing- but how do you go about actually finding a supportive practice? Firstly, I would say to any undergrad vet student try to work out what you actually want in terms of support. Its all very well knowing you need support but work out what that means to you, i.e. what is it going to take to make you feel happy in your first job? What are you most scared about? Out of hours? Surgery? Moving away from your family? Not having friends in the area? Different people need different types of support because that’s what supportive means, or at least I always took it to mean, a means to keep you happy and able to enjoy the job.

Some first jobs are more suitable for some people than others. I have a good friend who was always a surgery keen bean. He wanted to do as many surgeries as soon as he could, compared to me who, despite some pretty strong surgical genetics was, and still is, happiest away from a scalpel blade. He loved his first job and I still love mine but they were very different. He was doing surgical procedures quickly, where as I was in an environment where I was expected to have people scrub in with me for anything more complicated than a bitch spay. Some people enjoy the deep end, some people, like me, enjoy paddling around in the shallows until you feel confident swimming. Whilst we’re on this metaphor please note there is a difference between the deep end of a swimming pool and swimming across an ocean in a thunder storm. I’m not saying my friend received no support, no-one wants no support, but there are different levels of support that suit some people more than others; trying to identify which you want is important so you can find a practice that has  a similar objective.

Secondly- its not all on your first bosses, its on you too. You need to be able to suck up your pride and be able to ask for help from your practice. So at your interview, when you meet and are being interviewed by your potential new bosses, imagine having to ask them for help. Do they seem approachable enough to ask? If the answer is no I would think twice about accepting that job because you need to be able to ask for help. Yes your boss should too, but its not all on them. You need to be brave and be able to say, you know what, I can’t do this.

Yes, if you need help, you need to be able to ask for it. No-one is going to judge you, and if they do, then at that point, it is time to move jobs. To ask for help and be refused it is inexcusable, especially if you are working at a practice that has chosen to employ a new graduate. But to not ask for it when you needed the support? Well, I’m not saying its all on you, but perhaps mouthing off about how you weren’t supported in your first job isn’t completely fair. You need to be a good partnership with the people supporting you; they don’t need to be your best friend, but they need to be able to talk to you, and you to them.

And its not just your bosses. You should get good vibes off the rest of the team too. The people who essentially taught me to be an actual, real life, useful, vet wear green. I struggled with catheters, with intubating, with bandaging- but the incredible team of qualified nurses I had around me helped me kindly and patiently until my skill set slowly started to improve. So when you’re looking for that first job ask how many qualified nurses they have. If the answer is zero then don’t take the job.

Vet nurses taught me the most important lesson of all; to view the animal as a whole animal and not just its condition. It sounds odd but if you’re anything like me (heaven help you) its easy to lose sight of this as a new graduate; you will be a weird combination of facts and low confidence so when you make an exciting diagnosis you will want to use all your shiny new knowledge as much as possible to prove to the world you can.

I had a case three months post graduation that I had successfully diagnosed with gastric lymphoma. I was giddy at the thought of my first chemo case. I had my CHOP protocol all worked out. On the morning we were due to start the chemo I examined the dog with the nurse that had been looking after him all week. With a few gentle, non patronising, words she reminded me he wasn’t just my first gastric lymphoma case, that he was Ben. Ben was someone’s pet; someone’s best friend that hadn’t eaten in days, was getting weaker and weaker, and that even with chemo had a guarded prognosis. I looked at Ben, phoned his owner and Ben went home. My notes went back in the draw and we put him to sleep at home the next day. The owner thanked me for giving him a dignified end to his life. It wasn’t me who gave him that, it was the nurse who in doing so also taught me how important it is to actually look at the whole case; to appreciate how important the ‘art’ aspect of this strange career can be.

Because science is cool, but that art thing that they bang on about a vet school? That art is taught by the rest of your team. That’s the bit you only develop if you are well supported. That’s the bit that makes the job beautiful; the art of it. You’ll hate it if you don’t get to see that side of it- and you definitely aren’t going to see that side of it stressed out of your head because you’re straight out of uni, in a sole charge practice with no qualified nurses and your only ‘support’ is vet in a branch practice somewhere if you need it.

The team is everything. You need people who you can laugh with when you cover your face in cat bite abscess. You need people who will give you five minutes to cry if something isn’t going well. You need people who can play as a team, and you need to be a team player too (time to prove that personal statement wasn’t a load of rubbish!) Because starting out as a vet can be scary so if you are offered to meet the team at the interview make sure you do. Look not only at how they talk to you, but how they talk to each other. Do they sound like people you want to have a cup of tea with every morning? If the answer is yes, then you may be onto a winner.

But even the most perfect practice can sadly end up being wrong. The most important bit of advice I would give anyone is if its not right, then leave. At the end of the day, despite how many people fling words like ‘vocation’ around, it really is just a job and you have as much right to leave your first job as any one else does with any other job. Just because you are a vet, it does not mean you have to stick it out. Your mental health and clinical confidence are more important than how a short blip at the start of your career looks on your CV.

You wouldn’t tell your friend to stay in a relationship if it was making them miserable. There are plenty of other fish in the sea is what you would say (or maybe something less cheesy- your friends are probably luckier than mine). Sometimes you need to see this yourself, realise its not you, it might not even be the practice, but maybe it just wasn’t a great fit. Who knows what second job soulmate might be stood right around the corner?

And that just leaves us with the obvious stuff. Don’t take a sole charge job straight out of uni- you won’t be ready. Be careful of one man band looking for a second vet, it might be great, but it might feel like you are working under a dictator. If you are an outdoorsy person who enjoys climbing mountains don’t take a job in the middle of London, the tube escalators won’t fill that incline like hole in your heart. If you know someone who works at the practice you want to apply to then contact them on Facebook or Twitter, most vets are nice people and will be honest- it might save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

But really, it is all about support. You should be in an environment that keeps you happy enough to actually enjoy your job.. And, as I’ve said, different people are made happy in different ways. So before you apply for that job think about what really makes you happy- and  find a way for that job help you do that. You won’t enjoy being a vet if you’re unhappy. Maybe you won’t enjoy being a vet even if you are happy- and that’s fine too- its a wonderful degree that does not necessarily chain you to any form of future expectation. But if you want to give first opinion practice a go you need to work out what support you are going to need and go about finding it.

So that’s my answer. Support, support, support…

Oh, and cake.

Make sure they have cake.