Staff highlights - Veterinary career paths: what do we know?

Melanie Barham

Animal Health Laboratory, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON

AHL Newsletter 2020;24(4):6.

The topic of veterinary careers might seem an unlikely topic for an Animal Health Lab Newsletter article.  I was asked to share some of the key findings from a research project conducted as part of my MBA program at the University of Guelph.  A survey of 1044 veterinarians globally was conducted in January 2020 (before COVID-19 hit North America), asking veterinarians what positions they held, about their career shifts, and how they felt about their career moves.  More than half (59.2%) of the respondents were currently in primary care clinical practice, while 16.85% had moved out of primary care but had remained within the profession (such as the pathologists at AHL), and 23.50% had left the profession entirely.  Here are a few key findings from this research project: 

  1. Who considers leaving?

Of the veterinarians who were currently in primary care practice, 72.64% had considered leaving practice.  This large number is important because we know from general careers research that the thought of leaving a profession is the first along 2-3 steps to making a major career shift.  The top cited reasons for considering a career shift are (in descending order): burnout, long hours, compassion fatigue, on-call requirements, and family responsibilities.  There was no significant difference between male and female veterinarians.

  1. What made them stay?

Of those who never considered leaving primary care practice, the majority (>60%) mentioned making tweaks to their careers (mini-shifts) such as moving to management/ownership, finding a new focus or new clinical skills in practice.  Continuous learning was considered important for all veterinarians. 

  1. For those on the fence, what helped?

For those who decided to stay in primary care practice, despite at some time considering leaving, they cited changing jobs within the same type of veterinary medicine, changing mindset about practice, development of boundaries, and negotiating different terms of employment as top changes that allowed them to stay in practice.  Practice owners may wish to take note that encouraging flexibility in the workplace and investing in healthy resilience skills for staff may be excellent investments for long-term retention.

  1. What about those who did move out of primary care practice?

For those veterinarians who did make career shifts, the top reasons cited were (in descending order): curiosity about another path, readiness for a new challenge, long hours, and burnout.

  1. Non-linear careers

Veterinary careers were far from linear, and many people shared that they had left and returned to practice many times, or changed areas of practice.  Almost half (40.2%) of respondents indicated that they had made career shifts within primary care practice (e.g., bovine practice to companion animal practice).

  1. Support is incredibly important

All veterinarians cited support of family, friends, and mentors as major contributors to their career decisions, staying in practice long term, making career shifts, and professional satisfaction.  For example, over 54% of veterinarians who decided to stay in clinical practice despite considering leaving cited the support of family and friends as the key factor to their decision.  This finding highlights the ongoing need for maintaining connections and relationships, both with colleagues and mentors as well as family and friends as we make decisions about our careers.

What can we take away from this, especially in a pandemic? 

As employers or employees, it also seems to be more and more evident that building a career that is continually interesting, challenging, and fulfills our sense of vocation to help animals is crucial to our success as professionals.  Equally important is the need for ensuring strong non-clinical habits such as boundaries, maintaining all aspects of health, and allowing time to connect with our peers, colleagues and families.   AHL