Career clash: Should you stay or should you go?

The grass that looks greener from afar may be AstroTurf and not actually better than what you have

No practice is perfect. The grass that looks greener from afar may be AstroTurf and not actually better than what you have.

They say the grass is no greener on the other side. Alas, sometimes they’re wrong. There are plenty of reasons why seeking a position elsewhere is the better option. For example, when you find yourself uninspired by your profession, dreading your days, and/or generally behaving like the disgruntled, unsatisfactory employee you know you are not meant to be.

You have to be realistic, though. The geographic cure is not always what it is chalked up to be. This is why at some point you should probably learn to—more or less—love one of the frogs you have kissed or consider another career path altogether. 

A look at changing opportunities

What follows is a brief discussion of veterinary associate job mobility: how it has changed (for better or worse), and the pros and cons of making what amounts to a series of lateral moves in a profession that offers minimal upward maneuverability.

As someone who spent the first 20 years of her veterinary career as an associate and has watched this profession evolve even more dramatically since becoming a practice owner seven years ago, I feel especially equipped to comment on this topic. I not only worked in the trenches alongside you, I have also come to understand how the “other side” sees associate labor.

The changes in associate culture over the past three decades have been nothing short of extraordinary for any profession. The rapid influx of women toward the beginning of that period, along with the accelerating decline in practice ownership during its latter years, have seemed the most significant variables driving this evolution. Fundamental generational changes in outlook and corporate ownership have played strong supporting roles to this transformation, too.

In the pre-corporate times, associate mobility was not as much of an issue. Not only is today’s culture more geographically agile, but back then we were not exactly blessed with an abundance of free agents in the veterinary workforce.

Since a much larger percentage of veterinarians owned their own places (and relatively few among them employed more than one associate), job mobility was rare by comparison. This was largely the case as recently as a decade ago.

Fast-forward to today’s world, where practice-hopping is so common as to be expected of associates. Indeed, it is encouraged. Seasoned associates tend to counsel their younger colleagues to play the field as thoroughly as seems tolerable. So much so that job stasis is actively discouraged early on in our profession. Serial frog-kissing is assumed to be the norm. Consequently, it is practically unheard of for an associate to settle down at their first posting.

Since the pandemic, conditions have continued to change. The scarcity in veterinary associates has only accelerated, heating up a market in which practices jockey to increase the attractiveness of their offers to prospective associates.

For their part, our associates (especially our youngest) are hyper-aware of these new changes. They are highly attuned to their colleagues’ experiences (amplified via social media, of course), thereby fueling a phenomenon I call “offer envy,” and artificially inducing personal-professional crises of FOMO (fear of missing out).

Ultimately, such pervasive information—true or not—often leads to untimely, unnecessary job dissatisfaction and a stressful, time-consuming job hunt, all of which feeds a roiling (and not necessarily very productive) veterinary head-hunting market.

Given these conditions, is it any wonder a significant percentage of our younger associates feel stressed out, dissatisfied by their work, and taken advantage of by their employers –– even as they live through what may be the best market for their services in their entire working lives? It’s quite the conundrum.

Clinic-change checklist

The question I always ask my free-agent friends, along with my current and prospective associates: Is it really time to move on to a new job? Be honest with yourself and be cautious. (The grass may not be greener!) Here are some tools you might choose to use to help you make the decision:

1) What’s driving you to question your current employment? Is it financial? Geography or commute-related? Do you not especially enjoy the clientele? Your co-workers? Are the hours abominable? Make a list of all the factors that appear to be influencing your decision to move on.

2) Should you stay or should you go? Make a list of pros and cons, but be cognizant of all the unknowns when comparing the bird in your hand to the one in the bush.

3) What does your dream job look like? Include your ideal job’s characteristics. If you’re feeling extra-nerdy, rank them in order of importance on a spreadsheet and compare them to your current position.

4) Is there a job out there that appears to offer more of the features you are looking for? Peruse the listings or hire a headhunter, whatever your pleasure. If you know there is a position at a practice you would like to be considered for and don’t find it in a listing, don’t hesitate to call and ask if they are hiring.

5) Look into all of your options. Maybe your best bet, given your personality, is to engage in relief work, after-hours/emergency work, or even consider a residency or some other kind of formal schooling. Is veterinary practice truly the right place for you?

6) Make an honest, apples-to-apples comparison. When you do find a position (or several) you like, check off their features against your list of ideal characteristics. Honestly compare them to your current job’s pluses and minuses.

7) Question the timing. Do you have the time to do a proper job search now? Did you just recently start a new job? Are you in the throes of other major life decisions/changes? Sometimes it is best to put the hunt on hold until things shake out and you have enough time to dedicate to the decision.

8) Consider your headspace. Are you feeling especially emotional, overwrought, or even burned out? While it may be all about the job, often it is not. Maybe the best course of action is to seek the advice of a therapist, life coach, or other independent entity.

Note: If you’re in an abusive or toxic workplace, please do not hesitate. The time to leave this kind of job is almost certainly when you first realize you are being mistreated. This is no time to prevaricate or worry about finding the perfect job. After all, the single most positive benefit of practice life as we currently know it is that it’s not hard to find a new position that more closely matches your practice style and career goals. It may not pay as much as the last one or offer the same benefits, but life is too short to suffer through a bad workplace situation.

One final recommendation: Never burn your bridges. Always leave a practice on good terms. This profession is too small, your reputation means too much, and you never know … the job you left may well have been the best one you ever had. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could go back?

I’m no HR manager or mental health professional, so you would be well-advised to take my suggestions with a grain of salt. This most personal of professional decisions is ultimately up to you. Yet, whatever you do, do not stay in a bad place out of fear of the unknown, do not take the first job you’re offered, and do not hit the pavement just because you suspect you might be happier elsewhere. After all, no place is perfect.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is available at Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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