Do You Have Career Exit Strategy?

Planning for life after a career is as important and planning for your career.

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As veterinarians, most of us have not had the agony of having to go to “work.” This is because we love what we do every day. Some of us have been lucky enough to think we would continue doing it even if we were not paid.

Some veterinarians have been good businesspeople and have made an excellent income while doing something they love. It doesn’t get much better than that!

I have had the good fortune to be a veterinarian for the past 44 years and have little desire to stop what I am doing as long as I have good health and a healthy family. I have sampled many career areas of veterinary medicine in those 44 years: military service, graduate student, resident, practice associate, practice owner, professor, administrator, practice consultant, industry consultant, author and lecturer. I feel blessed to have earned a very reasonable income and done so many things that have been challenging and fun.

If you are not as excited about your current activity as you once were, it may be time to consider a change.

I have talked with veterinarians who stopped working suddenly and then had great difficulty adjusting to their new lives. A large number of these individuals end up becoming relief veterinarians or starting another practice to fill their time. Some do community volunteer work and end up working harder than when they were in practice and receive little respect and no income from their activities. 

Get Prepared

How do you protect yourself? Everyone should have an exit plan tailored to his or her own situation. Ideally, a plan to phase out your life’s work should be developed over 10 to 15 years and be done as carefully as when you entered your career.

Here are five life career stages to consider: 

  1. Early career stage (ages 25-32): Education is completed, family begun and work life started.
  2. Medium career state (33-45): Property accumulation starts (home and practice) and debt reduction starts (education, home and practice).
  3. Peak career stage (46-55): Debt reduction becomes a focus and wealth accumulation starts (real estate, IRA, investments, etc.)
  4. Pre-retirement stage (55-65): Investment growth accumulates as debt is eliminated.
  5. Retirement: May be delayed past age 65 depending on investment growth, health and general economy.
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The economic downturn of the last several years has made it more difficult to retire now. Investments have generally decreased in value, so many feel the necessity to work a few more years to make up some of the difference. This decision should not be just about money but about starting the next phase of your life. This is why you need a plan.

What to Watch for

Here are the major areas of concern:

1. Personal veterinary interests:

Do you really want to leave your career or do you want to continue some things but not others? The people with the greatest flexibility are owners, but often an employee may be able to work fewer hours. You might be able to restrict yourself to areas you really enjoy—perhaps surgery or geriatrics.

Most employees and owners need change after doing the same job for years. I changed my role every four to eight years to add interest in day-to-day activities. Early in one’s career, it may be possible to restrict your daily activity by both species and systems without becoming a specialist.

Corporate practice might allow one to retire from management duties and yet continue to practice. Corporate practice also offers a reduced clinical focus and more management if less patient contact is desired.

2. Outside interests:

If you have always dreamed of owning a different business, the later stages of your career might be the time to pursue this activity. If you are an avid runner, tennis player or golfer, don’t stop. The question is: Will these activities bring enough satisfaction and value to your life to replace your work? If the answer is “yes,” you may be just fine. If the answer is “no,” are you willing to start a new hobby?

A number of veterinarians starting retirement think they just want to relax, read good books, travel and work around the house, but after six months they discover they have extra time, so they look for other things to do. This is when hobbies and other meaningful activities are especially important.

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3. Good health:

You will have the best of everything if you are healthy. Long work hours, few vacations, infrequent exercise and poor eating habits sometimes lead to poor health.

Planning a healthy lifestyle will pay very large returns as you age. Planning both for a healthy lifestyle and healthy financial resources will allow many more choices.

4. Family support and interests:

Career stress can be greatly reduced if you are fortunate to have a supportive spouse and family. Your family should be consulted during the peak stage as you consider your career exit strategy. 

The biggest danger is to retire prematurely and become depressed from boredom. Sometimes, trying a change in lifestyle for several months—such as a sabbatical—will allow more insight. Would this work for you over the next 10 to 20 years? If not, what would make it better?

5. Financial stability:

Adequate financial resources will open many doors. But just having enough money will not guarantee a stress-free retirement.

While growing up in a small town in Iowa, I came to know a number of farmers. The life of the grain and livestock farmer is not easy and requires long hours during the planting and harvesting seasons. The farmers continued to work into their 70s because they enjoyed being on their land and producing food products.

Once they decided to retire, they usually sold the farm and moved into town. Their way of life totally changed, and a number of them became depressed, abused alcohol and often died within one to two years.

The successful retirees seemed to be those who worked at least part time until their health made them stop. Some farmers stopped raising livestock and grew grain, allowing time off in the non-growing season. They seemed to have full, rewarding and active lives.

How does this relate to the veterinarian?

Veterinarians have very active lives and enjoy their work. We can phase out of our careers, too, if we have a plan that allows us to transfer our dedication to other endeavors or work in a reduced or more focused way.

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Most veterinarians have worked very hard in their community to gain its respect. When you completely retire, you become just another retired person.

Your exit strategy must be developed personally. You need a plan, and you need hobbies and family to support your plan. 

My hobby has always been veterinary medicine, and my plan is to continue to be involved as long as possible full time and then part time.

If I’m lucky, I will die in the tractor seat while harvesting my best crop yet.

Dr. McCurnin, Dipl. ACVS, is a Veterinary Practice News editorial adviser and a professor at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.

This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Click here to become a subscriber.


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