Why We Need To Support New Grads

Somehow I’ve allowed my son to get the idea that somewhere within the realm of veterinary medicine lives the best job on earth.

Somehow I’ve allowed my son to get the idea that somewhere within the realm of veterinary medicine lives the best job on earth.

Never one to disabuse any hard-to-motivate adolescent of the notion that his career choice might not be all it’s cracked up to be, I might be inadvertently guilty of imparting a rosier impression than our profession deserves. And nowhere is this rose-colored glow more directed and less deserved than upon graduation from veterinary school.

It’s the promise of a life after all that schooling that drives them so hard through its punishing process. Unfortunately, reaching what should be the end of the rainbow too often ends up feeling rather more like stepping through the looking glass.

Not that our next generation is unrealistic enough to expect puppies, kittens and foals frolicking in a pot of gold.

They’ve come to expect a hard time. From Day One in vet school they begin to receive layer upon layer of dire admonitions on the subject of their collective debt burden so that by the time they finally graduate, most students are as prepared as they possibly can be for that anvil that’ll sit on their shoulders over the next couple of decades.

What Lies Ahead

Still, no one is ever prepared for what’s inevitably a harsher reality than they’re finally forced to withstand. Alarming levels of indebtedness can only be lived to be truly experienced. (As someone who had to pay out-of-state tuition rates at the University of Pennsylvania––for six years, no less––and still makes monthly payments, I think I can vouch for that one.)

But it’s not just the crushing debt that weighs them down. Unheard of levels of unemployment are compounding this problem in ways that have not been credibly addressed by our profession. (I addressed this travesty in my January column.)

Add to that mix an increasingly challenging roster of on-the-job demands from financially squeezed veterinary practices, many of which harbor unrealistic expectations for their new hires and cannot spare the manpower required to mentor them.

Indeed, if we were to take a vocal contingent of practice owners, hospital managers and practice management gurus at their word, we’d be forced to conclude that the current crop of recent grads is composed of woefully incompetent slackers when compared to previous generations. (A fantastic claim I find hard to believe given my experience with recent grads.)

All of which is why I believe this newest generation of recent veterinary graduates is more stressed, strapped and beaten down than any in the history of veterinary medicine.

This, despite ubiquitous complaints from the old guard, who level accusations of entitlement, softness and lack of commitment against those emerging from veterinary schools.

Generation Gap

I cannot speak to whether this has always been the case, but I confess to never having felt beset by, or the focus of, former generations’ displeasure with the way I believe the current culture within veterinary medicine regards its younger set.

In fact, I believe this attitude pervades the profession when it comes to supporting our youngest members––an attitude that’s as undeserving as it is counterproductive. After all, in any profession, new grads are by far its neediest constituency. And all critiques and finger-pointing aside, it’s this literal incarnation of our future that must be fostered, mentored and shored up in whatever way it can be.

Yet recent graduates comprise what’s inarguably the most underserved group within our profession. There’s no doubt the veterinary establishment has, for the most part, been unable or unwilling to tangibly meet the needs of its most sensitive cadre of colleagues.

Though commissions, consultants and committees have been tapped to address this mounting issue (though thus far confined to financial considerations alone), they’ve not yet delivered. Recent graduates remain impoverished and stressed way out of proportion to what their predecessors experienced in years past. Which translates into compromised patient care and professional recidivism (i.e., early burnout and, worse, suicide).

And all the while, it’s frustratingly clear to some of us that concrete solutions are not just morally imperative, they’re eminently possible, too.

But it’s not just the overwhelmed population of recent graduates that’s suffering; pet owners and patients, too, are exposed to the limitations posed by too-stressed, clinically brow-beaten, poorly supported new grads.

Yet perhaps the biggest stakeholders, apart from the new grads themselves, are the practices that employ them. The effectiveness and stability of new hires is undeniably an indispensable requirement for the success of the veterinary economy.

Taking Action

So what to do about it? I addressed this issue and its possible solutions in a column two years ago, but it clearly failed to gain the kind of traction I had hoped it would. Which is why I raise it again in more concrete terms to see if somehow, somewhere it’ll stick:

From fundamental skill-building, legal assistance, financial planning and family stresses to managing the inevitable pitfalls and doldrums of an early career, new graduates require a program of mentorship-oriented support that promises to help integrate them into the veterinary workforce and to post-graduate life in general.

Australia has devised such a program: the New Graduate Friendly Practice Accreditation Scheme. Its goal is to support new grads primarily by helping them secure gainful employment in a practice that offers mentorship designed to meet their unique needs.

Practices that achieve this accreditation will be offered the opportunity to vie for the top tier of veterinary graduates by virtue of their willingness to offer effective mentorship.

Practices interested in attracting and supporting new graduates would be compelled to meet high standards for the mutual benefit of both: New grads get a healthy environment to grow in; practices get stable, motivated, more effective practitioners.

Australia’s program also offers a hotline that helps connect recent grads with financial planners, legal experts, psychologists and other professionals.

So who pays for all this? The Aussie version of the AVMA, of course (though it’s supported in part by the practices that participate). Sure, it’s potentially expensive, but consider the benefits we would reap.

Studies show that professional graduates (across disciplines) who receive support during their formative years are more likely to play active roles throughout their careers. They tend to take a more positive view of their profession and are typically better trained and more skilled as a result.

Well-supported new graduates invariably provide positive role models for younger veterinarians who follow, offering an exponential growth of benefits realized from the early support this program promotes.

Not only do new graduates offer the latest knowledge, techniques and trends in veterinary medicine, their fresh outlook has a way of reigniting career interest among their older colleagues. Hiring new grads might even become cool again.

Graduates who receive support are less likely to abandon their profession. From a purely economic, succession-planning standpoint—as well from as a humanitarian point of view—offering new grads a solid start means a more robust, enriched veterinary profession for both entry-level vets and its soon-to-be retirees.

A higher quality of care is the inevitable outcome of such a program’s success.

Nurturing nascent talent is a no-brainer. Indeed, all professions ignore their up-and-coming colleagues at their own peril. And we’ve ignored ours for far longer than prudence dictates.

Think about it: If it were your son aspiring to a career in veterinary medicine, how would you want to see the recent grads treated? I believe it’s this line of personal, Golden Rule kind of thinking that will ultimately force us to face that we’re all inextricably invested in the plight of our next generation of veterinarians so that we can finally start doing something about it.

Interested? Email me at khulyp@bellsouth.net

Dr. Khuly is a mixed-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at Vetstreet.com. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her MBA from Wharton in 1997.

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