Four years in veterinary school are drawing to a close. After a half-dozen interviews, you've landed your first job, perhaps as one of several associates to a DVM who runs a busy animal clinic.
Until now, you've settled into a way of campus life that is routine, predicable and comfortable. You reason that you will adapt as well to a routine where you'll work with others in the real world of veterinary practice. It can't be that difficult, you think.
Apparently, it can.
It's a statistic that holds true in the veterinary medicine, says Dr. Charles Neer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM, who teaches classes in professional development in the Department of Preventive Medicine at The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Veterinary Medicine.
"Many students will make a change, move to another practice, within their first year. Or at least that's the way it has been for a while now," he says.
Behind the high turnover is culture shock — the emotional jolt often experienced when transitioning to a new lifestyle and environment.
Adjusting to new environments
Lalervo Oberg, an anthropologist with the United States Operations Mission to Brazil, defines culture shock (in a Worldwide Classroom online editorial) as "a malady, which afflicts most of us to some degree. When an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of his familiar cues are removed. He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good will he may be, a series of props have been knocked out from under him."
Oberg speaks of culture shock as it applies to international relocation, but the principle's the same for graduating veterinary students entering the business world, experts say.
"Students find there's a big difference, a bridge to cross, from the classroom experience to actual practice," Neer says. "Some are affected more than others. Those who have had some limited exposure (during college) to business or to an office environment do better than those who have not."
Covering all bases
Dr. James Lloyd, DVM, PhD, who teaches a class on career development and practice management at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, agrees.
He and Neer, however, have developed ways to help students make a smooth transition to the working world.
"We encourage our students to do more than just off-site interviews or very short on-site interviews. We want them to spend at least a full day — a typical, busy full day — interviewing on site at a practice," Lloyd says.
He explains that a student's "cultural fit" to a practice environment is just as important, if not more so, than issues such as salary, working hours and benefits.
"We encourage students to listen to their hearts, not just facts and figures," he says.
Lloyd's class works to prepare students entering practice by having them make out a checklist, covering questions: What are the working hours? Will I be comfortable with that schedule? Will I be flexible enough to change hours if necessary? What procedures will I be allowed to perform? What are the practice's policies on various issues such as euthanasia? Am I comfortable with them?
At OSU, Neer teaches what he calls "non-technical competencies." He says they include life skills, communication, leadership, writing resumes and a workshop on interviewing techniques. "These are now part of our core curriculum for veterinary students," Neer says. Each is worth one hour of credit per quarter.
"Practice management, covering these and related issues to prepare (students) for the real world, was an elective before. But we felt we needed to do more in this area, as do other schools," Neer explains.
Communication and life skills also are part of Iowa State University's (ISU) core curriculum, namely for the veterinary program's second-year students, says Dr. Kim Langholz, DVM, MA, clinician in community practice at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
During students' fourth year, an interview with a client is videotaped and evaluated to help students transition to the workforce. "It's easier to recognize areas where you might need to improve when you can see yourself on tape," Langholz says.
When it comes to first-year job turnover, Langholz isn't convinced culture shock is solely to blame: "Other factors, including financial and geographical issues, may come into play," she says.
Hefty student-loan debt that's magnified by a regionally depressed job market can push recent graduates to accept jobs they otherwise might not consider.
"Later, that student may find that the job is a mismatch, which typically happens in the first or second year," Langholz says. "And that's true, not only in our profession but others as well, such as first-year school teachers."
At OSU, Neer has developed another tool to aid graduating students. He arranges periodic employment forums, inviting potential employers to campus to conduct interviews. His most recent forum drew 27 employers and a large student turnout.
"Students have so many more opportunities to choose from today than ever," Neer says.
If they're well prepared, culture shock can be minimized, he adds.
"The best thing, what most of them want, is good mentorship — to hook up with a good mentor. That's key. That goes a long way toward overcoming that natural apprehension, that fear that naturally comes with a student's first job."