What happens when a vet student becomes an associate, an associate becomes a practice owner, or a technician becomes a practice manager? The stories are as varied as the individuals who have gone through these common transitions in veterinary life, but here we present three shining examples of career change and transformation—along with some tips for others who are in the same shoes.
The next step: From vet student to associate
By Emily Tincher, DVM
In February of my senior year of veterinary school, I remember feeling desperate to graduate and get started as a doctor. Along with nearly 3,500 other seniors in AVMA-accredited schools, I had passed the national licensing exam and there was nothing but two months and a diploma between me and my first patient as Dr. Emily Tincher—no training wheels attached. I knew that veterinary school and work experience at four different veterinary hospitals had provided me with the medical knowledge to get started.
Plus, a variety of leadership positions had helped prepare me for the transition from student to leader of staff and clients. I’d received a business certificate with honors as a graduate of the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA), which had heightened my skills in communication, professionalism and financial literacy.
After graduation, I decided an internship would be the fastest way to reach my next goal of becoming a small animal emergency doctor at a private specialty hospital. Before that started, I earned a little experience as a relief doctor at a general practice working for an established mentor.
During my month in general practice, I was conscious of the other doctors’ time and tried to limit questions to those I couldn’t answer through VIN, Clinician’s Brief, dvm360.com or the Merck Veterinary Manual. I quickly realized a lack of comfort with anesthesia protocols and various medications now that my options were more restricted. I would have required heavy mentorship for any surgery beyond routine procedures like spays, neuters or mass removals. The learning curve was steep in many ways, but I loved the freedom to work independently to my ability level and to collaborate when I needed the advice of more experienced doctors—a trait I love about my job to this day.
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I would urge practice owners who are hiring to consider a new graduate if they’re willing to spend a little extra time on mentoring. Throughout my first year in practice, I was pleased to contribute to the conversation on the latest in diagnostics, therapeutics and technology. No one can remain completely updated on every aspect of veterinary medicine through CE, and a new graduate fresh out of veterinary school can help fill the gaps!
Perhaps the hardest part of transitioning out of school—most of us for the first time in our lives—was exiting the comforting surroundings of peers and friends. Whether a new grad is going to an internship or directly into private practice, this change in environment can feel isolating. Amid the other stresses of transition, actively maintaining and building my support system was crucial for success in and out of the office.
There is one thing no amount of time in academia or extracurricular activities can provide for students, and that’s experience—experience making the right decision when emotions run high, when funding is short, or when a mistake has been made. I would pass this advice to other new graduates just out of school: When choosing your first job, don’t focus only on the medicine. Look for a team with exemplary patient care, open communication and people you can talk to comfortably.
The next step: From technician to practice manager
By Marshall Liger, LVT, CVPM
I began my veterinary career at age 17, working part-time in a clinic performing basic duties. As time progressed, I earned more knowledge and responsibilities until I was eventually a licensed veterinary technician and the assistant office manager.
It is my nature to be involved and to strive for excellence. My mom always said, “That boy could work an army.” These natural tendencies ultimately made me more attracted to the operations of the clinic, and I found myself increasingly interested in matters such as revenue and spending, inventory, client relations, client perspective and so on. I found that the team relationships was the most challenging area. Even with all my growth through the years I would say that is often still the biggest hurdle.
After 13 years, I took a position as practice manager at a new clinic. The position found me, as they say, through some mutual friends. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing when I accepted the new role, but I learned quickly and much of the work came naturally to me. I quickly set a goal to complete my bachelor’s degree in business and to earn my certified veterinary practice manager designation through the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA).
I also built a network of resources, including participation in the VHMA member forum, regularly attending meetings of the local practice managers group and learning from industry representatives. I have been engaging all of these resources for years and they are just as valuable today as the day I discovered them.
I love this profession and am always seeking growth. I am now hospital administrator for a six-doctor practice with more than two dozen team members. I also freelance as a veterinary practice management consultant, and I love the opportunities this role provides me. Helping other managers and practice owners to grow their veterinary practices is something I am grateful for each day.
In an industry so burdened by burnout and compassion fatigue, I encourage veterinary technicians and practice managers to remember the passion that drove them when they first discovered veterinary medicine. We are servants, and that is a gift. We must take time to care for ourselves so we can honor our passion and keep ourselves healthy. When we learn to honor ourselves, our patients, our clients and our profession, the opportunities for growth and success are endless and joyful.
The next step: From associate to practice owner
By Jerilynn Weisshaar, DVM
I always knew I wanted to own a veterinary practice. As soon as I realized general practice was the route I wanted to take, I never considered not owning. I grew up in the Midwest, where small single- or two-doctor practices are common, so that was my model and ultimately it became my target.
I spent most of my high school and undergrad years in and out of several different practices, and I got a glimpse of what good owners and bad owners looked like, eventually starting to form my own view of ownership. Knowing I wanted to own a practice, I took a few business classes during my undergrad years and even married a business major! Vet school didn’t really add to my preparation—we got minimal exposure to the business side of veterinary medicine. So I read every article I could find in magazines and on VIN about ownership to help in my preparation.
I joined the team at West Ridge Animal Health Center in Topeka, Kansas, in 2009, and a year later I let the owner know I was interested in buying in. My goal coming out of school was to buy in three to five years after graduation, so after five years at the practice I started working with the owner on a buy-in plan.
However, about that time the owner hit some big life changes himself, and it became a possibility that he would sell the entire practice. So we put the brakes on our talks until he determined a year and half later that yes, he was definitely moving. At that time the buy-in process became a practice-acquisition process!
Here’s something I wasn’t prepared for: the scope of what is involved to get to practice ownership. You simply cannot fathom the amount of time you will spend on paperwork for the bank, for closing, for the government. At the same time you’re securing your loan and working toward closing, you also have to get things ready to start as a “new business,” including any immediate changes you want to make in the practice.
I found the banks to be an invaluable resource in my practice purchase. I talked to seven lenders before I made the decision on which I wanted to use and found them all to be a wealth of knowledge and helpful in making sure I was making the best decisions for me and my family. My bank provides continued support, which I think is awesome!
I would advise other prospective owners to keep their eye on the end result—practice ownership! Some days during the process you’re sure it’s not going to work out—negotiations aren’t going well, the bank didn’t give you the answer you hoped for, it just doesn’t all go perfectly. And some days you’re sure you can’t be an owner—the loan is too big, the paperwork is overwhelming, it’s a lot of pressure. But remember that if it’s your dream, you have to work hard. In the end ownership may not look quite like you originally thought, but it’s your dream and it’s worth doing!