The Path to Public Practice – 2.0 So you’ve graduated – now what?

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” – Douglas Adams

I need to have that quote designed into a motivational poster. With a killer whale because they’re badass. A killer whale that’s lost its porpoise (*). Oh look, here is one I found for all you meme designers – I’d appreciate it framed and ready to hang.


Anyway, welcome to episode 2 of my ramblings on how to get into public practice.

This one is dedicated to all the students and recent grads who have asked me questions around this theme.

So you’ve gone through vet school, learnt which end of a cat to stick a thermometer in and survived your equine hospital rotation. Was it fun? Do you want to do that again? Probably not, otherwise you’d not be reading this blog. Or maybe you’ve done your 10 years in clinical practice and want a change, if so, humour me whilst I write this for the new/recent graduates out there.

There you are on your graduation day, semi-keen about all things veterinary public practice and wondering what are you going to do now?

You could go into the world of clinical practice and earn your share of war stories and scars to match. Or you could step away altogether from the world of private practice and adventure your way into any number of roles.

I remember being a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 2nd-year student approaching a government veterinarian at a conference and asking his advice on how to get into his role. He advised me that I should go and get a few years under my belt in practice-land before making the leap to government land. This was not a one-off piece of advice – several academics, industry reps and clinicians had made similar points during my student years.

However, on the flip side of that advice, I’ve a number of other friends (bonded through our mutual dislike of all things surgery) who’d made the jump straight into public practice – either through a graduate program or directly in a role such as a district veterinarian or in industry. The majority of them are thriving with the shift into the public sphere and don’t feel like they are missing out (**). So it is a viable option for many out there.

Why was there a strong push for us all to take our step into clinical practice? The common answer I get is that it may be the only opportunity you could get to apply those skills you learnt at university on a practical level. Yet, I feel the more powerful lesson in spending some time in clinical practice is to develop and hone the essential “softer” skills for public practice – communication, time management and leadership.

Where else can you get the space and opportunity to practice your skills in effective communication (‘you really should vaccinate your dog’), diplomacy (‘Oh I know you read something different in Google, yet I can’t recommend enough that vaccinating your dog will protect it a range of infectious diseases’), anger management (‘no, the vaccines won’t give your dog autism’) and restraint (‘your dog has got parvo? Bring him in now for treatment’). These are critical skills that are necessary for all public practitioners and  it is in the consult room that you can identify your strengths/weaknesses and hone your technique.

Public speaking is another communication skillset that is easily developed whilst in clinical practice. For some people, it is a fate worse than death, however those same people have no problem running a consult or conducting a puppy preschool. Private practice allows plenty of opportunities to develop your rhythm and style. It also helps diversify your communication range – there have been days when I have bounced from stitching up a pig dog, performing a post mortem on some dead calves, vaccinating some kittens and euthanising a beloved guinea pig – each scenario brings its own communication challenges and I have found that you will have to employ a series of styles to suit each client. Obviously, there are other avenues one can explore if they have a crippling fear of speaking in front of a lot of people – sporting club involvement, Toastmasters or even presenting talks at the local school.

It takes a couple of years to develop your technical skills to juggle multiple consult rooms at the same time while dashing into the treatment room to calculate your pre-medication doses for the spey you have during “procedure time”. As someone who has the organisational skills of a cucumber, this experience was probably a harder lesson to learn than anything to do with the Citric Acid Cycle (***). On the flipside, private practice is also great space to realise that schedules can be thrown out the window in the face of emergencies and unforeseen discoveries (‘After you are done vaccinating Fluffy, can you please check her ears, she’s been shaking her head for 3 weeks’). As vet school had a high number of “type A” personalities, this latter lesson may also be a difficult process for some. Once again – the clinic can be a safe space for developing yourself in this area.

Leadership is a big subject area that I will leave a blog later [insert future hyperlink here, bending the rules of time and space, causing the internet to implode with a Kardashian twist] – just to say that we all have the capacity to lead from wherever are based in the professional totem pole.

Ultimately, your career path is very much going to be of your own making – you can jump straight into the world of public practice or you can dabble in the world of clinical practice. If ever I were to have any public practice-keen, bright eyed and bushy tailed students approach me for advice, I’d be echoing that government vet and recommend the path of clinical practice as a stepping stone towards being a successful public practitioner.

Next up – formal post-graduate courses

Til then, never lose sight of your porpoise.

* #dadjoke

** Pure anecdote and with about as much weight in evidence as an organic wellness blog you read off a friend’s Facebook wall.

*** – all jokes aside, Biochemistry is the devil.