Changing Horses in Midstream
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2003
Maggie Gething, MVSc, MACVSc, MRCVS
Dublin, Ireland

It was a challenge to find a suitable subject for this WSAVA Waltham International Service Award lecture. I am no longer working in small animal practice; in fact my career has followed a rather tortuous course, having started in academia, progressed through small animal practice into the animal health industry, back to practice, and now regulatory affairs, with a bit of politicking along the way. While reflecting on this pattern, and wondering what topic I could extract from my various veterinary activities which would interest a WSAVA audience, I remembered participating many years ago in a symposium in New Zealand. A number of veterinary colleagues described their career moves and these gave some insights into the reasons why some people make changes and may be better suited to certain jobs than others. Some individuals appeared to be 'opportunists', taking advantage of chances as they arose, while others had been actively looking for a change because they were dissatisfied with their current job. It occurred to me that the subject of career change could be of interest. We all know that being a veterinarian is stressful, with a suicide rate higher than in many other professions. Could this be related to avoidable crises at work which affect some people more than others? Is a high rate of career change also prevalent in our profession? Are such phenomena linked to personality types? I decided that this subject warranted discussion and that it could be a suitable topic for this lecture.

I make no apology for stealing the title of that NZVA symposium for my presentation, for it is a good one. Why would you want to change horses in midstream? Either because your old one is tired and worn out and can't support you any more, or because a new fresh one just happens to come along and you take advantage of it. Changing horses in midstream can be difficult and dangerous and you could 'come a cropper'; the same applies to changing careers--it takes skill and determination to accomplish and sometimes you may fall off. But if you have been prepared and have learnt how to swim, or someone is there to help you, you will survive. Once you have managed the change of horses successfully you will set off with renewed vigour towards your destination.

Facts and Figures

I found a few facts and figures from some recent surveys of the profession. In 2000, The Royal Veterinary College (UK) found that 4% of the responding veterinarians were working outside the profession, in jobs which did not require registration as a veterinarian. About a third of these were with pharmaceutical companies, the public sector and charities, and about half of them were in research or management positions. What about the rest, described only as 'Other'? These must encompass a wide variety of jobs which were not specified. There was no information on why these people were no longer working within the profession, or at what stage of their career they decided to make the change. We don't know how many had switched sectors within the profession. We do know that an increasing number works in more than one area of veterinary endeavour (12% in 2002). Although the vast majority worked in practice (82%), government and universities employed 14% and 9% of respondents respectively, and industry and charities lesser numbers.

In the United States in 2002, about 9000 veterinarians were working in public and corporate employment, 46,000 in private practice, and 7000 'unknown'--presumably all these were registered vets. It is hard to find information about why and when individuals change their careers, or to track them down once they have left the profession. For me, these surveys raised more questions than they answered.

Reasons for dissatisfaction

Nevertheless, we know that many veterinarians experience a crisis at some point in their career path. Work in veterinary practice, where most of us start our careers, can be rewarding but is also very demanding. In the RCVS surveys, the average full timer in practice worked 52 hours a week, was also on call for 27 hours a week, and took 23 days holidays per year. If this is the average there must be a lot of individuals working longer hours and taking less holiday time. This must impact on personal and family life. As with any other job, influences such as working environment, relationships with colleagues, ability and self confidence, as well as remuneration may contribute to the level of stress and the degree of job satisfaction.

How does the way an individual copes with working conditions relate to his or her personality? In the NZVA symposium it became clear that some people need to be in control of their time and to structure their own day. This can be difficult to do in the average practice where the day's work is often dictated by the cases that turn up. Perhaps these individuals would be happier working in government or industry, where the day can be often be organised to suit, and the pressures are different. But often people are only aware of a vague dissatisfaction and do not consider why this is occurring. Why people do what they do affects performance both at work and at home. Matching the requirements of a job to a person's natural style of behaviour can help the person to be happier and less stressed, because the demands of the job correspond to the way they like to work. Other factors involving personal values can also be important; people are likely to become discontent if they don't believe what they are doing is valuable. A sense of purpose and being appreciated is extremely important to most people.

I am told research suggests that 50% to 80% of all employed adults are in the wrong job or career. I would be surprised if this figure applied to the veterinary profession given the stringent 'weeding out' during our training process. But there is no doubt that some vets find themselves disillusioned with their jobs, and would benefit from measures to enable them either to improve the way they deal with their current job or to find a more suitable one. Change always involves risk, and so facing up to it is often put off until crisis point is reached. With the availability of modern methods it is becoming easier to face up to these problems, and given the sad fact of suicides among (mainly young) veterinarians, doing so is a necessity.

Help is at Hand

As veterinarians we are lucky to be equipped with a range of skills by virtue of our broad training and experience. The physical, mental and emotional demands of veterinary practice and the diverse nature of the work provide further strengths. Abilities in problem solving, decision making, listening and communication, business management and time and stress management can be applied to many other careers. However it may not be a job change that is needed, but help in finding where the problem lies and developing a strategy to improve the current situation. There are people around today who make a career of helping other people's careers. The American Animal Hospital Association markets a book called 'Career Choices for Veterinarians: Beyond Private Practice' by a veterinarian, Carin A. Smith. As well as the 'self-help' books there is an increasing number of life coaches and counsellors who are trained to assist people to find an appropriate career path. They can enable people to find out about their own aptitudes and needs, often by the use of personal assessment reports. For example, in the DISC system (D = dominant, I = influencing, S = steady, C = compliant) respondents choose what they are "most" and "least" like from 24 different boxes. The method is based on the finding that all people display these four behavioural characteristics in varying degrees of intensity. By analysing their own personality, individuals can establish their preferred work style, identify their strengths, and find out what work environment will bring out their best. A DISC report helps uncover the attitudes and values that motivate a person, bringing an understanding of the driving forces behind his or her reactions and decisions.

Life coaches can work with an individual to find out why he or she is unhappy in their present job, and to find a strategy to resolve the difficulties. However many Veterinary Colleges now prepare their students for the path ahead, by providing seminars for their final year students and new graduates to help them cope in their first few years. The Australian Veterinary Association has recognised the importance of adequate support during a graduate's first years of practice, and has introduced an excellent system of 'Graduate Friendly Practices' to guide them through this often difficult time.


Many of us have probably experienced a period of 'soul searching' during our career when we have asked ourselves whether we are really satisfied with what we are doing. Most will stay on their original horse, for better or worse. A few will be seriously distressed and may fall off into the stream with disastrous consequences. For those who want to revitalise or change their horse, help is available and full advantage should be taken of it.


For help with preparing this talk, I am indebted to New Zealand veterinarian Juliet Cayzer who has herself changed careers to become a life coach.


1.  Career Choices for Veterinarians: Beyond Private Practice. Carin A Smith. (ISBN 1-885780-08-7) 1998, Smith Veterinary Services.

2.  American Animal Hospital Association:

3.  American Veterinary Medical Association:

4.  Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons:

5.  DISC-overview:

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Maggie Gething, MVSc, MACVSc, MRCVS
Dublin, Ireland