Think your vet degree has to end in general practice? Think again, there are alternative veterinary careers writes Anna Christensen.
Dr Melinda Bell has watched it happen so many times, it’s become a cliché. Idealistic vet student graduates with a sole aim: work in general practice, because “they’re fixated on this idea that otherwise you’re not a real vet”. Then, long days of spaying dogs, euthanising beloved pets, and dealing with difficult clients takes its toll. They become disillusioned. Or worse, severely depressed—with statistics revealing veterinarians are four times more likely than the general population to take their own lives.
“We see these really high-achieving people who aren’t necessarily thinking about the best fit for them,” says Dr Bell, who heads the Veterinary Professional Life program at Murdoch University. “They’re following this historically predetermined pathway, thinking ‘I must be out in clinical practice’.” But, she says, if vet graduates opened their eyes a little wider, they’d see a whole menagerie of career options.
Take Dr Richmond Loh, aka The Fish Vet. When he was at university, there was no such thing; sick fish weren’t treated, they were flushed down the toilet. But when Dr Loh saw a visiting lecturer give a talk on marron parasites, it piqued his interest. “At that stage, not many people knew about fish vets, so when I went up to him afterwards and said I was really interested, he probably thought I was pulling his leg,” he said.
After graduating, Dr Loh interned in fish pathology, and soon after began offering ornamental fish consults, advertising through the paper. Since then, The Fish Vet has expanded to include five roving practitioners across the country. He’s also penned two textbooks, manages public aquariums, and operates an aquatic pathology service. “If you’re passionate enough and work at it, you can open up jobs that people haven’t even thought of,” says Dr Loh. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that people don’t even realise exists.”
In recent years, Dr Bell has seen graduates find fulfilling roles as welfare advisers, pathologists, policy makers and researchers. Animal behaviour consultants are on the rise, as are specialists and surgeons. And then there are animal industry vets and those who work with the agricultural department and “they’re often really very satisfied with what they’re doing”.
“If you’re passionate enough and work at it, you can open up jobs that people haven’t even thought of.”—Dr Richmond Loh, The Fish Vet
Case in point is Dr Andrew Larkins, a field veterinary officer with the Department of Agriculture and Food in Western Australia. Straight from university, he went into a country clinical practice, but after a couple of years rerouted. “I saw the difficulties of general practice and the drain it puts on you,” he says. “I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing in 20 to 30 years time, and wanted to do something a bit different. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and realised I wanted to be aligned with population health in animals rather than looking at individuals.” A field job with the government proved a perfect fit.
Now, he splits his days investigating diseases in the field, working in the office, and running workshops. He also travels frequently; at the time of speaking, he’s in Nepal training in foot-and-mouth disease.
“It definitely gives you more of a work-life balance—there’s no waiting around for that last consult to show up for the day,” he says. “And it’s quite flexible in terms of work arrangements. If you do overtime you’re getting compensated for it—as you should be.” Plus, the variety keeps things interesting—and it’s rewarding working on longer-term projects, rather than a revolving door of clients.
Knowing what makes you tick is key to finding fulfilment post-university. “It starts with self-awareness,” says Dr Bell. “Look at where your values and your interests are, but also where your personality and technical skills lie. People who are very good at communicating and dealing with people will make excellent practitioners. Others are much more introverted and would be happier in jobs behind the scenes. But believe me, there is a niche in the veterinarian profession for pretty much all of them.”
Dr James Haberfield from The Unusual Pet Vets is making a great career from carving out a niche. Five years ago, he started exotic pet consults one day a week on the side of his general practice position at a hospital. Today, he owns two exotic vet practices and employs 10 vets.
In the consulting room, he specialises in treating reptiles, rabbits and amphibians. On the field, he’s done everything from microchip Western Spiny-tailed Skinks to film king cobras in India. “Compared to general practice, you deal with so many different species and so many different problems,” he says. “For example, this morning we did radiographic sexing in a whole bunch of lizards—that’s not something most people would do in their average morning! There’s not as much repetition, and it’s often quite challenging. I see new things all the time, whereas in a dog/cat general practice, I think it can get a bit mundane and people can get burned out.”
“If you keep hitting against the wall, go around it. A lot of students think they’ve got to follow this set pathway. But it’s the people who think laterally that can really break ground.”—Dr Rick Fenny, ‘Desert Vet’
According to Dr Bell, “There are an awful lot of vets who were in clinical practice who are reinventing themselves in many different ways—and very happily so.”
Someone who knows a thing or two about reinvention is Dr Rick Fenny. The career chameleon “wasn’t an ideal student”, but has gone on to build a veterinary empire. Over his colourful career, he has treated racing horses, operated a cattle farm, run a vet training program, sent Australian vets to Britain, and created his own drug company. He even has a TV show in the works.
He urges vet students to take stock of who they are before diving into a job—and put their perfectionism aside. “Learn about yourself—what you like, what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at,” he says. “Most vets are driven to get everything right, whereas I’ve got a more relaxed belief that I’m interested in achieving results unconventionally. You don’t have to aim for perfection.
“If you keep hitting against the wall, go around it. A lot of students think they’ve got to follow this set pathway. But it’s the people who think laterally that can really break ground.”
So, peer beyond the pages of a textbook, join special interest groups, go to trade shows, and chat with practising vets, says Dr Bell. “The more students immerse themselves in, the more they discover what’s out there.”