The AVA vet graduate mentoring program sees experienced veterinarians connecting with new graduates to help them find their feet in the profession. By Frank Leggett
Starting work as a new graduate can be a time of great excitement and a little stress. Not only are you transitioning into your career but you can face excessive work hours, financial issues, emotional problems and difficulty in finding a healthy work-life balance. To support these new professionals, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has set up a graduate mentoring program where more experienced vets offer guidance and support. The AVA—committed to building a strong and sustainable veterinary workforce—appointed Monika Cole as the program manager in 2015.
“This mentorship program is run nationally,” says Cole. “It’s an opt-in program and about half of each year’s graduates take part. We have close to 300 volunteer mentors who are giving back to the profession by supporting these new grads.”
The program runs for 12 months and the graduates are encouraged to connect with their mentor at least monthly. At the beginning, many new grads are looking for jobs and their mentor can help by discussing their career aspirations.
“Initially, the mentor is there for coaching and to boost their confidence,” says Cole. “It helps graduates see that the profession has great collegiality and offers support throughout their career.”
Unfortunately, many new graduates experience poor mental health due to the stress and pressure of the job. Wellness and wellbeing may not be the foundation of the program but they certainly play a big part. Having been through the fire, the mentors are a compassionate sounding- board for struggling new graduates.
“We help maintain wellness through our counselling and HR services,” says Cole. “The mentors know and advocate for it. While the mentors are not meant to be a counsellor, sometimes the conversation they have with the mentee can get very personal. Everything is highly confidential–but I’ve had mentors reach out to me asking for assistance. I put them in touch with the Employee Assistance Program that offers counselling support.”
Being a veterinarian is like being a GP—it is a profession where you are dealing with a lot of raw emotions. Additionally, there can be physical isolation when graduates are sent to work in regional areas. While reaching out is never easy, the AVA mentorship program certainly gives the graduate every opportunity.
“We hope that by having mentoring support, there’s more avenues for people to communicate with someone with no hidden agendas,” says Cole. “Social media has changed society so much in that sometimes being disconnected is the norm. Being part of a tribe or a community is really important and, hopefully, this program helps with that.”
The feedback for both mentors and mentees who have gone through the program is very positive. Most of the mentors who started with the program in 2015 are still with it and more veterinarians are getting on board.
Dr John Dooley of Wingham and Valley Vets in NSW had been involved with the University of Sydney’s final year mentoring scheme for seven years. When the AVA launched its scheme, Dr Dooley signed up to be a mentor. At that time, student Liz Handelsman was spending a month doing a final year mixed-practice placement at his practice.
“As it happened, entirely randomly and coincidentally, she and I were paired as mentor and mentee by the AVA for Liz’s first year of work in 2017,” recalls Dr Dooley. “Most new working graduates tend to have concerns relating to the workplace and the management of their case load.”
“By having mentoring support, there’s more avenues for people to communicate with someone with no hidden agendas.”—Monika Cole, program manager, AVA graduation mentoring program
One of the benefits of having a mentor outside the graduate’s workplace is that everything can be discussed—from conflict with workmates to specific problems with cases to stresses and fears.
“The nature of our profession is very multi-faceted,” says Dr Dooley. “Graduates may not be quick at making clinical assessments, have difficulty in collecting a patient’s history, and be inexperienced in dealing with clients with vastly different attitudes. On top of this they are trying to be a productive person within the practice, watching their invoicing, getting to know the vets and nurses, and trying to discern how everything ticks. It’s asking a lot of anybody.”
Fortunately, the veterinarians working as mentors have a very wide breadth of general experience. The AVA program also puts the onus on the mentee to contact the mentor when needed. That can be face to face but is generally through email or a phone call.
“I’ve been a vet for 43 years,” says Dr Dooley. “I still remember my early period of work clearly. If I’d had the opportunity for someone senior to say, ‘Look, if you need a yarn about anything, just give me a bell’, I certainly think that would have been very helpful.”
Dr Liz Handelsman, Dr Dooley’s mentee, has recently moved to Sydney and works at the Small Animal Specialist Hospital in North Ryde. She heard about the AVA’s program while a final-year student at the University of Sydney.
“My situation is a little unusual in that I knew John, who became my mentor,” says Handelsman. “At the beginning of final year, I had done placement in his clinic and we had gotten along really well. We both signed up independently to the mentor program and coincidentally got matched. It actually worked out very well.”
Her first job was in a semi-regional area and included a lot of after-hours and on-call work. Often she was physically alone in the clinic. “I spent a lot of time flying by the seat of my pants,” recalls Handelsman. “If I had a particular stressful day or a case that I wasn’t totally sure about, then I would be in touch with John. It was fantastic to have someone to talk to outside the clinic as there was no fear it would affect my relationship with the boss or other staff members.”
While the benefits of discussing difficult clinical cases are obvious, it is the mental health aspect that most new graduates appreciate. “John has always been keen on teaching and nurturing grads to be clinically competent but also to be able to look after themselves,” says Handelsman.
“As a new grad focusing every bit of energy on work, it’s all too easy to stop eating properly or not get enough sleep. More often than not, John’s texts to me would not be about cases but asking if I was looking after myself. I’m very lucky I had John to help me through that time.”
At present the future of the program looks bright. There are plenty of mentors and mentees signing up and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The AVA is committed to making the program part of its core business,” explains Cole, “We now have second-, third- and fourth-year graduates involved, and at some point down the track we want to support all of our members regardless of their career stage. We’ll keep growing the program as long as we are able to get it funded.
“It would be wonderful if those graduates who were mentored come back through and become mentors. That’s what we’d like to see.”
For more information on AVA’s mentoring program, visit www.ava.com.au/mentoring