Show me the way

Experienced vets across the country are volunteering to help recent graduates find their feet in practice. Meg Crawford reports

The transition to veterinary practice from uni comes as a rude shock to some students. Graduates may excel academically, but are less well-equipped when it comes to dealing with the day-to-day rigours and vicissitudes of practice, including financial stressors, isolation, difficult clientele and the despondency that can follow euthanising animals on a regular basis. It’s a well documented fact that a high proportion of vets suffer mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, and that suicide rates are disproportionately high in the industry. Couple that knowledge with the fact that young graduates are struggling to transition to the workforce and it’s a recipe for burnout and the industry’s high attrition rates.

Bearing all of this in mind, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has instituted a formal mentor/mentee program which pairs students in their final year of study with an experienced vet to provide them with a friendly ear, an impartial source of support and advice outside of their practice colleagues, friends and family; and a guide to help them navigate the realities of working life as a vet.

Monika Cole, the AVA’s recent graduate and student program manager, has been driving the program since its inception in 2015. Understandably, Cole is passionate about the program. “I look forward to helping with the future of the profession,” she says. “The AVA Board decided a few years ago that the future of the profession is a prime concern for our members as a whole and they decided that putting a mentoring program together would be a great way to address some of the graduate support issues that have been flagged about their transition to their first year of practice.”

With that brief, Cole developed a 12-month structured program, teaming up an experienced veterinarian, who’s volunteered for the role, with a recent graduate, with the aim of helping them transition to the profession as smoothly as possible. As a mentor, the experienced vet aims to provide guidance and support, and an ear to bend if there’s an issue that needs discussion. “It’s a safety net for recent graduates to turn to,” explains Cole. Currently, 300 AVA members have volunteered as mentors across Australia.

After 27 years as a practice owner, now retired vet, lecturer and author Eric Allen has a wealth of experience, which he was keen to impart to graduates. A current mentor in the AVA’s program, Allen was aware for a long time that students were not being adequately equipped for practice. After selling his practice—“I decided I’d euthanised enough animals and I didn’t want to do anymore of that,”—Allen took up a post as practitioner in residence at Melbourne University and continued in similar roles until retirement. From early in his academic career, he rued that students were starting practice on the back foot. “My feeling was that we were not fully preparing our graduates for practice very well; in fact, not at all,” he reflects. “It’s an enormous stress and there are enormous difficulties going from academia to practice. I knew we could do better.”

“When you’ve got your first job, it’s important that you have somebody backing you up, who will support you and give you advice and, when you need it, will help.”—Eric Allen, mentor

When asked why there’s so much pressure on recent graduates, Allen pinpoints an anomaly in the system. “I think that it’s a strange profession that lets its graduates straight out of university and able to practise on their own if they wish,” he explains. “Compare and contrast that with medicine, where you’re doing quite a long internship and there’s always somebody in the next room or standing in the same room as you and there’s backup all over the place. If you choose to go into large-animal practice, especially, you might well be out in the car by yourself from day one. The result of which is that a huge number of people leave the practice in the first couple of years; they just don’t make it, but they could have and they should have if they’d been better prepared.”

During his years in academia and practice, Allen observed gaps in the knowledge of recent graduates when it came to business, presentation, communication and even driving skills. However, these days, when working with his mentees, Allen’s primary concern is to assure them that they have support. “When you’ve got your first job it’s important that you have somebody backing you up, who will support you and give you advice and— when you need it—will help. It helps them to realise that they’re not alone and that whatever’s happened to disturb them has happened to nearly everybody, sooner or later.”

Caity Mankee, one of Allen’s mentees, has been out in practice for a year and a half now and agrees. “It definitely eased my transition into the workplace,” Mankee says. “I had that reassurance that I’d be okay and that someone was always available to help if I stuck my hand up and said I needed assistance.”

Mankee met with Allen in person to discuss matters, talked to him on the phone and emailed and texted when time was tight to enquire about tricky cases and navigating workplace relationships. Mankee especially valued how much the relationship helped her to manage her expectations of starting work. “Because the relationship began before I started my employment we had a chance to talk about what to expect in my first couple of months and how to find my feet at the start of my career.”

Allen also made it clear to Mankee that she wasn’t expected to (nor would it be practicable) to obtain a diagnosis in every single case from the initial assessment. He also encouraged her to ask questions and ’fess up when feeling stuck or unsure.

“That was one problem that I flagged I might have because of shyness and not knowing people that well or wanting to bother them. I’ve always had a problem with asking for help. I’m one of those people who likes to be able to do things on my own, so asking for help felt like defeat to me. But I’ve definitely changed my ways in the last 18 months. A lot of us went straight from school to uni, to having a full-time job—and didn’t get much work experience or real life experience that would show us what to expect. I think this should be mandatory!”

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