Someone to watch over me

Vet mentoring programs can help young vets find their feetFinding your feet after school can be a rocky road, but with a little help from experienced vets, new graduates are getting to grips more quickly, explains Samantha Trenoweth.

Most vets can remember their first time. There was that moment, after graduation, when they found themselves in a surgery with an ill, distressed animal and an even more distressed owner. There were big treatment decisions to be made—life or death calls—and suddenly, all those years of sitting in lecture halls and laboratories, and even those final-year internships, were providing not a drop of consolation. The phrase “being thrown in at the deep end” had new resonance.

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) recently undertook some research to identify problems facing young vets and found that a major issue was isolation. Many young vets also reported that they needed to learn strategies to deal with clients. Other challenges included low starting wages and not adequately understanding their entitlements in terms of pay and conditions. All these factors were contributing to high levels of stress in the profession. The AVA concluded that one solution might be a mentoring program that teamed older, more experienced vets with graduates.

Laying the foundations

Some of the foundations for such a program had already been laid by the University of Sydney, which operates a successful mentoring program during its final year students’ intern practical rotations. The mentorships begin each year in December. The names of volunteer mentors, and some information about their work history and professional interests, are compiled into a database that is circulated to final year students. The students can choose the mentor who they feel best matches their own interests and needs.

The mentors are given some preliminary training (how to respond to a variety of more complex scenarios) and an induction session introduces the mentors and mentees. After that, they’re required to communicate weekly during the first month of the program and then monthly for the rest of the year. Contact can be
by email, phone or face-to-face meetings. It’s usually a combination of all three.

Geoff Scarlett, who was a University of Sydney graduate himself and is now semi-retired, is a practised mentor. “I gained a lot from the profession and
I wanted to put something back and help young vets to find their feet,” he explains. “It’s a collegiate profession. We really care for each other and we care for young vets coming into the profession. For a lot of young people, the hard thing is being outside their comfort zone. There’s a high attrition rate—a lot of people drop out. This program helps by giving the new vets someone to talk to who has been there and done that.”

“I’ve already found it really valuable,” says Lachie Dellar, a final-year student and Geoff Scarlett’s mentee. “Sometimes I’ll ask a technical question. The other day, I had a question about a particular drug and how it was used and what other people were doing with it. But usually, I go to Geoff with general questions: ‘How do I cope with the hours?’ ‘How do I have a social life?’ It’s a way to ask for help from someone who’s navigated the situation already.”

Many mentoring relationships continue informally after the program ends and, over the years, Scarlett has attended a number of graduations and been introduced to many a young graduate’s family and friends.

Taking initiative

Graham Catt, CEO of the AVA, is very excited about his organisation’s new National Mentoring Program, which began in 2015. Before that, some of the state branches had been running independent support programs—the Western Australian program, run by Dr Paul Davy, was very successful. “Then,” says Catt, “we identified the need for a cohesive national initiative and decided that mentoring should be a core part of what we do.”

So far, 250 mentors have signed up for the program and been given online training. Around 280 graduates have signed on to become mentees and “the ultimate aim,” Catt explains, “is that every graduate in Australia will be able to have a mentor.” Mentors and mentees have been matched, both by software and a human program manager, and initial experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

Eric Allan has worked in large and small animal private practices, and in academia, and is an enthusiastic AVA mentor.

“We don’t give them the answers,” he says. “We toss things around and help them find the answers for themselves. Though sometimes you can say, ‘here
are a few ideas I’ve found useful.’”

Hard-won lessons

Allan identifies some thorny issues involved with working in your first practice: clients who don’t pay; the recalcitrant nurse who is driving away the customers who do pay or is creating a difficult social environment in the clinic; clients who will only see the senior vet. Then there are the animals themselves. New vets need to learn about staying safe when handling animals and about giving them time to adjust to the clinic. Vets in rural and semi-rural areas are sometimes required to shoot animals, which is a difficult, highly skilled and often emotional procedure—“and how to shoot straight isn’t generally taught at university”.

Allan’s mentee, Caitlyn Mankey, has been in her first job at a small animal practice for ten weeks and says, “It’s been great to have someone to bounce ideas off. We had our first meeting just before I started work and my mentor was very reassuring. Since, then, I’ve asked him about how he’s dealt with difficult clients, how to deliver bad news—all those interpersonal things that you don’t so much learn at university.”

Eventually, the AVA hopes to extend its mentoring program to make it relevant to vets all through their careers. “We’re enormously proud of this project,” says Catt, “and we think it can be applied to vets who might need advice about buying their first practice or relocating or returning to work after taking time off for parenting. So no matter where you are in your professional journey, we want to be in a position where we can help.”

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