Your first job as a vet is one of the most memorable periods of your life. There has been such a long, drawn out build up to that day: the years at school where you have battled to get good enough results to get into vet school, then the five years of hard slog at college, with seemingly endless written and practical exams. All that work has led to you finally becoming a vet, and this first job is your first chance to put all of that struggle to good use: you are going to diagnose and treat animals for the first time.
The dark side of this first job is likely to be the most obvious to you at first.
It is normal to be scared: you are going to be put on the spot, you are going to have to make real-life decisions that directly affect animals and owners, and there can be no shying away, no hiding.
It is also normal to feel out of place: when you arrive in your new workplace, you know nothing about the usual routines. Where to hang your coat? Where to go at 9am? Who to talk to? How to work the computer system? What specific drugs do they have in stock? Where to go at coffee time? What to do when there are gaps in your appointment schedule? When to make conversation and when to stay quiet?
It is normal to make mistakes, but this does not make it easy. We all learn as we go through life, and the best way of learning is to do something wrong. In most cases, there is no significant adverse consequence, but we learn that we have made a mistake and we know not to do that again. On rare occasions, our mistake does cause problems. I (like many if not most vets) have seen animal suffering caused by a mistake that I have made. This is very upsetting and explaining it to an owner is not at all easy (but it is absolutely necessary). Most people understand that all humans do make mistakes sometimes, but it is still exceptionally difficult. And the truth is that vets do make more mistakes in the earlier days of working in practice because we are on such a steep learning curve.
It is normal to be lonely. At vet school, you are surrounded by classmates of your own age and background, while in your first job, you are usually in a town where you know no-one at all. This era of social media connection does mean that at least it is easy to talk to friends, but you can’t beat person to person contact, and that is often missing.
You do need to remember, however, that there is a bright side to your first job, and on the tough days, it’s worth reminding yourself of these aspects.
You are rich. OK, you are not rich, but at least, after years of negative cash flow, you are earning money. You can at last afford some of life’s small luxuries.
Most of the dark sides of the job mentioned above are temporary and they soon fade away: you stop being scared, you become familiar with your workplace and you get to know your colleagues, you make less mistakes, and you get involved with a local social life. Just as there is a rapid learning curve as a new vet in practice, so there is a rapid adjustment to the new reality of your working life.
You are gaining valuable experience. The best way to get a good job is to have a wide range of useful experience under your belt, and however good or bad your first job may be, it will be filling your tank with the essential fuel of experience. It’s worth pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to get as much experience as possible: in particular, try to do surgery, as this skill is such a practical one that the only way to get better at it is to actually do it.
You are learning which parts of veterinary you like and those that you dislike. One of our main purposes in life is to “individuate” i.e. to discover our own unique skills, likes and dislikes. These can be unpredictable: there are many stories of vets who start out intending to do farm work and to their surprise, then end up being small animal specialists. And vice versa. So, on those tough days in your first job, remember that you are learning all the time, and one of those important lessons is finding out what you do and do not like to do.
You are creating lifelong memories. You will never forget your first job. Keep a journal to help you recollect specific instances. Remember that the worst of life’s difficult times sometimes end up making the best stories, months or years later.
Your first job is important; you need to choose it carefully to maximise the chance of it being a positive experience. However it turns out, remember that there’s a bright side and a dark side. Try to focus on the former, and don’t worry too much about the latter. The light always beats the dark overall!