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Dear Class of 2020 Veterinarians

As students graduate from veterinary colleges and programs in the midst of uncertainty and maybe a little fear, we share the advice of the NAVC's Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Dana Varble.

Dear Class of 2020 Veterinarians
Dr. Dana Varble, DVM, Chief Veterinary Officer of the NAVC

Dear Class of 2020 Veterinarians,

I can’t imagine what it feels like to be entering the profession during a pandemic, “The Great Pause,” and an uncertain economy. Most of you won’t have a graduation ceremony and won’t be able to reconnect with your classmates, teachers, and colleagues to celebrate your accomplishment and mark this important milestone. You enter our profession into a world forever changed.

Here’s the deal, though: this isn’t our first time. Veterinarians and veterinary medicine will endure. One hundred and ten years ago my great-grandfather graduated with his degree as a Doctor of Veterinary Science from The Kansas City Veterinary College.

Yes, you read that right—that degree and that school don’t exist anymore. But look closer at his diploma. Pathology, surgery, histology—you took those classes too. I can only imagine his reaction if he knew all that you could offer your patients today! Breeds and breeding have become genetics. Radiology and virology were less than 20 years old in 1910! Undoubtedly there are things we do that they couldn’t even imagine. (CT, MRI, antibiotics. Vaccinations! Just think of everything that has been developed in the last 110 years.)

So, upon your introduction to our wonderful profession, I impart these five tiny bits of my still-developing wisdom upon you:

    1. I truly believe that veterinary medicine is a calling. In a profession in which financial security and job satisfaction are anything but certain, we choose to become veterinarians. Our gift is the deep love of animals and the people that love and care for those animals. Hold on to that passion and never let it be dimmed by the daily grind. That passion will feed your soul in the harshest of times.  It will also allow you, yes even you, to perform some nearly miraculous acts of healing. I promise you know more than you think you do. You will have patients beat the odds because of your hard work and smart choices. You will have an owner elevate your actions to miracles and hug and thank you with genuine tears in their eyes. Hang on to those moments. Save those cards and photos in a folder or special file on your phone and go back to them to remember all you are truly capable of.
    2. Your job is a different beast entirely. Your job is all the hours in the day that you spend in the tough tasks devoted to animal health. It is not the same as your calling and don’t think that it is. Your job will involve a contract or an agreement. The company or person you work for owes you only what is in that contract, nothing more, nothing less; most of us don’t know enough about contract law to fully get that. Employers can promise mentorship, future ownership, and even friendship. Some of them will deliver all that and more. Some will not. You will not always be successful in your job. There will be bosses, companies, co-workers, superiors, technicians and nurses, even clients that will become everything to you. More importantly, there will be people you can’t win over, work with, or even respect no matter what you do. You might have to leave a job early, you might get fired, you might get nothing you were promised. It doesn’t necessarily mean this isn’t the career for you. It means you need a new job. Your job is mostly business and it’s not personal. Which leads me to…
    3. You are going to take things personally. You would have none of the passion I mentioned earlier if you didn’t. Clients, co-workers, maybe even your boss are going to say things to you that hurt. Some of those people will not mean for you to take them to heart and others will say things hoping to hurt you. A patient will die or have a poor outcome and you’ll find fault with yourself. You will make a mistake, a perfectly human, ordinary mistake. These things will hurt your heart and confuse your brain. I wish I could tell you there was a magic bullet for dealing with it all but the skills you need to stay mentally healthy are different for each person. If you haven’t already found ways to deal with all these painful emotions, please start now. Ask for help often and early, even if you aren’t sure you need it. The hardest part of being a veterinarian is dealing with all the feelings of the highest highs and lowest lows. You are also entering a profession that is unfortunately ripe with emotionally damaged people and some of those people aren’t getting help and think that suffering is akin to training. Damaged people try to damage others. Find ways to protect yourself. We need you.
    4. The only thing that doesn’t change is that things are always changing. One of the best ways to succeed in this profession is to embrace and champion change. Change can be very hard to handle but change is also how we grow. Never stop learning. Throw away the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Find new passions in this field. You don’t have to master one thing (but you can). Love dentistry but also think orthopedic surgery is cool? Do both. Interested in buying a clinic and redesigning it and love training new veterinary nurses? Go for it! Leave a job. Find a new one. Move. Live in your home town and save your “high school enemy’s” dog! Veterinary medicine is not a one-trick-pony! Learn new tips and tricks from your mentors and new grads. Never be afraid of change and you’ll be happier for it.
    5. You are not just a veterinarian. Veterinary medicine is a passion project but individuals with the capacity to develop that degree of passion can handle, and even need, more than just that one thing. Single-minded devotion to veterinary medicine helped you through school but you’ll need more than just veterinary medicine to build a balanced life. I know veterinarians that have become lawyers, avid travelers, hikers, wine experts, marathon runners, mountain climbers, teachers, personal trainers, business leaders, bee keepers—you get the idea. A balanced life means a wide variety of interests (interests that sometimes change – see #4), friends/family, as well as a satisfying career (see #1). Time away from your job (see #2) for those things is absolutely mandatory for you personally (see #3).

My great-grandfather survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, served as a government meat inspector in World War I, and became the county-state veterinarian. He passed down his diploma and love of animals to my grandfather and father (who were not veterinarians but passed on a deep love and connection with animals) until finally 3 generations later I became a veterinarian too. My story isn’t close to being over. I can’t wait to hear how yours turns out!


Dana Varble, DVM