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Managing expectations

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IN what the BVA President, John Blackwell, has referred to as a ‘wake-up call’ for the profession, a survey undertaken as part of the RCVS/BVA Vet Futures project has found that only half of recent UK veterinary graduates felt that their career had matched their expectations. The survey, based on an online questionnaire, was carried out in May and June this year and involved veterinary students as well as vets who had graduated over the past eight years: 892 students and 1973 graduates took part. A report of the survey has recently been published on the Vet Futures website.1 It found that, while 37 per cent of graduates reported that their working life had lived up to their expectations, and 13 per cent said that it had exceeded them, 50 per cent said that their working life had not met all the expectations they had when they first entered the profession.

The survey also found that vets who had been qualified for five years or more appeared to be the least optimistic about the future, rating their opportunities for career progression less positively than more recent graduates. They were also less likely to feel that their degree had prepared them for their current work. Once vets started work their career aspirations appeared to shift away from clinical practice, with only 38 per cent of graduates seeing themselves working in a medium-sized practice, compared with 60 per cent of students. Meanwhile, although 45 per cent of students said they wanted to become a practice owner or partner, this aspiration was held by only 25 per cent of graduates. The proportion of graduates wanting to work in an area other than clinical practice (18 per cent) was twice as high as among students (9 per cent). More than half of the graduates responding to the survey reported that they were looking for a change in work, with 23 per cent wanting another job in the same field, 13 per cent planning to find work in a different field, 9 per cent wanting to work overseas, and 10 per cent considering leaving the profession altogether.

As Mr Blackwell remarked on publication of the survey report, ‘The drop off in career satisfaction for vets during the crucial first eight years in practice is something we can't afford to ignore. It points to frustration over career development opportunities and dissatisfaction with support available in practice. For the veterinary profession to remain sustainable, and an attractive career choice for the best and brightest, we need to address these issues with some urgency.’

Bradley Viner, the RCVS President, drew attention to a ‘disconnect’ between expectation and reality for many recent graduates, noting that this was an issue that needed to be addressed.

The findings reflect those of another survey undertaken as part of the Vet Futures project in February and March this year, using the BVA's ‘Voice of the Veterinary Profession’ panel. This found that, while a majority of UK vets were satisfied with the way their careers had progressed, younger vets were disproportionately represented among those feeling some disappointment (VR, July 11, 2015, vol 177, p 30).

It would be interesting to know how this compares with the situation in other professions, including, for example, medicine and law. That aside, the surveys do seem to suggest that there might be a problem in the veterinary profession at present, and the question arises of how this might be addressed. Meeting career expectations is a challenge in any field and involves, at one end of the continuum, managing expectations to ensure that these are realistic and, at the other end, as far as is possible, managing the reality so that any reasonable expectations can be fulfilled. Applying this to the veterinary field, as far as students are concerned, how realistic are their expectations of the veterinary profession, including veterinary practice, before and once they enter veterinary school, and to what extent might these be modified while they are there? As for their future employers (who may have expectations of their own), to what extent might the working environment be changed to make the most of what recent graduates are capable of while also meeting their requirements? And how big a role can the veterinary schools play in providing the bridge (or perhaps the springboard) that can help in the transition from one end of the continuum to the other?

Matching expectations is particularly challenging when things are changing rapidly. This is certainly the case in the veterinary field. One only has to consider how the structure of veterinary practice has changed over the past decade, with increased corporatisation and consolidation of businesses, to see how the aspirations of undergraduates 10 years ago to own or partly own their own medium-sized practices might have had to change. Meanwhile, as veterinary medicine continues to develop, new opportunities will arise. The job of the veterinary schools is not made any easier by the fact that, in many respects, they are preparing graduates for an uncertain future.

Some of the issues that might be contributing to a possible ‘disconnect’ between expectations and the reality of practice were discussed in a recent Viewpoint article in Veterinary Record by Stephen May. Among other things, Professor May highlighted some of the differences between university teaching hospitals and first-opinion practice, and argued that there was a need to develop a scholarship of primary healthcare to help alleviate some of the problems being encountered (VR, June 27, 2015, vol 176, pp 677-682).

Given the breadth of the profession's role, and the pace of change not just within the profession but in society as a whole, it seems unlikely that there will be a single answer on how best to match everyone's expectations, although managing those expectations should clearly form part of any solution. The Vet Futures project is currently at looking this and other issues with a view to devising an appropriate strategy, and it will be interesting to see what it comes up with.

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