I was talking to a colleague at work this week. We both have children about the same age, so naturally (and annoyingly to anyone who doesn’t have kids) there’s lots to share – nappy stories, who-jammed-what-object-where stories, and which-kids-TV-show-makes-you-feel-least-like-murdering-people stories.

Kid vet.
Would you want your child to have a veterinary career? IMAGE: Fotolia/Michael Pettigrew

These conversations happen a lot, and when they happen with other vets, there’s an elephant in the room – a question lurking in the wings, just waiting to be asked.

My colleague asked it first this week, sneaking it in after an in-depth Peppa Pig discussion. She asked tentatively, wondering if I felt the same as she did.

“Would you want your son to be a vet?” she asked.

No hesitation.

“God, no! Anything but that!”

A look of relief crossed my colleague’s face. “No, me either!” she exclaimed.

Age-old question

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question, and it probably won’t be the last, but my answer is always the same, as is the relief from my dialogue companion. In my personal experience, few of us are excited at the prospect of a new generation of vets, while we don’t want our children to live the lives we have. Isn’t that a shame?

Most of the reviews of my book, Once Bitten – the fictionalised story of a vet’s first few years in practice – have been very positive, but a choice few have said something along the lines of: “Read James Herriot instead – he’s a vet that actually enjoyed his job.” Those few reviews hit home, because the book is written as honestly as possible, and so, I suppose, my feelings in my own first years are visible in those of the protagonist.

Overly entitled?

The first years of a vet and or/ vet nurse’s career can be stressful and hard work.

Did I enjoy my own first years? Honestly, no. I found them lonely, emotionally draining, stressful and hard. I know from reactions to the book and many of my blogs that I’m not the only one.

Perhaps we’re a more entitled generation than Herriot’s. Perhaps we feel we’re owed more for working less, and perhaps we’ve lost the “put-up and shut-up” attitude of those pre-war years. “Perhaps”, for I have no way of knowing, but I believe Alf Wight – our founding father – struggled with depression.

What I do know, however, is the job has changed out of all proportion from that depicted in All Creatures Great and Small – it’s busier, expectations are higher, respect is lower, and the knowledge base has increased a hundredfold – a thousandfold, even.

Our suicide rate remains one of the highest in any job, and I don’t know about you, but I struggle to ascribe that to whining, entitled young people.

Old-school attitudes

Instead, I think we need to admit the veterinary profession has a problem – a serious problem – with mental health issues.

Anyone who has tried to recruit a vet in the last five years will know something is amiss. The old-school attitude of: “Academic qualifications aren’t enough – you need grit. I did it – if they can’t handle it, they need to leave the profession” isn’t going to cut it any more, because the profession is approaching crisis, and the political climate isn’t going to help either.

Those struggling with their careers can feel lonely, or unable to cope. But they are not alone, and help is available.

We need to admit the job is hard – it’s physically and mentally demanding, it destroys your social life and (I think perhaps the most important of all) it’s extremely emotionally draining. We need to support our new graduates, and we need to recognise in ourselves when we aren’t coping. We need to do more than we are doing.

I have lost count of the number of messages I’ve received from friends, colleagues and strangers, telling me they aren’t coping, are on the edge, and can’t see what to do. Something needs to change, and it needs to change soon.

In the meantime, if you ask me if I want my son to be a vet, I won’t hesitate.

God, no. Anything but that.

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6 Comments on "Careers: choices, paths and wishes"

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5 months 13 days ago

Seems rather negative. My girls don’t want to be vets, and I’d have suggested they consider other careers, but to be honest I’ve enjoyed my career to date, even the first years.

5 months 12 days ago

The real truthful question is hidden in this, namely “if you could go back in time would you yourself make the same choice?”. So answering no to this question actually indicates that deep down you are unhappy with your life choice, it doesn’t mean that you would be happier doing something else but it does show that you have a huge problem and need to consider it.

Nick Marsh
5 months 12 days ago
While I’m very prepared to accept that any problems are mine rather than the profession’s, I would at least like to propose we consider the possibility that there’s a problem, rather than suggesting that if you don’t like it you can find another job – anyone who has tried to recruit vets in the UK recently for general practice may be aware that this is not a sustainable line of thinking. Posts I make about depression and the job are orders of magnitude (literally) more popular than those I make on other topics. When I talk about anxiety and depression… Read more »
5 months 12 days ago
In James Herriot days, people had a bit of respect for vets. Vets are now seen as money grabbers by most. I’m a vet nurse & I actually avoid saying what job I do because the pretty much the first thing that is said to me is “I had to take my dog to the vets & it cost me £800 just to be in a drip for a few days” etc etc! I just try & get away with I work with animals. Being a vet is so such hard work & so so stressful that you could do… Read more »
Simon Jones
Simon Jones
4 months 19 days ago
Not wanting your children to follow the same career path as you is common to many jobs/professions, likewise most children do not want to do the same job as their parents. This is presumably because they see the intimate details of the job and see what stresses it puts on their parents, without realising that actually many jobs, and indeed people’s lives, can be stressful a lot of the time. I think it’s a mistake to think that the veterinary profession is particularly unique and we should perhaps be bringing up our children to realise that the world doesn’t owe… Read more »
Liz Barton
3 months 28 days ago
I have setup an online resource website, http://www.vetsnet.net (currently undergoing beta testing – hope it’ll be live within the month), with the following aims: -summarising and providing links to mental health and other resources available -encouraging all members of the profession to engage with the changes that are afoot within the RCVS to address these and other topical issues -increase social interaction through social media. It’ll be for all the non clinical needs of the profession. Checkout the Facebook and twitter feeds for a taster. I’m doing this on a non profit basis as I became too overwhelmed by the… Read more »

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