Happier as a vet?
Authors: Caroline Elton
Publication date: 22 May 2012
Some sentiments get mentioned again and again when doctors come to me to discuss their career dilemmas. Core medical trainees, for example, often express anxiety about the on-call responsibilities of an acute medical registrar. Other concerns, however, are more idiosyncratic and crop up far less often, such as wondering whether one would have been happier training as a vet. This is something a few doctors have confided in me over the past couple of years, and I started to wonder whether these individuals shared any underlying themes.
The first doctor was on long term sick leave from her trust because of a stress related illness and had been the subject of complaints about her communication and team working skills. This woman (details have been changed to protect client confidentiality)
was single, isolated from her family, and without close friends, and the most important relationships in her life seemed to be with the horses that she bred and showed competitively. She had been very upset when she was not able to have time off work when one of her horses was ill and thought it desperately unfair because colleagues were allowed to stay at home to care for sick children.
My gut feeling is that this person (who left clinical practice in the end) might have been happier as a vet rather than as a doctor. But I am also aware that this is little more than a hunch on my part, because I don’t know much about the communicative pressures of working with demanding owners of pets or livestock, and I can imagine that teamwork is also important for vets. So perhaps she would have struggled with being a vet in the same way that she struggled with being a doctor. What this rather extreme example suggests, however, is that somebody who is unable to sustain any satisfying relationships with family, friends, or a partner may well find the communicative demands of clinical practice hard to fulfil.
The second doctor was very different: sociable and lively, with a passion for exotic wildlife and adventurous travel. She had always wanted to be a vet and successfully applied to veterinary school. During her last year of secondary school she developed a serious allergy to various forms of animal hair, and the advice from occupational health was that she should find an alternative career. With little thought she transferred the object of study from pets to people and went to medical school instead.
Unlike the first doctor, this trainee had no difficulty relating to people, and her career progressed smoothly. But at the point she contacted the careers unit (the end of her foundation training) she was unsure whether she wanted to continue working as a doctor. We had a couple of sessions, and she intended to go travelling for a while before she made any longer term decisions. What emerged was that her heart really wasn’t in medicine, and she regretted not opting for another career that would have entailed sustained involvement with animals, such as marine biology or ecology. The supposedly straightforward shift from vet school to medical school hadn’t resulted in a satisfying career solution for her, because at the heart of her desire to go to vet school was a fascination with animals rather than with medicine.
My final example is a doctor who had not applied to vet school, because he believed that he wouldn’t get high enough grades at A level. In his case the interest in veterinary medicine didn’t correlate with a critical difficulty in relating to people (as with the first doctor) or a core lack of interest in human health (as with the second). He had enjoyed medical school and his first foundation year, and the reason he contacted the careers unit at the beginning of his foundation year 2 was because he couldn’t decide which specialty to pursue after foundation. Despite having an outstanding academic track record and excellent feedback from his supervisors, he was concerned that he wouldn’t get in to his first choice of specialty (ophthalmology) because it was highly competitive. His memory that years earlier he hadn’t applied to vet school because of anxiety about failure therefore became important in terms of highlighting a lifelong tendency to doubt his own ability. In the end, he did apply for ophthalmology and was successful.
What becomes apparent in considering these three examples is that if somebody tells me that initially they wanted to be a vet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unsuited to working as a doctor. Rather, this admission (which can be quite painful to own up to) needs to be explored sensitively, in the context of each person’s career history; in that way, some useful insights might emerge.
Competing interests: None declared.
Caroline Elton chartered psychologist and head of Careers Unit, London Deanery, London, UK
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