Mentorship in the Veterinary Practice

by Sam D Meisler DVM

Guidance from a senior veterinary associate.

In a study of career path choices in the early post-graduate, “more than a third (38.0%) of respondents reported leaving a position solely because of inadequate mentorship and support.” Canadian Veterinary Journal, 2009 Sep; 50(9): 943–948.   As a practice owner for almost 20 years, I have learned that the true problem lies more in an expectation mismatch on the part of both the practice employer and the new veterinarian graduate.

New graduate veterinarians enter the work force with the expectation that their new employers will complete the incomplete education that they received at veterinary school.  On the other hand, practice owners are looking for competent associate veterinarians willing to adapt to their practice environment and culture. And both – after a few months into the relationship – can get increasingly frustrated with each other.  The fundamental issue is that even though most veterinarians enter the work force in pursuit of general veterinary practice, our veterinary schools and colleges are graduating veterinarians who are not prepared for it on day one. As a result, the idea of mentorship to solve this problem has been introduced to the new veterinary graduate.

Unfortunately, mentorship in the world of business and mentorship to a new graduate have two completely different meanings. As a veterinary business owner, I define mentorship as the assimilating and guiding of a new graduate into the practice culture by a mentor. Many new graduates, however, see the mentor as their new professor responsible for teaching them the needed skills to become a more confident and competent veterinarian. Yes, all of our more experienced associates are happy and willing to assist the new graduate with acquiring new skills. The expectation at our practice, however, is that the mentee is ultimately responsible to make sure this happens, and the mentor is there to guide and assist in how best to navigate that training within the confines of our company culture. As Chris Myers, CEO and co-founder of BodeTree, says in Forbes Magazine, “Too many young professionals fail to realize that mentorship is a two-way street. You have to deliver tremendous value to your mentor as well, and that often means working longer and harder than those around you.”

We solve this expectation mismatch by asking the new graduate in the interview process what their expectations are and what they define mentorship as.  We then clarify what our definition is.  And we explain that we will help guide their assimilation into our practice culture.  We also expect them to identify areas where they need skill development and to take our advice on how to develop those skills. We do not say we will be responsible for teaching those new skills.  We will guide them in their education and teach them how to use the resources available to learn new skills. Ultimately our goal is to develop an associate veterinarian who learns throughout his or her career.