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1998 AABP Seminar 25: Looking Forward to Practice

An exchange between bovine practitioners and students

Started August 30, 1998


Purpose of this Page:

The purpose of this page is to exchange information on 1998 AABP Seminar 25, both for students, practitioners and, ultimately, seminar participants. Responses, questions and comments were added as they arrived until the seminar occurred on September 23, 1998, in Spokane, WA.

The initial focus questions for this seminar were:

  • As a bovine practitioner, what is the one (or two or three) most important thing that you wish a seasoned practitioner had told you about being becoming a successful bovine practitioner while you were a student?
  • As a current student, what are the most important things you want to hear about from seasoned bovine practitioners about becoming a successful bovine practitioner?


  • How and what makes the transition from student to practitioner smoother?
  • How does one handle debt from student loans?
  • How do I find the perfect job?
  • What is a good deal with respect to salary, benefits, work schedule, vacation and equipment?
  • What is a good contract?
  • Family matters?
  • What should I pay special attention to in school?
  • What should I get more of?
  • What don't they tell me in vet school that I really need to know?

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Seminar 25 Details:

Objective: To familiarize students with different aspects of bovine practice: Practice management, practice economics, relations with associates, and career options.

Coordinator:    Dr. John Gay

Presenters: A cast of outstanding bovine practitioners, some who arranged their travel plans and missed other seminars, to do so essentially pro bono.

  • Dr. Amy Bartholomew>
  • Dr. Austin Belschner
  • Dr. John Day
  • Dr. Gina De Chant
  • Dr. Dee Griffin
  • Dr. Walt Guterbock
  • Dr. Greg Ingman
  • Dr. Jennifer Ivany
  • Dr. Fred Muller
  • Dr. John Sims
  • Dr. Scott Waltner


The goal of this seminar was to provide students an opportunity to hear about various aspects of bovine practice today, as seen by leading veterinary practitioners with varying types of practice. There was an informal discussion of some of the realities of practice, such as psychology and your clients, practice management and economics, employee-employer relationships, compensation, life-style of group vs. solo practice, the success of women in bovine practice, etc. Both dairy and beef practitioners described their practices and their approach to serving clients. 

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Initial AABP-L Query: (February, 1998):

As a bovine practitioner, what is the one (or two or three) most important thing that you wish a seasoned practitioner had told you about being becoming a successful bovine practitioner while you were a student? As a current student, what are the most important things you want to hear about from seasoned bovine practitioners about becoming a successful bovine practitioner?

Arranging the student seminar for the Spokane 98 AABP meeting has fallen to me somewhat late in the game. This is intended to be an important day-long seminar targeted toward students with an interest in bovine practice. Addressing the following questions have been suggested. How and what makes the transition from student to practitioner smoother? How does one handle debt from student loans? How do I find the perfect job? What is a good deal with respect to salary, benefits, work schedule, vacation and equipment? What is a good contract? Family matters? What should I pay special attention to in school? What should I get more of? What don't they tell me in vet school that I really need to know?

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Responses (most recent at top):

From a mid-career bovine ABVP-boarded practitioner (9/3/98):

My Grandpa's favorite saying comes to mind:

"It's better to be interested than interesting" , i.e. Find out about the PEOPLE you are dealing with. It's fun to really get to know them. If you do this you will really learn about the "big picture" of their livestock business.

From a bovine practitioner (9/2/98):

Here are some thoughts that might be worked into an ice-breaker question:

Once in veterinary school, most of what students hear about practice (unless they make special efforts to work with practitioners before graduation) comes from academics or veterinary publications. It is useful to consider the prejudices of these two sources (no slur intended - we all have prejudices):

1) Academics generally accept the hassles of a University life because they have strong specialized interests that they can't easily indulge in practice. These people often have difficulty seeing the big picture - that a practitioner's job is to help the client operate smoothly and efficiently, and that heroics and gadgetry can easily get in the way of an efficient and sustainable solution to a problem. Most problems are people problems (at least partly). Good solutions are simple solutions.

For example: Arriving at farms on-time is one of the MOST valuable skills for a new practitioner (and it is a learnable skill), because it helps the farm operate smoothly.

2) Veterinary publications are heavily influenced by those trying to sell things to veterinarians because that is who pays, through advertising, a major portion of their cost of publication, especially the "free" ones. You're not going to find good articles on how to avoid selling drugs at a loss (as I'm convinced many do).

With media like AABP-L, where the barriers to publication are very low, we get many messages that are motivated only by true generosity and collegial impulses. Electronic publication is so easy that people can give away those nuggets of wisdom without making serious sacrifices in their commercial life (i.e. time). I think we're all motivated by the desire to help our friends, it's just that survival is a stronger motivation, which requires money.

From a current student:

Questions the come to mind are: how does one know what's a progressive practice? In school we will have been exposed to the latest and most recent approaches. How receptive are practitioners and clients to the different approaches to treatments? How do/should we make suggestions, without seeming like a "young punk know-it-all"?

From a young practitioner (Minnesota grad):

When I was a senior, we spent six weeks (two weeks each) at practices of our choosing. Assuming your senior year curriculum is similar, I would suggest to students that they find out in advance how much "hands-on" work they will be allowed to perform. They are covered by AVMA insurance in the presence of a licensed practitioner, so they should be allowed to do as much as possible. I remember classmates being very upset that they were just a warm body in the field or exam room. My experiences were very good, and an essential part of being able to practice after graduation.

It is critical that they gain "hands-on" experience before getting in the truck all alone, especially in bovine medicine where the university setting cannot prepare a student for a midnight prolapse or a right-sided torsion. The externship should allow the student the opportunity to IV a cow start to finish (sounds dumb, but I bet there are a LOT of senior students who can't tie a quick-release, much less put a rope halter on a crazy, ketotic heifer), pull a calf or two (does wonders for the self-confidence!!), lift, trim and wrap a foot of a cow from start-to-finish, draw blood from a tail vein quickly, get an epidural in that works, and diagnose (or at least try) that cow off-feed.

I spent a lot of time in John Fetrow's senior rotations learning DairyComp, and spreadsheets, and transition rations. But John also knew the importance of the day-to-day physical skills, and it was he who showed me how to tie up a cow's foot to lift it, how to position a cow's head to get a jugular stick the first time, and how to look the farmer in the eye and speak with confidence, rather than mumbling and scratching my boot around in the barn lime. I tried hard to get hands-on experience in school, especially senior year, and not a day passes in the field that I am not grateful that I did so, and regretful that I didn't do more. My first year out was a steep learning curve, but I think many practices will be upset about paying a decent salary and providing equipment to a new grad who doesn't possess "basic skills"...and pulling twin calves, treating a down milk fever, and doing a DA surgery may not seem like basic skills to the senior student.

From a practitioner out 5 years:

I chose a large animal ambulatory internship and residency (Penn's New Bolton Center) right out of school. I mainly did this because I KNEW the vets and clients were used to new grads, and were used to teaching and knew what to expect. I still know to this day that it was the right way to go.

What I think all new grads should hear from their employer - "we will be there when you need us and we will back you up". I think that during the first few years of practice you are "shaped" by your experiences. I hope all new vets get molded into excellent practitioners by their bosses. I think that far too often new grads are seen as cheap labor, and therefore no extra effort is spent helping them grow and learn. New vets need guidance and praise! This is beginning to sound like my puppy kindergarten class I teach....

As a female large animal practitioner, I only worry occasionally about calvings, etc. I use ropes and pullleys, and couldn't survive without a calf jack. My current practice didn't own a jack (for 20 years) until I told them that if I couldn't pull it out with the 85 year old hobby beef farmer, I was calling THEM in the middle of the night!! Presto - calf jack. As far as acceptance, I worked at 2 mainly female large animal practices first. No problems with gender since the clients were used to it. For the past 1 year my current practice is all male vets. I do get the occasional "you're the vet?" or " I have a foot and they sent YOU?" After 5 years of practice, it is easier to stand up and be confident that I can do it. I am very glad I didn't have to try to combat that attitude just out of school.

From a shortly to be new grad:

I think the single most important thing that students forget in their desperation to find a job and a way to pay the bills, is that finding a practice is like finding someone to marry. No one would marry someone who laid down the law and wouldn't negotiate. If you are worth your salt as an associate, they should be willing to fill your needs as you should be willing to fill theirs. I'm shocked at how many of my classmates are taking crappy contracts because they are afraid they won't get a better offer.

I think a great subject for a panel to discuss is whether practitioners are looking for a "herd health associate," or a "fire engine associate." I have been in externships where the practitioner is griping that vet schools teach too much herd medicine and not enough practical skills, and others complaining that students come out knowing how to palpate cows and fix DAs but cannot apply that information to the herd.

Another subject, considering the number of women grads is how practitioners handle their own time and families and what students can expect for hours, family time, and maternity leave. I find that the best practices that have the least turn over and the happiest employees are those that the partners recognize their own need for fun and family.

Another important subject is how students should handle discussions of ethical issues in an interview. For example, how do you ask if a possible future employer uses nerve blocks for adult dehorns or if they use good judgement when using fluoroquinolones. Those are the types of things that practices lose employees over, and yet are the most awkward questions to ask.

Finally, a subject that has brought much discussion to AABP-L lately, is how practitioners feel about straight salary, verses percentage, verses base plus percentage. It is always useful to attend a panel where the practitioners come to the panel knowing some of the questions and have CONCRETE answers from their practice. I've been to several panels where questions about insurance benefits or vacation time come up and the answers are very vague like "well, it depends on the practice." Students attend panels because we want to know what true variety exists out there.

From an academic clinician:

How about some discussion that would appeal more to women? We have continuously had women students that are serious about being bovine practitioners, but are worried about how they will handle calvings, how clients will accept them, how to practice while pregnant, how to manage children while on emergency duty, etc.

From a practitioner describing themselves as "an ordinary, every-day ruminant practitioner":

I think it might be useful to discuss what it means to be a professional. That term is thrown around a lot without much attention to what it really means. I certainly don't remember ever discussing it in school. For starters, here are some pointers on being a professional that I have found to be important:

  1. Professionalism involves both quality performance and quality behavior.
  2. Professional behavior should be genuine, providing quality services in one's own style. Role-playing should be avoided because as one becomes absorbed in acting it is easy to lose touch with the client's situation.
  3. Professionalism is not being a cold and aloof expert. Rather, it demands that you be human, and that you appreciate others and value them as persons, as well as appreciating their contributions to the enterprise at hand.
  4. Professionalism requires that you pay attention to appearances; that you dress appropriately and maintain your practice vehicle and equipment in such a way that they make a positive statement about your concern for neatness and good hygiene.
  5. Professionalism means knowing what you are doing. Competence is expected of a professional. Professionals value continuing education.
  6. Professionalism also means knowing your limits. Be ready to admit your limits, to ask for help, and to make referrals.
  7. The development and exercise of communication skills is of the utmost importance to professionals. Knowledge, insight, technical skill, problem-solving ability, etc. will readily be wasted without the ability to communicate. I am convinced that three-quarters or more of effective communication is listening.
  8. Professionalism carries with it certain responsibilities and authority. In many cases, the professional has the authority to provide leadership due to his/her objectivity in the situation. Clients will often expect you to make recommendations even when they have not explicitly asked for them. Similarly, it is the professional's responsibility to get down to business--to identify problems or at least help un-earth them--to bridge the gap from small talk to the concern at hand.
  9. Dependability is a hallmark of professionalism. A professional always follows through on what he or she says s/he will do. If unusual circumstances prevent this, the professional contacts the client promptly to make other arrangements. Professionals are punctual.
  10. Professionals do not hide from their clients; they are available, and make sure that their clients know how and when it is appropriate to contact them.
  11. Finally, being professional means that one will make mistakes (despite one's best efforts) and will feel bad about them. If one adheres to points # 1-10, then most clients are willing to forgive most errors most of the time. Professionalism requires that one be able to admit one's mistakes, take responsibility to make amends for them, and then forgive oneself and go on.

The above post prompted in the following message from a bovine practitioner, who also notes that they enjoy bovine practice:

Upon graduation I had a rude awakening. Most practitioners haven't a clue about professionalism let alone how to extend it towards others. Contracts? Benefits? Don't even think about maternity leave. These are concepts that are not well received in good old boy circles. My advice for students, male or female, is that they demand the respect that should be afforded any professional whether they are seasoned or fresh out of school. Don't sweat getting a job right away. Hold out. Don't let your inexperience discount your fresh knowledge base. Experienced people are just as lost as everyone else. We only disguise that lost look better than most. In a way I believe the seminar should be for practitioners rather than students. Unfortunately, Pavlovian behavior (stimulated by the ringing bell of the cash register) would be difficult to modify.

From a previous organizer of this seminar

I did a little polling of students prior to selecting the speakers, and by far the most common response was that they wanted to hear about "real life" in practice -- or at least life after school -- especially on such issues as wages, hours, employee-employer relations, etc. Input from "real" practitioners seemed to be very appealing. It looks like your discussions are proceeding along those same lines. My seminar got pretty good reviews from the students who attended, especially the chance to interact with practitioners.

From a now senior female student:

"How hard is it for a women vet in ag animal medicine to earn and keep the respect of male peers and clients? Suggestions, confidence builders, preparation, knowledge, skills".

From a now third year female student:

You are "right on the money"

As a 2nd year I have more "fears" that when I actually am done with school - then what? These are my questions:

How do I find that "right" job and where do I start looking? How do I pay for the education that will put me in debt close to $80,000! How do I get a job that pays me MORE than the job I left 4 years ago, that had all the "bells & whistles" (insurance, stock options, 401K…) that comes with working in Corporate America? It's a scary concept and we only get 1 opportunity to even learn about this and that is in the " Hill's sponsored Business Management" meetings that we can attend on OUR OWN time. I left my "secure" job for the life (not just the job) of a bovine practitioner, now I need to learn how to become the best one … "right out of the chute"

From a student in the midst of a heavy curriculum:

1. How you as a practitioner keep up with what is happening with the industry. (via conferences, producer magazines, conversation with producers, etc.)

2. Tips on successful interactions with producers. (for example, how as a new veterinarian can I persuade producers to make changes (or if I even should initially))

I especially like your previous idea of tips on how to balance practice with family.

From a recent, vertically challenged grad:

I think the most important thing that helped me adjust to cattle practice was to project an air of confidence, even in the first year of practice when inside I was terrified. I'd turn the truck radio real loud and sing for confidence ("Shoulda Been a Cowboy" was a favorite), and I would visualize success, I know that sounds corny but I do think it helped.

I hope I am not boring you here, but I will also share with you two useful things that were said to me. One during the first year of vet school, by the sheep farm manager- "If you dig it, you'll be good at it". I have said that to myself when I needed to hang on and keep going on a rocky point in the learning curve.

The other was said to me by my employer and it went kinda like this "How do you know you killed that cow/everyone who does this job has killed a cow". These were the things he said when I had a routine LDA crash, burn and croak the day after surgery. It helps to remember one is not alone at those times. Sure enough, my boss' words jogged my memory to recall that one of my favorite and best teachers I had in school admitted to accidentally offing a cow with IV calcium. Oops.

So, some things I have found useful. Most of all, hang in there and try to find a job that feels right. The job I have now felt like a "click" from the get-go, it's my first job out of school and I am still here after almost four years, and planning to sign up for another. Yep, I am a fairly recent grad, and also a 5'3", 108 pound woman.

From a former AABP president:

"Practical tips for students to begin practice careers."

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