Discharge Notes columnist Dr. Andy Roark is a practicing veterinarian, international speaker and author. He founded the Uncharted Veterinary Conference. His Facebook page, podcast, website and YouTube show reach millions of people every month. Dr. Roark is a three-time winner of the NAVC Practice Management Speaker of the Year Award. Learn more at drandyroark.comRead Articles Written by Andy Roark
One of the most impressive things about veterinary professionals is the great breadth of our skill sets. As practitioners, we know more than just the facts we learned in veterinary school; many of us are also experts in communication, problem-solving, diagnostic thinking, priority management and more. Anyone who has practiced in a clinic for even a day knows that much more than medical knowledge is needed to get by — not to mention excel — in this line of work.
In recent years, I made friends with several people who have chosen to leave full-time practice and lean into veterinary-adjacent fields. Some took roles in diagnostic, pet food or pharmaceutical companies — auxiliary veterinary specialties, if you will. Others were promoted out of their clinic roles and now spend most or all of their time managing and supporting practitioners instead of being one. I know folks who cut back their clinic hours to make time for building social media and practice management consultancies for veterinary practices. And that’s not to mention friends who dropped hours to take care of sick family members, raise children, support a spouse’s new business, help on the farm or downshift into semiretirement.
I don’t know whether those alternative career choices are becoming more common — I suspect they are — or whether I found myself more drawn to those friendships since I took my career in an unusual direction several years ago. I count my lucky stars daily for the great fortune of having built a career in practices that allowed me to take this path. I feel very fortunate to have a schedule that leaves room for speaking engagements, travel, consulting work, creating the Uncharted conferences and, most importantly, being an active member of my family as a husband and dad.
I love that veterinary medicine allows for such customization of our jobs. One downside? The “real vet” question.
A Niche Concern?
Let me acknowledge that I’m addressing an issue among a particular subset of veterinary professionals, albeit one that has come to my attention with increasing frequency. That’s probably because it’s an area where I have first-hand experience. If you think this doesn’t apply to you now, feel free to skip ahead to the psychological concept I introduce later. There’s a useful tidbit there for everyone.
I recently got an out-of-the-blue email from a veterinarian who took a job leading content creation for a well-known veterinary CE provider. She loved her new job but struggled with impostor syndrome when she talked to friends who practiced full time. She got self-conscious when they asked, “But how much do you actually practice anymore?” It felt like they were asking, “Are you still a real vet?”
Honestly, I get it. The real vet question has bothered me for years. Like so many of us, I used to picture myself following in the footsteps of veterinary archetypes like James Herriot. I once envisioned a veterinary career like those of the senior-level experts I looked up to after veterinary school.
As my career path evolved, I practiced less and developed the other facets of my professional life. Just like the veterinarian who emailed me, I loved what I was building, but I sometimes felt awkward about my status as a “real vet” because of my no-longer-full-time clinic schedule.
I worried: Was I falling behind other veterinarians who practiced every day? In a way, yes. I could not develop my expertise as a practicing veterinarian as fast or as thoroughly as others if I practiced significantly less than they did. Sometimes it hit me as I stood in front of other doctors, lecturing on effective communication strategies. They talked to more clients each week than I did. Did that make me a fraud? Who was I to claim the role of a communications expert?
I wrestled a long time with my definition of a real vet. I thought I could find a definition that would soothe my uneasiness. To me, a real vet had innate talent and skill for working up cases, building relationships with clients and staff, and performing surgery, which I did. But I also saw a real vet as someone who was available full time to clients in need, which I wasn’t.
Would a real vet sink a huge amount of time and money into clinical training, then use the training less and less over the years? Could a real vet be introduced at social gatherings as “My friend Andy, the vet” if he wasn’t a practicing veterinarian five days a week? What about four days? Three? Knowing my “real vet” status seemed important to understanding my personal worth and value to my community.
I have always liked that as a veterinarian, I know how to fix things — put my hands on a pet, write a prescription, pick up a scalpel. But the truth is I also know how to fix other things. For example, I know how veterinary practices can implement simple changes to run more smoothly. (I’ve dedicated a great deal of time and research to the pursuit of this knowledge.) I know how to develop procedures that help staff members work harder and happier. I know how to advise practices on better communication so that the veterinary professionals who work there can do their jobs better. So no, I’m not a fraud. I’m just contributing to my field in a different way.
All of that was a long journey for me. I had been out of full-time practice for about eight years when I finally decided that the mental gymnastics I was doing to justify my “real vet” status wasn’t gaining me any sort of peace. Am I a real vet? Some might say yes and some no, but I’ve decided that the question isn’t relevant to me anymore. So, I’ve let it go.
A Useful Concept: Incongruence
Here’s a concept we should all know. The late American psychologist Carl Rogers used the term “incongruence” to mean the unpleasant feelings we get when how we see ourselves differs from how we imagine our ideal selves. That was the battle I fought as my career changed, and I think it’s what the person who emailed me was going through, too.
I had been carrying around the “real vet” ideal image of myself as someone who works in a clinic full time, just like most of my friends and colleagues. When I looked in the mirror, the person I saw didn’t match that ideal. In reality, I popped into the clinic a day or two a week, but I spent most of my time working from home, writing, developing workshops and making slide decks. Nothing was wrong with the person I saw in the mirror; he just didn’t match the outdated ideal in my head. That mismatch, or incongruence, hurt.
Once I came to that realization, I understood there are only these two paths to peace for any of us:
- Live out the image of your ideal self. Had I put down the other work I was doing and gone back to full-time practice, I would have fit my definition of a real vet. But I wasn’t willing to do that. I didn’t want to stop what I was doing. I loved the weird way my career and life were veering away from what I once imagined they would be. I still do! So that left me with the second path.
- Update and reset the image of your ideal self. For me, that meant no longer holding up full-time practice as the definition of success and self-worth. It meant acknowledging that my true ideal self was engaged in the ongoing development of a unique, hybrid career serving the industry I love. It meant I didn’t feel a need to pretend I practice full time or harbor any shame about the fact that I don’t.
The Bigger Picture
Perhaps it’s helpful to remember that this type of career shift happens in other fields. Expert hairstylists might give up their chairs to concentrate on the details of running a business when they open a salon. Authors might slow their publishing rates to take jobs teaching aspiring writers at universities. Tech CEOs might step down to run incubators for startups.
If the experts who worked their way through those industries didn’t fill such vital support and development roles, who would fill the positions instead? Obviously, those people are still using their expertise — even continuing to develop their expertise in many cases — but they’re using it in different ways. It’s no different in the veterinary profession.
I found peace when I decided not to try to be a “real vet,” because the “real vet” image no longer matches who I am. I am not every other veterinarian I know. I am a teacher, community builder and father who sometimes practices veterinary medicine.
If the career you established suits you but doesn’t match up with the more traditional paths of the people you’ve trained and worked with, I suggest reaching out to others who have taken less-trod paths. For example, email people who seem to do similar things as you and invite them to get coffee. Ask your colleagues if they know people running their careers like you are. Meet those people, share stories and build friendships. You can find Facebook groups for veterinarians in industry and veterinarians who are consultants, working parents or in government. I promise that you are not alone.
I still love talking with my former classmates and full-time-practice friends, but I also have valuable new friendships with people who understand what I do. Having a group that “gets you” helps a lot when you decide to reset the ideal version of yourself. We all need some level of validation.
And whether you struggle with the “Am I a real vet?” question or any other “Am I a real [____]?” identity issue, I urge you to consider ending the battle. Drop the question mark and tell yourself and the world what you are.
No offense whatsoever to James Herriot, but perhaps we do better by one another and ourselves when we invent our own ideals.