Getting Experience vs. Pay

To get on the fast track for longterm professional success, be selective about where—and with whom—you first work.
Credit: Dusty Perin

We’ve all seen the advertisements for job offers that include this phrase: “Pay is commensurate with experience.” This is all well and good when you’ve already been in the profession for a time and have clinical experience to bring to the table. But how do you get jump-started in your career with an exciting job that not only fills your brain and hands with knowledge and skills, but also compensates you appropriately for your efforts? 

When first starting out in veterinary practice, the quality of the employment experience most likely trumps the pay scale. This is because the initial practice experience and case load you see definitely form the platform on which you’ll build your entire professional career. You’ll develop habits and procedures regarding how to work up a case, how to communicate with clients and how to handle the horses. The more cases you see, the greater the breadth and depth of your experience. The amount of responsibility and autonomy awarded to you— or not—by your employer is also a moldable experience that either builds your confidence or erodes it. Working within a group practice enables you to work in a team environment; this is a skill that is likely to be highly sought after in future job situations.

Your initial foray into the veterinary field has significant consequences for your future work opportunities. Where and how your start in practice often dictate the ultimate pay scale to which you can aspire.

To get into veterinary school, you had to be competitive among your peers, who were all vying for limited acceptance quotas. To get through veterinary school, you had to compete with yourself against expected academic standards. Now that you’ve graduated, you have to compete with other similarly qualified individuals to land a great job with acceptable pay and benefits. So how do you differentiate yourself from the crowd? That’s where experience comes in.

Experience Required

Employers seek individuals with a multitude of qualifications, high among them “experience.” There are ways to improve your experience and possibly your pay when starting out. The opportunities to gain familiarity with the dynamics of veterinary practice while in veterinary school are many and varied—externships let you become involved during summer months.

Prospective employers like to see that you’ve had versatile, hands-on experience in the field and/or in clinics so you’re more capable of walking into the job ready to go with limited supervision. It is expensive to train a new graduate, not to mention the potential for serious mistakes that could be injurious to equine patients and to client satisfaction.

With a background of practical experience in horse care, you may be offered better salary compensation at the beginning of your new-found job. More likely, however, is that you will be offered the job over another candidate with less experience.

Experience that you garner in work situations during your veterinary schooling also gives your prospective employer some kind of track record of your performance along with an ability to contact references about your work ethic, medical knowledge, communication skills and revenue-producing potential.

Working in some capacity in the veterinary field before graduating from veterinary school also gives you an invaluable tool that is not easily achievable in any other way: networking.

Networking Works!

In many cases, your experience might be super-important, but it has not gone unnoticed by many job applicants that opportunities often pivot around who you know.

Getting involved with well-respected practitioners in the veterinary industry might help catapult you to the head of the hiring roster provided you are smart, motivated and competent in your chosen pursuit of equine medicine and surgery.

Another way to improve your marketability is to get involved with the VMBA (Veterinary Medical Business Association) program while in vet school; this association amplifies your business acumen and allows you to network among veterinary practitioners. It provides you with another layer of experience that is vitally important to every medical practice: business smarts. So in a nutshell, experience on many levels lets you begin with a solid foot in the door that enables you to secure a job that you find desirable and worthy.

You might start out with a less-than-agreeable salary and compensation package, but as you perform better in revenue production and client satisfaction, you can climb the rungs of the salary ladder. How far you get is determined by the supply and demand in the market and how well the horse industry is faring where you’re practicing. This is also an important feature of job selection.

Location, Location, Location

In some areas, like Colorado for example, it is well-recognized that some of the compensation comes in the form of scenery and recreational opportunity. This is likely true in many parts of the country where there is tremendous competition for jobs because the area is a highly desirable place to live. In other regions, like the Southeastern USA and Atlantic seaboard, horses are still an integral part of the local culture. This generates more opportunities for vets to build and grow a practice. You work hard, then you are compensated accordingly in places where demand is so high that horse docs are always busy and revenue pours in. Salary differences of as much as 50% occur between varied geographical locations depending on the economic state of the local horse industry.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners conducted a 2007 survey on Salary and Lifestyles. Nearly 18% of the membership responded. One pertinent feature of this survey noted that racehorse practitioners earn far more than their counterparts who care for pleasure and performance horses. And those veterinarians who work in other aspects of the horse industry (such as pharmaceutical companies and feed and supplement manufacturers) earn higher salaries than private-practice veterinarians.

The most notable point from that AAEP survey is that experience improves the scale of pay: Salary peaks are experienced between ages 40-59, with veterinarians over the age of 50 earning three times that of their 20- to 30-year-old colleagues.

Take-Home Message

Considering that most veterinary school graduates have completed a minimum of eight years of college, patience may well be a veterinarian’s built-in virtue. In the big picture, a new graduate might fare best when being ultraselective about where—and in whose company—he or she practices. This is one smart financial decision that should pay dividends in the future.

Most enter the field of veterinary medicine because of a love for animals and not so much because of monetary remuneration. The financial payoff will come in time, once you get loads of horse care experience under your belt.

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