by Michael W. Miller, DVM
How many of us would be in veterinary medicine if someone didn’t reach down to pull us into this profession? I owe my career to the first veterinarian who hired me as a part-time kennel technician before I even knew what a heartworm test was! After getting seasick on a deep-sea fishing trip my first semester of college and switching my career path from marine biology to pre-vet, I was desperate to spend time at a veterinary hospital. I learned so much that first summer, but most importantly was the unexplainable gut feeling that this was where I belonged. I am so thankful that vet gave me a chance.
Because I appreciate him and everyone else who took time to help me, I try to pay it forward. For me this ranges from Boy Scout tours of my clinic to vet school club lunch lectures. I hope that the students learn something from me because I find that I always benefit from interacting with them. This symbiotic relationship seems perfectly summed up in a phrase I recently heard: “Reach Down, Reach Up”.
A big mentoring misconception is that you must have decades of experience or be at the top of your field to mentor. The truth is that everyone can do it! Even as a student, you can reach down to those dreaming of getting into our field. At my first job, I met a vet student who had worked at that practice prior to admission into vet school, and she helped me envision the possibility of following the same path. I was also lucky enough to have caring technicians teach me about daily life in a veterinary hospital. For me, one of the best early mentors I had was an assistant who started at the bottom as well and knew what I was going through. Starting from scratch, I had a long way to go. I try to remember that feeling when I see a new employee that seems to be clueless. I understand. That was me. I only got better because someone reached down to me. Now it’s my turn to recognize that in someone else and help them as I was helped.
Even as a new graduate, your experience with the transition from student to professional can be extremely valuable to share with students. A friend who graduated vet school one year ahead of me gave me advice that shaped the beginning of my career. Despite most of her friends signing on for internships after graduation, she decided to go straight into private practice. I faced a similar situation. In one brief conversation, my newly-minted-doctor friend allowed me to feel comfortable pursuing the career path that in my heart I knew was right for me, despite the route my friends were following.
On the flip side, one of my favorite presentations ever was the first time I went back to my vet school to give a lunch lecture to the exotics club. I only had 8 months experience as a doctor, but even that small peek of what lied ahead for them was appreciated. Their questions and the conversations that followed helped me rediscover the excitement I had as a student that had started to dwindle under the stress of my first year out. That interaction gave me new perspective of my current situation. By reaching down, I absorbed some of the students’ passion and left re-energized. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried this yet!
Conferences are a great catalyst for this “reach down, reach up” interaction. At a conference my final year of vet school, I was worried about what direction my career would take after graduation. My big concern was deciding if I would I be a failure as an exotics vet if I took a job where I saw mostly dogs and cats. Luckily, my mentor introduced me to a wonderful doctor who worked on dogs, cats, and exotics. My nerves were calmed in one conversation with a doctor I had never met before. He didn’t know it, but he changed my career path that night. Now, when I attend that conference, I try to seek out the deer-in-headlights students to offer them comfort. I understand the fear in their eyes. That was me. I only got through it because someone reached down to help me. Now it’s my turn to help someone else.
At another conference recently, I encountered a situation where I was among celebrities of veterinary medicine and felt like an outsider. However, a person I didn’t know at the time recognized me and was so excited to meet the guy who wrote “that piece about the Harry Potter creatures.” Here I was among people I thought were so impressive, and someone thought I was worthy of getting a selfie with. Wow, that felt amazing! She didn’t know it, but in that moment, she was reaching down to me in an uncharted way that still makes me smile when I think about it.
One of my career goals is to find a way to reach out to colleagues, or future colleagues, in the way the wonderful people I have mentioned have helped me. I want to grow up to be them someday. Why should you consider reaching down to help your new colleagues? In addition to being good for your profession, it also feels pretty awesome to be that person to somebody else. You should try it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the UnchartedVet editorial team.
Dr. Michael W. Miller, DVM is a part-owner of a four hospital practice and splits time between Lakewood Animal Hospital and Pine Bluff Animal Hospital in Morris, Illinois. He has a special interest in exotic animal medicine – especially reptiles, but he also enjoys working on dogs and cats including his mischievous shelter mutt named Wombat.