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Keeping Your Options Open

Pivoting as a Mid-Career Professional with Doreen Vaughn, DVM

In this interview series, we follow veterinary professionals working in various facets of veterinary medicine. We’re learning about the plethora of career options in vet med and how these professionals transitioned from practice to an alternative career. We hope to educate mid-career professionals, and new professionals alike, on the alternatives to private practice and how to prepare for a pivot in the future. If you like this series and would like to learn more, join us for our 3-hour summit in September by registering here.

This is our second in the series and we welcomed Dr. Doreen Vaughn to speak with us about her career pivots. She is the Clinical Skills Instructor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

You have a unique story, so can you tell us a little bit about your journey in veterinary medicine?

Dr. Vaughn: I was in 6th grade when I got my first dog. It took a little bit of pleading on my part for my parents to get a dog. I just fell in love instantly and from there I thought I wanted to be a vet, not really knowing much, but that was the spark for me.

I went to the University of Illinois for my undergrad and studied Animal Sciences. I'm from the suburbs of Chicago, so I felt Animal Sciences was the smart choice because I didn't have any large animal experience and knew I needed a plethora of experiences for vet school. Really loved the major. It was actually pretty fun working with sheep and cows and whatnot. I went straight through to vet school and graduated in 2009. First I did private practice for about four and a half years and then I decided that I really wanted to work with clients in the public sector.

I actually wanted to go into public outreach, but didn't really have a lot of success in finding paid opportunities. I took a slightly different route and went into vet tech education and really loved it. That was one of my favorite jobs to this day. I did that for about a year and a half. After a move, I left the profession for a number of years and found my way back last year at my alma mater. Currently, I’m a clinical skills training specialist where I work primarily with 1st and 2nd year veterinary students teaching them hands-on skills. So it's definitely been a ride, but I've enjoyed it.

What was it like pivoting to lead a vet tech program?

Dr. Vaughn: It wasn’t what I was looking for initially. I'm introverted, so if you had told me I’d be teaching, standing in front of a class, imparting my knowledge and my experience, I wouldn’t have believed you. It was a brand new program, starting it from the ground up. It was very fast-paced.

I had to pivot my thinking when I couldn't find what I wanted so I just decided to try something different. I’m glad I did. I didn't do a whole lot of research going into it, so I didn't know what to expect, but I really enjoyed working with the students. I wasn’t prepared to enjoy working with them as much as I did.

Working with students it's not just about academics. It's about life management. That is the part I wasn't prepared for. Imparting some of that time management and life management in addition to the veterinary content of what they're learning. I think it was definitely twofold. Being able to teach anatomy, physiology, and animal handling but also just helping the students manage their life aside from academics.

What was it like for you when you made the pivot away from working with clients and making those connections with owners to an education role?

Dr. Vaughn: Once I left practice, I didn't really have those opportunities anymore. I had to find ways to connect with my students. Working with clients can bring you joy and bond with them so that's one of the ways I stay connected as if I were working in practice. Because one of the things I currently do in my job here at the college is communication.

I do a little bit of public outreach in the summer. Those aren't clients, but in those situations, I just draw on my previous experience. I do get satisfaction from being able to help the next generation at the university level. Teaching students to understand why client relationships are really important in all the many ways that they can cultivate those relationships.

Communication is a skill–we drive that home to our students. Here at the university, I feel a similar connection to students. We work with them about how to communicate with a client, particularly those that may be difficult. We have simulations where the students have to walk through euthanasia discussions with a client. Also including client estimates that they don't want to pay. Instruction of these simulations gives me the opportunity to draw on previous client communication experiences and bond with students.

Were you apprehensive at all about making the pivot from practice?

Dr. Vaughn: I actually wasn't apprehensive. My driving force was wanting to work with clients in public. There are also definitely aspects of practice that I did not enjoy so making that leap wasn't hard for me. Compassion fatigue and burnout are taxing. For me, I think the hardest thing was the financial leap.

Some public jobs may not pay as well as private practice. Being able to support myself was harder for me.

What was the decision-making process and what advice would you give to somebody considering the need to do something different?

Dr. Vaughn: Having a plan. Having a clear-cut goal of what you want to do, but being open to all of the different pathways that can get you there is important. Financially was a consideration in that transition. I was able to afford to drop down to part-time and still pay my bills while doing some volunteer work. This allowed me to build my resume and get the experience I needed to get to where I wanted to go.

Being very clear-cut about what you want, as specific as possible, but being open to all of the different pathways to get you there. This will help with the mindset of pivoting and hoping that you have a moment of serendipity.

If you had one piece of advice to give to somebody who is thinking about stepping back from private practice and doing something completely different: what would you recommend they do?

Dr. Vaughn: That's hard. Can I have two? So having a goal, a specific plan, but then finding all of the paths. Then make the plan as specific as possible but be open to the different path.

If you’ve set your goal and you come up against your timeframe to achieve it and you haven’t, you may have to pivot. Be open to the path that can get you there. I think the other piece of advice I would say is to do your research. Connect with individuals you know and find resources. Don’t forget people are resources, too. BlackDVM Network is a great resource for connecting and asking questions of people who are here to support you.

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