Friday, July 22, 2016

Career identity in veterinarians and nurses

Dr Sarah Page-Jones.

Who are you and how do you fit into the world? If you are a veterinarian or vet nurse, your career is likely central to the answers to both of those questions. While that can be a huge strength, it can also be a weakness, according to veterinary management consultant Sarah Page-Jones BVSc CertSAS MBA MRCVS.

For example, it can make changing careers extremely challenging, if not impossible for some people. Dr Page-Jones knows about this first-hand. She had to reinvent her professional identity due to a physical condition.

Now a consultant in evidence based veterinary management, she is the co-author of an intriguing paper, “Career identity in the veterinary profession”, published in the Veterinary Record. The study raises some important questions about career identity in veterinarians and veterinary nurses.

Why did you become a veterinarian?

I became a vet because I had always been drawn towards animals and pestered my parents for a pet from an early age.  I don’t know where my love of animals came from, my family didn’t own pets and my Dad was a telecom engineer and my Mum a classroom assistant. But as I got older I started horse riding and by the time I was doing my exams at 16 I was set on becoming a vet and by then we had moved on from a succession of rodents to being proud owners of a cat called Chips!  It wasn’t easy to get into vet school because of my background but some very helpful vets and farmers allowed me to get the experience I needed and I was offered a place at Liverpool University in the UK.

How did you come to investigate career identity in the veterinary profession?

Congenital hip dysplasia meant that I had extensive surgery as a child and by the time I was in my 20s I had osteoarthritis.  I had to undergo further invasive surgical procedures in my early 30s but unfortunately I was left permanently disabled.  I carried on pursuing my love of small animal surgery on a part-time basis for a couple of years but then I had to stop clinical work altogether.  This led to me moving into a clinical managerial role and subsequently further away from clinical work.  I had always identified myself as a vet and the fact that I wasn’t one anymore meant that I had quite a bit of work to do to sort out who the new me was. 

My new professional identity is as a veterinary management consultant which I’m comfortable with and I’m really happy to have found a non-clinical role for myself within the profession, hence my interest in others’ career identities and my aim to increase understanding in this area and assist with identity related issues.

What is career identity?

The answers to the questions ‘who am I?’ and ‘how do I fit into the adult world’ tell us about our overall identity.  This relates to the kind of person we are in everyday life (at home, at work, with friends and family, in social situations etc.).  Furthermore our attitudes, values and beliefs underpin our identity and have a significant impact on it.  Our career identity makes up part of the whole so the questions become ‘who am I at work?’ and ‘how do I fit into the world of work?’ 

A very basic example might be “I’m a conscientious, competent and hard-working small animal first opinion vet who’s caring and empathetic with high moral and ethical standards working in a privately owned veterinary hospital.  I behave with integrity and believe in fairness”.

You state that "the strength of veterinary identity and feelings about what it means to be a veterinary professional cannot be underestimated." Why do you think this is so strong in veterinarians and nurses?

From my research it seems that many vets and vet nurses decide on their profession early on and stuck to it; in fact many participants were unable to remember a time when they were not partly defined by the profession. 
In this situation we grow up telling people that we’re going to be a vet or vet nurse and then that we are one and hence the formation of our identity through adolescence and beyond has a veterinary identity at its heart.  People that have done this tend to have great difficulty imagining doing or being anything else.  In this case it appears that the person’s professional identity also goes a long way towards answering the questions related to overall identity. 

This means that being a vet or vet nurse impacts who we are and how we behave in the whole of our lives, particularly in relation to our attitudes, values and beliefs.  When we say to others that we belong to the veterinary profession this is actually short-hand for explaining the type of person we are. 

You observe a number of potential advantages of this strong identity. What are these?

There are many advantages to a strong identity; it facilitates the development of a consistent, congruent and authentic self and the generation of meaning and social standing.  In this case people are very clear about who they are and how they fit into the world (and in fact rarely have to think about it since it’s virtually innate).  People who go through life wanting to be a vet or vet nurse, enjoy training for that occupation and then enjoy fulfilling veterinary careers are usually really happy and fulfilled individuals.

What are the potential disadvantages?

Unfortunately there are a few disadvantages with a strong identity, it certainly makes negotiating unexpected events, outcomes or socio-cultural changes that threaten identity particularly challenging.  An unexpected event could be something like my experience with disability and socio-cultural changes could be related to industry consolidation and corporatisation.   Vets and vet nurses usually move jobs to try to find an environment that’s compatible with their identity and avoid companies where practices and initiatives threaten who they are. 

A strong identity means that people tend not to contemplate changing who they are professionally to match the organisation, but as the ability to move to a different organisation becomes more difficult (due to fewer options) this may have to change.  This means that vets and vet nurses may have to begin experimenting with identity reconciliation where people change their career identity to fit with the organisation they are part of rather than working against it.  This will be a huge undertaking and is likely to cause profound internal turmoil for many as ethical dilemmas come to the fore and people continually question themselves as to whether management sales pressure is impacting their clinical decision making. 

What are the potential impacts on the psychological wellbeing of vets and 

This means that those people who have to negotiate unexpected events or feel their identity is threatened by changes in the profession can struggle to cope and this can negatively impact wellbeing.  This is likely to affect more people as the corporatisation of the profession continues apace.  Another potential issue is that lots of us set very high standards for ourselves related to our underlying attitudes, values and beliefs and if we don’t manage to live up to these (in our own opinion) this can also be a cause of significant psychological distress.

Do you believe career identity is something we can manage in a way that can be adaptive, but not selling out one's principles?

I do believe we can negotiate questions of identity and become more adaptable but not without considerable effort from universities, organisations and individuals.  We have to begin teaching students with contemporary business in mind and assist them to cultivate a more flexible identity perhaps partly based on commercialism and interpersonal competence with altruism and social justice becoming less pronounced. 

Organisations have to work with employees to begin to understand their attitudes, values and beliefs and to work towards organisational and employee identity congruence in order that vets and vet nurses might consider aligning themselves with organisational goals. 

There is also considerable learning and work to be done by veterinary professionals, this might begin with the acceptance that ethical issues cannot simply be divided into right and wrong with businesses that seek to make a profit being wrong and we as caring professionals being right; it would perhaps be helpful to accept that ethical and moral standards exist along a continuum and will vary between organisations and veterinary professionals but that jointly working towards greater mutual understanding and compromise will provide universal benefit.

Thank you Sarah for your time and these insights! Details about Sarah's consultancy can be found here. 


Page-Jones, S. & Abbey, G. (2015) Career identity in the veterinary profession. Veterinary Record doi:10.1136/vr102784