Updated September 23, 2021. The article was updated to correct minor grammatical errors and for formatting.
Chiara Switzer, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she provides veterinary locum work in various clinics across Ontario (and one location in Alberta), working from several days to 10 weeks a year for various clients. (Veterinary locum work, also known as relief veterinary work, is a contract position in which the veterinarian is not an employee, instead of filling in for those on vacation or when the workload warrants extra expertise). In this capacity, she works a minimum of six hours per day booked, with no maximum, and is available by the day for up to three weeks at a time (if the clinic is too far away to commute).
Dr. Switzer earned her DVM from the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Prior to her veterinary locum work, she served as a veterinary associate at various facilities in Toronto, including Parkdale Animal Hospital, Bay Cat Clinic, Lawrence East Veterinary Clinic, and Woobine Animal Clinic. Dr. Switzer performs soft tissue surgery, office calls and exams, thorough workups, soft tissue surgery, first visits for puppies and kittens, and consults (on diet, behavior, and parasite control). Dr. Switzer is an active member of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) and carries her own liability (malpractice) insurance.
When did you first decide to become a veterinarian? Why?
I was about 30 years old and involved in another line of work, changing jobs out of boredom every couple of years, and very frustrated by that. I spoke to a career counseling service and took some aptitude testing to try and see if there was another area of work I would find more appealing and productive. I came to see that a common thread was animal science and medicine – at that point, I didn’t want to specifically become a clinical vet, but I knew getting my DVM was the first step to opening up a bunch of doors to other possibilities. It wasn’t until I was in my second year of vet school that I started to want to become a clinical vet.
How/why did you choose the veterinary school you went to?
There was only one Canadian vet school that would take students from outside of their region, and my “local” school (Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph) had and has a very good reputation among vet schools. I saw no reason to uproot my life and spend far more money to go further afield for no better education than I could get a lot closer to home (Guelph was less than a two-hour drive from where I was living).
What surprised you the most about veterinary school?
The answer to that will probably be different for me, as I started vet school in my early 30s than it will be for someone continuing to vet school straight out of an undergrad program. The good surprise was how supportive everyone was in wanting you to learn and succeed – the school did not set up faux competitions to pit students against each other. The bad surprise was how dense the information was and how intense some of the classes were. Course credit in vet school was very much more time and labor-intensive than a course credit in any university experience I’d had to that point.
What was it like finding a job in your chosen career field? What were your options and why did you decide what you did?
Honestly, I can’t remember if I had a lot of options looking for my first job – it was 11 years ago – but it must not have been too bad since it didn’t leave any permanent scars on my psyche. I do remember that I was employed fairly quickly after graduation, though. I was not happy with my choice, as many new vets discover, and I left it after seven or eight months.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still become a veterinarian? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
Definitely, yes – if I had to do it all again, I would still become a veterinarian. It’s a job that constantly challenges my mind and almost always engages my emotions….a really nice combination.
Has being a veterinarian met your expectations? Why?
Yes; I was looking for a career that would involve and interest me, and be flexible enough for me to grow and make changes without needing to dump everything I knew and start from square one.
What do you like most about being a veterinarian?
It’s a toss-up between a) reuniting an animal with its owners who had feared the worst and thought their pet might die, and b) working out a difficult mental puzzle – following the clues of the patient and the disease to figure out what’s going on and how to improve the situation. There’s a lot of detective work in veterinary medicine.
What do you like least about being a veterinarian?
Dealing with clients who expect you to perform magical cures immediately and at very little cost to them.
Describe a typical day at work.
I’m a relief vet (known as a locum vet in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom), so I don’t work in the same clinic or under the same circumstances every day, but there are a lot of similarities. For simplicity, I’ll describe a typical “medicine day” with no surgeries, and it’s worth noting that I am not the clinic owner, so there are no management duties involved:
After I arrive and gather my gear for the day (name tag, stethoscope, pens, etc.), I check the schedule to see what’s expected that day and see if the timing suits what I think each appointment will need…some things, like skin or lameness exams, take more time. Usually, the receptionist is on top of those things, but I like to double-check. Then I start my day’s appointments; ideally, there will be about three appointments per hour, with a lunch and catch-up break in the middle.
Each appointment begins with a general physical exam and getting a good history from the owner – often I can do both at the same time – and then I discuss with the owners my plans, recommendations, and sometimes a cost estimate (if there is work that they did not expect when they made the appointment).
I pass the pet on to the technical team if there are any tests that need to be done (like blood work or x-rays), letting them know if the animal will be staying or if we will take the sample or x-rays and I will call the owner with the results later. I also pass the pets on to the staff for extras like nail trims (I hate canine nail trims). I do my best to complete the record before the client leaves and I see the next patient, but sometimes records have to wait to be completed during my lunch break or before I leave for the day. Once I’m done with a client and their pet(s), they are either on their way to the reception area for check out, or the pet is getting some work done by the staff; then I’m free to start my next appointment if it’s time and they’re checked in and ready.
During the middle of the day, I have lunch – sometimes I’ll have a real lunch break where I can run errands or other personal stuff, but other times I’m also finishing records, analyzing the test results we ran that morning, researching a case, or answering phone messages from clients. When I can, of course, I do those things in between appointments…..that depends on how busy we are that day.
Do you work with mid-level providers, and if so, what kind(s) (i.e. vet techs, etc.)?
I know almost no clinical vets who don’t. I work with registered technicians, trained veterinary assistants, and kennel/support staff. How many of these categories depends on the clinic where I am working. I rely heavily upon all of those types of staff members – for restraint, for medical tasks like drawing blood or taking x-rays, for performing lab work, for surgical assistance, for communication (staff does a lot of client communication and education), and for general observation of my patients – they may notice things that I haven’t or can’t (for instance, when a patient is kenneled in the wards or recovering from surgery).
On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
As a full-time relief vet, I work in fits and starts – I might work several full-time weeks of 40 to 50 hours, plus on-call work, but then have a week off, or a week where I only work three eight-hour days. I do my best to get my eight hours of sleep a night, but there have been times when I’ve had to do on-call work and I have averaged four or five hours a night for a few nights in a row…..but those times are pretty rare. A lot depends on whether I am working in a location with an emergency or after-hours clinic available, or if I’m working in a location where we must provide our own on-call after-hours service. Even when I was a new-grad associate, I worked a fairly typical 40 hour week with no on-call (I lived and worked in a major city, with a couple of emergency clinics available). I try to take two weeks of vacation a year, but as a relief vet I am an independent contractor, so I can take as many weeks as I can afford to not work….a very different situation than being a full-time employee of a clinic.
Do you have family, and if so, do you have enough time to spend with them? How do you balance work and life?
I am not married and have no children. I do work to balance my work life with my personal life, though, so I have time to pursue the hobbies and volunteer work that I enjoy and to diffuse the stresses of work.
Are you satisfied with your income?
Yes; business is down in the last couple of years, but my expenses as a relief vet are minimal and I started with some savings (since this was a second career for me).
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain?
I was fortunate enough not to need any loans for my education; since this is a second career for me, I had some savings, and Canadian schools are heavily subsidized by the government (of course, our taxes are higher than in the U.S., but that’s another discussion).
In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself 10 years ago?
Ten years ago I was in my first job, and I so would have told myself not to worry about how it would look if I left my job too early. I knew my first job was a bad fit early on, and I should have started looking for a new job months before I actually did.
What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were in pre-veterinary school?
I was really unprepared for the intensity and density of vet school classes, and how much there was to learn. It was not at all like any of my previous university work. I don’t think it would have changed anything other than my being able to better mentally prepare for it.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in veterinary medicine today?
I would say the negative public image vets have is the biggest problem we face. Many people think vets are either too expensive – perhaps because they don’t think what we do is real medical care and can’t compare it to their own medical expenses – or they think that what we do can easily be replaced with information from any Tom, Dick, or Harry on the internet. “Dr. Google” is both a blessing and a curse.
Where do you see veterinary medicine in 10 years?
Seriously, I don’t think about this very much; I don’t even think about where I’m going to be in 10 years!
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
I do a fair amount of volunteer work (about 250 hours a year), but not in the veterinary or pet care field. I specifically chose a volunteer job in a different venue, because I wanted a mental and physical change from what I do for work – better to balance my life and escape from the frustrations of the job. I volunteer on one of the delivery trucks for a food rescue organization.
Do you have any final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing veterinary medicine as a career?
Try and understand what the effect of your financial debt will be on the quality of your life – some of the debt numbers from some vet students in the U.S. and Caribbean are staggering to me. Numbers can seem abstract and unfathomable, so take a look at a sample budget about what it will mean when the time comes to repay that debt. If you can find a way to live with that, I believe this is a wonderful career that engages your mind, heart, and hands-on on a regular basis. It’s also flexible, in that you can continue to use your skills in different places around the world, and you can work in many areas other than clinical medicine.