Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fiddling With The Dials

I remember clearly the first time it happened. It was about two years ago when a good client who I had known for a long time told me that she had heard I was retiring. I was touched that she looked concerned, but disconcerted by the question. Since then I have been asked at least a half dozen times about my alleged imminent retirement.

First things first, no I am not retiring soon. Quite aside from any question about how long I want to work, the plain mathematical fact is that I am very unlikely to be able to afford it for at least another ten years. If I retire now we are moving into a trailer and the kids, and possibly the pets, will have to find jobs. Also, I am only 52 years old after all! Yes, that's right, I said "only".

At first I was quite taken aback by these rumours, thinking that they related to my grey hair and my admittedly at times somewhat haggard appearance. It honestly feels like no time elapsed between the last time I looked too young to be a doctor and the first time I was asked whether I qualified for a senior's discount at Shoppers Drug Mart (to be fair to myself, the clerk was so young that I'm sure anyone over 30 looked impossibly ancient to him). From Doogie Howser to Marcus Welby overnight. And before anyone makes any snide remarks, no, I am too young to have watched Marcus Welby MD on TV - I just happen to know who he is.

But when I calmed down I realized it probably wasn't my appearance so much as it was my schedule. Two years ago I cut back to three days a week. At the same time I adjusted the shifts so that in those three days I work 70% of full-time. I had gone to working four days a week a long time ago and back then the transition from five to four hardly attracted any comment, but at three I seem to have crossed a line. Now it looked to some like I was beginning the process of easing my way out of practice.

That is, however, not the case.

The reason has far more to do with my work-life balance than with my career trajectory. When I worked four days a week the one day off was designated for errands, appointments, housework and childcare. Although both children are teenagers now, both have some special needs that require additional attention. Consequently this day off is as busy as my work days. Therefore I took the additional day off when I turned 50 to have a day to pursue other interests, such as writing, and to go for long walks, and to have delicious stretches of unscheduled unplanned hours. I am well aware that a "me day" like this is a luxury that few people enjoy, and I am very grateful for it. And this finally brings me to my point. My point is that one of the great beauties of veterinary medicine as a career choice is the freedom to chose your hours and thereby also, to a limit, chose you income.

It's like there are two linked dials: one for hours and one for income, and in many multi-doctor small animal practices you have the ability to fiddle with these dials. You want to work less? You turn the hours dial down and the income dial turns down automatically. You want to earn more? You turn the income dial up and the hours dial turns up automatically. In theory you could work as little as eight hours a week or as many as eighty. Not many people have that sort of freedom. To be accurate though, some veterinarians don't either. In smaller practices you may be forced to work full-time just to be able to keep all the shifts covered and for many large animal veterinarians freedom and flexibility, or the lack thereof, is tied to the dramatic seasonality of the practice. But many of us now work in practices where flexible scheduling is possible. For those wanting to start a family this can be very attractive (so long as the spouse earns enough...). And for those greyhairs like me who want to do the things they put off for decades but don't want to (or can't) leave the profession, this can be very attractive too.

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