Feeling Unsupported? Bridging the Vet Med Generational Communication Gap

Despite eight years of schooling, and all the training and planning, the first year in practice can pose unique challenges, leaving many vet grads feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. Without adequate support from a practice owner, supervisor, or mentor, these feelings can be compounded by a sense of isolation, frustration, and even failure. 

Lack of support is a common complaint among many new graduates. In fact, as I’ve shared before, this is the most frequently cited reason nearly 30% of new veterinarians leave their jobs within the first year. However, while we’ve been looking at this issue as a problem with veterinary leadership, recent events have led me to consider a larger factor at play—the growing generational communication gap between employers and new grads—one in which mentor and mentee play equal roles.

The tech set: What sets you apart from previous generations

Technology’s rapid expansion and advancement have created a revolutionary shift in how younger generations interact with the world. Today’s new veterinarians and current veterinary students represent Generation Z (i.e., born between 1997 and 2012), those who learned to use advanced technology at a young age. Future vet grads, beginning with Generation Alpha (i.e., born after 2012), will be the first tech-native generation, having been born and raised during the digital age. World events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have also shaped how younger generations view work and social interactions. They expect work and social situations to be flexible and fluid.

New and upcoming veterinarians, such as yourself, are craving meaningful workplace interactions that are highly collaborative, including frequent and laser-focused engagements shaped by real-time feedback and information. If your superiors’ or employers’ well-intentioned support or assistance are not provided mindfully, you are likely going to misinterpret them as criticism, failure, or shaming. Let’s see how this plays out in a recent real-life example.

Message-send failure: Why traditional support may be failing new vet grads

I recently worked with a new graduate who, like many in their first year, was struggling with time management. In an effort to ensure her success, her employers identified areas in which they could provide additional, individualized support. This included hiring me as a consultant, reducing her surgery caseload to create additional charting time, and providing a dedicated assistant to expedite in-room workflows. This plan was then sent to the veterinarian in a detailed but encouraging email.

Shortly thereafter and without explanation, the veterinarian quit.

When I reached out to her, I learned that her interpretation of the email was vastly different from mine. Rather than considering the message as a well-intentioned and strategic plan to guarantee her success, she read it as an obvious lack of appreciation and punishment for being less than.

How could this be? Let’s consider the email in light of how younger generations prefer to engage and interact.

    • Lack of immediacy — Rather than heading off a growing problem, the email addressed an issue that had been brewing for some time. By waiting until a challenge becomes an issue, supervisors potentially worsen a new vet’s guilt, causing them to question why no one had said anything earlier. 
    • Unbalanced feedback — While the email was written with a supportive tone, failing to balance corrective feedback with recognition for what is going well can leave a new veterinarian with a sense of failure. 
    • Lack of collaboration — Although this wasn’t the intention, the email may have seemed one-sided, preventing the give and take available during a one-on-one virtual or in-person conversation. The new veterinarian may have felt like she had no input or opportunity to explain her perspective.

Rather than prompting positive change, this employer’s supportive gesture drove a promising new veterinarian from her first clinical role. The situation possibly caused this vet professional to question her abilities.

Bridging the gap, breaking down stereotypes: Speaking up for your needs

This unfortunate example clearly illustrates how failing to address the generational communication gap is a lose-lose-lose situation for practices, new veterinarians, and patients. Fortunately, no matter how wide the gap, as a new veterinarian you can conquer the divide by following a few key communication strategies to create the long, successful, and supported career about which you’ve dreamed. To facilitate communication and find common ground across generations, try following these tips:

    • Acknowledge differences to identify efforts — By keeping in mind that your practice owner, supervisor, or mentor has different definitions and expectations for giving and receiving feedback, you may be able to recognize their supportive gestures and actions. Once you can acknowledge these efforts, you’ll likely be surprised by how hard they’ve been trying—in their own way, of course! 
    • Ask for what you need — Previous generations frequently misinterpret millennial and Gen Z generations’ desire for information and guidance as a need for constant praise and recognition, when in fact they are asking for information and guidance to grow professionally. Speaking up about what you need—and why—can help dissipate this misinterpretation and encourage your supervisor to provide beneficial feedback. When you’re asking for feedback, be specific about the communication changes you’d like to see, such as:
      • Frequency — Regular informal check-ins can help you feel like you’re on the right track and keep you motivated, or allow you to course-correct before you develop bad habits. 
      • Duration — Lengthy reviews and assessments can be overwhelming, intimidating, and inefficient. Ask for short, targeted feedback (e.g., a few words between appointments or at the coffee machine) for more actionable results.
      • Timing — Some learners crave real-time feedback in small doses while others may benefit from batched information at the end of a shift. Ask for the communication style that helps you stay motivated.
      • Quality Don’t be afraid to request balanced feedback by asking about your strengths! Knowing what you’re doing well is crucial for building your confidence and can often be used to help you improve skills you are still honing.  
      • Method — Employers often believe Gen Z and Gen Alpha vets only want to communicate digitally, not realizing that many new vets crave face-to-face interactions. If this applies to you, clearly express your preferences, because doing so can open and enhance cross-generational dialogue in the clinic, and create stronger relationships.

    • Ask for mentorship — One-on-one learning relationships can help you feel better supported on your veterinary journey by creating more opportunities for direct communication, guided learning, and measurable growth. Ready, Vet, Go Veterinary Mentorship is a great complement to in-house mentoring programs—especially with the addition of our Ready, Vet, Go community—as well as a great way to enjoy the mentorship experience if it isn’t offered at your practice. 

Generational communication gaps are wider than ever, but by recognizing how each generation prefers to interact, you can help prevent misunderstandings and enhance the learning process. However, speaking up is essential. If you’re not feeling supported or appreciated at your practice, I encourage you to take charge of your experience and share your concerns with your mentor or supervisor. Together, you can bridge the generational communication gap, and move toward an enhanced understanding.

Are you ready to discover increased confidence and community during your first year as a veterinarian? Check out Ready, Vet, Go Veterinary Mentorship, an innovative six-month online program that addresses key areas vet schools don’t cover and helps you build the foundation for a long, healthy, and rewarding career.

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