Straight Talk

This column of “Straight talk” takes a look at job skills necessary for veterinarians from an employer’s perspective. The specific question was “Are there skills or attributes that you are looking for in job candidates (veterinarians) that you may not have placed high on your list 5 years ago? If so, why are those skills now important?”

From Paul Ruen

“From a technical ability standpoint, it’s certainly very important that a candidate veterinarian have a specific skill that allows her or him to contribute immediately to the business. A candidate should have a special knowledge in database applications or reproductive physiology or leadership in organizing research projects, and so forth … something that will create a positive exposure to clients and give help to other veterinarians on the team.

However, the most important attributes necessary to be effective swine veterinarians are timeless – the same today as they were in 1992 when I started practice, or even 20 years earlier at the graduation of my partner, Jim Dick. In short, those veterinarians that can communicate and teach will always be the ones in demand. Since the mid-90s, our veterinary clinic has spent considerable time and resources to understand our individual personalities, strengths, and opportunities in order to make us more self-aware and effective in our jobs. We have also included other staff and farm personnel in this process. As veterinarians, our charge is to solve problems – yes, that means diagnosing and developing a plan that can be followed accurately and that is economically sound. But accomplishing this means we must be able to determine when individual A needs a kind word and to recognize when individual B requires a kick in the pants. It means assessing the situation, meeting people where they are, and having flexibility in the process.

So while I haven’t met a veterinarian who isn’t smart, there are some unprepared for the job.”

From Gordon Spronk

“Many of the skills listed here have been sought by employers for decades. As technology changes and advances, some skills will need to be further refined to keep up with those changes. Some of the skills that I believe are important now are as follows.

Skill 1: Communications. Today’s veterinarian not only needs to have good verbal and written skills, but must also be able to use e-mail and social media appropriately. Communications with clients, practice staff and veterinarians, and colleagues involves different methods depending on the information being shared.

Skill 2: Team-building. Many of the problems on the farm need input from a variety of sources. Whether building a team to address biosecurity issues on the farm or a team to develop a long-range plan, know who needs to be on the team.1

Skill 3: Leadership. Successful veterinarians are those who can lead the team, and also be good team followers. How do you become a good leader? First learn to follow.

Skill 4: Humility. Give credit where credit is due. Admit mistakes, don’t make excuses.

Skill 5: Respect. Respect the new team members for their ideas and respect colleagues for their experience.

Skill 6: Realistic expectations. As a new or recent graduate, you will need to earn your place in the practice. It will take time, work, and dedication.

Skill 7: Humor. Learn to laugh at yourself.”


1. Lencioni PM. Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide. San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass; 2005.

From Dale Polson

“From my vantage point, the skill sets veterinarians will best be able to leverage in a professional position within animal-health companies support a role and responsibilities in a few broad ‘job’ categories:

1. Field technical (professional) services

2. Technical marketing and communications

3. Strategic and applied systems development

4. Regulatory services

5. Research and clinical development

Regardless of which of these categories a veterinarian is interested in, essential skills needed across the board encompass both scientific or technical intelligence as well as relational or emotional intelligence:

  • Traditional communication skills (including verbal one-on-one and small group, e-mail communication, non-technical writing, formal and informal presentations, technical writing, peer-reviewed writing, non-technical and technical editing);
  • Non-traditional communication or personnel-management skills (including conflict resolution, difficult conversation, consensus-building, team collaboration skills – both within teams and cross-functionally);
  • Project-management skills (both for simple or short-term and complex or long-term projects, project-plan preparation and communication – including forecasting and budgeting), operations management and systems analysis. This is an area in which veterinarians who acquire formal education-training in Lean and SixSigma/DMAIC (ie, a businessperson’s form of epidemiology) will do themselves (and their company and clients) a great favor.

Skills in these areas are acquired by doing education-training courses and getting coaching or mentoring, as well as reading and digesting papers and books that have little or nothing to do with swine or veterinary medicine, but are essential to be most effective at serving the swine industry at every level.

After that, and dependent on which ‘job’ category, the following skill sets are highly useful.

  • Pig care, management, and welfare (traditionally referred to as ‘animal husbandry’);
  • Disease monitoring and diagnostics (design, implementation, interpretation, and communication of sampling-testing protocols that balance cost with confidence for decision-making);
  • Epidemiology and statistics (including an understanding of evidence-based medicine, systematic reviews, and meta-analysis);
  • Protocol design and execution (including determining properly sized treatment groups, ie, power calculations for trials, projects, studies, and surveys);
  • Economics and financial justification of health-management interventions and programs.

Finally, an under-appreciated, under-valued and easily overlooked skill that I think adds tremendous value in all aspects and areas of our served industry is in the area of innovation. Innovative thinking on any team – whether consciously recognized or subconsciously appreciated – adds a lot of value to the team and, even more importantly, to those that team serves.

Two (of several) favorite quotations on innovation say it this way:

‘All new ideas begin in a non-conforming mind that questions some tenet of the conventional wisdom.’ H. G. Rickover.

‘Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.’ Walter Lippman.”