Career Paths for Veterinary Technicians

Suzanne Smither, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

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Career Paths for Veterinary Technicians

Veterinary technicians are freer than ever before to design fulfilling careers as they strive to elevate the veterinary profession as a whole.

Veterinary Team Brief recently interviewed 9 technicians who are blazing new trails. Inspired and inspiring, they are lifelong learners who love to share their expertise. They have the confidence to welcome challenges. They pounce on opportunities or create their own by saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. As they work to achieve their full potential, they also help colleagues and students do the same. Here are their stories.

Heather Prendergast, RVT, CVPM

Practice manager, consultant, and author

“I started working in a veterinary clinic when I was in sixth grade,” said Prendergast, who grew up to become a veterinary technician and nutritional consultant, manage small animal and emergency practices, write a published book, found her own company, and much more. In recognition of her diverse accomplishments, NAVTA named her its 2014 Veterinary Technician of the Year.

While earning her BS in animal science at New Mexico State University, Prendergast said, “I was already in a practice [Jornada Veterinary Clinic] as a veterinary assistant. I knew I wanted to be more.” She became a credentialed technician in 1998 and later advanced to manage the Las Cruces, New Mexico, practice. While working there full-time, she began a 15-year consulting stint, first for the Nestlé-owned Friskies brand and later for the reorganized company Nestlé Purina PetCare. “I would go to both veterinary and consumer events to answer nutrition-related questions and make recommendations,” she said.

In 2010, Prendergast started Synergie, which provides consulting services to veterinary practices and meetings management services to veterinary industry partners. In 2011, her book, Front Office Management for the Veterinary Team, which she calls “my biggest accomplishment,” was published by Elsevier. She also lectures at veterinary conferences, is editor-in-chief of The NAVTA Journal, and maintains NAVTA’s web page.

“You have to take advantage of opportunities … they’re all around us,” Prendergast said. With a love of business and a “whole newfound passion for online learning,” she said she is still looking for new challenges.

Jeanne Perrone, CVT, VTS (Dentistry)

Educator and trainer

Perrone always knew she wanted to work with animals, but it was a matchbook advertisement for veterinary technology that started her on her career path. The ad prompted her to call her veterinarian, who told her to “do it right and go to tech school,” she said.

After graduating from the veterinary technology program at Parkland College in 1991, she said, “I started working at a 3-doctor practice, doing the basics: cleaning, fecals, blood work, heartworm tests …” and as the only team member trained in dental procedures, she provided all the patient dental care.

Later, working for a veterinarian who wanted to be a fellow of the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry, she said, “I went from nothing to having everything” and needed to hone her skills.

At the 1999 Veterinary Dental Forum, “a group of veterinary dentists decided we should form a specialty in dentistry” and she formed and ran the organizing committee. When the NAVTA-approved Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians formed in 2005, Perrone said, she became its first president.

After working for several years as the dental and oral surgery department's clinical coordinator at University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, she moved to Florida to work for a veterinary dentist at a specialty practice, where she taught dental radiography both in-house and at hands-on labs.

Now educating and training as a consultant in Plant City, Florida, Perrone said, “I work for either the practice directly or the dental equipment vendor.” Also a lecturer and writer, she edited the book Small Animal Dental Procedures for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses, published in 2012 by Wiley-Blackwell.

Halle Donaldson, BA

Practice manager and partner

“I sort of fell into it,” Donaldson said of her position as manager and part owner of PETS Referral Center, a 24/7 facility with a staff of 50 in Berkeley, California. “It was a board-owned clinic when I started working here. … I was lead veterinary technician …” That was in 2002. A year later, 2 veterinarians and a non-veterinarian purchased the practice. At the time of purchase,  she had accepted a position elsewhere. “I knew one of the owners from previously working with him at both UC Davis and Cornell, though I had not seen him in 10 years. We had a long discussion about the future of PETS, which included the possibility of non-veterinary ownership.” Assured that was possible, she stayed on and became a partner, owning a percentage of the practice, the following year.

After graduating from Western Career College’s veterinary technician program in 1987, Donaldson had previously worked in small animal surgery and veterinary dentistry at University of California, Davis, and in the Cornell University teaching hospital’s small animal ICU. She also has a BA in history from Cornell University.

At PETS, she said, “We’re trying to build a talented team of veterinarians and paraprofessionals.” To be a practice owner, she advised, “You have to be flexible and conscientious, with the philosophy of providing the best possible medical care, and the desire to do the right thing by clients and patients.” The 6 members of the management team “have each other’s backs,” she said, and she involves them in the hiring and review processes.

“I have been really fortunate,” said Donaldson, who celebrated her tenth anniversary as a partner last year. “I had one staff member say his goal was to have my job.”

Karin Brewer, RVT

Educator

Brewer took the first steps toward her career path as a kennel worker 30 years ago, when she was in high school. After working at various veterinary practices and graduating from college, she said, she took a co-instructor position at her alma mater, San Diego Mesa College, in 1994, shortly after becoming a licensed technician. “I was kind of a teaching assistant. In about 6 months, I was asked to take over lectures. It just kind of grew,” she said. She now teaches aspiring veterinary technicians studying for their associates’ degrees at Pima Medical Institute in San Diego, California.

Along with lecturing first-year students on subjects including radiography and large animal techniques, she explained, she guides students to work with live animals, do research, present their findings, and build career skills. She takes students to shelters, where they assist with examinations, treatments, anesthetic procedures, and collection and processing of laboratory samples. They also help with kennel maintenance,  bathing, feeding, exercising, and socializing animals.

“At first I was afraid of speaking in public,” Brewer said, “but I had been in the field 9 or 10 years and really knew my stuff. … I enjoyed sharing my experience and knowledge, and seeing the enthusiasm of up-and-coming technicians got me more excited about teaching. … I’m excited to see them going onto a path that’s been so good to me. … That’s the best part for me—helping others to realize their dreams. That’s pretty cool!”

Related Article: Shelter Medicine: More Educational Opportunities, More Lives Saved

Cherylann Gieseke, CVT

Biomedical research

“Serendipitous” is how Gieseke described her arrival at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1988, where she has worked ever since, first in the comparative medicine department for 12 years before becoming Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) coordinator in 2001.

She was impressed by Mayo’s variety of animals and how veterinary technicians “didn’t have to compete with veterinarians to use our skills.” Caring for the animals involved in cancer research that helps people, she said, gave her a big picture view and a purpose. She described her work as “very rewarding and varied” with benefits and pay that “make it easier to live an independent life.”

On the animal side, Gieseke said, she dispensed medical treatments, assisted with surgeries, trained graduate students, maintained equipment and inventory, and monitored mouse colonies to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Her IACUC work involves “helping investigators submit their animal use protocols to the committee for review,” she said, explaining that “it’s a very heavily regulated field” requiring approval before scientists can begin their projects.

Gieseke, who served on the NAVTA board from 2007-2011 and as NAVTA president in 2009, said research in large institutions offers great opportunities for career growth, including the chance to “see something published because of work on mice you took care of.” Laboratory animals are kept as healthy, comfortable, and content as possible, she said, and those euthanized give their life “in pursuit of knowledge for scientific research. … It comes down to seeing that big picture.”

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Vicky Ograin, MBA, RVT, VTS (Nutrition)

Industry

A summer job at a boarding kennel when she was 16 convinced Ograin, education specialist for U.S. professional and veterinary affairs at Hill’s Pet Nutrition and 2014 president and current past-president of NAVTA, that she loved working with animals. She credits a high school career counselor with piquing her interest in becoming a veterinary technician.

After earning an associate’s degree in animal health technology, she spent 18 years in private practice, developing a love for nutrition and educating clients. When she was a purchasing agent, she said, a Hill’s representative suggested she apply to the company. She was hired by managers who valued her ease in talking to people and her background as a purchasing agent.

In 2001, she started in sales at Hill’s. “Because I had so much experience in nutrition, there was not a lot of learning curve to know the products. … I didn’t have any formal sales training, so I bought books on tape and taught myself,” she said. Later, she worked in the company’s call center, developed a nutritional counseling program, and acquired her BS and MBA. She now develops educational materials and answers technical questions. One of 14 NAVTA-certified specialists in nutrition, with only 2 working in industry, Ograin is excited about creating a program for veterinarians and veterinary technicians that includes nutritional counseling and have a global online audience, she said. “I really do think I have found the best of everything.”

Mindy Perez, MS, CVT

ASPCA executive

“As a kid, I didn’t know what a veterinary technician was,” said Perez, vice president of operations for the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) and client services at the ASPCA in Urbana, Illinois. In her early 20s, contemplating becoming a veterinarian, she talked to a veterinarian who explained how meaningful a career as a veterinary technician could be.

After becoming a certified technician, she began working at a small animal practice. “My veterinarian gave me a lot of autonomy,” she said, and over the next few years she gained valuable experience. After the practice closed, she answered an APCC help-wanted advertisement, although she said she was skeptical “because I thought I would always want hands-on contact with animals.” When she talked with management, she said, “I got excited really fast” about the work environment, benefits, and growth opportunities. “The best decision I ever made was to take the job with APCC,” she said.

Perez started at APCC in 1998 and after 18 months answering phones spent 8 years helping develop the database and ensuring protocol information was correct for veterinarians and those answering phones. In 2007, she took over the client services team managing corporate relationships with 30 companies. She and her colleagues at APCC “have discovered lots of toxic substances previously unknown,” she said, adding, “Now we’re providing a lot of call center services for ASPCA programs in Los Angeles and New York City, including spay-neuter initiatives” and subsidized veterinary care for low-income pet owners.

Michelle Krasicki-Aune, MBA, CVT

Relief services entrepreneur

Describing herself as “an on-the-job-trained technician,” Krasicki-Aune said she decided to be a veterinarian when she was in second grade and became a kennel hand in a large practice when she was 15. “I didn’t even realize veterinary technology was a career path,” she recalled. But when she took one college course in the subject, she was hooked.

After earning a bachelor’s in veterinary technology at North Dakota State University, she became a certified technician in 2003. She worked as a small animal ICU technician, veterinary technology instructor, technician consultant, and relief and emergency technician before founding Vet Teams, in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, last year.

Having done relief work for several years, Krasicki-Aune said, she “just went out on a limb and started my own service … a one-woman organization.” Her mission starting out, she said, was patient care and animal advocacy. Realizing that care could suffer when a veterinary team was overworked, she strived “to relieve some of that burden and allow others to do their jobs to their full potential so everybody can go home feeling … good about themselves.”

Taking “baby steps and doing my own marketing,” she said, she has received a positive response from the Twin Cities community she serves and is developing an online learning program for veterinary technicians. She said she hopes to do some hiring as her business grows. “I do have interest from technicians looking for openings,” she explained, “but I want a secure financial base before bringing anyone else in.”

Mary Berg, BS, LATG, RVT, VTS (Dentistry)

Dental consultant

Berg, president of Beyond the Crown Veterinary Education, which provides on-site dental training at practices, said she is now “on the speaker circuit for almost every major [veterinary] meeting.” She has come a long way since panicking during her first public speaking experience in the mid-1990s. Addressing a veterinary dental forum, she recalled, “I was shaking so bad that a professor came up, took the laser pointer from me, and said, ‘You’re making people sick.’” Fortunately, she said, “the more you do it, the better it gets.”

Growing up on a farm in Minnesota, Berg said, she “thought about veterinary school but didn’t apply.” Instead, she earned a BS in biology/microbiology at South Dakota State University and worked at University of Kansas helping develop treats and dental toys for dogs and cats.

“I worked extensively on [a dental food]; I did a lot of the research,” she recalled. But sensing that “a lot of people weren’t taking me seriously because I was not a technician,” she obtained her associate’s degree in veterinary technology from St. Petersburg State University in 1999. Soon after, she joined the organizing committee for NAVTA’s veterinary dentistry academy; she obtained her specialist credentials in 2006 after passing its first examination.

Berg was a practice manager and dental technician for more than 7 years before conceiving the idea for Beyond the Crown. Going into full-time consulting required “a scary leap of faith,” she said. “You have to step outside of your safety zone.”  

Related Article: 5 Veterinary Technicians, 5 Different Career Paths

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TIPS FOR CAREER SUCCESS

Veterinary technicians successfully pursuing nontraditional careers offered these tips for technicians who are interested in similar career paths or simply exploring new directions:

Attitude

“Jump outside the box. Be willing to take a risk and do something different.” –Mindy Perez, MS, CVT

“Remain open to options. … Be open to people, and to meeting new people.”–Jeanne Perrone, CVT, VTS (Dentistry)

“Be a lifelong learner. Have flexibility and openness to new ideas. Take on challenges. Be resilient to adversity.” –Heather Prendergast, RVT, CVPM

“You have to get involved with your state or local association and meet the movers and shakers. You have to put yourself out there on the line. You have to take some risks. … Sometimes you have to leave and go somewhere else. You have to step outside of your safety zone. … Don’t ever say No to an opportunity because you never know where it can lead you.”–Mary Berg, BS, LATG, RVT, VTS (Dentistry)

“I never say never. Always be open to new challenges. … Don’t tell yourself you’re just a technician. You can do whatever you want. … Previous knowledge and experience can open doors.”–Vicky Ograin, MBA, RVT, VTS (Nutrition)

“Be the utmost professional at all times.” –Michelle Krasicki-Aune, MBA, CVT

Biomedical Research

“Compassion is always important. You have to be the advocate for the animal. You need to have an open mind. It’s very different from small animal practice—you’re creating conditions in the animals rather than treating spontaneous illnesses. Understand and follow the regulations. … For an internship, try a research facility.  … Reach out to research facilities for internship options and tours for veterinary technicians, and talk about careers. Contact the national groups: the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) and the AALAS Foundation.”–Cherylann Gieseke, CVT

Consulting

When starting out: “Take a part-time job so you can do consulting on the side.” –Mary Berg

“Say to a client, I want to be there to help and enhance your business practices from the veterinary team perspective, getting staff in the right job to flourish.”–Michelle Krasicki-Aune

“You have to be very resourceful for clinics; know how to fix it when something breaks down. Know your information. If you don’t know something, you have to know a way to find out and get back to [clients]. … Build a net underneath them so when you leave, they’re going to be just fine.” –Jeanne Perrone

Management & Ownership

On advancing to ownership: “Make your desires known to the people in charge. Say, Here’s a direction I’d like to go. I’m looking for an opportunity.” On being a practice owner: “You have to be flexible and conscientious. … Build a good team, provide the best possible medical care, and do the right thing by clients and patients.”–Halle Donaldson, BA

“Have a passion for the individual to make the practice and the individual better. … Understand the big picture. Be looking at other ways you can make your practice better and elevate the profession as a whole. … Be ready for leadership challenges. Owners have done it one way for so many years. Show them other ways to get things done. … You have to be a role model—you have to walk the talk. … As a manager, you have to protect your team from burnout, as well as yourself.”–Heather Prendergast

Mid-Career

“Becoming a veterinary technician specialist, demonstrating quality in a particular area, is huge. It’s the next big step for technicians. So many more organizations are seeking out VTS for lecturing, writing, and panels.”–Heather Prendergast

Public Speaking

“At first I was afraid of speaking in public, but I had been in the field 9 or 10 years and really knew my stuff. I wanted to share my experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the field. All you can do is just try. I said to myself, You probably know more than the people you’re talking to.”–Karin Brewer, RVT

“If you’re passionate about it, it’s going to resonate with your audience.”–Mary Berg

Starting a Business

“Be aware of business practices, the legal boundaries of where you are, and the state practice act. … Have a work-life balance plan. Minimize burnout by taking personal inventory and being aware of your own needs, knowing who you are in addition to your title as a veterinary technician. If you were no longer a veterinary technician, you would still be you.”–Michelle Krasicki-Aune

Teaching

“Remember where you were when you started. Be able to work with someone in a nonjudgmental way.  … Be flexible, open-minded, friendly, and open to doing things in different ways. … Some of the best technicians are not the A students. Everybody has a place on the team. It takes a lot of patience. You can’t tell [students] they’re not going to be a good technician. Give all students the same amount of support. …Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your greatest mentor to see you do.”–Karin Brewer

Working in Industry

“Have the mindset that you’re going into industry. … Even if you’re not a purchasing agent, go to conferences and talk to the reps. Talk to people—that’s half the battle. … I put a lot of work into researching and got books on interviewing and what to wear. I didn’t have a computer and knew I would need to have computer skills. I went to extension school and learned computing—[Microsoft] Word, Excel, PowerPoint—so when I went to an interview, I could put computer experience on my résumé. … You should be able to go in talking about the company, and tell [interviewers] how they match your values. … Dress to present yourself as a professional.” –Vicky Ograin

Working for a Non-Profit

“We (the ASPCA) hire veterinary technicians for poison control and client services. It’s a cool place to work. You do get to specialize. It’s a very supportive work environment, with really great benefits, a fun place to work. There are opportunities to grow into different roles. … [Working in poison control] is a very stressful job. In emergency situations, with phones busy, you need to be accurate and sensitive. It may be life or death, but it’s very rewarding. … All openings are posted at ASPCA.org.”–Mindy Perez


Editor’s note: Suzanne Smither has 30 years of journalism, editing, management, and research experience. Her writing has been published in numerous newspapers and periodicals, and she has written 6 books about cats.

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