Several times a year every veterinarian I know is approached by a client who says, “My daughter/son is incredible with animals and wants to be a vet. What do you think?” Looking back on my long career, I have no regrets, and most of the time I’m still excited about starting my day. However, the road to becoming a vet is long and expensive and if you, or a relative are thinking about it, there are some things you need to know.
When I ask teenagers why they think they want to be a veterinarian, the answer is usually, “I love animals!” This is a good start, but just as important is an ability to get along with people. Every animal that needs veterinary attention comes with an owner at the end of that leash or lead shank. Do you remember how you felt when you last had a sick or lame horse? Owners in this situation are upset, and as their vet, you must have concern for the owner and an understanding about how they feel. In other words, it takes more than a love of animals and a lot of college to become accepted as a veterinarian. You must sincerely like people and want to help them as much as their animals.
The education is not quick or easy, and the competition to get in school is stiff. Veterinary schools today require at least 3 years of education in a good college before applying. Actually most students are finishing up their bachelor’s degree before they apply to vet school. Those years of undergraduate work include about 10 science courses. The chemistry courses alone take 5 or 6 semesters. Usually 2 math courses, a year of physics and 2 English courses are also necessary. Vet schools like well rounded individuals, so it’s a plus to take a foreign language and other general education courses. Letters of recommendation and an acceptable grade on the national Graduate Record Exam is usually required as well.
Veterinary college itself is a full four year program. Whether your primary interest is dogs, cattle, horses, or zoo animals, everyone in vet school has to sit through all the same courses. There is some room for specialization while in school, but it is mostly on your own time, and as you are in class 30 to 40 hours a week, there isn’t much free time. Each year every course must be passed before you can move on. There is no such thing as failing a course. In medicine, knowledge builds from one course to the next.
There are 28 regional vet schools in the US. Each must continually meet all the requirements of an accreditation committee. Some schools have strengths in specific areas because of their location. For example, if you are interested in pigs as a career, a midwestern school might be your first choice. In general, however, schools will give first preference to students from their area.
Adding the undergraduate and graduate (vet school) years comes to a commitment of eight years of college. It’s not all a grind, a lot of it is exciting and fun, but it does cost lots of money. Last year the average debt for graduating seniors was $120,000. At 6.25% interest this means a monthly pay back of about $750 a month for 30 years! Some graduating seniors will be repaying their loans until their retirement! A recent graduate is quoted as saying, “I didn’t realize the implications of my debt until I was living with it.” The current economy has hit the horse world hard, and new graduates interested in equine work are making less starting pay than those graduating five years ago. Rural states are realizing the shortage of large animal veterinarians, and some are starting to offer some loan forgiveness if there is a commitment to doing large animal work in underserved areas.
This article was not meant to discourage, but rather to lay out the facts. If you are interested in veterinary medicine, sit down and have a serious talk with your own vet. Most veterinarians are happy in their work and are interested in helping others join the profession.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM