A USNews report explores how compassion, resilience, good communication and self-care go a long way in veterinary education and the profession.
For those who love animals and enjoy science, a career as a veterinarian might be a good fit. These health care providers have doctorates in veterinary medicine, and their doctoral education includes lessons on how to care for a variety of nonhuman creatures ranging from household pets and farm animals to aquatic creatures and zoo animals.
“You get to learn about the large and small animals,” says Dr. Jim Carlson, a veterinarian outside Chicago who provides conventional and alternative therapies to animals.
“That’s unique to our profession, because we come out (of vet school) having a basic knowledge of all animals, from ants to elephants,” says Carlson, adding that most of his patients are small animals like dogs and cats.
Dr. Tony DeMarco – a veterinarian who owns the Lee’s Summit, Missouri, branch of GoodVets, a national network of animal hospitals – says one of the best aspects of being a vet is the broad variety of patients. “I might see a cute new family puppy first thing in the morning and then evaluate a sick cat for surgery,” he wrote in an email.
Communication can be a challenge in the veterinary field, DeMarco notes.
“Veterinarians are often compared to pediatricians because our patients aren’t able to talk to us,” he says. “We often have to perform some detective work in collaboration with the owner to deduce a pet’s problem from medical history, behavior, and symptoms.”
Vets need to be adept at interacting with both humans and animals, says Dr. Becky Krull, a Wisconsin-based veterinarian and co-owner of a veterinary practice.
“I think loving animals is a given but what is often overlooked is that you must be a people person,” Krull wrote in an email. “There is a person affiliated with every patient I have and that person is paying the bill! You need to be able to communicate effectively to educate and provide value to your services.”
How to Get Into Vet School
To become a competitive veterinary school applicant, it is essential to take all of the prerequisite courses for your target school, experts say, and it’s important to understand that different vet schools have different prerequisite requirements.
Dr. Robin Solomon, a licensed and practicing veterinarian in New York who wrote a chapter about the profession for the book, “Healthcare Heroes: The Medical Careers Guide,” notes that to qualify for vet school, it’s typically necessary to take undergraduate courses in advanced math, basic sciences like biology and chemistry, plus animal science.
The American Veterinary Medical Association notes in its admissions 101 guide for aspiring veterinarians that there is no particular college major that someone needs to pursue in order to qualify for vet school. The association suggests that vet school applicants highlight their experience with animals, as well as leadership and communication skills.
Solid grades are essential in order to be a competitive applicant, the association adds, with the caveat that vet schools don’t expect a perfect GPA. “Although a 4.0 will certainly help you, it’s not an absolute necessity,” the association states.
Participation in 4-H, the National FFA Organization – formerly Future Farmers of America – and other similar organizations is “great experience” for vet school hopefuls, according to the association. So is volunteering at animal shelters or animal rescues, the association notes, adding that it’s “very important” to either volunteer or work for a veterinarian.
“Not only does it expose you to your potential career (so you know what you’re getting into, so to speak), but it also might provide a good recommendation for you from the veterinarian,” the association states on its website. If you gain research lab experience or work with veterinarians who treat different species of animals, “that’s a bonus that can make you more appealing to a veterinary school admissions committee,” the association explains.
Dr. Brian Collins, a veterinarian on the faculty of the highly ranked Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in New York, says Cornell looks for a variety of traits when assessing applicants.
“Half of our admissions review is dedicated to making sure the applicant has the academic background to succeed in our curriculum,” he wrote in an email, noting that the rest of the admissions process is designed to assess the applicant as an individual. “Scientific curiosity, compassion, empathy, resilience, demonstrated problem-solving skills and people-skills are additional characteristics we value and look for in an applicant.”
Krull suggests that showcasing positive personality traits is one way to improve the odds of vet school acceptance.
“Some schools do personal interviews as well, so you must be charismatic and present yourself in a way that convinces them you are a good fit,” she says. “Since burnout, compassion fatigue and suicide rates are rampantly on the rise in this profession, schools may also now be looking at students who have resilience, grit and the self-care needed to survive school and the profession.”
Most vet schools require applicants to submit GRE General Test scores, and some also require a GRE Subject Test in biology. It is occasionally possible to submit scores from the MCAT medical school entrance exam instead of the GRE General Test, but that depends on a vet school’s admissions policies.
The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges provides a free “Profile of Admitted Students” online tool that prospective vet students can use to find out what credentials are typical among accepted students at individual vet schools.
What to Expect in Vet School
Students enrolled in vet school will take an array of classes relevant to animal health, experts say.
“Within the veterinary school curriculum,” Solomon wrote in an email, “classes include the anatomy and physiology of many species (cats, dogs, horses, cows and exotic species), nutrition, microbiology, infectious diseases, internal medicine and surgery. Elective courses are also offered in areas of aquatic and zoo animal medicine, conservation of endangered species, rehabilitation medicine and Eastern medicine such as acupuncture.”
Krull describes the amount of material that vet students need to absorb as “astronomical,” since students must gain an understanding of multiple species and learn about both male and female animals. “Being a veterinary student is extremely difficult but rewarding,” she says.
Vet school involves not only science classes but also clinical skills training, experts say.
“Throughout, students must learn to diagnose and treat diseases in a wide range of species that go beyond dogs, cats, cows and horses, including birds and exotic pets such as reptiles and amphibians,” Collins says.
Collins describes veterinary education as “a full-time job” and says students can expect to spend significant time in classes, labs and study sessions.
“Having said that, our students are involved in many extracurricular activities, most of which are clubs related to the veterinary profession,” he says.
Steps to Take to Become a Vet
Experts on veterinary medical education emphasize that it is highly rigorous, but they say the vet school workload is manageable for hardworking, bright students.
Dr. Carmen Fuentealba, dean of the Long Island University College of Veterinary Medicine in New York, says students who have done well in college and high school should not fear vet school since they have already proven themselves academically.
“There is not going to be any reason why you shouldn’t succeed when you go to vet school,” she says.
Veterinary school typically lasts for four years and veterinary students usually have a bachelor’s degree, which means that the journey into the veterinary profession is a long one. Aspiring vets can expect to devote about eight years to their higher education if they spend four years in college and four years in vet school earning a doctor of veterinary medicine, or D.V.M., degree.
Further, people who wish to specialize within a particular field of veterinary medicine such as surgery or pathology often seek extra training after vet school through veterinary internship and residency programs. For those individuals, over a decade of education after high school is typical.
“Advanced training programs such as internships and residencies are not required,” Collins explains. “Residency programs allow veterinarians to receive advanced training and certification in a clinical discipline.”
Successful completion of an internship is a prerequisite for most residency programs, Collins adds.
Although someone can become a vet without completing a veterinary internship or residency, he or she must have a license.
“Graduates of accredited U.S. veterinary colleges must be licensed in the state(s) in which they intend to practice, through an application process determined by that state,” Collins says. “The most important requirements for licensure are successful completion of the veterinary degree and a passing score on the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination,” or NAVLE, he adds.
Is Vet School Worth It?
The educational pathway to a veterinary career is not only lengthy and strenuous, it’s also pricey.
According to the AVMA, the average educational debt among 2019 graduates of U.S. veterinary schools who found full-time employment prior to graduation was about $150,000. Their average entry-level starting salary was significantly less, slightly under $85,000.
Experts on the veterinary profession say that money is not typically the primary motivation for entering this field. “Money can be a touchy subject, especially since we work in a caring profession and generally prefer to tackle medical rather than financial challenges,” DeMarco says.
“Honestly, the salary-to-debt ratio is poor,” DeMarco says, but veterinarians “don’t usually enter the field because they expect it to be lucrative.”
It’s important for vet school hopefuls to understand that veterinarians typically earn far less than physicians. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for U.S veterinarians was $93,830 in May 2018 while it was $208,000 or more for physicians and surgeons within human medicine.
The BLS predicts that the number of U.S. veterinary jobs by 2028 will be 18% higher than in 2018. That is much better than the norm among U.S. professions, since the average projected growth rate across all fields is only 5%.
Dr. Katie Woodley, a Colorado-based general practice veterinarian who incorporates holistic treatment methods into her practice, says one of the advantages of the veterinary profession is that there are many types of jobs within the veterinary field. Vets, then, can choose the path that suits them.
The career path that most people imagine when they think of veterinarians is the role of a general practitioner who takes care of personal pets, Solomon says, but vets may treat small animals, food animals or exotic animals.
Additionally, although a majority of vets work in private practice, that isn’t true for all vets. “Veterinarians can also be found in research, public health, the military and regulatory medicine (such as the CDC, EPA and FDA),” Solomon wrote in an email, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, respectively.
DeMarco says the job outlook for vets is positive. “There are many potential career paths, from small animal doctor to state health inspector, and from researcher to relief vet.”
Plus, according to the AVMA, there are 22 types of veterinary specialists, vets who have pursued veterinary training beyond vet school, developed expertise within a particular area of veterinary medicine and passed an exam in that field.
For example, poultry veterinarians are experts on caring for turkeys, chickens and ducks, and theriogenologists concentrate on animal reproduction.
Though the veterinary field is diverse and includes many types of jobs, one thing that nearly every veterinary specialty shares in common is an abundance of intellectually demanding work. Krull notes that the veterinary field is a challenging one “with long hours, tough cases, lots to know.”