Have you ever considered becoming a veterinarian? Is your child considering the idea? Did you want to be a vet when you were a kid, and life took you down a different path? Wondering what your veterinarian had to do to get where she is? Read about my (Dr. Welch) experience and thoughts!
Before Veterinary School
Everyone knows you have to go to veterinary school to become a veterinarian, but did you know that veterinary school is incredibly competitive? Only about 10% of students who apply to veterinary school get in each year. This makes it one of the most competitive graduate programs in America. Veterinary schools look at the whole picture- so grades aren’t everything. But what else is there?
Veterinary schools will look at both work and volunteer experience. As a general rule of thumb, in order to be accepted into a vet program, they like to see about 500 hours of veterinary and 500 hours of non-veterinary animal experience. Vet experience may be paid or unpaid, and can be from a laboratory, clinic, or field! Vet schools like a variety. Non-veterinary experiences include fostering, shelter work, training, and even working with wildlife. This sounds like a lot, because it is! But vet school is long, difficult, and expensive (more on this later) and they want to make sure you are serious before you are stuck doing something you do not love.
Vet schools also like to see how you do with people. They like to see you volunteer for leadership positions, take part in clubs, etc. A veterinarian is no good if they can’t talk to owners! Jobs that do not include animals count here, too. Who better to work through a conflict than someone who has worked food service or retail? Everyone has unique experience to bring to the table; bring yours!
And back to grades. Although grades are not everything, good grades in certain classes are important. Vet schools want to see you do well in classes like biology, physiology, anatomy, chemistry (yes, chemistry), and food sciences. You do not have to have straight A’s but it does help. Veterinary school has a rigorous curriculum; they want to make sure you have a good baseline before starting.
Vet school applicants usually have completed a 4-year bachelor degree. Many do not get in the first time they apply and continue on to get a master’s degree or take time off to work. Both routes makes you a stronger candidate for vet school.
Veterinary School: 4 Years of Becoming a Veterinarian
After college round one (or two), you get into vet school! Vet school is a 4 year degree program. Each school does this a little differently, but generally speaking, the first two years are classroom based work. The third and fourth years are either partially or entirely clinical. I went to Colorado State University, so my experience is based off of how CSU runs their program.
The first year is all about the basics; virology, bacteriology, physiology, anatomy. We were in the classroom or lab from 8-4 most days, with an hour lunch break. Each hour in class means another 1-2 hours studying at home, meaning there is little time for anything else. Second year is similar, with classes like pharmacology, toxicology, pathology. There is less lab time second year at CSU, but that means more classroom time.
The third year at CSU is 1/2 class room and 1/2 clinic floor. As a third year, you practice shadowing fourth year students and sometimes residents in each specialty. You rotate around each week (or two) watching how the fourth year students interact with clients, taking part in patient rounds, and helping wherever possible.
Fourth year is when it gets interesting. As a fourth year student, you are the primary individual talking to people, drawing blood, walking the pets, calling people after operations, etc. You are responsible for following your cases start to finish, and following up afterward. You are on call, you do overnights, you do emergency medicine, you are responsible for all paperwork.
Cost of Vet School
Unfortunately, 4 years is a long time to have very little time to work a paid job. Vet school itself also costs about $50,000 per year in state and $70,000 per year out of state. This does not include the cost of rent, food, and transportation. If you do not have help from your parents or from scholarships, you will graduate with the highest debt to income ratio in the United States. Vet school is four years of giving up a lot (social time, money, relationships etc.) and taking on a lot of stress. It is not easy. Some people do fail or drop out. But at the end, you are a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, which is worth the world.
Time to Be a Veterinarian
After veterinary school, the fun really begins. Many veterinarians will go through a 1 year internship after vet school to increase the amount of experience they have before leaving school entirely. Internships provide a lot of opportunity to learn, more than just starting general practice right out of school. After an internship, you can then go into general practice, or consider specializing. There are many specialties to consider: internal medicine, surgery, emergency, nutrition, etc. Specializing requires an extra 3 to 4 years of schooling (mostly hands on, clinical work) after an internship. They are incredibly rigorous programs, and do not allow for much sleep or self-care.
Private Practice and Beyond
After school, you can go straight into private practice (aka general practice). General practice is what the average veterinarian does, including myself. You can legally treat dogs, cats, horses, cows, llamas and all pocket pets without any additional training. You can also go into government work, military, shelter med, public health, teaching, lab medicine– the possibilities are endless!
Private practice is a hard job, but it brings joy. Vets are the only medical professionals that regularly get to be present for the first and last visits a pet can make. Vets get to help owners make the best decisions for their pets. They are constantly solving puzzles, battling both scientific and financial constraints, and are never, ever bored. As we all discovered last year, our jobs are secure! COVID has shown the veterinary community that our jobs are “plague-proof”, and in fact, demand has increased during COVID so much that even emergency hospitals have to turn people away.
Trigger warning: mentions suicide. Skip to “Final Verdict” to avoid this.
I do not regret going to vet school, but there are hard days at the vet office. Many vets work over 50 hours per week– including nights and weekends. Many owners are stressed when their pets are sick and can take this stress out on the vet or the vet’s staff. Some cannot afford the best of the best treatment, and do not understand why we can’t give the treatments for free. Most pets do not like to see us.
Vets graduate with the highest debt to income ratio in the United States. The average debt is over $150,000 and an average income of only $99,000 per year. The average starting income is less (about $82,000). To put this in perspective a human nurse (RN) graduates with $40,000 debt on average, and makes $77,000 per year.
Veterinarians are 2.7x more likely than the general public to die by suicide, due to the high stress of the job and the financial burden. Vets perform multiple euthanasias per week, often multiple per day, making end of life a familiar and more comfortable thought. Any small mistake that a vet makes can harm or even kill a patient, unlike most other jobs. Everyone, even veterinarians, will make mistakes. Often, vets do not meet client expectations due to finances, complexity of problem, or difficulty of treatment. These are why some vets are pushed to the point of suicide. This has increased during COVID, as anxiety and pet ownership are both the highest they have ever been.
I was three years old when I decided I wanted to be a vet, and I definitely do not regret my decision! We work every day in a profession that is filled with compassionate, hard working, patient, and truly remarkable individuals. I love that I am learning something new every single day and that will always be the case. Not everyone gets to love their jobs. The decision to go into this profession should not be taken lightly, but it is worth every hardship.