I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian from the time I was a tiny child and could comprehend what it was those amazing doctors did. I’m not unique in this capacity — many of my peers would tell you the same story.
Veterinarians are lovers of animals and science, blessed with the ability to heal patients who rarely comprehend our intentions. Most of us have known pretty much since forever that this is what we were born to do.
I frequently encounter young people looking for advice on how to succeed in veterinary medicine. I am by no means an expert in career counseling, but with the 10-year anniversary of my graduation from vet school on the horizon, I feel qualified to offer some insight to those of you considering veterinary medicine as your career choice.
Here are some of the harder things I’ve learned:
Prepare yourself for debt. The cost of education is rising and veterinary schools are no exception. Students are graduating with higher and higher levels of debt, and there’s concern for oversaturation of the market with new doctors unable to secure employment. Starting salaries can be so low the average person’s student loans exceed their income by ratios considered substantial enough to inflict “economic pain”.
I recall hearing information alluding to the financial difficulties I would face pursuing veterinary medicine as a career path. I, along with my peers, typically countered those statements with the noblest of intentions, stating I didn’t care about money and vet med was my passion.
Unfortunately, student loan officers care little about my passion when it comes to repaying my debt. Not surprisingly, neither does my mortgage lender, my electric company, or the person who owns the gas station where I fill up my car. Reality is the debt matters and can detract from job satisfaction because of the pressure to perform.
I’m not suggesting only the wealthy become veterinarians, but you need to consider what incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt will do for your future goals outside of those related to your professional career.
Veterinary medicine is extremely hard work. This is true not only in the sense of the academics required to obtain admission to school or the brains required to keep you there, but also in the physical demands of the job.
Long days spent on your feet, hours spent performing complicated surgeries, wrestling fractious patients, performing exams on floors, enduring bites and scratches — each of these contribute to stress and strain beyond those related to emotion.
Depending on where you live, you may need to tolerate a long commute, work overnights; be on call for emergencies, or work at multiple clinics (or all of those things at once.)
This is not a 9-5 profession and you won’t be spending a lot of time at your desk. You will be physically challenged each day and the toll can be exhausting. What seems plausible at 25 years of age might be impossible at 50.
You can only sustain the lifestyle if you keep yourself physically and mentally healthy.
Euthanasia is a part of the job. Many times I meet people who say they wanted to pursue veterinary medicine as their career choice, but couldn’t deal with putting animals to sleep. Even after enduring this conversation so many times in my life, I still find it a strange commentary on my profession. I certainly didn’t become a veterinarian because I enjoy euthanizing animals.
Alleviating suffering associated with disease or debilitating conditions is something veterinarians view as an acceptable and necessary “evil”. No veterinarian relishes the idea of killing an animal. However, we know euthanasia is a tremendous responsibility we are entrusted to.
You need to view euthanasia as importantly as you do all other aspects of your job and embrace it for its benefits rather than shy away from it because it’s difficult.
Not everyone thinks your work is important. Many people love animals. However not everyone “agrees” with the idea of spending money on pets, whether for preventative measures or to treat disease.
Many people view veterinary oncology as a depressing, torturous, and unnecessary career path. It may sound harsh, but I’m uninterested in their opinion. I know my work is important to the owners who seek my care and expertise.
You need to be prepared for every person you meet who truly treats their pet as their child; there may be dozens who view them as replaceable property. And they will not hesitate to tell you your job has no meaning in their opinion.
You will rarely receive praise for your time and effort, but when you do, it can be the best feeling in the world. Again, this isn’t unique to veterinary medicine. Few professions are truly outwardly rewarding on a daily basis. However, when you know deep down that you have helped an animal get well, or prevented them from contracting disease, or even when you relieve their suffering through euthanasia, you are given a sense of purpose. All too often, this needs to come from within, and if you are the type of person who thrives on praise and expressions of gratitude, this isn’t the field for you.
Like all professions, veterinary medicine has its fair share of frustrations, grief, and difficulties. There are equally as many astonishing moments guaranteed to leave you speechless and saddened as there are those that will leave you comforted and happy.
If you can keep your ideals realistic, thicken your skin a bit, and smile brightly despite the negatives, you’ll be able to endure this career for the long haul.
Or, at least for 10 years, as I have.