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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Is It Worth It?

Jessica sends in this timely question...

I came across your veterinary blog the other day when I was searching the internet, and I happened across a post discussing if you could do everything over again would you go to veterinary school again? From the post it sounded as if there were many times when you regretted your decision for various reasons. The reason I am emailing you is that my situation is unique, I had planned on being a veterinarian most of my life (I love animals and come from a family of professionals), but ended up switching for various reasons (e-calls and long hours being one reason) to optometry once I got to college. To make a long story short I got accepted to optometry school and not long after decided that it wasn't everything I thought it was, and thought that I would really miss not having any animal interaction. Unfortunately I was already in the middle of a large amount of school debt and decided I better finish my degree so that I would have a way to pay off my debt in case vet didn't work out for some reason. I am now in my last year and will graduate this coming May. I am in the process of deciding if I want to apply for vet school this application period. I am now spending time shadowing vets on the weekends to try to make a decision about if veterinary is something that I really want to pursue. (I don't want to get another expensive, time-consuming degree, if I am not 100% sure this time). I am trying to get all the opinions and viewpoints on the career I can, which is why I am emailing you.

Unfortunately when I was shadowing optometrists before I applied, they all made it sound like the perfect career, and didn't talk about any of the downsides. As with any job optometry has plenty of downsides, including e-calls and a very repetitive nature. If you get a chance I would be interested to hear why you often regret your decision. I know in your blog you said that you wouldn't be the person you are without the career. I can understand that, but disregarding everyone you've met etc. because of the career, would you still become a vet again?

 My main thing is that I like the science etc. behind optometry ( I like diagnosing, treating, ocular disease etc.), I just miss the fact that there is no animal interaction, and optometry tends to get very repetitive/boring very fast. I know its a good career overall, but I know as an optometrist I will never look forward to going into the clinic everyday, and will count down the hours until I get out at the end of the day. Do you enjoy going into work as a vet everyday, or is it just a job? I get annoyed if I have to stay late for patients in optometry, and I know that every pet has an owner and that there is a lot more people skills involved in veterinary that most people think, but I feel like staying late for an animal would be much more tolerable.

I would really appreciate if you wouldn't mind giving me your insight into the career without any sugar coating. Any viewpoints help, since I don't want to put myself into more debt and take 4 more years of my life getting a degree that I just find mediocre once I'm done.

I've actually been putting off answering this letter because I wanted to make a more objective reply.  However, this week I've had cranky clients and aggressive pets and haven't reached that point.  So I thought rather than delaying further I'd give an honest answer.  Now there are several points to reply to, so I'll take each one in turn.

First of all is the financial reality.  Jessica, if you're already in a lot of debt, it wouldn't be a good idea to go straight into veterinary college.  The average debt load of a newly graduated vet is quickly pushing $90-100,000, and the average starting salary is around $55,000.  Now total your existing debt from ophthalmology school and see if you can live off that salary.  You'll be spending thousands of dollars each month in loan repayments, making basic living a challenge.  In fact, this is one of the biggest problems facing veterinary medicine right now, as we have a higher debt-to-income ration than any other medical professional and it's only getting worse.  Veterinarians make about 1/3 of what a physician with the same experience will make.  You have to be realistic about this and decide if you can make your loan repayments after graduation, keeping in mind that even a bankruptcy filing won't eliminate student loans.

Staying late for animals can be just as annoying as staying late for humans.  When you've been working a 10+ hour day, you just want to go home, relax, and spend time with friends or family.  No job is more important that your loved ones, and a veterinary career can interfere with it just as much as any other medical job.  Believe me, you'll get tired of those clients who come in at the last minute for "sudden emergencies" that have been going on for a week and could have waited until the next morning.  As you stated, you'll be dealing with people just as much as you would in any other aspect of medicine, and they're the ones that will annoy you regardless of what field you're in.

Being very honest and blunt, this is a job to me.  Almost every day I'd rather be anywhere else than at work, and enjoy the days when I don't need to be there.  Now there are certainly things I enjoy about being at work, and it's not like every single moment is dreadful.  I started feeling this way about three years into practice, and it hasn't improved in the 10 years since then.  I still get excited about certain things, and do have fun with my staff.  But yes, this is a way to pay bills and put food on the table, no longer a calling or something I'm very passionate about.

Taking away every other aspect of my life and who I am?  Well, that's hard to do, as I am who I am today because of what has happened in my life, including my job.  But if I could wave a magic wand and keep everything the same except for my job, would I still be a vet?  Truthfully, no.  I have discovered that my passion lies much more in teaching than in practicing medicine.  If I had to do it all over again, I'd likely take a course to being a college professor.  Yes, I know this had its downsides also, as I've actually taught at a local college.  But that job was the best one I've ever had, even with the challenges and hassles.  I hated leaving it and going back into practice.

Jessica, please realize that I am very much in the minority in my opinions.  I read a study several years ago that looked at job satisfaction among US veterinarians.  Only about 20% didn't like their career choice, and 80% were satisfied or very satisfied with their job.  There are a lot of great things to be said about being a vet, and it can be an excellent career choice.  I wouldn't want you to avoid becoming a vet on my opinion alone if this is your true passion.

Pros:  Good salary compared to many professions.  Respect from most people (surveys have ranked vets in the top 5-10 professions that people trust most, and above any other medical professional other than nurses).  Interesting and varied cases.  Great interaction with animals.  Lots of career options.  Most vets find it to be a true calling and a satisfying job choice.  Great intellectual challenges.  Opportunities to own your own practice (if this interests you).

Cons:  Low salary compared to debt load.  Often long hours.  Risk of physical injury every day from aggressive animals.  Having to be responsible for life-or-death decisions.  Having pressure to be perfect every time in every case.  Sometimes difficult clients.

Jessica, I hope this helps in your decision, though I strongly advise you to continue to get lots of opinions.  I'm sure some of my veterinary readers will chime in with their own opinions, which are always welcome.  And hopefully I haven't tarnished my image to my readers, as there are still many interesting things to share about the realities of life as a veterinarian.


  1. Wow,I love your honesty but you do write allot about animals so I was a bit taken aback.

    I have had several careers from pastry chef to director of operations for a group that owned 14 restaurants and now I am working at the United Nations.

    All of these jobs were my dream jobs and with each and every one I slowly lost interest in them.

    I want to welcome everyone to the wonderful world of careers!

  2. Well, I guess I should clarify a bit. I do love animals and Biology, and will always have interests in these areas. I love being around animals, which is why we have a houseful of pets. Medicine still fascinates me, and I love the intricacies of how bodies work. But the day-to-day realities of being a veterinarian can really get to me. I think part of it is that my own personal desires in life have changed over the year, and I saw the harsh realities of some of the things I had to do.

  3. I like being a vet. It has a lot of upsides. But would I do it again? No, probably not. I didn't really explore career choices as fully as I should have. I think I would have loved to be involved in graphic art or design. I have always loved to draw and paint, be creative, enjoy photography and creating things. Maybe if I worked 8-5 in a great hospital with a caring and pleasant staff with all my weekends off...

  4. I've wanted to be a veterinarian since middle school, worked in an emergency practice during veterinary school, was confident I could do well in private practice. Then I got to private practice and HATED IT! for all the reasons stated in the post. Most of my classmates have had many of the same feelings i've had--essentially--you build up this dream career, you put all your effort and money into the degree, you go into it b/c of your passion to help animals--you FINALLY get that DVM--and your dreams are crushed by the reality of it. You have no money, clients prevent you from helping animals, and when you work late, it's usually to write records or appease a difficult person (not to help animals). Luckily i found a job i now love, but i'm barely breaking even (i'm not saving anything...which is scary). So consider everything and make sure this is something you NEED in your life--or can you get by simply having many pets?

    1. As well, There is no saving for retirement/ As time goes on, it gets a little better, but not enough to make up for the savings that should have started on day one. I would NOT do it again, as I am now looking at retirement on ss with years that didn't even show a profit, it isn't possible. Look at all other job possibilities. ALso, no young vets want to buy my practice so far, as the hours suck, the pay is low, and the stress is high.

  5. I'm disappointed but not suprised by the comnents by the vets. I love my pets and I love our vet and hope she finds us to be a good client/patient combo, but I've had the same misgivings concerning my own job as a counselor. Once I felt it was a calling, now it's a job that pays the bills and allows me to have my pets. I suppose it happens to most of us when the reality of life sets in.

  6. I think you pegged it, K. Many people find that a "calling" starts to wear them down when when they do it day-in and day-out for years and have to deal with the reality of life. That doesn't mean that you are a poor counselor, or we are poor veterinarians because of the growing banality of our work. We can still focus on excellent client service and taking care of our patients/clients, even if we don't love our chosen profession. One of the marks of a professional is that they can put aside their own personal feelings and emotions and treat each person in the way that they should be.

  7. I'm an optometrist (for 14 years) and overall love my job. It can range from challenging to monotonous, but it's what you make out of it. I think that you'll see optometry differently when you are out of school, and seeing patients.

    There are different sub specialies of practices for optometrist, from pediatrics, contact lenses, glaucoma, or geriatric specialities. Maybe you will find a subset of optometry that interests you?

    Don't give up on a great profession, before you've really gotten your feet wet!

  8. Thank you all for your comments, it is good to see many different opinions, they are all very helpful

  9. I hadn't surfed over to your blog for a while and know this is an old comment thread, but I have to tell you I agree with everything you said re: this is a job, a way to pay the bills.

    Though I'm good at what I do, I've discovered I don't really like the client contact aspects of clinical practice. I'm planning to return to school in fall 2011 for yet more education (ha ha ha) and plan to work in industry or a diagnostic laboratory. I'll be able to utilize my DVM but will have minimal contact with lay clients. Love the science and the patients, but I'm tired of explaining the same concepts over and over again... even though I like most of my clients and enjoy them as people.

    I admire your patience - I do not enjoy education at all!

  10. As a current second year veterinary student with aspirations well beyond the local animal clinic I have a few important points of interest to address in response to the original post and response. First, I would NEVER advise that someone diverge from their plan of becoming a veterinarian due to financial issues and here is why:

    Yes, as new graduate working in a small town clinic you wont make a lot of money. The good news is that there are MANY very good paying careers that are available to DVM's with some extra training.
    1)specialize- by partaking in internship and residency programs after veterinary school you can increase your earnings dramatically. As a board certified diplomate your services can extend into many areas such as referral/speciality hospital, teaching hospitals, and universities.
    2)research- the way that DVM training is set up, we are actually preferred over MD's for graduate programs in immunology, vaccines, cancer biology etc. This is due to the comparative nature DVM training and the use of animals models in laboratories settings.
    3) practice ownership- becoming a practice owner or partner is a great way to increase your annual earnings while also expanding your skill sets in directions of business and management.

    That being said, don't give up. If you love animals and biology there are MANY careers for you, and with a little creativity and some extra work you can pull in that six figure salary and start chipping away on those loans.

    1. What other careers are you talking about to do with animals and biology which can still pull a 6 figure salary? I want to be a vet when I am older (only 16) but am still trying to weigh up my other options.

    2. Beth, if you want to work with animals or in the field of Biology you'll be very unlikely to make a six-figure salary. Most vets never reach this amount, even with experience. In related fields you'll really only see this kind of salary if you're doing research for a pharmaceutical company. If you just want to work in these fields are are happy with less than $100,000 per year, plenty of jobs are out there.

      I would also recommend looking at some of the articles on my blog from 2013. The one we're commenting on now is three years old and therefore many of the numbers are outdated. The picture is actually more bleak for those wanting to enter the veterinary field in the next decade.

  11. Hi,

    I’m a 32 year old career changer thinking about veterinary school although sometimes I think it may be wiser to settle at the technician level. Money isn’t too much of an issue (going into debt doesn’t bother me at all – can’t take it with you) although the time investment and required relocation give me pause… I’m kind of eager to be out in the field working and using my skills to accomplish some good rather than stuck in school for many more years, but on the other hand, I don’t want to be a “flunky” whose sole responsibilities consist of cleaning up cat crap, serving as a receptionist, and/or doing restraint all day. No offense to anybody, btw – I can, do, and would continue to do some of this as its part of the job and helps the patients, but I’d like to have some higher level tasks too (e.g. doing complex lab tests and/or medical exams such as like a GP physician or NP may do for humans). The extra time spent in school pursuing an actual DVM might be worth it in terms of providing more autonomy and interesting work (these things are very important to me)? Although I think properly trained VT’s are certainly capable of handling interesting work, I’ve heard that most vets underutilize/misuse CVTs/RVTs in practice… Be honest, is this true? Although it would be interesting, I could probably be happy even with the inability to do surgery aspect to the scope of VT practice, but I’m sort of a natural when it comes to wanting to diagnose – once I know the axioms of a system (the signs for disease in this case), this type of deductive thinking pretty much automatically happens… Can’t really not do it, lol… Anyway, maybe going for one of the VTS specialties would be a good compromise? Maybe I could at least draw conclusions based on the results of specific diagnostic tests? I could do this additional training on the job as there are several specialty/referral type hospitals in my area… Do the vets/vet techs have any thoughts on the tech specialties? Would this be a good compromise for my situation? I like mental challenges and puzzles, so I was thinking VTS (internal medicine) might be a good choice? Lots of interesting body systems to explore… Anyway, I already have an undergraduate degree (from a non-prestigious state college) and some post-bac coursework. My undergrad GPA was decent (albeit not perfect). I’ve taken most of the required science courses for vet school despite having different goals back in college (even the year of organic chemistry – yuk), but unfortunately these courses are rather dated... I’ve recently enrolled as a re-entry student and am working toward completing an AVMA accredited veterinary technology program at a junior college. I may also take a couple of refresher courses in the biology and/or chemistry departments on the side as well to have some recent grades on the old transcript if I decide to try for vet school. Anyway, let’s face it, getting in to vet school is extremely difficult given the low number of available seats; I wanted to have a backup plan hence my enrollment in the VT program plus I figured I could use some of my vet tech labs and required work experience practicum toward the animal experience requirement for vet school admission. So far I only have about 150 hours of animal related volunteer experience at a kennel, so I need to acquire quite a few more hours specifically in a veterinary medical setting to have a realistic shot… I wish I would have pursued this back when I was younger and life was simpler, lol, but better late than never, I suppose. Anyway, here’s my question: Assuming I finish up the VT program while working PT as a vet assistant for around a year or so, take a couple of refresher biology and chemistry courses, and do fairly well on the MCAT, what are my honest chances in your opinion? Basically it boils down to this question: DMV vs. VTS – what are the pros and cons? Thanks to all the vets and techs who take the time to give me your two cents – greatly appreciated!

  12. PS I really do love and value animals and I really am genuinely interested in medical science, but I also have other outside interests, hobbies, and don't really want to work 60+ hour weeks... Maybe settling at the tech level would be the best bet... Then again, a group practice situation as a DMV could probably work too... Either way, I won't have the autonomy of solo practice. Thoughts?

  13. Very interesting posts. I’ve been graduated for just under a year, and so far so good. I enjoy the challenge, love the surgery, and probably spend about 2 hours less in clinic than I did when I was a vet student. The frustrations of relatively long hours, cranky animals and clients, and pay which is relatively low compared to human physicians. All in all though, I do find it to be a rewarding career. However, if I had to do it over again, I would probably do human med. I’ve always loved medicine and animals and biology/zoology/ecology, so vet school seemed like a natural extension. In vet school, you work long and hard to know how to treat any given disease, undertake a huge array of surgeries and develop an eye for seeing the barely visible in x-rays. Unfortunately, the reality of general practice is that it is uncommon for owners to pay big money to fix their pets. As a result, vets are extremely well trained, but rarely do you get to provide gold standard care, and it is almost always about cutting corners while trying to appease clients. If I had known this prior to vet school, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. I would seriously encourage anyone thinking of becoming a vet to spend as much time as possible in clinics to gain exposure to this, and other aspects of the profession. I don’t in anyway mean this to discourage anyone wanting to become a vet. I think it is a great job with many opportunities, but it is not for everyone. That being said, there is a huge variety in any given day (especially if you work in a mixed clinic), and it can be extremely rewarding. I can do consults in the morning, multiple surgeries in the afternoon, and the next day, be pregnancy testing or doing C-sections on cattle in the mountains. Further, if general practice is not for you, the option to specialize or just do locum work is always there, and the remuneration from both of those can be very good.

    Chris, I think an interesting question would be to ask other vets if they would find higher job satisfaction if the average remuneration for vets was higher?

    For anyone wanting some salary stats:

  14. That's a great question. I think if salaries were higher, it would help mentally putting up with some of the hardships. However, in Jessica's case we were talking about her specific situation and it didn't seem financially feasable. In general I do think it would help with some of the stress if we would have more time and money to enjoy "de-stressing" time.

  15. I am a career changer that has been considering vet school and I appreciate the candidness and honesty in the comments. It has helped me solidify my decision to be an M.N. and keep animals as a passionate hobby on the side for now.

  16. I have been a veterinarian for about 40 years and am now, on the verge of retiring. My daughter recently expressed a wish to study veterinary medicine. The reason I find myself reading the blog is because I am not sure how to advise her. Veterinary medicine has changed a great deal over the years. The problems of debt loads, flooding with new graduates, client expectation for increased sophistication, litigation and drainage of case load by specialists have been cited as problems. I would add to that, the boredom of repetitious practice forced on generalists through time constraints, lack of client funds and lack of specialized knowledge. Pyometra is a fascinating and complex condition but try telling that to a busy practitioner who sees it as just another pus-filled uterus that must be removed before the next enucleation, GDV or impacted glands.

    My wife is a veterinarian as well.

    I feel a need to ruminate on the subject to help some of you in decision-making but also to help myself to be objective in my own thoughts.

    I have to say that veterinary medicine has been very kind to me. I have enjoyed most of my career immensely; being paid was an added advantage. The same would be true for my wife. However, it was not always so. For the reasons that others have expressed, private practice was never my cup of tea. I have colleagues who really enjoy it despite the challenges but others (like some of you) dislike it intensely. I have MD and dentist friends both in general and specialized practice that feel the same way about their professions.

    So what can make veterinary medicine enjoyable? Looking at my colleagues who still enjoy it, I suspect that much of that enjoyment comes from seeing the practice grow as a business (they own or part-own the practices). They also enjoy getting new toys and learning how to use them, they gain new skills at CE meeting and they enjoy people; both colleagues and (most) clients. Yes, the animals are a part of it as well.

    If you are unhappy in private practice, some fulfillment may come from becoming an informal specialist in some discipline while you are still in practice by reading and attending CE. If your practice does not pay for your CE, it should. CE gives you well-needed breaks and a fresh perspective on things. It also introduces you to new ideas and gives you a chance to exchange views with colleagues. You can also of course obtain a formal specialty in one of the many recognized disciplines in veterinary medicine. You have to settle for Kraft noodles for a while and may set you loan repayments back a bit but few things can be as fulfilling as specializing and becoming really being comfortable in one discipline. It feeds your self-esteem and instills in you a wish to know even more about your specialty. If you remain a flunky who becomes a technician (spay/neuter/skin-scraping/anal glands) more than a clinician, you will, without a doubt come to dislike your “job” intensely. It will no longer be a career.

    Perhaps you could consider buying into the business as well.

    Still not happy? Summon the courage to change your form of practice or even get out of private practice altogether. There are positions for you regulatory veterinary medicine, at human research and health institutes, at NASA, in the defence force, in commercial veterinary medicine and yes even in academia (like me). In many cases, your manifold and diverse veterinary degree alone will provide an entrance to these branches of veterinary medicine. As mentioned, you may need to eat Kraft noodles and become specialized but even that process can be fulfilling. The bottom line is this: If you don’t like what you are doing get out of it and get into another branch of veterinary medicine. This is more of a possibility in veterinary medicine that just about any other profession. Many veterinarians are not in private practice. It is not the holy grail of this profession.

    I think this is what I will try to convey to my daughter.

    1. That is very insightful, thanks, it gave me motivation to become a vet despite reading the negative comments about private practice, I think I will still go into this field because like you said it has so many options, I think thats exciting really.


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