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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Advice On Becoming A Vet....Almost Ultimate Guide

It's common that I get questions related to becoming a veterinarian, and I've answered these questions several times over the last few years.  Earlier this month Maggie emailed me some questions, and it's taken me a while to get to answering them.  I actually debated about whether or not to answer since I've do so before, but decided to so that I could put most of the pertinent advice all in the same post.  So unless I get something very different, this is like the last time I'll go through this, instead referring people back to this and other posts.

Here's Maggie's email....

I come from a family with a strong medical background. My parents are both doctors, as well as extended family members, so I have always been comfortable talking about and seeing medical procedures. I love science but I am not so strong in Math. I have always loved animals and many family friends encouraged my interest of becoming a vet.  I went to the University of Virginia with the intent to be pre-health and took some pre-health courses. I did well in inorganic chemistry, but had trouble with Organic Chemistry. (I am confident I can do well with more focus than I had 2nd year of college).  I also decided that I should branch out from science, and followed an interest in marketing. Therefore, I followed this interest and got a masters in business.  Throughout all of my studies I continued to volunteer at the SPCA.  
I am now 25 and I work in marketing for a leading consumer products company. I enjoy what I do but do not see myself doing it long term and I am strongly considering going back to school to become a veterinarian.
Of course this would be a huge investment...5 more years of school, lots of student loans. I would appreciate your advice on the following!
1. I am confident that I can do well in the science courses, but I would have to do a postbac pre-health program. Do you know anything about post-bac programs for pre-vet? 
Honestly, you may not have to do any post-bac program.  Your actual major is completely irrelevant to admission into veterinary school; all that matters is that you have the required courses for entry.  I've known people with degrees in marketing, English, publishing, computers, and many other non-biology degrees who have become vets.  Also, there are no specifically pre-vet post-baccalaureate programs out there that I am aware of, because entry into vet school doesn't require it.  In fact, most pre-vet programs in colleges are simply the offices finding the required courses for vet school and organizing them into a semi-formal program.  There is no such thing as a pre-vet major or degree.  If you're missing any courses, all you have to take those classes and don't even need to get a degree.

2. Once I do a post-bac program, what applications are necessary for vet school? Will I have to take a gap year to enable the school to see my grades (like med school applications?)  
There are no real universal requirements for all vet schools, and each of them may require slightly different things.  You need to contact the admissions office of each school you are interested in to find out what they need, and then plan accordingly.  You don't necessarily need to take any time off depending on when your classes are done, as they are more interested in your required classes than your overall GPA.

3. Veterinary school is four years, just like medical school right? 
Yep.  Four of the hardest years you'll have in your life.  It's much more intensive than human medical school because you have several species of anatomy, physiology, and diseases to know.  What MDs know about humans, you will have to know about dogs, cats, horses, cows, poultry, pigs, reptiles, and many other species.  There are significant differences between even dogs and cats that human doctors never have to face.  So even though it may be the same length of time, it's harder.

4. What type of Veterinarian are you? Is it extra schooling to specialize? 
I'm a small-animal general practitioner, which is what most vets are.  If you want to specialize in a particular field (internal medicine, surgery, dermatology, oncology, etc.) you will need to do an internship which is usually a year and then a 3-5 year residency program.  

5. Now that you are a veterinarian, what is your work life balance like? This is one of the biggest challenges of being a vet, and I don't have an easy answer.  Most of us eventually learn how to balance things, but it's not easy and some never master it.  There are many articles published on how to have a work-life balance and it's a challenge to get it right.  How often do you have to work late? Are you on call? I rarely work more than 30 minutes past closing, but I'm also very fast and efficient.  I know many colleagues who regularly work late.  I also work for a practice that doesn't do any after-hours work, so we refer all of our emergencies to the local Emergency Clinic.  Many veterinary clinics require their vets to be on call, so it really depends on who you work for.  Eventually I would like to have a family - do you think being a veterinarian offers the type of work life balance to do so?  It's a real challenge, especially if you're the owner of a practice.  But it's not impossible, and with 75-80% of graduates being female it's becoming more recognized as a necessity.  It's also becoming more common to see vets working part-time in order to have a good family life.

6. What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? What are some things that you don't like about your job?  I really like when I can save a life, perform a difficult surgery successfully, and bring comfort to families.  I REALLY hate being bit and scratched.  I also dislike when clients argue over every little charge or complain about how "expensive" veterinary medicine is (it isn't when compared to human medicine).  I get tired of clients complaining over rather stupid (in my opinion) things, and I love when clients really understand how difficult the job is and appreciate our attempts.  I also wish we could actually get paid what our knowledge and skills are really worth.

7. If you could do it again, would you become a veterinarian? 
Honestly, no.  Part of that is because my interests and skills have changed over the years, as well as my tolerance for certain situations.  If I had to do it all over again and retained my current knowledge I'd become a history professor.  I know many vets who wouldn't choose to go the veterinary route again.  However, I read a survey a few years ago where somewhere around 70-80% of vets were very satisfied with their careers.  

8. I know veterinary schools are arguably even more competitive, what would you say are the most important qualities admissions committees consider? 
First, I would drop the word "arguably".  There are usually multiple medical schools in each state, yet there are only 28 veterinary schools in the US.  Each school accepts around 80-100 students per year (some a little more or less), and there are around 400-500 applicants each year.  So it's VERY competitive.  As far as the qualities, you need very good grades in the required classes, need to be a good communicator, and usually need to have some prior experience working for a vet.  I don't know of any vet school that routinely accepts people who have never been behind the scenes at a vet.  Beyond that I think things may have changed some from when I went through the process in the early '90s.  For example, I think that some vet schools have eliminated the personal interview as part of the admissions process.   Check with the schools you're interested in and find out their requirements.

9. I see you went to NCState - I am from the east coast and NCState and VATech would probably be the closest. What is your advice when it comes to considering Veterinary schools? 
Honestly, you're going to get a good education at any of the vet schools in the US, so you don't need to go to a specific one.  If you have one in your state, by all means go to that one if at all possible as it will usually be much cheaper than going out of state.   Choose the school that will cost you the least amount of money to attend.  I know this seems like a rather silly way of deciding, but the biggest crisis among newer graduates is the almost overwhelming debt burden.  It's becoming harder and harder to afford to be a vet, and you want to minimize the amount of debt you have when you graduate.  This will make life MUCH easier on you.  The days of getting a veterinary degree regardless of the financial cost are gone, as it's no longer realistic.  Once you graduate and have your license in hand, nobody is really going to care where your diploma is from.

Maggie, I hope this answers your questions!  Best of luck to you and anyone else considering veterinary medicine!


  1. Best of luck Maggie! I'm an avid reader of Vet's Guide to Life and I'm starting my first day of vet school in two days (eek!). I'm 26 and I left a PhD program in geoscience to pursue vet med. Being a "secound round" pre-vet was the number one hardest thing I've ever worked for in my entire life (I hear the journey is just beginning). I remember asking myself these questions. It's hard to start fresh, get experience, etc but if you are dedicated it CAN be done.

    I just wanted to mention that the pre-veterinary forum on the Student Doctor Network is an INCREDIBLE resource for pre-vets of all shapes and sizes. Everyone who posts there is very generous and encouraging. Just reading other people's stories and questions (and other peoples remarks and answers) can fill in a lot of the gaps and be very inspiring. There's a lot of info about getting experience, taking the gre, taking classes, etc etc. should get you there or just google it.

    Good luck! :)

  2. Chris, a history professor - it would be a shame and a waste of huge skills and knowledge - believe me university can suck the very life and enthusiasm out of one. You know the old joke - how many professors does it take in X university to change a light bulb? CHANGE? a lightbulb. Like all experts, a university life unless you are actively involved in lab based research where you can get away from books, bureaucracy and remember there is such a thing as "real life" you become one of those that knows more and more about less and less and it becomes an end in itself. Nope I am glad you stayed as a vet even if you would not repeat the life choice - but then think of all the animals that you have cared for and made well and all the grateful owners - it is a really rewarding profession for that alone.

  3. Actually, I've taught at the college level and have been involved in academia, so I'm well aware of what a professor's life is like. For the time that I did it, it was the best job I've ever had, even given the drawbacks. I've discovered over the years that I LOVE teaching and far prefer it to practicing. I'm also very good at it, if I do say so myself. As far as history, I've discovered a real interest in it over the years, at least equal to an interest in biology.

    Veterinary medicine is a great profession with many rewards. However, I've found over the years that to me (and I'm only speaking for myself here) the bad parts outweigh the good. To me it's just a job and one that I do because I'm good at it and don't have other options; I don't do it because I love it, and I'm eager to go home every day and take every possible day off.

  4. Chris,

    Thank you for this blog! We just stumbled across it today and look forward to sharing your wisdom with our vet clients through Facebook and Twitter. We'd love to see more content on the rapidly growing mobile vet industry. Mobile vets share a lot of the same concerns as traditional veterinarians, but also have their own unique challenges (and rewards). Individuals like Maggie should know that a mobile veterinary practice are an option for her.

    Keep up the good work. - La Boit Specialty Vehicles

  5. Chris,
    This is Maggie Here. I would like to thank you kindly for taking the time to respond to my questions. This forum is such a great resource and I truly appreciate the personalized advice.

    Running this forum alone is an indication of how much you enjoy teaching and sharing your knowledge with others, and proves you can still do so even if you are not working at a University.

    Although I don't have much experience working in veterinary clinics other than the SPCA, I have experienced some of the same trivial complaints and lack of appreciation working in physicians' offices. My opinion is that in general human and animal healthcare is seen as much more of an entitlement than it used to be. Regardless, it is still important and I think I would find it very rewarding to be improving the health of animals.

    Thanks for directing me to the student doctor network.

    Thank you again for the detailed advice on veterinary school. I know it is a huge investment and I appreciate all the help you have shared.

    Best of luck to everyone here!

  6. I am a practicing vet in the UK, and I have to say I think its worth the five years to get your degree! I love what I do, everyday I wake-up and am so grateful I made the sacrifices and put in the hard work to get here!


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