Translate This Blog

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vets, Motherhood, And Debt

Over the last few years I've blogged a few times about the overwhelming debt that vets acquire during their education and how the debt is rising much faster than salaries.  Stephanie emailed me a question a few days ago, and a recent journal article brought up the same issue, so I thought I'd spend some time discussing it. 

I found your blog online when I was researching day-to-day life as a Veterinarian. I'm currently a Biology undergraduate student deciding which I want career path I want to take. For as long as I can remember I've wanted to, and planned to be, a veterinarian; but recently I've been trying to consider more realistically if I this is the most practical option for me. Although veterinary medicine is what has captivated my interest since I was a child, I don't want to lose site of the bigger picture. I'm worried about being able to pay back student loans I may obtain during graduate school, and I also want to be a stay at home mother some day. I don't want to feel I've wasted all the time, effort, and money on becoming a veterinarian if I'm planning to give it up some day.
I was wondering if, as somebody who has gone through vet school and can speak from experience, you could give me some advice. Is it impractical to go through the process of becoming a veterinarian if I plan to give it up someday to become a mother? And hypothetically speaking, do you think based off of a general small animal veterinarians salary, would I be able to pay off any debt acquired during my four years in vet school, in say 10 years of practicing? My main concerns are that I will go through vet school and have no choice but to continue practicing after I've had children, just to pay off the school debt. I know I would want to practice for as long as I could, if I weren't considering having a family in addition to my career, but I want to leave my options open because I know I may also want to stay at home and take care of my family.
In the November issue of DVM Newsmagazine there is an article related to this topic.  According to the article in the last year starting salaries for veterinarians declined, but debt hit record-breaking levels.  The average financial debt for a newly graduated vet in the US is $142,613, while the average starting salary is $46,971.  That translates to mean debt being 213% of starting pay!  From 2010 to 2011 this debt rose by 15.6% while salaries decreased by 1.3%.  Yikes!  Additionally, the number of offers new vets are receiving is decreasing steadily.  In 2001 35.6% of new graduates received only one offer of employment and 23.5% received four or more.  By 2011 this has changed to 63.1% with one offer and 4.8% with four or more!  It's becoming harder to find work, as well as becoming more financially burdensome.
Now if someone really, really has a passion for veterinary medicine and is willing to live on less than they want, and less than practitioners made (relatively) 10 years ago, I'm not going to say don't do it.  But everyone going into the field needs to be very aware of the financial challenges they face.  So, Stephanie, I'm glad that you're really giving this some thought.
I'm not going to tell you that you should give up your interest in becoming a vet.  However, if you plan on leaving veterinary practice within 10-15 years of graduating, I would recommend against it.  I graduated in 1997 and I'm still paying off my loans.  I also had a far lower debt load than most of my classmates, so it wasn't as hard for me to make payments.  Most vets that I know do not pay off their student loans within 10 years, though I don't know the official national numbers.  If current salary and debt trends continue (and there's no good reason to expect that they're not) you're probably going to be paying for your education for at least 20 years after your graduate.  That's a very steep price to pay! 
With the profession now mostly female and the percentage sharply increasing with each new graduating class (most are 75-80% female now), the reality of being a mother and a vet is starting to affect the profession.  This doesn't have to be bad, though.  More practices are willing to have a vet in a part-time capacity, helping the women to balance family and work.  It's also certainly possible to be a full-time vet and a mom, and women have been doing this for a very long time.  However, you can't be a full-time vet and a full-time mom, as vets often work long and diffuclt hours, and depending on where you work you may be on call for emergencies at night.  Now I don't want any of my readers to mistake my intent.  I have no problem with female vets or vets who are parents, and know many who are successful doing both at the same time.  But you simply can't be home as much with your children when you're working any job full-time, which makes balancing family and work difficult.  If your priority is going to be to your children and family, then you will have to give up time at work.  That is a personal decision to make, and one only you can make.
Stephanie (and anyone else in the same situation), look at the starting salaries and debt loads of vets and plan ahead.  If you can make it through vet school with little debt, the idea of giving up practice at some point is feasable.  But if you're one of the average new graduates, then you will likely have to continue being a vet longer than you might want.  In cases like this you may want to look at other career options.
I also expect many of my readers who are women, moms, and vets will be happy to share their own experiences and advice.  I am a guy, after all, and my wife has been a stay-at-home mother for the past 3-4 years, so I can't completely relate to what many vets go through.