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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Variety Of Veterinary Specialties

Alexandra asks this...

I was wondering what you can specialize in as a veterinarian. Did you specialize? Would you recommend specializing? 

Most veterinarians are generalists, meaning that we do a little bit of everything.  In our daily work we do surgery, work up internal medicine cases, fix skin problems, look at eyes, and so on.  We really do tend to be "Jacks (or Jills) of all trades and masters of none".  But specialties are certainly possible.

Off the top of my head veterinary specialties include internal medicine, dermatology, neurology, cardiology, oncology, surgery, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, epidemiology, nutrition, toxicology, theriogenology, radiology, avian medicine, dentistry, pharmacology, and pathology.  But there are actually even more than this.  For a full list click here and here.

Specializing is very difficult.  In order to become a board-certified specialist you usually complete a year of internship and then 3-5 years of a residency program, all after having completed veterinary school.  So a specialist has around 8-10 years of veterinary education!  But once you've done all of that it's not over.  In order to be able to call yourself "boarded" and a "specialist", you must pass an exam in that field of specialty, which is extremely difficult.  I've heard that for surgery only about 40% of candidates pass, and there is a 20% pass rate for pathology.  This means that the odds are great that someone seeking a specialty designation will need to take the test more than once.

Once you achieve this designation you spend the rest of your career focusing on a particular aspect of medicine to the exclusion of others.  For example, someone specialized in internal medicine doesn't perform surgery, and someone specialized in ophthalmology isn't going to worry about reproductive disorders.  Obviously, you need to really love what you do and want to do that all of the time.

The financial rewards are debatable.  While a specialist makes a good bit more than a general practitioner, during the training they make considerably less.  So lifetime earnings may not be any more for a specialist than a generalist and there may be more accumulated debt.

I did consider surgery as a specialty but after spending two weeks working for a surgical practice during vet school I decided against it.  In part I didn't want to do orthopedic surgery, which is a large part of that job.  I also didn't want to spend more time in school.  Lastly, I learned that I like seeing a variety of cases and clients and wanted to deal with well pets along with sick ones.