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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.


  1. My husband and I are both fourth year students that will be graduating this May. I'm 27 and know that in 3 years or so, I'd like to start a family. I have no aspirations of being a stay at home mom for any extended amount of time after all the time and effort I've put into getting where I am today. I think that the majority of women going into vet med have a similar mindset - there is a reason that you suffer through the hell that is vet school and the loans that go along with it - I think it would be very difficult for most women to just walk away from it completely when they started a family.

    If you want advice, I'd stay that veterinary medicine might not be the best choice if your ultimate goal is to be a stay-at-home mom. My loans from vet school are just over $160,000, with an added $20,000 from undergrad - even if I worked for 10 years and quit, I would still owe quite a bit of money. If you happened to marry or be in a relationship with someone that made a lot of money, this might not be an issue, but not everyone has that benefit :)

    If you have any questions about school, feel free to comment on my blog - I promise I'll be honest :)

  2. I graduated 7 years ago. I owed about $60,000 which was less than average at that time (at least for my class). I am paying back over approximately 11 years but I have a working husband who owed no student loans. We also don't have any children.

  3. I really like the way you answered that question--very honest and practical. Too many blogs encourage EVERYone to go for a vet career. I would tell the writer what every pre-vet speaker everywhere says: Be a dentist. Less competitive to get into school, top pay, and better hours.

  4. Or a pharmacist. I've heard good things about that too, and no bad breath!

  5. I am not a vet but considered it for a long time and now regret not going sometimes. I completely understand the school debt ( i have a about 190,000 myself from a different degree) but am still considering being a stay at home mom for at least a few years. Having a husband that is financially stable is definitely something to think about if you want to be a stay at home mom. I know quite a few professional moms who work 2 days/week in their profession while their kids are little and it works well for them. I found this link from veterinary economics on vet incomes, which seem like a very similar spread to pharmacists and other similar professions. Dr Bern, do you think this spread of vet incomes is unrealistic based on your colleaugues? I know a lot of these surveys in my profession seem to be "off" but I would be curious what your impression is. Of course dentists always seem to make the most, but money doesn't equal happiness. My husband almost became a pharmacist, and they do make a decent living, but everyone he shadowed seemed bored beyond belief (so it definitely takes the right personality). It is definitely good to have a realistic view on things when you get into them though, but I think anything can be done if you are motivated.

  6. Sorry I forgot the link

    here it is from aug 2011 vet economics

  7. If you don't plan to work for very long, then I wouldn't spend the money to go to vet school. My debt is $150,000 or so, and I work as an ER veterinarian - which pays way better than GP, in most instances. Despite that, it is very difficult to make the $1800/month payment!

    I just became a mother, and I have just gone back to work after maternity leave. So, if you're interested in reading about what it's like to be a new, working, veterinarian mother, please check out my blog:

  8. I'm not a vet, but I am a stay-at-home mom, and I love it. I have a few questions you might want to consider. I don't have the answers for you. But as a 30-something who is currently watching my former classmates get advanced degrees or not, get married or not, and become parents or not, I think they are important to consider.

    1. How will you feel if choose another career that you are less passionate about, and you don't get married?

    2. What if you do get married, have kids, and then you become divorced or your husband has health or job problems, and you have to work anyway?

    3. What if you fall in love with a teacher or an artist, and it's really difficult to make ends meet on his salary alone?

    4. How do you think your attitude is being shaped by current economic conditions, and how long do you think the economy is going to be this sluggish for vets (and everyone else?)

    I guess my point is that becoming a stay-at-home mom is dependent on you and a really great guy that you trust, who makes a good living, falling in love by a certain age. A lot of factors out of one's control.

    1. I love this reply! I don't think we as women anymore should just plan our life "waiting for a man" and thinking ahead to babies, etc. I dated a man for 6 years and did the same thing, and it never worked. I wanted to be a vet then but chose a more "domesticated" career. Now here I am at 27 and going back to school and doing this for myself, finally!! I honestly feel if you do what makes you happy and what you want to do, all that other stuff will fall into place like it's supposed to, probably even better than you originally planned!! The more you plan and try to push your life in a direction that is so uncertain, the more it fights back. Let God do the work. Go to vet school, that is a constant that is destined to work out if you're willing to put the work into it. If you want to be a vet, be a vet. Don't let someone else's life you have no control over, control yours (a man, unborn children). You never know what can happen!!!

  9. In my experience I do think that the Veterinary Ecomomics article and data seems reasonable and matches with my personal experience. According to their data, about 60% of vets make $80,000 or less annually. And they state that those who make 6-figures are normally specialists or practice owners. So without evidence to the contrary, I believe what they have presented.

    And that can be an eye-opener for many people. It's the exception rather than the rule for vets to make $100k per year, yet we have as much debt as human doctors who make 2-3 times what we do.

    But it's not always about money. I have also heard that dentists tend to make the most of all medical professionals, but I've also heard that the suicide rate is highest among them.

    I knew my readers would come through and give some great experiences and advice!


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