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Friday, November 16, 2012

Plan B

Kayleigh emailed me with a follow-up to yesterday's post...

I read your post about vet school debt on the rise, and job offers declining, and it was a bit discouraging. I've always had such a passion for animals, and have dreamed of being a veterinarian, especially after working in a vet hospital. Working there made it feel just like it was the right fit, I can't imagine working in any other field. So here's where my question comes up, did you have a back up plan just in case? If so, what was it?

My journey is actually a bit atypical.  I started wanting to be a vet when I was nine years old and everything I did from then until college was to get into veterinary college.  However, I discovered by my senior year that I wouldn't be able to get in immediately after undergraduate college.  I had two classes required for admission that I wouldn't complete by the application deadline.  I was bummed and really fretted over what I would do.  I was left with basically two choices:  take a year off from school, work a job, and then apply, or I could take two years off and get further education. 

At the time I had taken an animal behavior class and found that I really liked the subject.  I started to think that maybe instead of a DVM I would try for a PhD.  So I elected to take the second route and went into graduate school for a Master's degree in ethology.  About half-way through I realized that a life of research was not my cup of tea and that I missed the idea of being around animals as a vet.  So I applied to vet school and was accepted, beginning after I left graduate school.

At that time I didn't have a backup plan.  In fact, deciding to go to vet school was sort of Plan B or Plan C.   Unlike many people I only applied to one school as I knew I wouldn't be able to afford out-of-state tuition.  So I had kind of placed all of my eggs in one basket.  If I hadn't gotten accepted at that point I probably would have gotten a job and tried again the following year. I didn't have other ideas or plans and couldn't imagine doing anything else.  

But the financial situation and job prospects at that time were much different than they are today.  If I was a high school or college student nowadays and was following this blog, I'm not sure what choice I would make.  It's not a great time to enter the profession.  But if someone still really, really wants to they should know full well what they're getting into and what their financial situation will likely be after graduation.


  1. Yeesh. Dr. Bern, I love reading your blog, but it has been awfully morbid lately. It breaks my heart that someone who is super passionate about veterinary medicine wouldn't go into the field because of all the bad news, especially when a lot can change in the 4+ years it would take for such a person to actually need to find a vet job. I'm a second year vet student, and I *love* it. I can't imagine myself ever doing anything else. I am by no means blind to the realities of my profession - on the contrary, I'm miserably, painfully aware of them - however, I view it as a challenge rather than a doomsday prediction. First of all, there is an income based repayment system with loan forgiveness after 20 years that makes it affordable to be a vet no matter what you make. No, you won't be rich, but you will survive. Getting a job is a huge problem, but there are many ways to improve your ability to find a job, including networking, resume development, finding a solid mentor and just learning to be an awesome vet. Remember, no matter how bad numbers seen, there are still more new vets getting jobs than not.

    If I let this stuff get to me I would be spiraling into depression. If you are passionate about vet med, educate yourself and weigh the positives and negatives, but remember that not following your passion is a quality of life gamble too. Just be honest with yourself about your values and you will be fine!

  2. LeAnne: WADR, I simply don't think it's okay to justify utilizing that income-based loan forgiveness plan as a first line means of making your choice to be a veterinarian affordable, unless you're planning to spend your entire career in an underserved area (e.g. NOT small animal or equine suburban or urban). When you use that plan for loan forgiveness, people like Chris and I are paying for the balance of your loans, via our taxes. I may be a liberal Democrat, but that's REALLY not okay with me.

    You're already in school. If you haven't done so already, I suggest you figure out now how to pay off your anticipated loans, in full. If you can't make the numbers work, you have options, like joining the military. I recommend doing what I've done with my $80K in debt: live a lower standard of living until they're paid off in full. This approach works, but I admit it isn't easy to live like a poor person when your friends are all upper middle class (I grew up poor, so it wasn't as hard for me as it might be for some). My FB feed is full of friends', relatives' and clients' vacation photos, to places I can't afford to go on my budget. I have never been to a resort conference for CE. My car is rusting out with 100K+ mileage. I'm childless by choice, so at least that's one expense I don't have. And so on. OTOH, I'll have paid off my loans in a few years, around the 15-year mark. The faster you pay off your loans, the less interest owed. It's fine to go with adjusted payments if your salary is low at first, but there's no excuse for relying upon eventual loan forgiveness at the outset. Paying loans off in full is the honest thing to do, unless you are the victim of some unanticipated event (catastrophic illness, natural disaster, etc.). That's why those programs were designed, after all.

    Just like Chris, I had another career prior to veterinary school. I told myself loans and salary wouldn't matter. Ten years later, guess what? Money matters, even though just like you, I didn't enter this field anticipating a high salary. In practical terms, I'm staring at retirement sometime in the next 25 years, wondering if I'll ever get there. Then again, I may be dead of a cardiovascular event well before then.

    I often wonder if I should have finished my MBA instead, but there's no sense wondering what might have been when I have bills to pay. Anyone who is capable of gaining admission to a fully accredited veterinary school has a plethora of options for a happy career, given the right mindset.

  3. Wow! That was an unexpected response.

    Jenna, I'm sorry you may have made the wrong choice in your career... sounds like your priorities changed. This is a risk I run as well. However, I didn't have a career lined up before vet school, or any other potential paths. I will never wonder, "what if I had done that other thing?". I'm utterly passionate about this field. Does that mean I won't regret it? No, of course not. But I have to make the best decision for my future with the info that I have today, and going to vet school was the best decision of my life so far.

    I only read about half of your lecture on loans and stuff. I've got my financial situation figured out, thanks. I'm aware of the options and the potential pitfalls, and I'm painfully aware of the potential for decreases in quality of life due to not having enough money. EVERY vet student should assess their PERSONAL situation when they decide whether or not to go into this field.

    As for income-based loan forgiveness - huh. I've never heard that perspective before. I can spot a number of problems with it, but I don't want to write too long a post. Here's the thing - the program is there to help students, and you must be nuts to think I would turn down an offer that could change the course of my life for you. I pay plenty of taxes for things I don't support. If you don't like it, don't bother with me - go to your representatives and address it with them.

    I stand by what I said - it's very sad to think that a passionate young vet-to-be to be persuaded to do something they love less for the rest of their life because they read too many jaded blog posts and comments. Not that your perspective isn't valuable, of course! When I was deciding to pursue vet school, I talked to people with all sorts of opinions, including people who tried very hard to talk me out of it. I worked in a place where there were two new vets - one who could barely make ends meet and was swallowed under her vet payments, and one who bought a house after her first year.

    Original poster, hear me out - there IS optimism out there. My advice is to talk to as MANY vets as you can. Listen to Dr. Bern and Jenna, but make sure you talk to a few who love their job too. Know the facts (everything Dr. Bern has posted recently has been correct to my knowledge) but weigh them with your personal situation and aspirations, and know that there ARE alternatives to utter poverty out there. Good luck!

  4. Just thought of one more thing. Sometimes I think the unhappier vets that have been practicing for a while think that pre vets and vet students are bright eyed and bushy tailed, prancing around singing "money doesn't matter, tra la la!" and playing with puppies and kittens.

    I assure you, I am an adult, and I KNOW what I'm getting into. (As is the case for most of the people in my class). I've got it figured out to the last letter and dollar sign. I know about the wages that are lower than loan payments and that there aren't enough jobs for all the graduating vets. I know that there are trends showing that demand for vet med is on the decline. I know about the compassion fatigue, the burnout, the potential for lawsuit. I assure you, you couldn't name a topic that I haven't thought about deeply. And I STILL want to be a vet. Crazy, huh?

  5. I think everyone is making some great points. One very interesting contrast between me and Jenna is that I'm politically conservative, yet I don't mind my tax dollars going to forgive loans when people practice in underdeveloped or undersupported areas. Go fig.

    I completely agree with LeAnne that this is a very personal, individual decision. If you are very passionate and have the finances figured out, go for it as long as you're doing so with eyes wide open. But realize that the financial situation now is not as good as it was 10 years ago. Even so, it doesn't mean that you can't do okay, especially if you plan ahead of time, go to a less expensive school, and live far below your means like Jenna said. I think that there should be a mandatory personal finance mini-course for all veterinary students in the first year so they can start planning what's going to happen after graduation.
    I also agree with LeAnne that everyone should get as many perspectives and opinions as possible. I'm only one voice, even if I'm reaching tens of thousands of people every month.

  6. >>the program is there to help students, and you must be nuts to think I would turn down an offer that could change the course of my life for you. I pay plenty of taxes for things I don't support. If you don't like it, don't bother with me - go to your representatives and address it with them.>>

    The program is there to help needy students get a leg up, not to indulge those who are borrowing with the intention of not paying back what they owe. Basically, you're saying you want people like me - who paid what we owe - to pay your way, simply because you lack the imagination to either figure out how to honor your debts, delay gratification by working for a few years to save money for tuition, or contemplate another, equally suitable career. Selfish, though I admire your capacity to take advantage of what is essentially a loophole that encourages irresponsible borrowing.

    Thank goodness many of the state veterinarians, most of whom are former practicing veterinarians, figured out the rural veterinary subsidy program would harm existing practitioners without helping needy clients. I won't bore you with the details, but many states don't accept the federal money, which is why most of those positions don't exist, no matter what fairy tale your veterinary school tells you.

    Five or six years ago, I used to sound like you. As for my priorities changing, they haven't really, though I am tired of that loan payment. Of course, years of solo large animal rural practice, on call continuously with no backup, may have altered my world view. I'm sure you're smarter than I and will choose your practice more wisely. Be warned: there was no one more passionate about this profession than I when I graduated.

    Neither I nor any of my colleagues will be in the market for a new grad like you anytime in the near future. You may protest you wouldn't want to work for me or anyone like me but believe me, there's no need to worry, because we can spot you quicker than you can spot us.

    The truth is, veterinary medicine does not need more urban or suburban small animal, exotic or equine veterinarians. The profession should address the damage first by limiting class size, then by closing some veterinary schools. Veterinary medicine should support their existing practitioners, but that's not what organized veterinary medicine does. You'll see.

  7. >>I'm politically conservative, yet I don't mind my tax dollars going to forgive loans when people practice in underdeveloped or undersupported areas.>>

    I don't either. I do have a problem with that money going to fund new graduates entering fields and areas that are already OVER-populated, though. That's frankly outrageous, and if the schools are encouraging this pre-meditated, deceptive borrowing behavior, I'm afraid the profession has really lost its way.

  8. >> Neither I nor any of my colleagues will be in the market for a new grad like you anytime in the near future. You may protest you wouldn't want to work for me or anyone like me but believe me, there's no need to worry, because we can spot you quicker than you can spot us. <<

    Ouch! So personal and threatening! Especially toward someone needing to face the market in a few years -- well played. You'd turn down a potentially excellent, enthusiastic and passionate new veterinarian because we disagree about whether the loan forgiveness program is appropriate?

    Look, I do understand your point of view, and I can see why it would be frustrating. Paying back loans is a painful and touchy subject for everyone. The forgiveness part of the system is not all its cracked up to be anyway - you have to pay taxes on whatever is forgiven, so you have to be a smart and proactive person to save up for such an enormous bill the year that it happens. If you work your way up to a decent tax bracket, you could easily find yourself paying 30-40% of your total in a lump sum of taxes the year of your forgiveness. And someone making enough money to be in that bracket would be paying a large sum per month too. If you are interested in making a lot of money in vet med, by working in a high income area or doing a specialty or whatever, it actually is more expensive to do the loan forgiveness option than just paying it off! The program really only saves money if you DO work in a low income area... so it kind of self-selects for the people that you said deserve it on it's own.

    One way or another, not everybody can afford to pay $2000 a month their first year out of school - with projected wages for 2015 it will literally be simply impossible. The program gives people an option that is workable, and it may be the difference between an impossible situation (loan payments bigger than their wages) and an ability to make it as a vet.

    For the record, I'm not actually going to use the program, because I am extremely lucky and have a cushy safety net. If all goes well, I might be able to pay off my loans in 10-15 years. But I would gladly support my friends and colleagues that are not so lucky and wouldn't be able to be vets without this program, even if they decide to work in an urban area or whatever.

    So you see, it's not really about loopholes, lack of imagination, being selfish or any of that. I doubt that my argument has persuaded you to support the plan, but I do hope you can see that it's not the dishonest, ugly mess that you've described. I agree that's its not perfect, but as you say, our profession is floundering and it will spiral into into chaos if there are no alternatives to paying off massive debt bills. (WHY vet schools cost so damn much... that's a topic for another day.)

    Sorry I let your post get so crazy today, Dr. Bern! But at least we've had a great conversation :)

  9. >>You'd turn down a potentially excellent, enthusiastic and passionate new veterinarian because we disagree about whether the loan forgiveness program is appropriate?>>

    Yes, because this tends to be the same group who think it's okay to engage in a number of other "me first" financial behaviors that are detrimental to the average practice owner, regardless of the new graduate's personal financial situation.


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