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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Questions About Becoming A Specialist

I haven't answered many questions about becoming a veterinarian lately because I've done so much of that over the years in this blog, and it should be a simple matter of putting in a keyword search to find answers.  But Tara asked some questions that I've never handled, so I think they're worth going over.
So I've always had a huge interest in veterinary medicine, and I had a couple of questions to ask you.
1. How does the work/family life balance work if I'm planning on specializing. (I'm thinking dermatology, radiology, or dentistry)
2. Should I go into either of those 3 specialties, how well is the pay? (Obviously I'm not going to be filthy rich, but I want to make sure I can live comfortably)
3. How does the whole board certification/ residency thing work?
Before delving into answers, I want to give a disclaimer.  I am a general practitioner and have never gone through the process of board specialization.  I considered it when I was in school but decided against it by my senior year.  I know the process in general, but you would have to talk to a specialist in a given field to get more specific details.

So let's go through the questions.

Work/life balance as a specialist is about the same as it is with any veterinary profession.  You will likely put in a lot of hours and hard work at your job, and mentally it can be hard to leave it at home.  However, with those particular specialties it is likely a bit better.  There are no such things as dermatology emergencies.  Almost all dermatologists and radiologists I know have very specific, regular weekday hours, and are closer to the 9-6 schedule that non-vets may have.  You put in your work hours, then go home and don't have to rush to the clinic in the middle of the night for an emergency.  The hours per week can still be long, and I imagine that most vets in these specialties are working a typical 40-45 hour week or more.  But you have more structure in your day and are more likely to have set appointments that rarely vary.

Pay for any specialty is certainly higher than a general practitioner, but it takes longer to get there and that can make it come out even at the end.  When I was in vet school I did an externship at a surgical referral practice, as I thought that I might want to go into that speciality.  I talked to the owner and lead surgeon about the money, and he said that he did make a good bit more than an average small animal practitioner.  However, it had taken him and extra 6 years after vet school to get that specialty training, while his private practice colleagues were working a job.  He accumulated more debt during that training, so even though he made more money by the time he was finished, he had more loans to repay and it took him longer to make a steady income.  He said that lifetime earnings for him as a specialist were about the same as a regular small animal vet. 

To achieve a board certification you first have to be a veterinarian, so that means completing vet school.  Most specialists do a 1-2 year internship in small (or large) animal medicine, then apply for a residency in their field of interest.  Those residencies are competitive, so there is no guarantee that you'll get one when you apply.  The residency program is about 3-4 years long, and is a very intense training in that specific field.  During the residency and internship you are making about half or less of what your general practitioner classmates are making, while often putting in 50-60  hour weeks.  Many residency programs also require a research project that will need to get published in a recognized scientific journal.

So let's say that you have made it through vet school, internship, and residency with flying colors.  Congratulations!  You're now a highly skilled veterinarian after about eight years of medical training, but you are not a specialist.  You are qualified to take the board exam.  These exams are usually only held once or maybe twice per year, and are required in order to call yourself a specialist.  The sad part is that even after all of this schooling I've been told that for the pass rate for most specialty exams is only about 40% .  So after those eight years of school it make take another couple of years of taking tests before you can truly call yourself a board-certified specialist.

As you can see, it is a long, hard road to become a specialist.  And doing so won't automatically make you wealthier than an average vet.  But if you have a particular passion about an aspect of medicine it can really appeal to someone.  You won't know if this is the case until you are nearly through with vet school.  During my education I considered going into cardiology and surgery before deciding that I was done with school and happy with the idea of being a general practitioner.

Great questions, Tara!