To a child, becoming a veterinarian is the ultimate dream job. Stethoscopes, lab coats, and dogs — there’s little that’s more intriguing to kids idolizing Doctor Dolittle than working with animals. Despite the grueling educational path and an even tougher workday, veterinarians remain one of the most in-demand professionals right now.
The perks are obvious, but that doesn’t mean landing this kind of job — or sticking with it — is easy. Before you burden yourself with graduate degrees and student debt, here are nine key things you must know about becoming a veterinarian.
1. 8 years of schooling … and then you keep going
A bachelor’s degree is just chump change for those looking to become veterinarians. And considering the complicated prerequisites, it’s no art degree. These students must pass countless biology, science, math, and business courses if they want to stand out to vet schools. You’ll also need to take the GRE and in some cases the Biology GRE. There are only 30 colleges of veterinary medicine with a measly 4,000 slots available. Joan Hendricks, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s vet school, says some schools “get up to 15 times more applicants than available slots.”
Thank your lucky stars if you get in, and then prepare yourself for a rigorous course load. Preferred applicants are those with industry experience. Yes, you must first have experience to get experience in this career. Involvement in 4-H or FFA, previous work in a vet clinic, and time spent volunteering in a shelter can help make you a stronger candidate. Once you’re in, you’ll also need to choose from one of 40 specialties recognized by American Veterinary Medical Association.
Completing the program means you’re done with tests, right? Not so fast. You must also pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination upon graduation to apply for said jobs.
Next: You chose your career wisely, according to statistics.
2. The job search is competitive but not at all impossible
Aspiring vets will be happy to know the demand for industry professionals is on the rise — big time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says veterinary careers are slated for an 18% job growth through 2026, meaning students often have two job offers by the time they graduate.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have the pick of the litter when it comes to opportunities. Those looking for common animal care stints must be willing to relocate or consider work outside a private practice if they want to get a jump start on their careers. The booming pet care industry goes beyond just cats and dogs. Working with farmers and their livestock or supporting research and development for pharmaceutical companies are also potential career paths.
Next: Why people skills are a necessary job requirement
3. Expect to deal with the owner as much as the animal
A love of animals and an overall distaste for human interaction is a common reason why many embark on a veterinary medicine path rather than human specialties. But a career sans people is simply not the case for vets. Quirky owners come with the territory, and you can’t have one without the other. In an interview with Mental Floss, vets confess they often treat owners as much as animals.
A unique mix of people skills and communication are necessary traits for successful veterinarians. Owners worried about their pet’s health aren’t always the easiest to deal with, and your ability to react in a calming nature is imperative. Eleanor Acworth, a mobile veterinarian, says it’s difficult “convincing (owners) to do what’s right for their animals. Some people don’t listen. They would rather pay for a fancy cellphone than to get their cat neutered.”
On the bright side, vets are not contractually obligated to deal with a difficult owner if they don’t want to. A waiting room sequester is perfectly acceptable, according to some industry experts.
Next: On-the-job dangers
4. The job is more dangerous than you think
A day in the vet life is much more than furry creatures and wagging tails. New Orleans veterinarian who goes by Sue tells Mental Floss, “Cat bites can be nasty. A bad one to the hand could end your surgical career.” And that’s nothing compared to large animals, such as monkeys, horses, cows, and snakes. “If a monkey spits in your eye, it can be really bad news,” Sue warns. “Some carry a strain of monkey herpes that is lethal to humans.”
Equine vets see their fair share of workplace injuries you’d expect on the farm, but it’s cats and dogs who bite the most. Vets will be the first to warn you about Chihuahuas biting the most. So if you’re not willing to accept a few nicks and scrapes from the animals you treat, this profession might not be for you.
Next: Embrace chaos.
5. It’s unpredictable
Rest assured, no two days as a doctor of veterinary medicine will be the same. One moment you’re treating a golden retriever and a reptile the next. Then, a hamster appears in the doorway, and you find yourself creating a tiny splint for it.
The Nerdy Vet compares the private practice office environment to a small business startup. New vets are often thrust into chaotic work environments with tough deadlines and rapid growth. You’ll play multiple rolls, including financial planner, psychologist, surgeon, debt collector, and patient confidant, all while learning to neuter a cat in minutes. But it is that same dynamic work environment that motivates and energizes you on those long, wacky shifts.
Next: Exactly how go-with-the-flow are you?
6. You must be willing to fill in at a moment’s notice
If there’s one consistency in the realm of veterinary advice, it’s the ability to embrace flexibility. A packed appointment schedule is just the start. Long hours are a given in this industry, and it’s likely you’ll remain on call for sporadic emergencies around the clock.
An anonymous vet tells The Guardian, “15-hour night shifts are often advertised as the family-friendly option” and a patient description noting “eyes hanging out” could literally mean just that. Nights and weekend work are common, as well.
Next: Other times, the days are ruff. (See what we did there?)
7. Some days are worse than others
Like human doctors, vets can’t save every patient they see, and there are days you’ll need to give bad news. Sue says the most unfortunate part of being a vet is euthanizing animals. “I have worked shifts where I didn’t have a single patient walk out alive,” she tells Mental Floss. Future vets will need to master a balance of empathy and professionalism to avoid compassion fatigue — something that’s common in the medical industry.
Next: This is all well and good. But what about the pay?
8. The pay is rewarding
Let’s say you dodge burnout and make it through your first professional year unscathed. That’s great! You’ll want to reward yourself for all that hard work.
Any career in the medical industry boasts a hefty annual salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median yearly income at about $88,770, with those working in private practices enjoying the greatest earning potential. Even entry-level vets pocket a comfortable $72,000 in their rookie year. That’s a relief because the required veterinary education isn’t necessarily a bargain. The debt-to-income ratio is troubling. In fact, it’s not uncommon for your student loan debt to be about double your income once in the field.
Next: Still here? We’ll end on a good note.
9. The personal rewards are even better
OK, so the doctor of veterinary medicine licensure isn’t worth as much as, say, a doctor of medicine or a dentist — they make upward of six figures traditionally — but your clients are much more cuddly than an ill human would be. We’ll call that an even trade.
Plus, the personal rewards are even better. You’re surrounded by animals all day. There’s not a veterinarian out there who doesn’t cherish the feeling that comes from saving an animal’s life and making a human’s day in the process. Dr. Tim says it best in an interview with Buzzfeed: “Any time I feel that someone (human or animal) is better off for my input, I’m happy. If an animal comes in miserable and leaves happy, my heart swells.”
Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.
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