A Vet's Advice About Careers in Veterinary Medicine

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My son is a 15-year-old high school student who excels in the sciences and adores animals. With those basic qualifications and a veterinarian for a mother, it makes sense that he might consider veterinary medicine as a career path. Which most parents would consider a wonderful thing, right?

Increasingly, however, it appears many veterinarians don’t share the same warm fuzzy feelings toward their profession. Not where their kids are concerned, anyway. Seems we’ve turned curmudgeonly on a subject that once saw us preaching enthusiastically to schools everywhere on becoming a veterinarian. So much so that you’ll find far fewer of us offering vet-happy career-day talks — our own kids’ classrooms included.

Vets Hesitate to Recommend the Vocation

I’ve long suspected veterinarians harbored such evolving concerns about the profession’s direction, but when the online Veterinary Information Network (VIN) News Service published an article describing the “spur or deter” conundrum, I knew for sure the tipping point had come and gone.

The article — titled “Advising Aspiring Veterinarians: Spur or Deter?” — advances the notion that many veterinarians no longer consider their profession a hospitable place to enter. That we increasingly question whether we should “spur” on new veterinary candidates or “deter” them from seeking degrees as veterinary doctors.

And the acid test for such sentiments includes our own kids as litmus paper. After all, if we as veterinarians wouldn’t recommend the profession to our children, what does that say about the state of veterinary medicine?

The Income-to-Debt Squeeze

When asked by VIN to explain their rationale, veterinarians cited economics as the overriding complaint. In particular, the staggering ratio of income to debt was most often cited. That’s the statistic that typically examines the amount of debt saddling the average recent graduate relative to his starting salary so it can be compared to that of other professions.

Veterinarians, it turns out, graduate with a mean of almost $152,000 in debt. Meanwhile, their mean starting salary is just over $65,000. It’s a ratio that compares poorly to that of other health professionals, and one financial planners have ominously labeled “precarious.” New graduates, for their part, find it a tough ratio to live with, leading plenty to second-guess following their veterinary aspirations.

Indeed, asked whether they’d do it all over again in 2013, I’d wager well over 50 percent of my colleagues would consider heading elsewhere to make their way in the world. Such are the challenges we observe on behalf of the younger generations entering the profession.

Which is a terrible thing to say. As a veterinarian, it’s an even more depressing thing to contemplate. But worse still, I’d imagine, is being a 20-year-old pre-vet student with a skull full of hope who has just received a long list of reasons why he really doesn’t want to pursue the profession he has felt called to his whole life. Now that’s terrible!

It's Not All About the Money

As a veterinarian who graduated 20 years ago with well over $100,000 in debt (some of it in credit cards!) and an income-to-debt ratio just shy of the current average, I feel I’m well poised to protest anyone’s discouragement of the veterinary profession based on economics alone. Here’s why:

1. Since when was money considered the primary motivation for becoming a veterinarian, anyway? Where does the long list of rewarding reasons for becoming a veterinarian figure in this discussion?

2. It's a waste of energy to persuade anyone to abandon what's typically a lifelong goal. As a kid, I was told vet school was way too competitive for me to expect to gain entry. All that negativity was wasted on me.

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