A question that just about every student veterinarian is asked is, “Why are you going to vet school?”, and is sometimes followed by the unintentionally irritating question of, “Why didn’t you just go to med school?” Although the answers to these questions are different for each one of us, there are a few overarching themes that I think will apply to all of my classmates the world over.
Why did I choose to become a veterinarian? When I graduate in three and a half years, I will be joining a profession with what is often reported as a disproportionately high rate of burnout, suicide, and depression (DeGioia, 2011, and Larkin, 2015). On average, our student debt is usually compared to a mortgage – but without the roof over our head. The average starting wage according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is just over $67,000 per year. Sounds great, right? The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists average wage overall for veterinarians as around $98,000. That’s nothing to scoff at – until you see that the average family medicine doctor makes $186,000 per year. That’s just for family practice; surgeons and specialists make much more. Meanwhile, the veterinarians of the world are family veterinarian, ER doctor, dentist, surgeon, cardiologist, oncologist, radiologist, ophthalmologist, anesthesiologist, nutritionist and weight manager, financial planner/wizard for the family fallen on hard times with a beloved aging pet, and grief counselor for families who had to put their pet down due to age, disease, or injury. Whatever reason we decided to join this amazing profession of ours, it certainly wasn’t for the money. If it was, I’d have become a dermatologist and worked a 9-5 job making over six figures (no offense to dermatologists, you guys see some weird stuff).
If you polled a class of student veterinarians on reasons for entering vet school, you would get some pretty standard answers – I love science (true), I want to help people and animals (also true), people are gross (very, very true). The truth is, these are all valid and common answers. But if I joined this profession just because I loved science, why not get a PhD? There are few life-and-death emergencies in an academic lab compared to an all-night veterinary hospital. If I wanted to help people and animals, I could be an animal behaviorist. The pay isn’t better, but without crippling debt straight out of school, who needs money anyway? If I think people are gross (grosser than animals, anyway), then I could get a job as a medical technician, and not have to deal with the public every day. The truth is, I believe most veterinarians want to save the world in some way. The world might be one little girl’s kitten that she found and raised, but turned up with a parasite load that makes the movie Alien look like child’s play. It might be the literal world, working on zoonotic diseases (diseases that move from animals to humans) such as Ebola, rabies, BSE (mad cow), or influenza (usually called bird or swine flu). It could be developing new medical technologies for dilated cardiomyopathy (a form of heart failure common in dogs) that can be used to treat similar heart failure in humans. Whatever it is, we will do whatever we can to fix it, even if it means performing emergency surgery for four, five, or six hours straight (or longer), or getting out of bed at two in the morning because our neighbor’s horse perforated its rectum while giving birth.
In the end, it isn’t the money or prestige (though it is rather nice to be called ‘Doctor’) that gets us out of bed in the morning and fuels our late-night anatomy studying, but our passion. Most of the veterinarians I have ever spoken with have felt called to our profession. We didn’t ‘choose’ veterinary medicine, we just choose which branch of it to practice; for myself, I cannot imagine (though I have tried) a career that I would rather pursue. Veterinary medicine is not the only profession in the world worth pursuing, but it is the only one I want to pursue.
DeGioia, Phyllis, and Eddie Lau. “Veterinarians prone to suicide: fact or fiction?” VIN News Service. May 9, 2011.
Larkin, Malinda. “Study: 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide.” JAVMA News. March 8, 2015
“Market research statistics – First year employment.” AVMA.