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Life as a Veterinarian: Getting into Vet School

We interviewed one of our doctors, Dr. Antonio DeMarco, on his recommendations for any individual considering veterinary school:

If a prospective veterinary school student asked you what they needed to do in order to get into that type of school, what would you tell them?

There are only 30 colleges of veterinary medicine in the U.S., but according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, nearly half of applicants matriculate each year. What it takes to gain admittance varies according to how selective a particular school is, but in general two things will set a candidate apart: a genuine passion for the field and a variety of relevant experiences. A resume that demonstrates experience treating small animals, large animals, and exotics will stand out.

What qualifications does someone typically need in order to be a competitive vet school applicant?

Veterinary schools consider two sides of an application: academic and extracurricular. A well-rounded applicant is a competitive applicant. Ideally the application will include a strong undergraduate transcript, high GRE scores, externship hours, and involvement in professional associations or clubs.

How much time does vet school take, and what is it like to be a vet student?

It takes four years to earn a doctoral degree. And those years are not a walk in the park! I tell friends and family that attending vet school was like having a full-time job in the daytime and another full-time job on nights and weekends. Few students are able to work outside of school. After you complete the first two to three years of coursework, then you move on to clinical rotations. Those can be even more demanding because in addition to studying you’re also seeing patients and clients.

What graduate courses are part of the vet school curriculum, and what prerequisite undergraduate courses are mandatory for admission?

Undergraduate majors in biology, chemistry, and animal science are common among vet students. Numerous courses are required for admission, from biochemistry to calculus. Every veterinary school lists prerequisites on their website. Graduate courses range widely: physiology, histopathology, small and large animal internal medicine, small and large animal surgery, bacteriology, anesthesiology, dentistry, and many more.

What, beyond attending veterinary school, does someone need to do to become a licensed veterinarian?

During the fourth year, vet students must pass the North American Veterinary Licensure Exam, and every state administers an additional exam a student must pass to obtain state licensure. After graduation, a veterinarian must maintain accreditation. Part of that process is to fulfill continuing education requirements, which differ by state.

What do aspiring veterinarians need to know about veterinary internship and residency programs?

An internship or residency is not required to become a veterinarian. It entails three or four years of work supervised by a  board-certified veterinarian and is especially recommended for graduates who wish to specialize in an advanced field (e.g. oncology, internal medicine, surgery). Most residencies are completed at university, but as the demand for specialists increases, some private practices have begun to establish their own programs.

What are the career prospects like for veterinarians?

They’re bright! There are many potential career paths, from small animal doctor to state health inspector, and from researcher to relief vet. Business ownership is a common goal, but many veterinarians aren’t in a position to accomplish it on a starting salary with a high debt load. GoodVets, who I’ve partnered with, is giving veterinarians the opportunity to be partial owners of their practices rather than remaining associates, who are strictly employees.

What are their typical salaries, and how easy it is for them to find high-quality employment?

New graduate salaries vary based on location and field of work. The AVMA assesses the national average starting salary at $70,000 per year. High-quality employment is available but can be tough to find. It’s exciting to see GoodVets grow and offer high-quality opportunities in other parts of the country.

How does the pay a veterinarian receives compare to his or her veterinary school student loan debt burden?

Honestly, the salary-to-debt ratio is poor. Veterinarians don’t usually enter the field because they expect it to be lucrative. Money can be a touchy subject, especially since we work in a caring profession and generally prefer to tackle medical rather than financial challenges. Companies like GoodVets are working to fill the gap. As we get better at running practices more efficiently, salaries should go up and relieve some of our debt burden.

What is the day-to-day work of a veterinarian, and how can someone tell whether a job in the veterinary field is appropriate for them, given their personality and talents?

One of the most gratifying aspects of being a veterinarian is the day-to-day variation in work. I might see a cute new family puppy first thing in the morning and then evaluate a sick cat for surgery. Communication is a major asset in this line of work. Veterinarians are often compared to pediatricians because our patients aren’t able to talk to us. We often have to perform some detective work in collaboration with the owner to deduce a pet’s problem from medical history, behavior, and symptoms.

What type of person typically enjoys and excels at being a vet?

Someone who loves a challenge on a daily basis. This profession is mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging every day. Obviously, caring for animals is the primary focus. Witnessing the human-animal bond has furthered my own personal growth and is the main reason I love my job.

What beyond a love of animals is necessary for the veterinary profession?

Patience, empathy, intelligence (mental and emotional), and the ability to communicate are all important qualities.