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What It Takes to Be a Veterinarian

Many veterinarians say they decided what career to pursue at a very young age. In most cases, it was because they loved animals. Yet even though this is an important quality for veterinarians, there is much more to it than that. The road to a career in veterinary medicine is long and difficult, and involves years of college study, hands-on training, and hard work.

An Early Start

Young people interested in veterinary careers often start preparing while they are still in high school. That is because the college classes that veterinary students need are very heavy in science and math. High school students who take chemistry, biology, physics, and calculus, as well as other science and math courses, will have an easier time in college. Also, by taking these classes they are more likely to be accepted into the college of their choice.

Another way young people prepare for veterinary careers is to volunteer or work part-time at animal clinics, zoos, farms, animal shelters, or wildlife parks. When Dr. Posnikoff was in high school she worked part-time for the veterinarian who saved her horse’s life. Later, because of her interest in horses, she worked at a horse-racing track. She offers this advice for young people interested in veterinary careers: “Work hard at school and get good grades… Get lots of experience with animals. Really be sure that veterinary medicine is your calling.”2

Preprofessional Study

To become veterinarians, high school graduates must attend a four-year college or university before being admitted to veterinary school. During their undergraduate college years, preveterinary students may choose their own major. According to the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the top veterinary schools in the United States, five majors are most common for aspiring veterinarians. These are animal science, poultry science, zoology (the study of animals), biology, biochemistry (the chemistry of living things), and microbiology (the study of living organisms that can be seen only under a microscope). Although most students who are admitted to veterinary school have earned a bachelor’s degree, this is not always a requirement. However, these schools require students to complete a number of specialized college classes, which usually takes about three years.

There are less than thirty-five veterinary schools in North America and a limited amount of openings for new students—which means being accepted into veterinary school is highly competitive. When considering applicants, the schools evaluate such factors as grade average, college curriculum, experience with animals, and entrance examination scores.

Four Intense Years

Once students are accepted into veterinary school, they have a tough road ahead of them. Dr. Posnikoff explains: “Four years sounds like a long time, but it goes by so quickly and there is so much to learn. I wish I could go back to school and take those classes again… I would probably listen a whole lot better!”

Most veterinary programs are divided into two phases. The first phase is academic and involves two years of intense science-related study. Students take classes in anatomy, physiology, patho­logy, pharmacology, and microbiology. Much of their time is spent in classrooms and in college laboratories. In addition they must spend many hours on library research, reading assignments, and studying for exams. Because of the heavy workload, it is common for veterinary students to work and study at all hours of the day and night, including weekends.

The second half of veterinary school is the clinical phase. Students continue attending classes to learn about animal diseases, surgery, and other science and medical subjects. They also begin to apply what they have learned by working in an animal hospital or clinic. Most veterinary schools have teaching hospitals right on their campuses. These are actual clinics where people can take their pets for treatment. Under the supervision of instructors (who are also licensed veterinarians), students gain hands-on experience with animals. They learn how to give examinations, diagnose and treat diseases and injuries, and perform surgery.

The Fourth Year and Beyond

During the fourth year, students do clinical rotations, which allows them to work with many different types of veterinarians. They may observe and assist veterinary surgeons, dermatologists, oncologists, and ophthalmologists, as well as other specialists. Students also experience veterinary specialties such as aquatic medicine, exotic-animal medicine, and zoo-animal medicine. In most cases veterinary students are not required to complete an internship during their college training. However, many choose to do so anyway to gain valuable work experience. Students who want to specialize in a particular type of animal or area of medicine must usually complete a one-year internship after veterinary school.

Before graduates can practice veterinary medicine, they must get a license from the state in which they plan to work. This certifies them as a doctor of veterinary medicine, or DVM. Then they may set up their own practice or join a practice with other veterinarians. Yet even though they have finished school, their education does not end. To keep up with the latest knowledge and technology, veterinarians must read scientific journals and participate in professional seminars and workshops. Also, many states require them to attend education courses to keep their veterinary licenses current.

The Right Stuff

Students who make it through veterinary school know how much work is involved in being a veterinarian. But along with the willingness to work hard, there are certain personal qualities veterinarians need. They must have confidence in themselves, and be able to think quickly, solve problems, and make decisions. Also, along with caring deeply about animals, they must be able to work well with people. They need excellent communication skills, including the ability to listen well.

One essential quality for veterinarians is the ability to cope with difficult situations. No matter how skilled they may be, there are times when they cannot save an animal that is seriously injured or sick. There are also times when it is necessary to euthanize an animal, or put it to sleep. Most veterinarians say that is the most difficult part of their jobs. Even though an animal may be suffering from disease or injury, they still feel sorrow for having to take its life. If the animal is someone’s beloved pet, veterinarians must be sensitive to the owner’s grief.

Not everyone is cut out for a career in veterinary medicine. Even people who have a deep affection for animals may not want to become animal doctors. However, for those who have the right personal qualities—and the willingness to spend years, energy, and money to be educated and trained—becoming a veterinarian is the best possible choice they could make.

2 Quoted in “I’m an Equine Veterinarian,” p. 28.

3 Quoted in “I’m an Equine Veterinarian,” p. 28.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesVeterinarian Job Description