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  Volume No. 14 Issue No. 12 December 2017  

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Dr. Jim Humphries

  Thinking of becoming a veterinarian?
  By Dr. Jim Humphries
  Veterinarian

   Becoming a doctor of veterinary medicine is not a decision to be taken lightly. No doubt it is a great career that can lead a graduate into practice, research, the military and even zoo or aquatic work. Unlike becoming a veterinary technician or a veterinary assistant, becoming a doctor requires four years of pre-med studies and then four years of veterinary medical school, and that is expensive. It is hard to gain admission and then even harder to get through, and it can take a real toll on a student — both in terms of time, finances and even the emotions.
   
   This is important to know, because most believe they want to enter this profession because “they love animals.” But as you can see, eight years of intensive study and work takes more than a love of animals to make it through. It is a love of medicine first, then how that applies to the animals we all love that is a driving force to make it through. The college workload is tremendous; and, unless a person is an excellent student, it may not be possible.
   Selection committees also look at the applicant’s experience with any sort of animal work, not just volunteering at a veterinary hospital. They want to be sure the applicant has a very realistic view of what they are getting into, before investing four years of the intense nature of professional school.
   
   For animal-loving people who choose a career helping creatures big and small, the reality of all the work it entails can be especially hard, heartbreaking and stressful. Burnout, depression and even suicide is a problem. Veterinary medicine has one of the highest rates of suicide of any profession, even higher than dentists, which is one profession often cited as having a high suicide rate.
   
   After school, dealing with the student debt on a starting veterinarian’s salary is an awesome responsibility. Most students graduate with $250,000 worth of debt that is estimated to take 20 years to resolve. The type of people who enter this profession are often the most compassionate and sensitive; so balancing all the work and then the debt can be overwhelming.
   
   Burnout even among vet technicians (a two-year associate’s degree) can be significant. However, these students can simply move on to another trade. A veterinarian, with eight years and a quarter-of-a-million dollars invested, simply cannot do that –- they are committed.
   
   At Texas A&M University, where I teach, there are 128 slots for about 1,000 applicants each year. That engenders a lot of competition and pressure. We even had at least 10 students who monitored the first year of classes in case someone dropped out. These “vultures” often lost that time when professional students did not drop out. Nationwide, there is a dropout rate of about 4 percent.
   
   Veterinary schools have added, to an already over-full curriculum, such topics as communication skills, wellness, business skills, team building and leadership, all areas of veterinary practice that will boost their potential success. Veterinarians can work in industry, the military, in research, in teaching and product development.
   
   In a typical veterinary hospital, there are doctors and several veterinary technicians and assistants. These people help the veterinarian; but, to accomplish this level of education is significantly less of a commitment. The Veterinary Technology Associate of Applied Science degree for those wanting to be veterinary technicians is a two-year program. There is also a one-year veterinary assistant certificate for students seeking employment as vet assistants.
   
   Starting salaries for these people is embarrassingly low, and will be disappointing to those who want to make this a career. Techs can also find work in labs and in industry, but those slots are fewer than in veterinary practice.
   
   A new trend is for veterinarians to choose to be a specialist, which will require advanced training and board certification, just as in human medicine. There are internships and residencies, and the number of specialty careers are broad such as neurologists, ophthalmologists, soft tissue surgeons, large and small animal surgeons, nutritionists, dermatologists, equine medical specialists and more.
   
   The standard DVM degree equips the student with all abilities to work as a practitioner. However, the trend toward specialization is not necessarily good. Because the students interface with all types of hyper-specialized DVMs in college, many feel they must also move to a specialty; when, in fact, the profession must have a foundation of general practitioners. Many students who undertake even more demanding study for specialty boards find the job market may not support the demand for specialty work.
   
   Getting through school on a military scholarship is also a great option, as the military still has the need for a good number of veterinarians. They graduate as captains, and they serve in the military in a variety of different roles such as working in public health and in basic or human medical research.
   
   If you are committed to this profession and can cut the academic work as well as the time and stress, veterinary medicine can be a very rewarding profession. However, as with anything worthwhile, it takes a real serious commitment.
   

   Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian and provides hospice and end-of-life care for pets in the Colorado Springs area. He also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes. www.HomeWithDignity.com
  
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