Possessing a similar wealth of knowledge comparable to a medical doctor, veterinarians are experts regarding the anatomy, common diseases, and suitable courses of action related to the care and treatment of animals. The profession’s educational track leads to the receipt of a Veterinary of Medicine doctorate degree with options to pursue advanced studies through a residency or separate PhD program. There is also the potential to make a healthy salary; however, fierce competition for jobs and lingering debt accumulated throughout the duration of their studies places the majority of graduates in a poor situation when they enter the workforce.
Student loan debt and the competition for jobs are two strong factors to consider before deciding on whether to pursue a veterinary school degree. These are the important types of factors that affect the ROI (Return on Investment) regarding a veterinary school program. From conducting animal health research to learning how to mend injured zoo animals, the following information highlights the total cost versus benefits associated with pursuing a veterinary education:
The average cost to earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree is affected by a number of circumstances that varies on a case-by-case basis. In the United States, there are fewer than 30 accredited veterinary schools, which not only increase the level of competition amongst applicants but also narrow the number of available opportunities for applicants to benefit from lower in-state tuition costs and qualify for state-specific scholarships and financial aid.
Additionally, the cost of vet school continues to outpace the rate of inflation. According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, it has climbed to a median of $63,000 per year for out-of-state tuition, fees and living expenses in 2013. This statistic demonstrates an increase of 35 percent from the previous decade.
The cost for in-state tuition and fees for residents typically range from $16,000 to $50,000 per year. For example, the Veterinary Information Network states that residents of Virginia and Maryland residents have access to one of the most cost-efficient veterinary degree programs in the U.S. (when taking into account the tuition of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and the region’s lower cost of living).
Tuition and fees for the 2015 school year are $21,434 for Virginia/Maryland residents and $46,366 for out-of-state applicants. Because of this, the college experienced one of the continent’s largest applicant pools in 2012 – beaten only by three other schools.
The ROI and level of debt associated with a veterinary school education differs for each student, and the following factors typically come into play to either lower or increase the overall costs incurred while training to become a veterinarian:
Aspiring veterinarians should also be mindful of the debt-to-income ratio they’ll face upon graduation – the total amount owed after completing a veterinary program versus their starting salary. Veterinarians face a high debt-to-income ratio, and often dig a deep hole in order to fund their education. According to a study featured in the Cornell Chronicle, the ratio for new veterinarians climbed above 160 percent in 2010 alone.
Lastly, prospective students should note that the overall Return on Investment for a veterinary degree not only includes the amount of money a student borrows to satisfy the ‘sticker price’ of attending veterinary school (the tuition), but also includes the costs associated with additional expenses, such as education fees, paying for exams, relocation fees, the cost of living, and transportation.
“We laugh about being rich doctors,” says Danel Grimmett, co-owner and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Sunset Veterinary Clinic, one of the top-rated clinics in the OKC Metro. “The reality is that choosing to be a veterinarian should only be considered if you are accepting of the fact that you will be entering one of, if not the most difficult, medical training programs; even if you succeed, it may never pay you well – it will likely leave you holding a massive student loan debt.”
It is not uncommon to see veterinary students leaving school with up to $250,000 in debt after obtaining a four-year doctorate degree. Additionally, this level of debt does not include the cost associated with earning a bachelor’s degree or pursuing a post-doctorate program.
Students spend at least 7 years obtaining the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary to become a veterinarian. Many colleges of veterinary medicine do not require an applicant to complete an undergraduate-level education (although a bachelor’s degree does increase the chances of a student gaining acceptance into the program of their choice). However, all students must complete a specified number of credit hours (ranging from 45 to 90 semester hours) to satisfy prerequisites for gaining admission into veterinary school.
The typical Veterinary of Medicine doctorate degree program includes 3 years of classroom instruction, labs and clinical work, followed by 1 year of clinical rotations at a veterinary medical center or animal hospital. Some vet school graduates choose to forego practicing immediately after receiving their license, and instead, opt to pursue a 1-year internship to obtain further education and experience.
Additionally, those who choose to earn certification in one of 40 specialties offered by the American Veterinary Medical Association, such as surgery, dental and internal medicine, complete a residency program which generally involves 3 to 4 years of extra training depending on the specialty. Lastly, those who wish to conduct research or teach veterinary medicine must spend additional time to earn a separate PhD, as an exclusive Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program does not exist for veterinary medicine.
In addition to the high debt-to-income ratio and strong competition for jobs (especially in regards to working with companion animals), aspiring veterinarians must also consider the following potential hardships generally associated with this field of study and career path:
Limited Number of Veterinary Schools: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 29 veterinary schools in the United States, which creates very stiff competition during the admissions process – less than 50 percent of all 2012 applicants were accepted.
Possibility of Relocation: Since there are fewer schools offering veterinary medicine education than there are states in the U.S., individuals who wish to pursue the career field face limited choices; and depending on where an applicant lives, must make a decision to relocate to a different state in order to obtain their degree.
First-Year Graduate Woes: Many veterinarians find the first five years out of school a difficult road to travel. While the median yearly salary for veterinarians was $84,460 in 2012 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that most new graduates pursuing companion animal veterinarian positions began their career earning an average annual salary between $67,631 and $69,712.
Although veterinarians can earn more than $144,100, this level of income is typically earned by professionals representing the top 10 percent, and with many years of experience. There is a general misconception that veterinarians are highly paid and making salaries comparable to medical doctors. New graduates soon learn all too well the financial struggles of the profession.
“We are probably the lowest paid of all the professionals,” a veterinarian told JobShadow.com for ‘Interview with a Veterinarian.’ “If you talk about lawyers and dentists and even chiropractors…” …you know, we’re probably one of the lowest paid professional group that there is.”
Stiff Competition for Jobs: Very strong competition awaits a new graduate of a veterinary school program. Although the need for veterinary services continues to grow, the BLS reports that the number of new graduates has increased to roughly 3,000 per year. The greatest competition is seen in the highly sought-after field of companion animal care, which offers fewer job opportunities. Those with specializations and prior work experience generally encounter the best opportunities to land a desired position. Job positions centered on large animal care and working with farm animals generally involves not as much competition.
Stress: Dealing with sick animals and anxious pet owners can create an emotionally stressful work environment, at times. Veterinarians also address animal cruelty cases, treat unpleasant infections, perform surgeries, and must deliver bad news to pet owners when their companion has an incurable disease or inoperable condition.
“If you enter small animal medicine, your passion for the animals will be met with the heartache of realizing you cannot save them all,” says Grimmett. “You will be expected to make tough economic decisions, which will leave you open to condemnation from other animal lovers as well as from your own soul.”
Dealing with Pet Owners: Customer service plays an especially significant part in running a successful veterinary practice. Bringing a sick or injured pet to the vet can bring the worst out of an individual, and a pharmacist must learn how to exercise care, compassion and composure when they encounter irritated, anxious or grief-stricken pet owners – which is not always easy.
“Probably the biggest thing I dislike about it is having to put up with the general public,” one veterinarian told Jobshadow.com . “I don’t mind the hours working…but, people griping, complaining about a bill… it just ruins your whole day.
Threat of Workplace Injury and/or Illness: Veterinarians constantly come in contact with animals that are fearful or in pain, which places animal doctors in danger of being scratched, bitten, or in the case of equine vets, kicked. The risk of being infected by diseased animals is another workplace hazard associated with the veterinarian profession.s
Long Hours: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012 statistics show that about 1 in 3 veterinarians worked a workweek consisting of more than 50 hours. The long hours generally include seeing and treating animals on nights and/or weekends, as well as facing the potential of having to address emergencies outside of scheduled office hours.
Continued Financial Burden of Student Loans: Following graduation, the repayment of school loans continue to increase with interest rates, and depending on repayment terms, veterinarians often face an uphill battle trying to reach a debt-free status. According to a New York Times piece, the ratio of debt to income for the average new veterinary school graduate is practically double that of a medical doctor’s burden.
“Financial security is often difficult to obtain,” says Grimmett. “Attending a DVM program is extremely expensive and student loans (well into six figures) saddle many young vets to the point that things such as homeownership is not a possibility for many, many years after graduation.”
The veterinary profession comes with its own set of unique benefits and rewards, which may or may not appeal to a student with an interest in becoming a doctor of animals. “Extremely intelligent humans do not enter the veterinary field for unsavory reasons,” says Grimmett. “They enter (in general) because of a passion, whether it be for dogs, food animals, horses or fish.”
“They don’t choose this path due to an obsession for money or fame.”
Primary reasons that often sway a decision to become a veterinarian include:
A Rewarding Career: Veterinarians play a significant role in saving the lives of pets, who are often viewed as a member of the family. The service they are able to provide creates constant gratifying experiences and a deep sense of job satisfaction in that respect. The skills and knowledge of a veterinarian not only provides much-needed assistance to animals who cannot convey their symptoms or pain levels, but also helps comfort pet owners, especially children.
“The journey to becoming a seasoned veterinarian is a massive undertaking,” says Grimmett. “Being able to support the human-animal bond, help the helpless, inspire little ones to be kind and collapse at night, knowing you can’t save them all but did save “one” is my idea of happiness.”
Ideal for Animal Lovers: Becoming a veterinarian is a profession that often appeals to animal lovers, who have a chance to concentrate on treating domesticated pets, or entirely focus on one specific species, such as becoming an equine specialist.
A Mentally Stimulating Career: “Every day, every case is different,” says Grimmett. “We are always challenged.”
From the small animal vet tasked with diagnosing a sick iguana to large animal vets called upon to perform surgery on a pregnant zebra, veterinarians not only learn how to master a variety of personalities associated with pet owners, caretakers, species and breeds, but also encounter a multitude of interesting and challenging cases on a regular basis.
“We exercise our minds and perform mental gymnastics constantly,” adds Grimmett. “We are typically highly functioning, intelligent, compassionate people playing the roles of psychic, family counselor, cheerleader, advocate, and financial planner during the majority of our appointments.”
Wide-Ranging Work Settings: Depending on a veterinarian’s training and experience, he or she may qualify to work in a range of work environments, including dairy farms, wildlife sanctuaries, zoos, animal shelters, private clinics, and animal rehabilitation centers. Veterinarians are also employed by government agencies and industry agencies. With additional education, veterinarians may also conduct clinical research or teach at veterinary medicine colleges and universities.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), over 3,000 veterinarians are employed by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, including their Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is the employer of more than fifty-percent of federal veterinarians. Animal experts can also enjoy quite the colorful career, as some have gone into space with NASA, and have even been elected to Congress.
Can Become Own Boss: When finances permit, veterinarians have the option to set up a clinic, and become a self-employed business owner with more freedom to set a flexible schedule, and enjoy the ability to reap additional profits. The 2012-2013 American Medical Association’s Health Care Careers Directory stated that out of the approximately 60,000 veterinarians practicing in the U.S. at that time, 80 percent belonged to a solo or group practice.
Transferable Skills: “Honestly, veterinarians are very intelligent and could have excelled in just about anything,” says Grimmett.
Given the training that a veterinarian receives, he or she is highly qualified to branch outside of the direct treatment of animals, and take advantage of job opportunities that offer nontraditional industry positions in fields such as public health, microbiology, disease control, environmental medicine, population studies, aquaculture, and corporate sales.
Options for Offsetting Veterinary School Hardships
In addition to applying for financial aid for veterinary school and deciding whether an oftentimes emotionally-charged profession is the right career choice, aspiring veterinarians may also consider the following ways in which to minimize student debt and prepare for the profession:
Take Extra Undergraduate Math and Science Courses: To stand out from those applying to the same veterinary medical colleges, a student benefits from taking as many science-related classes as possible, and complete coursework, research and extracurricular activities associated with zoology, microbiology, biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology.
Additionally, psychology coursework helps prepare future veterinarians on how to placate, calm, and effectively communicate with pet owners, especially in times of high stress and anxiety over the condition of their pet. Business electives assist those planning to establish their own office.
Pursue an Assistantship: Seek out universities which offer assistantships for doctorate programs, as these opportunities allow a student to work part-time conducting research in the field (or teaching a course) while earning a stipend that can be used to cover tuition and other school expenses. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is one institution that covers full tuition for assistantship recipients in a veterinary school program.
Research and Apply to Scholarships: Whether a student demonstrates financial need or qualifies for specific assistance programs or awards (such as having a high GPA), obtaining a scholarship helps lessen the debt a new graduate accumulates while earning their degree.
Scholarships do not have to be paid back, unlike government student loans. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges lists resources for applicants, which include a $2,500 grant from the Winn Feline Foundation; the Animal Health Student Scholarship Program offered by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation; and the Winner’s Circle Scholarship Program sponsored by the American Association of Equine Practitioners Foundation.
Consider Special Loan Repayment Programs: Upon graduation, veterinarians may agree to the terms of unique loan repayment opportunities, such as the Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) offered through the United States Department of Agriculture. Those who agree to serve in a community experiencing a shortage of veterinarians for three years can receive up to $25,000 each year to repay qualifying educational loans.
Cost Vs Reward of a Veterinary School Education
When asked if she would ‘do it all again,’ Grimmett answered ‘yes’, and said she loves what she does, having “worked extremely hard for many years to carve a place out” for herself and learning how to effectively handle the pressures placed on her mind and body. “I don’t have it all worked out, but that’s part of the ongoing challenge of our profession,” says Grimmett.
“I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else; isn’t that the dream?” she adds. “To do something you love every day and get paid to do it?”
“Some days are better than others, but I know this is my place in the world.”
In conclusion, becoming a veterinarian involves a great deal of passion, patience and compassion. When taking into account the time commitment and overall cost of education, the financial return is often considered relatively low for veterinarians.
Despite being ranked the #12 Best Paying Job; #26 Best Health Care Job; and #56 on the 100 Best Jobs list created by the U.S. News & World Report in 2015, many graduates of a veterinary program tend to toil harder and face financial obstacles often stemming from their student debt. Those who are able to graduate from veterinary school with a low debt-to-income ratio will encounter less of a struggle to ‘make ends meet’ and/or maintain an income not affected by lingering student loan payments.
However, stiff competition also awaits new veterinarians as they job-hunt alongside the thousands of other recent grads looking for employment within the same fields – especially in regards to companion animal care. Prospective veterinary students may want to look into pursuing unique specialties and areas of study outside of companion pet care to increase their chances of qualifying for a wide variety of open job positions.
“I have the distinct honor to care for the creatures which enrich our lives in countless ways but who cannot speak for themselves,” says Grimmett. “Each and every day I work, it seems that someone will comment on how they wanted to be a vet, or have a child who wants to do what we do.”
She adds, “I feel our profession is unique in the world and the difference we can make cannot be duplicated.”
Veterinarians largely enter the career field because they place their devotion towards helping, treating and curing animals over all other factors. Depending on the work environment and job position, the profession constantly involves situations that not only cause veterinarians to manage their own emotions, but to also cope with the personalities and fear expressed by pet owners and animals. The ups and downs of the profession can often take its toll – even on the most seasoned of veterinarians.
“It pains me to know that veterinary medicine has one of the highest suicide rates of any profession,” says Grimmett. “Those people who break under the pressure were good people, who I am certain had the best of intentions when they chose to become vets.”
“I guess that is why I prefer to be very bold, raw and candid about what it takes to become a vet and what to expect once you have reached your goal,” adds Grimmett.