Financial angst in veterinary school sometimes means opting out mid-stream
You’ve wanted to be a vet forever. That’s why you spent every last summer in memory working with animals. You made the grade in college by turning down party after party. You suffered the nailbitingly stressful application and acceptance process. You survived anatomy and physiology in year one and endless pathology coursework in year two only to wake up to a crisis of conscience in years three and four:
Am I doing the right thing? Is this what I want for my life?
DVM Newsmagazine addressed the issue this month with a splashy cover piece. The issue seems suddenly newsworthy. Here’s why:
Though it can come at any time in your career, the first hint of crisis inevitably occurs when your student loan correspondence begins to arrive with ever-gargantuan numbers attached. For some it’s no surprise. It’s what you expected when you entered the field. “Gotta pay to play,” as they say.
For others, it sounds the death knell of impending reality. Acute onset of awareness can be unexpectedly chilling—especially if you’re a risk averse individual.
Factor in the humanitarian coursework most vet schools offer to help you face that reality (scary stuff!) and the angst can become almost unbearable. It’s enough to make you long for a transfer to medical school (not an unreasonable leap after a vet student’s second year) or change course altogether.
Indeed, many a vet student re-evaluates his or her position after catching a breath before the third year and its relatively less strenuous work commences. Until then, it seems most vets-to-be don’t come up for air, caught up in the workload and the whirlwind of a novel scholastic experience as we are.
Eventually, however, reality does bite. When it does, it can grab hold with a vengeance, tearing your aspirations to shreds in its merciless maw.
I know what you’re thinking: “Dr. Khuly can be soooo dramatic when she wants to be.”
Nonetheless, it’s true that with each passing year more and more students opt out of their prospective careers in veterinary medicine mid-stream. More vets cross-train away from practice. Increasing numbers go back to school and get unrelated degrees. They realize this field just won’t meet their personal goals, much as they might cherish the vision of a life in veterinary medicine.
In some ways, that’s a good thing. We need a mechanism for “weedout” that goes beyond the academic rigor vet school provides. But it still hurts to know we may be losing some of our best and brightest over the “grass is greener” phenomenon. Is it really better to be a human doc? A lawyer? A banker?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t denigrate the choices of those who veer awayafter working so hard to get into vet school. It’s not for everyone—especially not when vet indebtedness is increasing at a clip disproportionate to our salaries. Not when respect for veterinarians is on the decline.
In fact the trend indicates there will come a time when veterinary medicine is no longer a rational financial option for many would-be veterinarians. So why suffer the rest of the industry’s issues?
My take? I like to think vet medicine has been a less than rational choice for decades, what with all the irrational exuberance it takes to tackle the profession’s basic challenges. But it’s the oft-cited unfavorable debt to income ratio that seems to get to vet students most.
After all, many of us could have elected more lucrative paths. Yet we chose veterinary medicine for its inherent charms. That’s why I believe that money has less and less to do with why we vets choose this life for ourselves.
But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not so bad. I live well. Embarrassingly, I do so paycheck to paycheck and not without the stress of my creditors raising their interest rates, fear of taking time off or falling ill, and worries about the inexorable increase in my property taxes. But I’m not really suffering—not while I can still pay for my kid’s braces and a pair of new running shoes when I want them.
For the sacrifice and expense of a veterinary education (OK, tack on the MBA while you’re at it) I could’ve been soaring well above a $300K salary by now in a reasonably conservative career track. But no, I chose lifestyle over money. And maybe that’s not so rational by US standards of success but it’s what vet students elect to do daily.
Giving it all up is not the worst thing someone could do. I wouldn’t blame them if the field didn’t offer enough of a draw. But for my money (opportunity cost counts) I’ll keep on losing big in the long run—and I’ll continue to do so happily...as long as my writing career takes off!