In veterinary school we’re relentlessly dogged by biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, pathology, embryology and genetics. And that’s just the first one or two years. In the second and third years we’re exposed to seemingly endless coursework in ethics and nutrition and principles of medicine and surgery, among others.

Then after all this butt-numbing classroom work, we’re typically granted just one last year to put it all together in a clinical setting. 

That’s not exactly how it goes for all small animal curricula in every vet school, but it’s close. Some schools allow student to enter clinics early––after the middle of the third year for more hands-on learning. Some even extend clinics for two full years, in keeping with the modern drive to bring new grads up to speed for immediate workability in practice settings. 

Along these lines, most schools now offer “tracking” (sort of a “major” in a certain group of species) so that students don’t get treated to too much extraneous stuff on sheep and goats (for example) when they’re planning on practicing on dogs and cats, exclusively. 

So you understand, the veterinary curricula has traditionally been focused on creating well-rounded scientists, not on cranking out veterinarians-cum-technicians who happen to [maybe] know a thing or two about science and medicine. The idea is that veterinarians should be trained the same way physicians are (i.e., with an eye towards a complete arsenal of basic medical knowledge). 

However, with the advent of molecular biology and other scientific breakthroughs, that “basic” knowledge base for a “well-educated” doc has expanded tremendously. More science has to get squeezed into the first two or three years. 

That means that what was once a four to six hour day of classes has now morphed into an eight hour per day marathon of lectures and labs. Overwhelmed students take on more all nighters in their quest for cramming it all in. And it’s still not enough, not when actually being able to function in the real world of practice just another year or two. 

It’s also true that the advancements in veterinary specialty medicine has altered the dynamics of the third and fourth year clinics. It means that third and fourth year vet students are taught by veterinarians increasingly dedicated to tinier and tinier arenas within veterinary medicine, a fact that can sometimes hamper efforts to educate students more broadly in the kind of general medicine most of them will practice. 

The unique patient population of teaching hospitals also means students tend to be taught how to diagnose and treat in the abstract. Sure, they’ve always got real animals as a reference, but because teaching hospitals typically attract the most complex cases, real-life examples can be hard to come by.

Ultimately, the pushes and pulls of modern veterinary education means precious little time to learn how to actually handle what the youngest veterinarians among us will have to when they get their first real jobs. Add all that to the stress of the high cost of a veterinary education and you really have to marvel at what veterinary students are accomplishing in 2009:

They’re pushed to learn more by virtue of more advanced scientific knowledge. And now, they’re asked to cram all this basic science into two years while they become more clinically competent through “tracking” and by spending more time in clinics––despite the fact that a seriously specialized caseload gives them limited access to general practice examples. 

I’m amazed at what’s asked of them. But not everyone sees it the same way. More on that tomorrow.