I work in a distinctive veterinary practice. For the most part, I go to people’s homes to handle end of life issues like hospice care and euthanasia. I typically haven’t met my clients before this highly emotional time, so it’s not too surprising that one of the first questions I get is often, "Are you a veterinarian?" I quickly assure them that yes, I am a veterinarian, and I will help them with any aspect of veterinary care they need or refer them to someone who can if it is outside of what I can provide in their home.

This question is preferable to one that I used to hear earlier in my career. Perhaps it was because of my relative youth or the more rural setting of my practice, but on more than one occasion I was asked, "Do you have to go to school to become a vet?" Oh my … yes you do … a whole lot of school.

The readers of this blog surely know that veterinarians "went to school," but the details may be a bit fuzzy. Here are the basics; feel free to pass them on to anyone who is contemplating becoming a veterinarian so they will know what they’re in for.

  • Grades K-12: Study hard. At least some of the information you learn will reappear in college and veterinary school (I can’t count the number of times I was tested on the Krebs cycle), and good grades will help as you move forward. Now is also the time to start amassing all the animal-related experience (e.g., volunteering at an animal shelter, working for a vet) that you’ll need to make your vet school application competitive.
  • College: Most aspiring veterinarians complete an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject like biology, zoology or animal husbandry. Graduating from college before applying to veterinary school is not technically necessary, but in my opinion, it is silly not to do so. Having a degree could prove invaluable if the whole vet-thing doesn’t work out. You can major in whatever you want. One of my vet school classmates graduated with a degree in drama (I suspect her acting skills have proven more valuable as a vet than my knowledge of the Krebs cycle). Whatever field of study a student pursues, he or she should make sure to cover all the prerequisites of veterinary school before graduation. I didn’t and had to attend night school while working full time to get my last credits in organic chemistry and English.
  • Veterinary School: You’ve made it! Congratulations. If all goes well, you should graduate in four years, and if you can pass your boards (national and state-specific tests), you’ll be licensed to practice. Haven’t had enough school yet? You can continue if you want.
  • Internship: One year of advanced training in a clinical setting that can either better prepare the recent graduate for general practice or pave the way for even more schooling.
  • Residency: A typical residency lasts for three years but the details vary depending on the specialty being pursed. As a resident, the veterinary specialist-in-training must treat a variety of relevant conditions, perform research and have the results published, and pass a very rigorous test. Once all this is completed, the veterinarian can refer to him or herself as "board certified" or "boarded," or as a "diplomate" or "specialist" in a particular field (e.g., dermatology, neurology, surgery, internal medicine, etc.).

So if you add everything up, a veterinarian in general practice probably went to school for around 21 years while a specialist may have studied for 25 or more. No wonder my brain hurts.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: hightowernrw / via Shutterstock