Being a veterinarian is not for the faint of heart. Sure, the work itself can be difficult, emotionally draining, and demand long and/or inconvenient hours, but what I’m really talking about is the state of the veterinary profession. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that we are in crisis mode.


I’m no economist, but our problems appear to primarily involve a mismatch between supply and demand. The 2013 US Veterinary Workforce Study put it this way:


Market indicators suggest excess capacity at the national level to supply veterinary services. Recent trends include falling incomes of veterinarians, falling rates of productivity (using various measures), and increased difficulty for new graduates to find employment.


Respondents to the 2012 Veterinary Workforce Survey who indicated that they were engaged in clinical practice were asked to characterize their local market areas and their practices’ capacity and productivity. Almost half of the respondents reported perceptions of too many veterinarians and too many veterinary practices.


…we calculate excess capacity for veterinary services were highest for equine practice (23% excess capacity), followed by small animal (18%), food animal (15%), and mixed practices (13%).


Unfortunately this does not look to be a temporary situation. The Study states that “Under every scenario the supply projections exceeded demand through 2025.”


These findings make it hard for me to be an enthusiastic recruiter of prospective veterinarians. I tell students who are considering entering veterinary school to “go for it” if they truly feel the profession is their calling and can’t imagine anything else making them happy, but if you are a little less resolute (or simply more practical), you might want to look elsewhere.


All this raises the question: What can someone who is interested in animals, medicine, and science do for a living other than being a vet? Turns out there are lots of options, many of which may offer a better return on a student’s investment of time, effort, and tuition. The Careers Group at the University of London has put together a great handout entitled “Alternative Career Options to Veterinary Practice.” With its focus on the U.K., the details may not be relevant in North America, but it is still an excellent starting place for students willing to consider other options.


Closer to my home, Colorado State University (CSU) has begun offering a master’s degree program in zoo, aquarium and animal shelter management. In an article I just ran across, Paul Laybourn, College of Natural Sciences graduate program director, says “Ours is an interdisciplinary program that emphasizes a combination of coursework and hands-on experience. It combines applied science with management coursework to produce a well-rounded professional.”


Cindy Hoang, a student who will be graduating from the CSU program in May says, “I focused on vet school because it was the only career choice I was exposed to, but since I started this program, I’ve realized there’s a lot more out there.”


Anybody have any other recommendations for alternative professions for students who might (justifiably) be reconsidering a career as a veterinarian?


Dr. Jennifer Coates


Image: Thinkstock