What They Don't Teach You in Veterinary School

Joanne Lynn Intile, DVM, MS, DACVIM
Published: September 05, 2014
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There are several phrases one is guaranteed to hear on nearly a daily basis in veterinary school, ranging from “What a cute puppy!” to “That’s really gross!” to “Have you seen my rectal thermometer?” These expressions are commonly uttered as students cross from lecture hall to lecture hall, or wander down the corridors of the teaching hospital, or even as they wait in line at the coffee cart. But perhaps the most frequently encountered saying, guaranteed to spew forth from the mouths of even the most articulate students, is “Will this be on the test?” 

Whether agonizing over the details of a recent lecture, watching an instructional video of how to halter a cow and lead it safely from it’s stall, or sifting through infinite piles of notes, concern centers on what is necessary to memorize for testing purposes, and what can be discarded as unimportant.

Admission to veterinary school is difficult. It’s estimated that only about 40-45 percent of applicants will be accepted and enrolled. I’m sure the ratio of people who aspire to become veterinarians to those who actually pursue application to school is equally skewed in a negative direction.

Not only is it challenging to commit to and finally achieve the elusive acceptance letter, one must then consider the exceptional rigors of the curriculum itself. Veterinarians must become proficient in the diagnosis and treatment of multiple species over their 4-year tenure of learning, while our human counterparts, given the same time frame of education, are only expected to focus on learning about a single organism (i.e., human). 

The upshot of all of this strain is that veterinary medicine is an extremely competitive field. To even be considered a candidate for admittance, students must not only achieve high grades, they must also possess vast experience working within the veterinary field, hold excellent letters of recommendation, and even maintain a great deal of volunteer experience. The aggressive nature of the admissions process and the stressors associated with the curriculum tends to select for individuals who are exceptionally driven.

For many students, the competitiveness doesn’t stop once they’ve entered the halls of the vet school. Constant pressure to maintain an excellent GPA along with stellar co-curricular activities are necessary evils for individuals looking to pursue post-graduate training with an internship and/or residency program — or nowadays, even to secure a job in general practice.

For some, this translates into an irrational and unhelpful focus on tests and grades, rather than an assessment of ability to exist and thrive in the “real world.” The very act of the constant questioning of “Will this be on the test?” illustrates the poorly focused attention of even the most stable of students.

When I look back with the hindsight of several years of work experience and think about what it truly means to be a veterinary specialist in clinical practice, I now see that those facts I spent hours agonizing over are often quite meaningless. More so, I now recognize there were several voids in my educational process that I would now consider essential aspects of the career we need to be teaching to students. 

In all my time spent poring over textbooks and class notes, you may find it surprising to know I was never trained on the proper way to tell an owner their pet had a terminal diagnosis. I was never examined on my ability to discuss how to pick and choose diagnostic tests when owners do not have unlimited funds to spend on testing. No one ever assessed my ability to maintain composure while simultaneously calming a distraught owner, or to manage an overbooked schedule when my first appointment runs 20 minutes late.

I wasn’t taught how to speak to co-workers when I felt they treated me poorly. I wasn’t primed on how to negotiate a contract or ask for a raise. I never learned the true meaning of hospice and the myriad of difficulties associated with end of life care.

Sometimes I can’t help but feel that my deficiencies have actually grown with time, but it’s likely only because I’ve been exposed to more and more situations that have made my inadequacies stand out.

I’m not suggesting the didactic portion of veterinary school is worthless. Obviously the basics of form and function, anatomy and physiology, and function and dysfunction must be taught and committed to memory. However, when the concern is placed on quantifying things related to detail rather than the bigger picture, I’m afraid of exactly what we are losing along the way.

So for those of you considering veterinary medicine as a profession, whether you are young and in pursuit of this as your first career, or older and coming to the decision after soul-searching and trading in your existing job for a new path, my best advice is to gather as much practical experience as possible not only prior to applying, but also maintain as much hands-on work as you are comfortable with during your time at school.

Exposure to practical experience in the field is the best way to garner ways of communicating that you think will work, and the ways that don’t work. It will help you learn how to have those difficult discussions, and what types of things you may face on a daily basis. Moreover, it may be the thing that helps you know whether this profession is really the right choice for you.

These things may never show up on an exam, but they will be an integral part of your day-to-day life as a veterinarian.

I can think of no better preparation for the biggest test you’ll face as a veterinarian: The day you become the doctor instead of the student.

Dr. Joanne Intile

Image: 135pixels / Shutterstock