Friday, January 6, 2012

The "Next Generation" - Encourage or Discourage?

When I was a child, veterinary medicine was a calling. I can't remember wanting to do anything else. Well OK, I briefly considered becoming a lawyer, but squelched that idea after a particularly terrifying junior high mock trial experience. (Public speaking did eventually become easier for me).

This summer will mark 20 years in this business (how did THAT happen??), and for the most part, it's been a great ride. However, recently I've been struggling with numerous frustrations regarding my chosen profession. And I've struggled even more with how (and more importantly IF) to recommend this career to the next generation. This has been the subject of much discussion, both with my colleagues and in my own home. Both my daughter and stepson have expressed interest in veterinary school, and I am finding it more and more difficult to be enthusiastic about that choice. And that makes me very, very sad.

Right now, you're probably asking yourself "Why would you hesitate to encourage young people to pursue their dreams?" The reasons are complex and many, so I'll try to explain in a 'nutshell'.

1. As with many careers, college costs have gone through the roof. When I graduated, student loan debt was averaging $50-100K, with average starting salaries of $30-40K. Today, that same debt can easily reach $150-250K for the same 7-8 years of undergrad/vet school. However, starting salaries for new grads are only $60-70K. How do you service that debt on that salary? I suppose it can be done, with a lot of belt tightening, but for how long? I can't imagine coming out of college with the equivalent of a mortgage weighing me down out of the gate, for 10 - 20 years. And that's before you try to buy a house, car, etc.

2. The economy has hit vets as hard as everyone else. Business/income are down across the country, and jobs are much more scarce than a few years ago. I hear stories from struggling colleagues every day. Now I know the economy will eventually recover, but no one can predict when.

3. In the meantime, how are veterinary colleges and the AVMA responding to this issue? By claiming there is a "shortage of veterinarians"! Trust me when I say there's not - everything I see out here 'in the trenches' indicates the exact opposite. And to make things worse, many universities (including my own alma mater) seem to be in a mad rush to build shiny new hospitals, and some states are considering opening NEW vet schools to handle this supposed "shortage". How are they financing this? By raising tuition even further and adding a dozen or two new slots to each new class. All well and good for them, but I feel they are not being honest with these starry-eyed vets-to-be about job prospects, debt load and salary expectations. And that borders on the unethical to me.

I could go on and on with other issues, but since my good readers' eyes are probably glassing over by now, I'll step off my soapbox. Suffice it to say I am probably not the person that the vet schools want speaking on Career Day, because I can be nothing but bluntly honest. Not what I expected to be saying halfway through my career, and it makes my heart ache.


  1. Here, here. The debt load of new grads and future applicants is scary. And then there is the creation and accreditation of new vet schools...far more people than jobs. And just because someone out in East Egypt can't get someone out to their 2 horse farm doesn't mean that there aren't enough vets. It means that in that area, there are not enough people that use vets for a vet to *afford* to live there.

    When I was accepted to vet school, there were 600 applicants for about 60 spots. And there were only 24 or so vet schools. And when I graduated 10 years ago, I had 9 job offers. Now, students are sending out over 40 applications and only getting 1 or 2 interviews. I cannot imagine encouraging my daughter to sign up for that. I was lucky and had parents that were able to afford to pay for college and half of vet school. As a vet, I barely make enough to cover our bills. There is no way I can pay for my daughter to attend my high school, my college, or a vet school.

    I am also disillusioned with the profession. People expect me to provide medicine on par with human standards but within 1 visit that lasts 30 minutes. Then they want to pay dime store prices.

    And now, the legal field has opened up a can of worms after a judge ruled that people could sue for "intrinsic value," meaning that if someone loses their animal *for any reason,* they can sue. And with a large portion of our lower income folks thinking that their retirement will be taken care of by either the lottery or a settlement, which do you think they actually have some control over? Yes, the settlement.

    While I love the challenge of diagnosing a difficult case and I love being able to legally snuggle with my patients, I am weary of practice in general.

  2. I completely agree with both posts. If I had known then what I know now, I NEVER would have chosen to go into practice, but most likely public health. It's way more trouble than it's worth and it's turned out hugely badly for me personally. I have trouble even thinking about encouraging people who want to become vets to seriously consider it.

  3. Well written. It's sad, because my youngest wants to be a vet and she'd be wonderful but I'm not sure I can support her going that route.

  4. I had too many dreams growing up, I wasn't the type of person that only dreamed about getting into 1 specific profession, I can actually see myself doing many different things.

    I was considering vet school because I truly love animals but after doing my research I found out how costly education will be and how low the wages are. How can people pay off their student loans and survive at the same time?? I'm sure it's not impossible but it must be hard. I also realized that dealing with the pet owners is a pain in the butt unless I could work in a Zoo or something like that but unfortunately I crossed out this option from my list.

    I then considered med school (I would hopefully get into pathology or anesthesiology cause I would like my patients to be dead or asleep lol) but I might just go to grad school for Pathologist Assistant instead.

    The shortage of vets really worries me though. I really do appreciate all you vets who take care of our animals.
    One of my cats is almost having diabetes so we started giving him some vitamins and I really like the doctor who is treating my little precious cat.
    Thank you for all you do!!

  5. Having just graduated 3 years ago, I am already grimacing when having to recommend vet school to others. Sadly I would never recommend the insane debt load these days or the increasing red tape. Being a vet has been a lifelong dream...and to come this far only to never want to recommend it to another is DEPRESSING! Well stated, as always guys!

  6. I'm not the person architects would ever want on career day. If architects maintain the practice as it is now, the profession will be extinct in 10 years.

  7. I had to stop going to high school career days about 10 years ago when I noted the financial aspects of this profession just doesn't match the educational requirements. People smart enough to get into vet school can do so much better for themselves financially in another field. It is a shame. The AVMA and our universities refuse to listen to us. I graduated from WSU (WA). I spoke to the dean this last summer about this. I asked about the class size. It is enormous. His response was basically they needed that many people to stay open as a school.
    So that tells me the schools are not there to serve the people or the students but to remain an entity. This is a big portion of the problem.
    Yea, the economy sucks but it the economics for the profession haven't changed so much, it's sucked since at least the late 1980's as far as I can tell. It is even harder for students graduating with the huge debt - that portion is harder now.
    The profession is also being fractionated. All those schools are also turning out more and more specialists. More and more graduates don't want to go into general practice since they know how tough it is. Then the specialists are also now competeting against each other and sometimes the specialists. 10 years ago specialists were still 'special'. Not so much now. They are around just about every corner.
    Then we have groomers and others that misinform people that they can do dentistry for much less. Well, surprise, they charge less but do not do the same job. But people believe with their wallets, not their brains, particularly in times like this.
    And then there are the nonprofits that are taking a large piece of the pie with cut rate prices and many times (not all) means cut rate service. I don't begrudge nonprofits from spaying pets to prevent overpopulation but I do begrudge them for not informing them, or for the pet owners for thinking that what I do is the same as them. I can tell you what the pets experience may be right up there with torture in some places. The low cost places may be even worse.
    None of that would happen if people took the time to compare what really happens. Unfortunately it is too easy for people to ignore the facts.
    Oh, there are too many other reasons not to go into this profession. I mean, I love it and still make it my living but had I not already been established I do not wish the crap new gratuates are going through now on anyone.

  8. Nadja: What shortage? There's no shortage of veterinarians. As bryneyes 13 discussed, the veterinary schools definitely claim there's a shortage in order to justify their existence and the enormous tuition.

    What we have is a shortage of clients willing to pay for veterinary services, which is another problem entirely. I could keep myself busy full-time and work overtime if I didn't expect to be paid.

    I actively discourage the next generation from practice unless the student in question has the means to pay for veterinary school without loans (wealthy family or spouse).

  9. An undergrad student was shadowing in the clinic last week and I was supposed to talk to her about veterinary school. About thirty seconds into the conversation I realized that I was actively discouraging her from going into the field. I wasn't a cheerleader for the profession anymore... instead I talked about debt load, burnout, litigious clients, and selling the practice and walking away.

    Sad. I've been out of school for 13 years now. I hate this profession sometimes.

  10. They did the same thing with teaching - of course there are some other issues that disturb me enough to discourage people from going into teaching - but I completely get your point... What a shame...

  11. There is not a shortage of veterinarians. There is a surplus of veterinarians and for the first time in recent memory, there are now "unemployed veterinarians."

    Welcome to the Great Recession and the change in client perception of veterinary care... it's now discretionary and disposable income.

  12. I sold my soul to the US Army so I don't have to deal with my student loans. But with that comes the big price of not really being able to do the things that I just went through 9 years of schools for. So, there is a way for future generations to afford to go to vet school but they just have to know for a few years after they graduate, they may not be able to be a vet....sigh.

  13. I'm just finishing school as a tech, and my mom is already telling me how I should apply to vet school, since being a vet would obviously pay better. No matter how many times I tell her about the ridiculous debt load and the miserable pay that comes with being a vet, she still thinks it's a good idea. Maybe I should show her this entry.

  14. csimpson: Being a veterinarian will pay better, until you - if you're like me and come from a blue-collar family - factor in that hunk of cash you'll be sending to the student loan company for the next 20-30 years. It's comparable to the debt accumulated by medical students, though the average POORLY-paid physician (pediatricians, family medicine, etc.) makes around twice the salary of the average veterinarian.

    If you aren't interested in medical school, and I wouldn't blame you if you weren't, I never was; become a physician's assistant, dentist, or nurse, or do as sadako421 suggested and join the military. Or do something else that interests you and won't cripple you financially for years to come.

    Five more years of loans for me. I'll be much happier with that extra $10K/year once I'm done, though it's all going to retirement savings because mine are sadly minuscule and I don't want to work much past age 70.

  15. I'm 3 years out and some days I love what I do. Other days....I've got a running fantasy of opening a bakery instead. By my calculations I might even make more money selling tasty upscale cupcakes if I chose a good location. Not to mention everyone seems happy to pay for $3 cupcakes these days but half my clients' eyes glaze over when I try to get them to spend $20/month on heartworm prevention.

  16. I'm a current vet student. When I started this path, my line of reasoning was that the debt load was doable - even after student loan payments, I'd be making more than I have at any other job, and I'd get to do what I loved for a career. I have 2 years left, so I can't back out now (not that I'd want to,) but I am terrified that my class and the classes around mine will be graduating with 200k+ in loans, and no job prospects.

  17. I'm a mixed animal vet. I'll be 5 years out of school in Pullman come May. So far I have contemplated several alternative careers including barber, fly-fishing guide, and camp cook. Our profession is definitely in a rut right now, and my student loan payments (which were less than the average for my class thanks to frugal living in vet school) are still very overwhelming. However, there are some bright spots to consider. As a mixed animal vet in a small town, I never live the same day twice. Living and working in a rural community has been wonderful; I feel like I have the greatest clients in the world and while litigation is always a concern, it seems like less of a possibility with the vast majority of our clients. Because I am a mixed animal vet I get to partake in the current 'bull market' for cattle (no pun intended), which is kind of exciting. Cattle inventories are at an all time low, feed prices are dropping, cattle prices are holding steady. I have several classmates that have had trouble getting work as small animal veterinarians, however I could take my pick of jobs as a cattle vet or a mixed animal vet that works mostly with cattle but does some small animal on the side. I guarantee that an ambitious, hard working mixed animal vet could buy Dr. Pol's practice and do alright. It may mean a lot of testing bulls, preg checking, floating teeth and colics, and you might not make as much as a mixed animal vet as you ought to when you consider all of the schooling and expense. However you'll make enough to keep the lights on and thanks to a little help from Dave Ramsey you should have your loans paid off in under 10 years. I've been telling kids that are interested in becoming vets to make sure they understand the financial realities of becoming a vet, and to make sure they pay attention in all of their classes because they may never know what they might need to work on to pay the bills. I've also been telling them that becoming a veterinarian is a lifestyle choice as much as it is a career. They will definitely make more money doing something else with their time and talents, but if they want the lifestyle and are willing to sacrifice for it then I say go for it.