What next after vet school?

Ashley in practice with a snake

Ashley's dilemma 

I have found myself in a predicament. Not only am I indecisive as to which field of veterinary medicine I want to specialise in, but I am struggling to weigh up the pros and cons of many other options . . . should I embark on an internship or go straight into practice; do a residency in surgery or internal medicine; focus on exotics or small animal medicine? What about mixed practice? Shall I do day practice or emergency and critical care; work in a large hospital or a small private clinic? Work for someone else or start my own business? Stay in Scotland or go back to Chicago? Or set up shop in . . . Canada? And what about my loans? These are just a few of the very big and important questions that eventually all veterinary students will have to answer.

Over a year ago now, I was thinking about this very issue, and at the time I had said to myself, ‘At least I'm only a third-year . . . I have plenty of time to make up my mind.’ However, our final-year curriculum then changed, meaning that I had to choose my final-year specialty tracks by the end of May 2012. It was a terrifying, yet exciting, thought. It made the finishing line feel much closer, yet it was kind of scary at the same time. I felt a lot of pressure having to make such an important decision so early, when I hadn't really had much clinical experience.

My main problem is that I don't know exactly what I want to do; I have ideas, but I don't know for sure. I actually envy those who say, ‘Yep. Large animal medicine – that's it for me. I will be happy doing that for the rest of my life.’ It must be nice to feel so confident in your choice, and to focus on what you really want to do. Unfortunately, from what I've heard, the number of students in my class who have actually made up their minds and are 100% positive that they have made the right choice is pretty small.

For now, my ideal career is not entirely realistic:

  • I want to own a big, beautiful, modern, shiny new, state-of-the-art practice without any of the heavy burdens that go with owning your own business!
  •  I want the nicest and newest equipment, and top-notch staff, with a zero tolerance policy for drama.
  • I want to be able to offer the lowest prices in a 60-mile radius, but still be very profitable.
  • I want to be a board certified surgeon and internal medicine specialist.
  • I want to work on horses, dogs, reptiles, amphibians and fish without losing a ton of multi-pet-owning clients who have to take their cats/birds/small furries elsewhere.
  • I want my clinic to be a day practice with a 24/7/365 emergency service, as well as a referral centre with every specialist there is in the veterinary team.
  • I want to be working side-by-side with happy vets, happy technicians, and happy assistants to ensure that our patients get the best possible care, and that we make our clients happy.
  • I want my clinic to be a place where everyone wants to work...
  • And I want all of this with no hassle and a big enough salary to easily pay off my $200,000+ USA Government loans.

I could go on and on about what I want in my ideal practice, but as anyone can see it is a completely unrealistic and fantastical idea, which could only occur in my dreams. I'm only one woman and I don't have any super powers. To a lot of people my dream may sound like a nightmare, but it's my fantasy. I already know that I need to compromise, but where do I start? How do I choose what things are most important? I want to be sure that I am content with my final decision and that I have no regrets.

The plan for now...

For now, what I need to do is to try to get as much clinical experience in every type of clinic that I find interesting while I am still in vet school. Finding out what I like best and where I fit in, and where I can see myself working in one-and-a-half years time, will help me decide. Plus, there's always a chance to get more experience in different fields after graduation – doing an internship at an exotics practice and being taught by a mentor, for example. As far as internships/residencies are concerned, I guess I will just have to wait to see what opportunities arise.

"In reality, there are many outcomes that I can see working out for me, and which will hopefully make me a satisfied veterinarian"

Obviously I wouldn't dream of starting my own clinic straight out of vet school, but maybe some day that will be on the cards for me. I know the clinic I described doesn't exist, so my hopes aren't actually set particularly high. Nothing will ever be perfect, and I will always have to deal with difficult, angry and annoying clients (and patients), and I will have to live pretty frugally for the first few years to fit the loan repayments into my budget (if only veterinarians got paid as much as human doctors).

In reality, there are many outcomes that I can see working out for me, and which will hopefully make me a satisfied veterinarian. I can only hope and pray that I will be fortunate enough to be doing what I love to do every day, surrounded by great people and in a practice that I love.

Infinite career opportunities  

There is definitely one very special thing about veterinary medicine that is unlike many other careers out there, and that is its wide variety of career choices and nearly infinite possibilities. In a sense, the not knowing aspect is what keeps things interesting. I shouldn't be scared of what the future brings, because even if I have picked the wrong track for my final year, it's not the end of my career, and it most definitely isn't the end of the world. I have so many paths I can follow when I graduate...whether I end up in a clinic, doing research, teaching, specialising, working for the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, a pharmaceutical company, Defra, the World Health Organization, etc. The options are endless, and everyone who crosses the finishing line with me will find their own niche in the veterinary field; it's just a matter of time and willingness to seek out and fight for the opportunities to tackle our ambitions.

▪ This article first appeared in the Journal of the Association of Veterinary Students, Spring 2013 issue, and is reproduced with permission of the editor, Max Foreman.

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