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How to Become a Veterinarian
Being a veterinarian is a rewarding, but difficult profession. Although you get to work with a handful of furry friends, you’re also responsible for the wellbeing of many beloved pets. To make sure you’re ready to do just that, the path to becoming a veterinarian purposefully requires much time and effort. However, if you love animals and are up for the challenge, keep on reading to learn how to become a veterinarian!
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What do veterinarians do?
Great question! Simply, veterinarians are medical professionals who provide care to animals. In order to do so, they study topics like animal medicine, animal science, or even zoology while in school. While they are taught to treat a wide variety of animals, they most often work with pets like cats and dogs. They also treat a wide variety of ailments and diseases, in addition to practicing preventative medicine to stop animals from getting sick in the first place.
Veterinarians can work in a wide variety of settings, from private practices, to zoos, to universities. They can also choose to specialize, with some veterinarians working mostly with farm animals like pigs and cows. Alternatively, veterinarians can work in labs conducting animal research to treat diseases.
With all that said, being a veterinarian is a lot of work. So, let’s discuss four important qualities you should possess if you’re interested in pursuing the profession.
Becoming a veterinarian: Four important qualities
Being (and becoming) a veterinarian is a lot of hard work. While we’re certainly not saying this to “scare” you out of the profession, we simply encourage you to truly think about whether you’re a good fit for it. However, if you’ve searched for this article then you’ve probably already given the idea some thought. Nonetheless, if you’re still wondering whether the profession is right for you, we’re here to help. For now, we’ll go over some important qualities veterinarians should have in order to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Here they are:
1. The ability to handle emotional and physical stress
Perhaps most importantly, prospective veterinarians should be able to handle (sometimes intense) emotional and physical stress. Although working with animals is one of the perks of the job, an unfortunate part is that they don’t always come in in the best condition. Depending on one’s area of specialty, it may be common for some veterinarians to see animals in distress or in their last moments of life. In deciding the best route for these animals to take, it may require veterinarians to sometimes make difficult decisions. Thus, if you think you will struggle to put your love for animals aside and focus on treatment, becoming a veterinarian may be more difficult than you anticipate.
Further, although the animals are sure to be adorable, there are certainly less aesthetically pleasing aspects of the job. As with most other medical jobs where you’re working with patients (human or otherwise), you will likely often encounter blood and other bodily fluids. So, if you are heavily uncomfortable with the sight of blood or bodily fluids, we might suggest pursuing a profession elsewhere.
2. Interpersonal skills/ability to work with people
Many people who wish to become veterinarians love animals – sometimes even more than they love people. However, becoming a veterinarian doesn’t mean that you’ll only be working with animals. You’ll also be working with the people who love them, teaching them how to become better owners and improve their animals’ well-being. Even if you aren’t working directly with clients’ animals, you’ll constantly be interacting with your peers and colleagues. Thus, if you strongly dislike working with people, then becoming a veterinarian might not be the best choice for you.
3. Good decision-making skills
As a veterinarian, you will be trusted by pet owners to care for and treat their beloved animals. Similarly, animals will depend on you to make their pain go away. Thus, having sound decision-making skills is an important part of being a veterinarian. You want to be sure that you’ll be able to make the best possible medical decisions for the animals under your care, even during times of stress. Similarly, you must be able to handle pressure well in order to successfully work during critical-care cases.
If you get easily stressed, especially during times of pressure or emergency situations, becoming a veterinarian may not be the best choice for you.
4. Intellectual curiosity and persistence
Last, but certainly not least, veterinarians should have a love for learning! Although this may sound a little cliché, it’s certainly true when it comes to becoming a veterinarian. The process of becoming a veterinarian typically takes between eight and ten years of post-secondary schooling. So, if you don’t enjoy learning, this time may seem unfulfilling and even make you question your path. The fact that the field is quite challenging and competitive may add to such thoughts, as it will require a lot of hard work to stay on track with your peers.
However, if you’re motivated and sure that becoming a veterinarian is the path for you, then everything will be worth it in the end! Although the many nights studying and reviewing animals’ anatomy may seem tiresome in the meantime, they will certainly make you ready to take on anything that comes your way. You may even make some friends (furry and otherwise) along the way.
And that’s it! If you believe you have (or can develop) all of these skills and love animals, it might just be time to start on your path towards becoming a veterinarian. Keep on reading to see our step-by-step outline to becoming a veterinarian.
Step-by-Step outline to becoming a veterinarian
Now, finally onto what you’ve been waiting for: how to become a veterinarian!
Although the path to becoming a veterinarian can take quite a while, it’s relatively simple. While we’re not saying it’s necessarily “easy” to become a veterinarian, the path towards becoming one is quite straightforward. While some other professions may allow students to follow many different pathways, becoming a veterinarian follows one general path. This includes (1) earning a bachelor’s degree, (2) completing a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program, and (3) passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). Nonetheless, the path can take a while (between eight and ten years). So, to make things simple for you, we’ve created a handy step-by-step outline on how to become a veterinarian.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
1. High school: Choosing the right classes (optional)
If you’re in high school and already sure that you want to become a veterinarian, taking certain math and science classes may help boost your vet school admission chances. Although vet school is likely a long time coming if you’re still in high school, it’s always good to prepare. Further, taking relevant classes this early on will prepare you for your future classes that will likely cover similar material, but on a deeper level.
Here are some good classes to take while in high school if you’re planning on becoming a veterinarian:
- Four years of math (geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and calculus)
- Four years of lab science (physics, biology, chemistry)
- Electives like animal science, if available
If you can, taking AP and honors courses will also be beneficial. Besides possibly earning you college credit, such “advanced” courses will go deeper into subjects than their regular course counterparts. However, it’s important to know your limits! If you think you’ll perform significantly better in regular courses than honors or AP ones, regular courses might just be the way to go.
With all that said, we want to clarify that taking veterinary-related courses in high school is certainly not necessary in order to become a veterinarian. So, if you’re already out of high school, there’s no need to worry! You can definitely still become a veterinarian by following the rest of the (non-optional) steps we have listed. Let’s continue!
2. Obtain your bachelor’s degree
Onto our first non-optional step to become a veterinarian: receiving your bachelor’s degree! Particularly common amongst prospective veterinarians is to receive a bachelor’s of science (BS) in one of the following majors:
While you are not required to major in one of the above subjects, doing so will make it easier to fulfill your pre-veterinary requirements. So, if any of the above seem interesting to you, we’d definitely recommend majoring in it! Alternatively, any hard science major is also a good option.
Besides your major, however, the specific school you attend is also important. As vet school (both the application process and the coursework itself) is very difficult, it’s crucial to pick a school with a strong degree program in the physical and biological sciences. Doing so will (1) give you a strong foundation for veterinary knowledge and (2) may give you a slight advantage when applying to vet school programs.
Some colleges also offer undergraduate students pre-vet tracks, allowing them to complete important prerequisites and partake in some pre-professional training, too. Ohio State University, Texas A&M University, and the University of California – Davis are amongst the schools that offer such undergraduate pre-vet tracks.
Vet school prerequisites
What are the actual prerequisites for vet school, though? Great question! Ultimately, it depends on the vet schools you plan to apply to. Luckily for you, the VMCAS (Veterinary Medical College Application Service) provides a list of prerequisites for each of the many AAVMC-accredited vet schools. If you’re not quite sure what schools you plan on applying to just yet, here’s a typical list of prerequisites you should take:
- General education courses (can skip if received college credit from AP courses)
- Two semesters of general chemistry (with lab)
- Two semesters of organic chemistry (with lab)
- One or two semesters of biochemistry and microbiology (with lab)
- Cell biology may also be required, depending on your major and school
- Two semesters of general biology (with lab)
- Two semesters of physics (with lab)
- Math, with the minimum requirement depending on your undergraduate school and desired vet program
- Most schools will want students to take calculus
3. Accumulate relevant experience
While the grades you receive during undergrad are important for admissions into veterinary school, your extracurricular experiences certainly are too. In fact, the 2021 Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) data report shows that most vet school applicants have accumulated hundreds of experiential hours. Such hours can be gained in a variety of ways, including (but not limited to) internships, shadowing, and volunteering. Further, vet schools even encourage students to gain their hours in a variety of settings! As they see it, the more diverse experiences you have, the more you’ll know whether or not becoming a veterinarian is right for you. Schools also emphasize that such work should be done under the supervision of a professional veterinarian.
In addition to gaining hours, many vet school applicants are part of pre-vet clubs or organizations during undergrad. These will both help you gain relevant information about the industry and help you make friends and connections in the field.
On that note, it’s also important to connect with your advisors and professors! Besides it simply being nice to know your mentors better, they’ll also be the ones writing your letters of recommendation. If you can, try to speak up in class, go to office hours, and show interest in the subjects you study. Remember: the better they know you, the more interesting and persuasive their letters will be!
4. Apply to and complete a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) program
If you’re planning on going to vet school straight out of undergrad, you should probably start thinking about the application process at the beginning of your junior year. This is because applications are typically due mid-September of your senior year of college, so starting early junior year will give you around a year to assemble your applications. Such preparation should include writing your essays, obtaining letters of recommendation, taking the GRE or MCAT, and more.
Although you definitely should be applying to multiple vet schools, it’s still important to research your options and consider which may be best for you. As there are currently only 30 accredited veterinary schools in the U.S. (and more abroad), it shouldn’t take too long to research them and write down a list of your top picks. Some important factors you should consider include:
- Specialties: Does the school offer your preferred area of specialty? Are they strong in it?
- Costs: What are the costs of attendance? Be sure to include room and board, program fees, and equipment expenses
- Teaching hospital: Does the school have a hospital available for clinical training? Is the work done reflective of what you’d like to do in your career?
- Off campus training: Will you try to seek extra training off-campus? If so, be sure to make sure off-campus training opportunities are available near your school
- Class size: How many students are in each class, on average? Consider whether you prefer larger or smaller classes
After considering these, we would recommend looking at your top schools and ranking them based on preference. When you’re finally ready to apply, you can do so on the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS)! Likely, if a school is interested in you, they will contact you to schedule an interview.
We hope you get into the school of your dreams, and enjoy vet school!
5. Study for and pass the NAVLE
Near the end of vet school, it’s time to take the NAVLE (North American Veterinary Licensing Examination). The NAVLE is a requirement for licensure to practice veterinary medicine throughout both the U.S. and Canada. It is quite long, consisting of 360 multiple-choice questions. Thus, you should ideally start preparing for the exam during your last year of vet school. The earlier you take it, the more time you’ll have to retake it and the sooner you’ll be able to practice as a real veterinarian!
However, while it is definitely possible to retake the exam, certain states have a limit on how many times it can be retaken. Due to this, it is of utmost importance to practice for and pass the exam the first time! If you need any help studying, we’d recommend checking out these helpful resources:
With these resources in hand and your many years of undergrad and vet school education, you should be able to do just fine. We wish you good luck!
6. Complete other additional requirements
Once you’ve passed the exam (and graduated from your DVM program), you’ll nearly be qualified to perform the duties of a veterinarian! All that’s left is to fulfill any additional steps that your state or province may require. After you’ve done so, you can officially start practicing as a veterinarian. Congratulations!
7. Pursue further training and specialize (optional)
While you’re certainly ready to practice as a veterinarian by now, you can also choose to pursue further training and earn a specialty certification. This may require you to complete another internship or residency, but choosing to specialize is completely optional. If you’re interested in specializing, we would recommend checking out the AVMA’s list of veterinary specialties. No matter which path you choose, though, we wish you the best in your future studies (and future career)!
Frequently asked questions
How long does it take to become a veterinarian?
Generally, it takes between eight and ten years to become a veterinarian. This includes four years of undergraduate schooling, four years to become a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and some extra time to receive state licensure. If you choose to then specialize in a specific niche, it will take approximately two years of further training.
Do veterinarians get paid well?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinarians made a median pay of $99,250 in 2020. However, this average varied across industries, with some veterinarians making more than others. Those working in government made an median salary of $94,610 in 2020. Veterinarians in educational services made $87,110, while those in social advocacy organizations made roughly $98,000.