In a nearby small town, the counselor organizes a “career fair” every two years. She doesn’t call on the same professions each time, as she presents the program to the entire body of middle school and high school students. No point hearing about the same career twice, especially if you didn’t want to hear it the first time. And most of them don’t.
She splits the kids into as many groups as there are professions represented, ten this week. Then each group of thirty kids rotates through, so they all get to hear every presentation. Even if they don’t want to. Each presenter has twenty minutes to do his or her spiel… ten times in a row. I like to talk, but I was a little hoarse by the time the morning was over.
The professionals had lunch together afterwards. Several of them complained about the inattentiveness of the groups, and even rudeness and disrespect, kids just talking as though they were on the playground. This despite the presence of supervising teachers. The very large Highway Patrolman was intimidating enough that he didn’t have much of a problem. I’m not very intimidating, so I had to take a different approach.
The best way to get in good communication with someone is to find something you agree on, a shared point of reality – something that is really real to them. Fortunately, I had that. Sad to say, my “hooks” were the facts that I hated school, starting at a very young age, and that I wanted to leave my small-town home and never come back. But, as I told them, “never” is a very long time. Here is what else I told them.
Good morning. I am Dr. Everett Mobley. I’m a veterinarian, an animal doctor, from Kennett, Missouri. I grew up in Kennett, and when I was your age, I was sure I would get out of there and never go back. But “never” is a very long time.
When I was seven years old, I began to wonder what I would do when I grew up. I liked horses, I loved going to the zoo, I just liked animals. Maybe I would like to be a veterinarian. I asked our veterinarian what it would take to become an animal doctor. Well, you get out of high school after twelve years, then four years of regular college, then another four years of veterinary school. That tore it for me. I was seven years old, in the second grade, and I hated school already. Four more years? That was more than half my life. Spend an extra four years in school? Not likely. I crossed that career off the list. Totally off the table. No way, never in a million years. But “never” is a very long time.
Fast forward and I’m a freshman in college. I really don’t know what I want to do with my life. “That’s okay. Just get your basics. You have plenty of time to make a decision.” I did that.
Now I’m a sophomore, approaching the halfway mark. The halfway mark to what? Gee, I don’t know. Man, if I spend four years in college, I need to have some marketable skill when I finish. I don’t want to be just looking for “a job”. I need to know how to DO something.
Of course, not everybody has this viewpoint. There’s everything from “you need a liberal arts background” to the General Studies Degree, which is a college degree in nothing. You spend four years taking classes that don’t look too hard and graduate with a diploma that is roughly equivalent to the one the Scarecrow receives from the Wizard of Oz. That may be okay if your parents really, really love you, but it won’t be worth much in the job market.
The theory behind the General Studies Degree is that you have a unique career in mind and need to design your own curriculum because nobody ever did it before. Has anybody read the Sherlock Holmes stories? [Side note: 3 out of 300 said yes.] That’s what he did. He was going to be the world’s first consulting detective and there was no degree program for that.
Most people who graduate with a General Studies Degree just have a degree in partying. Again, not worth much in the job market.
At this point I revisited my previous choices and found that I still liked working with animals. And now, four years (though a long time), is no longer more than half my life. So, that’s what I decided to do.
So, what do you need to do to become a veterinarian? It seems obvious that you will need to take a lot of science courses – you need to understand how the body works and how drugs work, and there are specific course requirements posted by the colleges of veterinary medicine. It will take you at least two years of undergraduate college to get those knocked out. Most people have completed a four-year degree before they apply to veterinary school. That’s not bad, since only one in four applicants will get in, and it’s good to have a “plan B”.
I recommend that you take some basic business classes: business law, general accounting, and economics. If you ever have your own practice, you will be de facto a small business owner. You will have to manage inventory, personnel, profit and loss, deal with government regulations, and so forth. Spend eight years learning to be a doctor and zero years learning to run a business, and you will have a hard time running your business. That’s what happened to me. You will be hemorrhaging money and won’t know why or how to fix it. Then it’s the school of hard knocks, or taking some business management courses. That kind of education is expensive.
If you just plan on working for someone else, you should still take the business classes. You want to understand what is going on. Are you making money for the guy (or gal), or losing money for him? If you’re losing money for him, you will soon lose your job, as well. If you’re making a lot of money for him, you can go to him and say how valuable you are, and you need a raise.
The admissions committee will look at several things on your application. The committee will look to see if you have any experience working in the veterinary field. They don’t care if you know how to do technical stuff. They do care whether you really understand what the profession is about.
There are people who tell me, “I want to be a veterinarian because I like animals and I don’t like people.” Good luck with that. Animals don’t come in by themselves. They come to see you with their people. Your job is all about the relationship between the people and their animals. It may be the farmer who wants healthy, happy animals that produce lots of fast-growing, healthy offspring. It’s how he makes his living. It may be the person who lives alone and that cat is their only friend. If something is wrong with the only friend you have in the world, that’s a big deal.
Another thing they will look at are your grades and test scores. They will have to be really good. There are two reasons for that. One is that it is an objective criterion – it’s a number. Either you have a good number or you don’t. In our litigious society, the only thing more common than lawsuits is prescription drug addiction. “Not happy? Take a pill.” If you don’t have the grades, you can’t say you were discriminated against because you were too tall or too short or too pink or too green. You don’t have the numbers.
The second reason is that if you cannot excel in the undergraduate courses, you won’t be able to handle the veterinary college curriculum. Professional schools are so much harder than regular college.
I thought I was really smart. I was the high school valedictorian, National Merit Finalist, blah, blah, blah. My idea of studying was to attend class, take notes, turn in my assignments, and review my notes the night before the test. I was not prepared for being in class all day, staying in the library until eleven every night, and still not getting it all. “How did I get so dumb over the summer?”
I didn’t really get dumb. It was just a LOT harder than anything I had done before, and I hadn’t been slacking, either. I carried eighteen credit hours and had a part time job. I was either in class or working from 7:30 AM until 5:00, six days a week the year before veterinary school. Veterinary school was a lot harder than that, and I had to learn some real study habits for the first time in my life.
So, you have to make your grades.
Veterinary college admissions are about eighty percent women now, versus eighty percent men when I was in school. I don’t really know why we have this demographic shift. Some people think that it is because women are more compassionate and thus more attracted to the field. Others think it is because men look at the amount of time and money that must be invested in their education and feel that they need a greater return on their investment than veterinary medicine provides. This would mean that making a good living is less important to women than to men, which doesn’t seem logical to me.
Think about this. You spend six to eight years in college. All this time, you’re not making a salary. Even a job flipping burgers would make a fair amount of money in that time. A decent job in a factory would have made quite a bit of money. That income is lost, eight years of your life that you weren’t making any money. Plus, you’ve spent a lot of money on your education. The average new veterinarian graduates with around $150,000 in student debt. You can’t go to work for minimum wage and live and service that debt, much less make up for the eight years of lost income. Average starting salary (and average is the best of the worst, the worst of the best) for new graduates is less than $50,000 per year. The government will take about a third of that in taxes.
This means that veterinary medicine is not a get-rich-quick scheme. You can make a decent living, but you choose this career because you want to do the work. And what is the work?
If you grow up here, you see your veterinarian as a sort of pet repairman. If you grew up in central Missouri, you’d see something totally different. Most of Missouri doesn’t look like the flat land around here – it’s rolling hills and pastures. We are the second largest cattle producing state after Texas. If you grew up there, you’d think of your veterinarian as the doctor who comes to the farm for occasional emergencies, and who helps your dad plan the herd health program and evaluate production statistics.
There are lots of other careers in veterinary medicine. Your education will be broad-based enough that you can do lots of things. There are jobs in industry, research, the military, and public health. Inspecting meat doesn’t sound very glamorous, but keeping a safe food supply is important. It sounds a lot more important when about nine million pounds of hamburger gets recalled.
You really don’t want some googly, nasty carcass ground up into your hamburger. If you saw a roast in the supermarket with a big, nasty, yucky glob on it, you’d pass it by. Once it’s ground into hamburger, it all just looks like hamburger.
It’s a good thing that you get a broad-based education in veterinary school, because you might change your mind about your career goals. Very few students begin their application with their dreams of inspecting a meat-packing plant. Yet many change their goals. I had planned to do nothing but horses, but family matters led me to return home (remember that “never” is a very long time). In Kennett, I do a little bit of everything, but it’s mostly dogs and cats, and I enjoy that. I’m also well equipped to do it.
One of my classmates was certain that dairy medicine was his destiny. He talked of nothing else, just dairy, dairy, dairy. That was his plan and he didn’t have a “plan B”.
For two years, you have intensive study of basic sciences, like anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and microbiology. Then for the next two years you have clinical studies in two-month blocks. For two months you study small animal surgery, two months of horse medicine, two months in the clinical pathology laboratories, and so forth. You also have “free blocks” where you undertake a preceptorship or externship – you work in a veterinary practice to get first-hand practical experience.
With two months until graduation, Doctor Dairy finally had a preceptorship in a dairy practice in Wisconsin, dairy capital of America. He hated it. It was the same thing, day after day: milking problems, stomach problems, retained afterbirths. Fortunately, he had a broad-based education. He took a job in a very high-quality small animal practice. But doggone it, he had to be on call three nights a week – his time was not his own. And he couldn’t practice the medicine he knew. “We can fix this.” Except sometimes people couldn’t afford it, and they euthanized the pet. It drove him crazy.
He decided he’d get a government job – regular hours, no emergencies, good benefits. He’d be a meat inspector. He hated that so much that he didn’t even finish the training. What he wound up doing was going back to school and becoming a pathologist, and he became an authority on the bacteria E. coli. That may not sound impressive, but remember that nine million pounds of hamburger? My classmate was on television, because he was (as he said) “E. coli when E. coli wasn’t cool”. He was in demand to speak all over the world. It was a long way from the dairy.
I like what I do. My days are never the same, they are never boring. If you like animals and people, veterinary medicine is a great education and a lot of great careers.