Thinking vet school? It’s competitive, costly

Friday, July 14, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 28
By Hollie Deese

Dr. Hope Wright shows students vitals monitoring techniques using a stuffed animal model in the new surgical suite at Vol State University.

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Becoming a doctor of veterinary medicine is not a decision to be made on a whim.

The programs are expensive, hard to get into, hard to get through and take a toll on the emotions of a typically compassionate group of folks.

And to succeed, today’s students need to be realistic, but also supported by the system they are entering.

“I think most people have a deep enjoyment of animals, and so it’s really having a clear picture of not just enjoying the animals, but understanding the profession, both the challenges as well as the enjoyment aspect,” says Dr. Claudia Kirk, head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville.

“It truly is a really challenging workload for these students. There’s just a lot of knowledge and a lot of work in order to be prepared as a veterinarian. It can just be hard and exhausting.”

Doctor of veterinary medicine degrees are four-year professional programs that occur generally after students have completed four years of college. In addition to traditional schooling, vet students should have significant experience in the field before even starting school.

“All of the schools really require that the applicants have fairly extensive experience within the field prior to application,” Kirk explains. “That’s so they have a very clear understanding of what the profession is really about.”

Burnout, depression an issue

For animal-loving people who choose a career helping creatures big and small, the reality of all the work entails can be especially hard, heartbreaking and stressful. Burnout, depression and even suicide is a problem. One in six veterinarians have considered suicide, the American Veterinarian Medical Association finds.

“The stress associated with veterinary school and being a veterinarian is a huge issue across the industry,” Kirk explains. “It’s fairly well-known that the profession now has one of the highest rates of mental health and suicides associated with it, both within the four years of veterinary school, and then, afterwards as well.”

Managing the stress associated with the work plus the rigors of the job only continues once vets are out of school, working with sick animals and managing the student debt.

“Some of the issues associated with the group being so compassionate and the toll that takes on people who work really, really hard to take care of animals can be quite devastating in terms of the impact on mental health,” Kirk points out. “That’s probably one of the big issues that we deal with across the profession right now in terms of making sure folks take good care of themselves.”

The director of the Veterinary Technology program at Volunteer State in Gallatin, Dr. Hope Wright, agrees that vet careers – like those in nursing - can be physically and emotionally demanding, as well as 24/7.

There’s a large turnover rate among vet technicians with “a lot of that is due to burnout,” Wright says. “They’re in the field for a certain amount of time, they get burned out and then they just leave and go do something else.”

There were 920 applicants for just 85 positions at UT this year, with 60 slots going to Tennessee residents. Kirk says they are not necessarily more competitive than other schools, and those numbers are typical of other vet schools that accept out-of-state students who apply at many other institutions.

University of Tennessee Veterinary school students Taylor Harrison, left,  and Zoe Williams watch a live monitor to learn about veterinary procedures happening in the room just beyond. The hospital serves as a treatment and training facility.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

Still, across the country there are about two applicants per one available position, and candidates submit about 2.5 applications on average.

“While many students are successful on their first application, the majority are going to have to probably apply two to three times before they’re successful,” Kirk adds.

“We never have difficulty finding highly qualified students that are well-qualified for our program.”

And the student turnover rate really is quite high, too, with about a 4 percent loss rate overall of students who would completely leave the program. “We screen very rigorously, and considering the cost of education, that’s a big issue for us if somebody leaves the program,” Kirk points out.

Helping students succeed

The challenges of getting into school are just the beginning of a long, hard road.

Kirk says UT’s program was initially a three-year program – that’s three continuous years with no breaks for students even in the summer. It was one of the only schools in the country that had such a schedule. It was a very difficult strain for the students mentally and financially.

The cost of the education can only add to the stress, too, especially when salary levels can vary dramatically post-graduation from $40,000 to $120,000-plus. The average loan debt for students is around $165,000 and can be as high as $300,000, the AVMA notes.

“That debt-to-income ratio actually plays a very substantial role in students’ choice of jobs, because obviously they’re not going to be able to take maybe a non-profit job that has a much lower salary structure, even though that might have been the area they wanted to practice, if they are carrying a very, very large loan debt,” Kirk says.

Counseling students about managing the loan debt for their education is part of making sure they don’t get so overcommitted with debt that they lose satisfaction in what they are working for.

“Our students are always so dedicated,” Kirk adds. “They’re bright and they’re enthused, and they’re so committed. We really do select students that are well aware of the profession, but the things that we have really emphasized in the last several years are additional soft skills that maybe weren’t taught as frequently in the earlier curriculums.”

They teach communication skills, wellness, business skills, team building, and leadership, all areas of veterinary practice boost success.

“We’re looking in many of those particular areas to enhance our curriculum and build experiences so that our students are successful, not only in the clinical and technical information that they gain, but also the soft skills that one might use,” Kirk continues.

Wright says the new vet tech facility Vol State opened last year allows students to expand their skills while clearly observing instructors in a modern clinical setting. The redesigned building that now houses the Veterinary Technology program is five times larger than the old facility. The program has grown in many ways since its inception ten years ago.

In 2013, the school got its initial accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association, which allows it to graduate students that can be licensed in the state of Tennessee. Next year they are up for a full accreditation.

Instructor D.J. Smith, left, works with student Whitney Flatt during a radiology demonstration, assisted by Red, the Vet Tech Director’s pet dog.

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Vol State offers a two-year Veterinary Technology Associate of Applied Science degree for those wanting to be veterinary technicians. There is also a one-year veterinary assistant certificate for students seeking employment as vet assistants.

“Most people think that veterinary technician is somebody who just does the technical aspect of helping with animals but it’s a lot more than that,” Wright explains.

“In the program, we teach them anatomy and physiology of dogs, cats, horses and cattle – just the basics. Then what they have to know, we have to teach them about anything from mice to elephants, they have to understand.”

Wright says they had been capped at 24 students – last year there were 60 applicants – but with the new building they can think about increasing capacity.

“We had more than that but some of those weren’t qualified,” she says. “You have to be college ready and ready to take any class that Vol State offers to be able to be in the program. Some students aren’t quite there yet so we just ask them to go ahead and get some of those other classes done before they can apply.”

Vet careers vary

The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges lists various veterinary career options for those who have earned their doctor of veterinary medicine, ranging from private practice and research to public health and food supply medicine. UT-Knoxville even offers a dual degree program where students can earn a master’s in public health while earning their doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

“Veterinarians do quite a bit because they’re trained in problem solving, and so [they can] work in research science to military support to private practice to teaching,” Kirk explains.

Kirk got her DVM from the University of California and since then has worked as a specialist in nutrition and internal medicine, as well as a research scientist in industry for a number of years before going into academia.

Techs have just as much variety to choose from, learning radiology, clinical lab work, surgical prep, anesthesia and more.

“We have a lot of students that just go out and work in small animal or large animal private practice,” Wright says. “They can work in industry, they can work in labs.

“IDEXX is a big lab that’s in Nashville. A veterinary technician would be qualified to go in there and work in the lab if they didn’t want to work with animals every day. They can work in the zoo. They can work in the government in USDA part of food inspection. It’s not just doing vaccines on dogs and cats every day.”

Many veterinary students choose to be a specialist which will require some advanced training. There’s internships and residencies, and the number of specialty careers are just as broad as in the human medical field, including neurologists, ophthalmologists, soft tissue surgeons, large and small animal surgeons, nutritionists, dermatologists, equine medical specialists and more.

“Being trained as a veterinarian is a really great career because it really prepares you for so many different opportunities because the basic training for a veterinarian is as a problem solver,” Kirk says. “Once you have that basic skill under your belt, it really allows you to move into many different areas of your career.”

The military will usually support a number of students throughout the United States on a yearly basis, too, but not at every school.

Typically, UT will have students who have qualified for those scholarships who will have a mandatory three years of service upon graduation.

“They graduate as captains, and they serve in the military in a variety of different roles,” Kirk says. “They could do anything from serving as a small animal practitioner to working in research and science.

“One of our more recent graduates who just received our alumni award, from Germany, helped manage part of the strategic plan for the Ebola outbreak.”