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Compendium June 2012 (Vol 34, No 6)

Editorial: Would You Do It Again?

by Dana Gray Allen, DVM, MSc, DACVIM (Small Animal Internal Medicine)

    Dana Allen

    Would you do it again? That is not a request, it is a question. If you had the chance to start over and had the opportunity to choose a career in veterinary medicine, would you do so?

    “Veterinarian” is consistently ranked among the most respected, admired, and trusted professions. According to U.S. News and World Report, veterinary medicine is considered one of the greatest careers in the United States. So what does it take to become a veterinarian in America today? Integrity, hard work, motivation, compassion, excellent communication skills, dedication, manual dexterity, excellent problem-solving skills, and money—lots of it.

    If there is a threat to our applicant pool, it is educational debt, combined with relatively poor compensation compared with that of other professional groups. With any occupation, individuals must consider the cost of education balanced against future potential earnings. This should have a major impact on the decision made by potential applicants in regard to choosing veterinary medicine. Sources vary, but in the United States, the average educational debt for new veterinary graduates starts around $133,873 and can be more than $142,613. The average starting salary for these graduates now ranges from about $46,971 to $67,548. From 2010 to 2011, educational debt for veterinarians rose by 15.6% while salaries decreased by about 1.3% and the number of job offers decreased. These numbers are for new graduates only. For those pursuing specialty status, debt can be significantly higher.

    According to TJ Heath, the lack of satisfactory remuneration remains the greatest source of frustration for recent graduates. Veterinarians are generally in their mid- to upper twenties at graduation. Those completing residency programs are in their early thirties. Many not only will face a large educational debt but also may be looking for a car, their first mortgage, and what about a family?

    You would think, then, that the cost of a veterinary education might drive potential bright and talented candidates to look elsewhere for career choices. However, the number of applicants to US veterinary colleges dropped only slightly in the spring of 2011 after 5 years of steady increases. Applications for the fall of 2011 were up 1.9%, which suggests that the small fall in applicants was not the start of a trend, says Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director for diversity and research at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

    Given the financial implications, why should veterinary medicine continue to attract so many applicants? Perhaps, you might think, candidates simply do not know what they are getting into when they choose veterinary medicine as a career. However, in a study conducted by Tomlin and Brodbelt, undergraduate students (most of whom were entry-level students) had a realistic view of average weekly working hours, out-of-hours duties, and the development of their remuneration packages over the course of a veterinary career. Most students wanted to pursue a career in general practice, citing the main attractions as working with animals and the perception of a rewarding job. The main concerns were making medical mistakes and balancing work and home life—not a lack of financial success.

    How, then, does the frustration of debt versus income compare with the expectation of career satisfaction? Which is more important, and, debt aside, are those who enter the veterinary profession pleased with their choice of career? As it turns out, choosing veterinary medicine may be an investment in quality of life. Results of a 2005 Veterinary Economics survey indicated that 88% of practitioners find the level of stress associated with practice to be manageable and, furthermore, that they enjoy their work. Good clinical outcomes and positive relationships with colleagues were the greatest sources of satisfaction.

    Job satisfaction describes how content a person is with his or her job. The happier people are in their job, the more satisfied they tend to be. Job satisfaction is achieved when an employee feels fulfillment and pride in performing a particular job because he or she has accomplished something of importance and value that is worthy of recognition. According to surveys published by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in 2007, veterinarians have a very high level of job satisfaction, just behind clergy, teachers, and psychologists and above physicians and lawyers.

    It is said that money does not buy happiness, but it sure makes it easier to come by. So is it better to be in a job that brings you a sense of fulfillment than to be in a job that pays well but does not satisfy and may actually make you unhappy? It seems not. A study of life satisfaction in a number of countries found that contrary to popular belief, higher income does not correspond to a sustainable increase in happiness. Also, numbers from the 2007 AVMA survey showed that veterinarians are a rather happy group of professionals. Dr. Robert A. Dietl, chair of the AVMA Membership Services Committee, offered one theory on why this is: "Veterinary medicine is very diversified, so there are many opportunities to find your niche. If I got out of veterinary school and tried large animal medicine out in the country and I didn't like it, I could try small animal veterinary medicine, research, or academia, or I could go into corporate medicine. There are a lot of opportunities in veterinary medicine, so you don't get pigeonholed in a career you don't enjoy." Veterinary medicine gives practitioners the choice of a number of career directions—private practice, academia, industry, government, and a host of specialty areas.

    AVMA research further demonstrates that once veterinarians are admitted to the profession, few choose to leave it in favor of other occupations. This suggests that veterinarians are, for the most part, pleased with their choice of career.

    My experience as a veterinarian spans 36 years and has included small animal private practice, graduate studies, specialty practice, teaching, research, academic administration, writing, publishing, and service as an expert witness to individual veterinarians and corporations. Throughout the years, there have been good times and not-so-good times, as I am sure everyone in any occupation experiences. But working with pets, their owners, and an absolutely stellar group of colleagues (what I would call my “working family”), as well as meeting the challenges of good clinical cases and having the opportunity to provide care to my patients, has been a great source of pride and satisfaction. If given the choice to do it all again, would I choose veterinary medicine? No question! The real question is: would I be able to get in?

    Sources

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    Chieffo C, Kelly AM, Ferguson J. Trends in gender, employment, salary, and debt of graduates of US veterinary medical schools and colleges. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233(6):910-917.

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