The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

Veterinary School:  Is it worth it?

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As the lab’s resident veterinarian, I’m frequently asked questions about getting a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. Things like, “What were you thinking?” and “Does thinking about your student loans keep you up at night?” I thought I would cover a few of these topics here in the lab blog.

To start with, to anyone who is considering applying to veterinary school:  It is NOT a smart economic decision. The cost of a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM or VMD) degree, on average, barely breaks even over the course of a man’s career, and actually slightly decreases the lifetime earnings of a woman. Given that 90% of veterinary students graduate with student loan debt (how did 10% of students manage to graduate without any debt??? So jealous.), and the average student loan burden is over $160,000, this is not surprising. Compounding the financial strain is the relatively low starting salaries of veterinarians, only around $67,000 a year if they start working full-time immediately, rather than pursuing further training such as a PhD, internship, or residency. And there doesn’t seem to be any advantage to attending a more expensive school; starting salary is in no way correlated to student loan debt or the cost of tuition.

Vet student debt to income

The direness of the financial situation of course varies considerably by field, with food animal and equine veterinarians having the worst debt to income ratio, and vets working in industry having the best. Veterinarians working in academia (like me!) fall somewhere in between, but we at least have a decent chance of paying back our student loans in a reasonably timely manner. Even if I do often feel like this:

Student loan debt

There is a pervasive myth that, in spite of the heavy debt load and relatively poor earning potential, there is a national shortage of veterinarians, so it is at least a good field to go into for job security. This, unfortunately, is not true. While the number of job openings for veterinarians are predicted to increase by 9% from 2014-2024, the number of graduating veterinarians has been rising by 1.8% per year for the last 30 years (we currently graduate ~3000 new DVMs per year), a trend which is expected to continue. And a 2012 report by the National Research Council (NRC) showed that there is no national shortage of veterinarians, except in some rural areas. This is also consistent with the findings of the 2013 AVMA veterinary workforce report, which showed that 12.5% of the veterinary capacity to provide services is going unused (this does not mean that 12.5% of veterinarians are unemployed or underemployed, just that as a whole, 12.5% of the potential services that could be provided by veterinarians around the country are going unused each year). However, this is not necessarily bad – there is also not an extreme surplus of veterinarians, and unemployment in the field is lower than the national average, only 3.4%. And having a moderate surplus of capacity means we can better handle emergencies such as disease outbreaks.

So, given that we’ve established veterinary school is a terrible, terrible, terrible financial decision, why do people still get the degree? And why am I among them? Well, for most people I think it’s more of a calling than a career. Most veterinarians desperately love their job, love caring for animals, and consider the incredible financial burden to be worth it if it means they get to spend every day saving lives. In my case, I never intended to be a full time practicing veterinarian. My plan was always to obtain both a DVM and a PhD, and work as a researcher. And, as I said earlier, the financial outlook for a veterinarian in academia is much better than for most practicing veterinarians; my salary is likely to be higher, and I can at least start paying off my student loans while working on my PhD.  The big payoff to the veterinary degree, for me, is a detailed knowledge and understanding of a wide variety of animals. I focused a lot of my study on interspecies comparisons, and how to extrapolate information from one species to be able to apply it in another. This has proven immensely useful in my academic career; even though I haven’t worked extensively with reptiles or amphibians prior to entering this lab, my knowledge in a wide variety of other species is still applicable. Medical training is also much more thorough, in general, than PhD classes are; there is no way I could have gained this depth of knowledge without having obtained a medical degree of some kind. And veterinarians are uniquely well-suited to answering questions about comparative anatomy and physiology, and to determining how likely a disease or medicine is to work in one species versus another (compare this to human medical doctors, who are taught the same things as veterinarians, but in only one species). This is invaluable in efforts to determine how wide-ranging an effect a research finding might have. For example, research done by Gail shows that stress causes immunological changes in the Eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus). My veterinary training makes me well-suited to developing hypotheses as to why this might be (questions based on what parts of the immune system are affected, what the time line of the changes are, etc.), and how likely this change is to be something that would occur in other species in the same situation (i.e., would a squirrel/snake/fish/etc. experience the same immune system changes when exposed to the same type of stress?). It also helps me explain some of our findings better, like how stress might cause changes in certain portions of the immune system, but cause no changes, or even opposite changes, in other parts.

While there has been a push to include human medical doctors in research using human subjects, there has not been as concerted an effort to do the same with animal subjects. All animals used in research are of course overseen by veterinarians, but usually their role is limited to the care and compassionate use of the animal subjects. I personally feel that most fields of animal research would benefit greatly from more veterinary input in developing hypotheses to test, and in study design and interpretation. One of my career goals is to illustrate how veterinary knowledge and training can benefit the research community, and encourage more scientists to obtain veterinary training, or encourage more veterinarians to participate in research.

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